The Stories that are Unfinished

I remember learning about the elements of a story in my elementary school library, looking up at the overhead projector from my little table by the card catalog.  We learned that a story has a setting, characters, a plot, a conflict, and a resolution.  Nowadays, story has become a bit of a buzzword, as we often discuss how to tell a better story with our lives and write it in a way that draws other people in. 

We have a way of connecting with stories that follow this pattern.  If I didn’t connect with a good story, I wouldn’t watch so many chick flicks.  I wouldn’t get so lost in the conflict, sitting on the edge of my seat wondering will they end up together?  I wouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief when the resolution comes, the main characters passionately kiss, and the credits roll to an upbeat pop song.  These are the stories we connect with most of all—the stories where the basketball team wins the championship and the guy gets the girl and the “good side” win the war.  We connect with these stories because they have all the necessary elements, the setting, the characters, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution. 

But sometimes, the stories in our lives have missing pieces.  Donald Miller would say “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”  Often, we are the characters who want something, but the conflict can’t be overcome.  We don’t get climactic plot lines or the cathartic resolution we are so eagerly looking for. 

It’s like the times I fall in love and hope the other person feels the same way.  I want there to be a plot line, I want the other person to take action and do something, but in the end, it’s just dialogue.  It’s a few conversations, some melancholy journal entries, and a story written in my head that never comes true. 

It’s like the time I interviewed for the perfect job.  I imagined what my reaction would be when I got the job offer and planned what I would do with my first paycheck, but then I got the generic rejection letter instead.  The story ended before it could even begin.    

Or what about the times when we pray for healing, but it never comes?  What about the times we pray for a relationship to be reconciled, but forgiveness never happens?  No one will be telling those stories on the Hallmark Channel. 

These are the stories that are incomplete.  When we are talking about unrequited love or missed opportunities or unreached goals or unanswered prayers, there’s no action, no plot line, no resolution easily visible to the outside world.  These are the stories we keep to ourselves, the ones we are too embarrassed to talk about.  These are the times when others assume we’re not hurting, because there wasn’t an event that caused our pain.  And sometimes we don’t tell them we’re hurting, because it seems desperate and childish to want something we can’t have. 

So many of my stories don’t have endings, so most of the time it seems like they don’t count.  They don’t make sense, they don’t end the way they’re “supposed to” end, so I hide them away.  I don’t speak them into existence, but let them stew in my mind until it gets all blocked up with unanswered questions and stories that were never resolved.  This is when I become anxious and discontent, because it just seems so unfair not to be telling the story that “should have been”, but instead getting stuck with a story that seems like so much less than what I wanted.  It’s frustrating trying to write about my life truthfully when I get caught up thinking that my stories would be so much better if I could have written them myself.

Sometimes, I hear a song that takes my breath away.  This summer, the song Emphasis by Sleeping at Last deeply resonated with me.  It says:

The smartest thing I’ve every learned is that I don’t have the answers,

just a little light to call my own.

Though it pales in comparison to the overarching shadows,

the speckled light can reignite the sun

and swallow darkness whole. 

I listened to this song on high-speed trains across England, and while watching jellyfish from the deck of the ferry on the Irish Sea, and while looking out over the ocean at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, trying to understand why there are so many unfinished stories, so many disappointments, so many “should have beens”. 

And do you know what? 

I don’t know why. 

I can only hope that someday, the sentence fragments and the unfinished stories and the unanswered questions will be a part of something greater.  In the mean time, I can’t control other people or play God and make things happen that just weren’t meant to be. 

And do you know what else? 

I think it’s okay to tell these stories, too.  It’s okay to tell the love-that-never-happened stories, the I-don’t-know-why stories, and the should-have-been-different stories.  It’s okay to ask why, even if we can never answer our own questions.  Maybe someday we’ll get the resolution, but today, it’s okay to be un-resolved. 

unfinished

The Hardest Part of Leaving

For months, I dreamed about leaving.

I sat in coffee shops talking with friends about how we were going to live more exciting lives some day, I recorded every episode of House Hunters International, and I spent a lot of time taking virtual vacations on Google Street View.

For years before that, I dreamed about staying. 

I wanted to put down roots, to form lifelong friendships, to find a job I loved, and to spend less time hauling boxes in and out of dorm rooms and houses and city apartments.  I’ve always known there’s something valuable about staying.  Communities need the ones who stay—the ones who are dedicated and responsible and stable.  In the English language, it’s hard to describe the need to leave without using words like flighty, restless, or discontent, and that’s not who I wanted to be.

But life didn’t turn out the way I expected.  Slowly, all the ties that held me to my life in the city I loved were untied, and I was holding on by only a few threads. I remember the moment when I realized I no longer had a reason to stay.  It was heartbreaking and maddening and strangely liberating all at the same time, and I knew in that moment everything was about to change. 

The hardest part of leaving is actually leaving. 

It’s easy to fantasize for months on end about “finding yourself”, or whatever the Travel Channel and Elizabeth Gilbert tell you to do, but eventually, you have to get on a plane. 

Much sooner than I expected, I was saying goodbye to the people I care about.  Much sooner than I expected, I was hauling my sleep-deprived self and two over-packed suitcases through customs in a country I had never been to before, trying to ignore the knot in my chest and the gripping terror of being stranded alone in Guatemala when I know exactly three phrases in Spanish. 

Likewise, the hardest part of living a different story is actually living a different story. 

Even in the midst of the craziest thing I have ever done, it’s easy to shut my door and watch Netflix.  It’s easy to think too much about the things I’ve left behind or plan out my future once I leave and ignore everything that’s happening around me right now.  Living a different story can be overwhelming and exciting and terrifying and beautiful all at once. 

There’s no moral to this story yet, but I know that in the end, it will be a story about leaving, and a story about coming home.  It will be story about experiencing life in a new place while also remembering the places and the people I left behind.  In stories like this one, we can’t choose to live the good parts and not the bad parts—we have to take the beautiful and the scary and the crazy and the uncertain all jumbled together.  In every life experience from going to college to moving away to falling in love, our choice is the same.  We can either accept the uncertainty of it all, or be stagnant. 

It reminds me of something C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain.  He said “If we will not learn to eat the food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe could ever grow—then we must starve eternally.”  We can take what we are given and let it nourish and sustain us, or we can feel empty inside.  We can open our eyes and take in the wonder all around us, or we can keep them shut tightly, imagining our own endings to our stories. 

When I open my eyes, I see mountaintops covered by clouds and buses stuffed to their maximum capacity weaving in and out of traffic and busy street markets and students who are excited to learn. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but today, está bien.  It is good. 

The Hardest Part of Leaving

Sacred Places

Sacred Places

Sometimes, I imagine people praying with their hands.  Building expectations and wishes and questions into brick and mortar and stone.

There’s something about great loss that makes us want to build something—we build war memorials and monuments and churches that symbolize what we’ve lost.  Maybe there’s something about stacking bricks and pouring concrete and carving wood that makes us feel like we’re doing something when life seems meaningless.  When we’re faced with a void, we fill the empty space with something tangible. 

Some of these great cathedrals I’ve seen this summer took over two hundred years to build.  Two hundred years that could have been spent building stone houses and barns and garden sheds and many much more practical buildings, but instead, generations of builders spent two hundred years making elaborate stone carvings and piecing together thousands of pieces of stained glass.  Two hundred years of work to build a place that is more than ordinary. 

I know that God is everywhere—in grassy fields and ghettos and skyscrapers and living rooms—but to me, he seems to dwell even more in these sacred spaces.  Perhaps it’s because we go to these places to look for him.  There’s something about beauty that connects us to the divine.  I think this desire to seek after something greater than ourselves is the essential difference between necessity and art.

Even without bricks and stone and stained glass, I’ve always had my own sacred places where I go to look for God.  I look for him among the dense trees along my favorite walking trail and in the three stars you can see from my back yard after dark and under my favorite quilt in my reading corner. 

I need room for the sacred in my life—moments set apart from the ordinary.  Even more so now, as I’ve left everything familiar behind.  I’m feeling the strain as I have to start from the ground up, creating space in my life for God to appear.  But I know that when we build sacred places (literally, and figuratively), he will fill them.  When we take the time to create something beautiful in place of something ordinary, something unexplainable can happen.

Where are your sacred places?

(And if anyone knows about any particularly wonderful spots in Xela, Guatemala, I’m taking suggestions.)

Here is my playlist for this week–no particular theme, but just some songs that have been on my mind lately.

Suddenly, Everything Changed (New post for Single Roots)

“Enjoy it while you can, honey, because once you’re married you’ll just wish you could be single again.”

I’ve heard this one a few times, along with various other pieces of jaded advice from unhappily married women or well-intentioned friends who are trying to make me feel better. I’m sure most singles have experienced this — the “You should be happy you’re single, because marriage isn’t all its cracked up to be” pep talk. When we’re thinking about something we don’t have yet, it’s easy to console ourselves by writing it off and saying it must not be that great anyway.

Sunset from Kiliney Hill (Ireland)

Sunset from Kiliney Hill (Ireland)

Read the rest here.

The Story of Hope and Heartbreak

I want to believe in miracles. 

I want to believe that crazy, unexplainable things are possible.  I want to believe that sometimes, life is so good that you want to laugh and cry and scream and sing all at once.  I want to believe that everything can change in a single moment and one day you will realize this is why.  This is why I love this place.  This is why my heart was broken. This is why I’ve waited.  This, right here.  I want to believe what Victor Frankl says about redemption—that while bad experiences cannot be erased, they can be redeemed. 

But not every moment is this moment.  Sometimes moments bring the painful, lonely realization that you were wrong once again.  The relationship that seemed so meant-to-be because of a million coincidences is spinning its wheels, and you’re wondering why you even bothered to listen to love songs and daydream and tell your best friends about it and nurture a little bit of hope.  The life you wanted, the place you wanted to be once again proved itself to be the product of an overactive imagination. 

When everything unravels, the hope of a this is why moment just seems shallow and idealistic.  My silly little plans fell apart, and I don’t even have the right to cry about it. 

I think that sometimes I need these silly little plans, though, because they give me a little bit of hope that maybe someday I will move forward.  Someday after all of this searching I will find what I’m looking for.  Someday I will be able to say I’m glad things went the way they did, because they brought me here. 

It’s hard to live in the tension between pessimism and hope, between don’t get your hopes up and anything can happen.  I desperately want to believe that amazing, God-inspired, life-changing events can happen.  I want to say that not every story has a sad ending.  I want to believe that some things are more than coincidences, and falling in love isn’t always a mistake.  I need to believe in God’s goodness, or I will lose everything. 

But in the mean time, it’s hard to be here.  It’s hard to know the past but not the future, to have lived one story and to believe another, to walk the tight rope between life-giving hope and unrealistic expectations. 

And so I pray that I won’t lose this hope.  I pray that I will have the wisdom that comes from experience, but that I won’t see every new possibility through the jaded lens of the past.  I pray that I will keep believing in miracles, even though I don’t see them today. 

It Won’t Always be Raining

I’ve been pretty hard on myself lately.

Things haven’t gone the way I wanted them to, and sometimes blaming myself is just easier.  When I am the only common denominator in a series of disappointing events, It’s easier to beat myself up than to say I don’t know why this happened.  It’s easier to blame myself than to try and understand complicated theology about God and spiritual forces and sin nature and what He allows and what just happens because we’re human.  Etcetera.

There’s so many things in my life I can’t explain.  I can’t tell you why every year of my life has been completely different from the one before.  I can’t tell you why relationships that seemed so meant to be haven’t worked out.  I can’t tell you why I’ve sometimes felt so strongly like God is leading me in a certain direction, and then the road leads to pain and disappointment, making me feel as if I was intentionally led astray by a God who seems to care more about proving a point than giving me a real purpose for living.  Can the little bit of life experience I’ve gained really justify so much difficulty? 

It’s reminded me of one of my favorite songs by Tyler Heath (of The Oh Hello’s) which says It won’t always be raining.

it won’t always go how you want it to go
but the flower needs the rain
just as it needs the sun to grow
there will always be something
that’s beyond your control
but you’ll never live ’til you let it go

It’s so hard to let it go.  It’s hard to let go of hurtful words others have said, and the ones I’ve repeated to myself.  It’s hard to accept that life just didn’t go the way I planned, and now it’s time to move on.

Literally.  

For quite some time now, I’ve been feeling like it’s time to go.  It’s time to climb a mountain, to look up at a new sky, to learn to navigate new roads.  At first I ignored it.  I told myself that leaving now was just too scary when I have $200 in my bank account and a resume that says “serious identity crisis”.  But the nagging feeling just wouldn’t go away.  

I still had this small voice in my head that said “It’s time to go.”  

As soon as I return from Europe in August, I will be leaving Chicago to accept a job as a music teacher in the mountains of western Guatemala, in a town called Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela).  For a little while at least, I’m trading in city streets for mountains and my abundance of stuff for a two packed suitcases.  My to-do list currently includes applying for a missionary visa and buying a raincoat and a Spanish dictionary.  

no, it won’t always go how you want it to go
the rain will surely find you
and the sun will come and go
but it will not always be raining
seasons change, people grow
and you’ll never live ’til you let it go

A season of my life is ending, but sometimes endings are good.  An ending could be the end of years of uncertainty, the end of an identity crisis, the end of stagnancy.  And some of these things may persist despite a change of scenery, but I decided a long time ago that I would rather live a life that is interesting rather than one that is comfortable.  With every ending, we also have a beginning, and beginnings give us hope that life will not always be the same.  After a difficult season, looking forward to a new beginning is a reminder that it won’t always be raining.  

Well, unless you live in Xela, where I hear it really is always raining.  But I think that’s a different story.

You can download It Won’t Always Be Raining Here, and receive a great life lesson for $1.  I’m only promoting this artist because they’re awesome, not because I get anything from it.  

Sunset from Kiliney Hill (Ireland)

Sunset from Kiliney Hill (Ireland)

This week sounds like: Ireland

Ireland Collage 1

 

I’m taking a few minutes during my stay in Greystones, Ireland to share a few photos and experiences from my travels thus far.  I’m continually amazed by the natural beauty – where we’re staying right now, you can walk right out the door to see rolling green hills and the Irish Sea.  So far, we’ve gotten lost several times (the Irish tend to under-estimate walking distances when they tell you how far away something is), and I’m thankful for the ability to ask for directions in English.  I’ve drunk about three gallons of tea.  I saw Bono’s house (or at least the front gate, which was surrounded by tourists).  I’ve climbed lots of hills.

In honor of my travels this week, I’ve included three of my favorite tracks from Irish artists.

1.  Feeling the Pull – The Swell Season

2.  Talk – Kodaline

3.  And if My Heart Should Somehow Stop – James Vincent McMorrow

He Will Give You a Seed (New post for Single Roots)

“If you ask God for a tree, he will give you a seed.”

I learned this from a man named Bishop John, who was a minister overseeing several churches and schools in a town outside of Nairobi, Kenya. While we were with him, he prayed that his church would grow, and more people would be reached with the Gospel.

A few months ago, I received a phone call from a friend in the middle of the night telling me he had passed away. The next morning, I found a blog post written by a local missionary about his funeral, which was attended by 2,800 people and described as the largest funeral anyone had ever seen. He planted a seed, and the tree that grew touched the lives of 2,800 people—2,801 including myself.

Read the rest here.

This week sounds like: leaving

leavingThis week sounds like moving on.  It sounds like airplanes and packed suitcases and currency conversions, and allowing life to change.  It sounds like letting go of the past and taking the next step, uncertain of what’s ahead.

Where am I going, might you ask?  Well, first I am going to Europe.  My grandmother was born in Northern Ireland, and my family is going to Ireland, England, France, and Scotland for a month to be tourists and to visit family.  So, my posting might be more sporadic from here on out, since I will be trekking around Europe and completely dependent on free wifi.  I suppose there’s worse problems you could have, after all.

After that… I can’t say for sure yet, but there may be big changes in store once I return.

1.  White Owl – Josh Garrels (this is one of my favorite music videos ever)

2.  Time to Run – Lord Huron

3.  Rivers and Roads – The Head and the Heart

 

To know we’re not alone

Just a few thoughts for today:

“We read to know we’re not alone.” – William Nicholson, Shadowlands

This is one of my favorite quotes, spoken by the fictional C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, though it is commonly attributed to the real C.S. Lewis, who frankly has more than enough to take credit for without also taking credit for things another author supposed he might have said.  Anyway, I would like to propose an amendment to this quote.

“We write to know we’re not alone.” – Becca Nelson

Or at least, I write to know I am not alone.  I suppose some other writers may just enjoy reading their own words.

In order to share our stories, though, we need to be willing to be vulnerable.  I loved what Brené Brown said about vulnerability in her book Daring Greatly.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

We feel shame and depression and anxiety when we feel alone, when we feel like we’re defective, when we feel like we’re the only person in the world who doesn’t have it all figured out yet. Sometimes, the most healing words in the world are me too.  

I spent yesterday getting my car repaired, trying to talk my way out of going to traffic court when I’m supposed to be 7,000 miles away, and then waiting around for a train that was delayed for two hours.  I’m looking for a me too.

When the world is feeling all wrong, I watch Gilmore Girls.  I’ve watched about 10 episodes in the past two days.  I’m looking for a me too.

I’m really bad at budgeting, remembering to pay my bills on time, using coupons, and finding jobs that pay me money.  I’m looking for a me too.

Even if you aren’t one for over-sharing on the internet for the whole world to see (guilty as charged…), just know that you are not alone.  You aren’t the only one who makes stupid mistakes.  You aren’t the only one who is frustrated.  You aren’t the only one who is lonely.  Etcetera, etcetera.

You are not alone.

I am not alone.

We are not alone.  

This could change everything.