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Human is a good look on you.

Human is a good look on you. XO, GODThere’s nothing that knocks me off my game like a pimple. And not just the shy kind that’s easily disguised but the brazen bump that arrives on a chin or a cheek and refuses to budge as if to say, “And you thought you were going places, love?” and “Let’s order-in tonight.”

A pimple, an illness, a blow-up, a death, they all come bearing the same sly news: “Your humanity is showing.”

My humanity decided to throw a pageant for itself at a retreat I once led for young clergy. Everything was amiss. I had cried during a debrief. I had sworn during a debate. And now I had a giant pimple on my chin that could not be concealed with moisturizer, make-up, or the precise placement of my hand over my mouth. Every bathroom break, I weighed the pros and cons of popping, picking, or blotting. My ego flared over how it could literally save (my) face.

But, then, a funny turn. Eventually I got so tired of looking at my faceand the humanity so obviously oozing throughthat I decided to put an end to the charade. I decided to put a bandaid over my chin. A big, gauzy, not-my-skin-tone-really, sticker that said, “Don’t look at me,” and “But look at me?!?” in equal measure.

Human. Humiliation. Humor. They all share the same root word, from the Latin humus, meaning of the earth. When the sky is falling, the earth (your earthiness) is a safe place to press into.

Not to be outshined by the outsized bandage, I pressed in to our next session with a very important announcement.

“Yes, I have a bandaid on my face,” I deadpanned.

A bit of shock from the crowd. Then a couple snickers.

“And, I know you can see it!” I was losing it now, but what exactly was being lost besides my pride?

“But I don’t want to see it, or touch it, or even think about it anymore because I have more important things to do. We have more important things to do!”

The whole room was smiling now. Eyebrows lazed. Shoulders fell. The whole motion of the room was down toward holy ground.

A seed of trust was watered.

I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot these days as my humanity spills. I’m writing a book again, going to bed drunk on possibilities and waking up with vulnerability hangovers. I’m co-parenting still, flopping between when to hold to my values and when to yield to another’s (feminist quinceañera, anyone?). And I’m caring for aging parents, a weird life phase that makes me feel both very young and very grown. My ability to pretend it’s okay, I’m okay, is growing thin.

We spend so much time pretending to be fine that we don’t notice the ground beneath our feet drying up. We forget that the ground needs to break a little to breath. We forget that we need to show our cracks a little for life to grow.

I hate this fact of the universe. Because it undermines how good I am at getting by. Because it feels dangerous to court the cracks in my facade. Especially as a female who is rewarded for being that most dreadful of words: relatable.

But thin places, or those places where our earthiness takes on a divine face, can’t be courted. They are simply greeted when we come to the end of our hustling and the ground of our humanity. When we admit to a crowd we are scared. Or forgive ourselves for not writing better.

When we look a pimple in the face and say, “I’m taking you out tonight, love” and “We had better get dressed.”

Human, God coos, is a good look on you.

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“My daddy used to say if there’s breath in your lungs, there can be gratitude on your tongue,” Donna said—or something like it—as she shifted her weight on the altar, her jumpsuit rippling like stones across water.

That’s nice, I thought to myself from the pew. But I am too tired for thanks. And what would I give thanks for? Everything, right? And what good would that do? Nothing, almost. I’d still be here in this church, hands balled hard as sinking rocks.

Nothing was wrong, exactly, except that I felt nothing that morning. I had woken up after Rush left for a long day of doing good somewhere else. I had dropped a kid off at Sunday School, another at a different church, still another had stood beside me during our opening worship set, barely singing.

You know the feeling. It’s the feeling of not feeling your life.

I had tried to get out of this nothing day, knew it would feel too wide before it even began to yawn. I sent texts to friends. Rush sent texts to friends on my behalf. Can my girls glom on to your family for the afternoon? I want to get in a car and drive far to the mall and go shopping with my mom; I want to try on a pair of boyfriend jeans. But three kids is a hard ask. I settled on a pool date with an adult friend, emphasis on the Adult, my three noodles in tow.

“But my grandma used to say—,” Donna continued, and my attention shifted a sliver, along with my body. I leaned in for a woman’s wisdom. “My grandma used to say that God doesn’t need our words to pray; that sometimes, in those times, all we need is a holy hum. Hummm…,” Donna moaned, a sound both sweet and sad.

“Hummm…,” I heard beside me, held my breath, waited for more. Was that my child?

“Hum, hu-hu-hu-, hummm…,” she kept going. She kept humming. She kept talking. My fists unfurled. My nose twitched. My eyes teared. She was talking to God. Or God was talking to me.


I tried for awhile, to savor it, and her. But, later, I had to say something. It was too good not to say, “I heard you humming in church.”

“Yeah,” she blushed.

“Were you responding to what Donna said about prayer?” I prodded.

“No,” she said. “I was already humming.”

Well, damn. She was already humming.

Does it make it better to know they are talking even when we can’t hear their words? A little. Does it make it better to know God is humming even when we come to the end of ours? I think so. It got me through a day I didn’t want to do, a week where my writing has been weak, a season where I feel like something’s got to give.

She is already humming.

Even this noddle can hum.

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There’s still time to revise.

“How was your summer?” people ask, and I struggle to cut this too-big question down to bite-sized. Generalizations like “full but good” bore me before they even come out of my mouth. Stories about kids and camps sound more like a PSA when I add that payment wouldn’t be possible without government reimbursements. The only thing I can think to say is the thing that made me sing: “I died and went to writing camp.”

I loved everything about the ten-days I spent at the Collegeville Institute over the summer. The peace to write. The chats with friends in my field. And the feedback that’s helping me find my way to a more generous book. It was all pretty spectacular, made more so by afternoon tea ceremonies at the potters studio (where we learned you have to do it the same way a hundred times before you can improvise) and nighttime high jinks in the form of a murder mystery party (where we learned the best plot is not always the most logical plot.) Also, there were pickles in the lunch line everyday. And for some reason that felt like a luxury as sweet as an apartment all to myself.

The first day of the workshop we did what all plucky participants do: we shared why we were there, what we hoped to get out of it, and even–my favorite prompt–what we were most afraid of. That was an easy one for me. I was afraid of making something awkward, which I inevitably did when I told the program manager responsible for the pickles that pickles made me feel like I had a mom again. Not that she was my mom. Or that my mom wasn’t alive and well…

But by far the most common fear of my fellow participants, each of whom had brought a creative non-fiction manuscript to the workshop, was that they’d have to start over. That their work would be for naught. Their time trivialized. I didn’t share this particular fear, the possibility phase is what I live for, but I wondered if I should be a little more frightened after fourteen months revising my prologue alone.

Revision, our wise instructor soon reminded us, was not about making things better. In its truest sense it simply meant to see something again, from a different angle, in a new light. So the aim of our time together wouldn’t be perfecting our prose. It would be getting curious about the page.

With this revision of the word revision in place, we were off on an entirely new adventure, cutting up paragraphs and pasting them in new places, penning letters from minor characters and turning our plot into a three-act film. I can’t say much more about these prompts (proprietary reasons) other than to say that we were set free from our functional atheism and found something more like faithfulness.

There’s still time to revise is becoming my mantra for not just this slow book work, but this slow living work. So you already botched your back-to-school rhythm? There’s still time to revise. So you missed a deadline for that grant application?There’s still time to revise. So you stuck your foot in your mouth again talking about race?There’s still time to revise.

We can’t undo what’s been done but we can commit to doing something differently now. To seeing something again and asking others what they see. Maybe you’ll even have fun trying. Maybe, just once, you’ll answer the question “How was your summer?” from the perspective of your pinkie.

Remember practice, not progress, is the goal…

…if you’re into goals.

…which I’m obviously not.

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You’re not capable. But we are.

It was the last evening of a four-day Courage & Renewal retreat, and a broad-shouldered vocal coach had us singing with what she called “full voice.” We had already experimented with the concepts of consonance (singing with unified voices), dissonance (singing with diversified voices), and now we were starting a musical round (singing with one voice in three parts.) She went through each part quicker than lightening, and then gamely asked, “Got it?”

No. We absolutely did not “got it.” Looking around at the mostly wiser, grayer choir of participants beside me, I saw my fear face mirrored in theirs. She must be mistaken, we said with our eyebrows, or at the very least pressed for time.

But soon a Cheshire grin slinked across her face. “YOU may not have it yet. But, trust me, WE do.” She paused for only a blink to let the truth sink in. We promptly filled our lungs with breath to begin.

Last month, a member of my church took his last breath, accidentally and shockingly. He was thirty-seven with a good job, a good wife, and six young kids. I didn’t so much grieve for him—I hardly knew him—as I grieved for his wife, which is another way of saying I grieved for myself. I don’t have enough love to love our girls alone; I’m sure of it.

I admitted as much to a priest who was with me the day that I found out. “Will you be my priest for a minute or two?” I asked, as tears crept their way out of dry corners. I told her what had happened. I told her I was not capable of what this widow must now do. She told me I was right.

“You’re not capable,” she said to me, echoing the sentiment of that vocal coach some years ago. “But the church is. And God is.” My tears slowed, sure that she was right, unsure what it meant, exactly.

I don’t know what YOU feel incapable of right now. I don’t know if it’s leaving a partner who makes you feel small–or a church that does the same. Or if it’s finishing the book you know is in you but can’t get out. Maybe, like me, it has something to do with love, who you’re capable of loving and how much and for how long.

I do know, though, that taking on ONLY tasks you are capable of is cowardly. I do know that anything worth doing can’t be done alone, even if your collaborators are dead poets or a silent God. I do know that relationship grows your capacity to love.

The priest was on point. I am not capable of loving my girls like they deserve. But I am larger now than when I first started parenting some four years ago. Saturdays are no longer my least favorite day of the week. I do not mind being hugged before nine a.m.. When I use my daughter’s bath bomb without asking, I know to apologize, and am even proud of her for insisting. The recipe for loving them, by some strange magic, is actually baked into their bodies.

Still, I do not, by any measure, “got this.”

The metaphor of a musical round—where the failures of the one are easily covered by the voices of the many, where the strong note of another can carry your off-key cry, where you don’t have to know all the parts to play your part—is a reassuring one when your fear face takes over. When you’re having a vocational failure-to-launch problem. When you’re having a “I’m a terrible parent” problem. When you’re having a “There’s no way in hell I can bear this grief” problem.

You can’t.

But we can.

We can grow into our full voice together.

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We’re more alike than unalike.

I had surprised myself by saying yes, quickly and unscrupulously, to joining the new, all-female co-working space in Raleigh. Co-working made sense, in theory, but I had tried it once and failed. The small talk stalled out fast. My will to put pants on followed.

It was Em, the red-headed brains behind the launch, who convinced me this time would be different. Em is a professional hype girl. Seriously, this is what her Instagram profile says—professional hype girl—and it is one hundred percent true. Even on our fifteen minute informational interview, she said I was COOL no less than three times. Now, I know there are cooler words than cool these days. But when Em says it, you believe her.

And what woman doesn’t need to believe her own good hype?

It wasn’t just the idea of sharing space with strangers, though, that I thought would make me nervous. It was also the idea of sharing space with other women. It’s not that I don’t like other women. (And I am categorically against the category of people who do.) But big groups of them often made me nervous because I got the feeling that I made them nervous.

As the social sorting starts between moms and non-moms, at-homes and at-works, high heels and no heels, I end up somewhere in the uncomfortable middle. There are no easy boxes under which to build a fort, buddy up, and take shelter.

“I’m a formerly childfree mom of three,” I want to say, but who would believe me?

“I work from home to pursue my purpose not the kiddos’,” I want to offer but worry about coming off as callous.

And high heels or no heels? I’ve been living in my lavender Birkenstocks for months now but after turning thirty-five declared I was “bringing sexy back” and bought a pair of lavender wedges. Like the hue I can’t get enough of, I fall somewhere between primary colors.

If anyone could bring fifty women together in a room without walls, though, I thought it was Em. She had asked us to come prepared to our welcome dinner with a few prompts to introduce ourselves. Normal stuff like your name and what you do for work or fun. And not so normal stuff like what animal you would ride into battle if you could shrink or blow-up any species. (My dog Alvin, 500-lbs, BAREBACK.) As we went around the long, candle-lit table, I leaned in for each woman’s answers, listening for echoes of my own. And here’s what I heard:

I heard women who were excited to press into their purpose as jewelry makers and wedding photographers, parenting bloggers and social workers, pastors and yoga instructors.

I heard women who were craving a group of earnest entrepreneurs with whom they could swap stories of epic fails and tiny victories.

I also heard a few women list something called “wine walks” as one of their favorite pastimes (and made a mental note to connect with these folks later).

In other words, I heard a lot of women who were making a life beyond the binaries of what we call childless and childfull, work and home, shoulds and wants. These were my kind of women, and I was beginning to think we were legion.

I was beginning to think we were more alike than unalike.

We’re more alike than unlike, God’s love note said to me that gleaming evening. God must be talking to Maya Angelou again, I thought. God must be talking about the human family. God must be talking about me and the women. Everyone belongs.

But I also took God to mean that we are more alike than unalike, too. Me and the divine family. Me and God. I remembered that God is known in my tradition for calling himself “I am who I am” before identifying as “The Lord, the God of your fathers.” I remembered that, like God, I belong to myself (a soul) before I belong to anyone else (a role).

Second century church thinker Clement of Alexandria articulated this same point, arguing for a multiplicity of names for God since no single one could express his essence but taken together they could express his power. Why shouldn’t it be the same with us? We are not only and ever one thing or the other. We are made whole by the many things expressed within and among us.

So, enough with the sorting (COUGH, Erin). Enough with the sizing. Enough with the counting yourself out before you’ve ever been counted in. No one has your story but no one has a single story either.

Who needs a box to buddy up under when the roof is wide open?

As the night sky began to peer through the window, Em thanked us for taking a risk on this sisterhood we were desperate for but didn’t know was possible. Then, she mentioned the SWAG bag we could pick up on our way out.

I stopped listening so well after that.

Bike helmet still clipped to my hip, I barreled through the group of women, beaming from all the big talk, scheming to grab the lavender tumbler before it was gone.

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You can fall asleep first.

It’s the first episode of the Netflix series, Dead to Me, and newly-widowed Jen—played by the evergreen Christina Applegate—is tucking her son into bed when he says, “You have to wait until I’m asleep.”

“Hmmm,” she murmurs.

“All the way asleep,” he clarifies, his arm angled behind his head.

“I know, bud,” she says, as if she’s said it a billion times before. Night globe on? Check. Jen crawls into bed? Check. A need is met? Impossibly, check.

It’s a sweet scene, right? And yet, I had a Dana Carvey, “Well, isn’t that SPECIAL,” moment when I first saw it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve become a bit sardonic about the ability to get my needs met or meet the needs of my people.

Do any of these thoughts sounds familiar?
I hardly know what I need enough to ask for it.
It’s too painful to ask for what I need—and not be met in it.
If they really loved me, they’d know what I need without asking.
And, besides, I’ve learned to meet my own needs; and, ahem, you should, too.

That last one is SPECIAL.

My nightmares started young, and persisted. The usual stuff showed-up: Disney witches, men in trench coats, death. I’d wake the parents, and Mom would trade places with me, her spot beside Dad for my basement bedroom. His snoring didn’t help me sleep; instead I synced my breath to his, every inhale a prayer, every exhale a promise.

They tried to wean me off the late-night knocks, first by allowing me to sleep outside their room, then by giving me five bucks to sleep through the night in my own. Some nights, unable to stay but with nowhere to go, I tugged my Mickey Mouse comforter to the bathroom and made a bed in the tub, pulling the curtain closed so the scary couldn’t find me.

But nothing seemed to fix the feeling of being in my body, in my mind. The dawn was my only deliverer, and it could not be rushed anymore than GROWING UP.

This memory has returned to me in adulthood when I’ve felt the familiar gloom of “Nothing is working” and “I’ve asked too many times already” and “Nobody can live my life for me.” The last one? It’s totally true. And, yet, when I hear this hopeless self-talk, I’ve decided to try something new.

I’m starting to imagine God, sitting on the shag toilet cover and saying to me from the other side of the curtain, “You can fall asleep first.”

Do you ever wonder if there’s Someone who wants to say the same to you?
I know what you need.
I want to meet your need.
I may not fix it, but I can heal it.
You’ve done good, but let me take it from here. 

I am ALL for strategies for self-management. Our trouble-with-sleeping kiddo in the family has a “Sleepy Time Reminders” print-out tacked to her bulletin board that includes things like taking your Melatonin (yes, we’re not above medicating some zen zzz‘s), turning the lights on, looking around the room, and shaking something called a glitter jar. We even tell her exactly what we’ll say to her if she knocks on our door. Sometimes I think these lists are more for my meandering brain than hers.

It’s a good and worthy thing to teach our kiddos that they have what they need within them. I just also wonder if we forget to say more often, “You’ve done good, but let me take it from here.”

I’m digging this image of the toilet-sitting God who promises not to fall asleep until I do. This is no Father God nor Mother God for me, but rather what I call the Adult in the Room God. Who holds vigil for all my worries. Who may not fix it, but can heal it. Who does not say, as I once did, “You realize that when you wake me to tell me you can’t sleep, then I can’t sleep, right?” COLLECTIVE CRINGE.

I do not begrudge an Adult who sometimes sleeps. I recall the story about a God-Man who slept—with a pillow!—on a boat of fisherman bound for “the other side.” Woken by his crew when a storm closed in—Is it nothing to you that we’re going down?—he called them cowards, then calmed the wind. Sounds more like Captain Cranky Pants than Non-Anxious Presence at first. But if I read closer, I wonder if the offense was not that the fishermen freaked out, but that they assumed the God-Man didn’t care.

“Wait until I’m asleep?” I ask God when the waves rise high.

“Hmmm,” she murmurs.

“All the way asleep,” I clarify, but confident in what’s coming next.

“I know, babe,” she says as if she’s said it a billion times before. Night sky on? Check. Adult leans back on the bowl? Check. A need is met? Impossibly, check.

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Nothing is lost.

“The writing life is rarely up and to the right,” my friend Jonathan tells me, and I nod, even though he can’t see me on the floor, wedged between my bed and the dog’s, wiping ugly cry off of my cheeks.

I’ve been having a WEEK.

You probably know this kind of week. It’s the week you hope everything might fall into place like chips on a Plinko board, and instead you’re still coming up nil. It’s the week when you imagine your “fake it ’til you make it” might start to pay off but you didn’t quite make it, so now what? You’re just the perennial faker? It’s the week you realize that you’ve grown attached to an idea for your life that is not real or helpful, and it’s causing you some suffering, some snotting.

Around this time last year, I took a trip to the mountains with two writerly girlfriends. Our rhythm went something like this: sleep until nine, write until noon, explore until evening, and then read our writings aloud, brave and blushing. It was here, surrounded by wood planks and dead bumble bees, that I formed the first paragraphs of my next book.

From there, I came home and did the things I knew to do after a decade in publishing. I found an agent. I cobbled together a book proposal or rather book proposals. There were as many versions as I had selves. The theological one. The journalistic one. The religious one and the thinks-she-funny one. There was the one that sounded like someone’s best friend, just not my best friend, so I had to wonder.

In the time it took me to put together a proposal, another friend had written a book.

No matter, I told myself, slow was my M.O. I may not get there the fastest, but, when I did, it would be the truest way I knew how.

Finally, it was time to pitch the idea to publishers. As we did, I listened to their feedback. Even harder, I listened to my inner feedback to their feedback. Where did this pass land in me? What did this offer spark in me? It wasn’t always clear. But I thought it might become that way with time. Time had aways come through for me.

But when it appeared like Time had arrived, there was still a niggling feeling within me. I showed up for the writing things. I did the publishing things. I strung each next best step together, thinking I was preparing a banner of celebration over this threshold. And, yet, I couldn’t bring myself to hang it. This made me very sad, and concerned, and eventually panicked because I couldn’t quite make sense of it all. Things weren’t turning out how I expected.

Enter the WEEK.

It was harrowing, but I did not give up. I woke each morning, letting my eyes adjust to a new day, a fresh mercy. I put my hand on my heart, a lot, and said, “Do not abandon me here.” I asked a handful of friends, maybe too many, to help me make sense of myself. As they did, I listened to their feedback. Even harder, I listened to my inner feedback to their feedback.

If the writing life, the spiritual life, any life worth living is not up and to the right, as Jonathan says, if it’s not a linear line of progress, if it’s not always getting better or clearer or lighter, then what is it?

It’s like a spiral, I’ve decided, and a downward one at that. Our knowing moves in circles, like T.S. Elliot once implied, whereby we often arrive where we began but with a perspective more grounded in truth. (Is this why after sixteen mattresses, I decided to re-buy the very first one I tried?) The mark of success in this metaphor is not, then, up and to the right. It’s down into the center, our center, the center of all being, the center I call God.

Nothing is lost, God says, when I am weary from all of my wavering, feeling like time has been wasted, willing myself to just get on with it. It’s the psalmist who actually puts these words in God’s mouth for me:

God’s love is meteoric,
his loyalty astronomic,
His purpose titanic,
his verdicts oceanic.
Yet in his largeness
nothing gets lost;
Not a [wo]man, not a mouse,
slips through the cracks
— Psalm 36: 5-6 (MSG)

I do not fully understand her, but this is the God I believe in: the one who grabs my chin and says, “You are worthy of time to decide;” the one who strokes my head and says, “You didn’t know what you know now;” the one who lights a candle for me and says, “We’ll figure this out together.” I believe in a God who keeps track of my life, even when I can’t.

After a WEEK in which I am less sure of where to go from here, I am more sure that nothing is lost in our cosmic travels. No knowing is lost. No turning is lost. No time is lost. We will not be lost.

We are always in God’s orbit, as nauseating as that may be sometimes.

To get word when I’ve written a fresh one, sign-up for my free e-newsletter, Good for You. In addition to posts like the one above, you’ll receive subscriber-only tools for practicing purpose, straight from my experience to your inbox. 

I love your hard to loves.

I look at you, and I savor.

You are alive on your thirteenth birthday.

We weren’t so sure.

You remember, don’t you?—you don’t, the science says—when I curled up to your body like a comma and whispered into your ear, “You are good to go.” I meant it. You are a good dog. And it was okay if you needed to be a gone dog, too.

That didn’t make it easy. For a whole three weeks, while you were on your hunger strike, I cried. I stayed home. I dry heaved grief at four a.m., every night, season four episodes of Kimmy Schmidt the only thing that made me forget you were dying. I’d never lost anyone I loved as much as you.

Steroids saved you; other people’s love saved me.

You weren’t yourself for some time after. The medicine made you greedy—and beady-eyed. You let your tongue out a lot and didn’t like to be touched and peed on the couch more times than we could count before getting you medicine—and more medicine. You weren’t as easy to love. But you were alive.

Not everyone we love is alive now.

Now is the new normal. Your hair fell out in the furminator and grew back looking as burly as a bear. Your ears smell like old people, and your teeth are banana yellow.

You are more of an asshole than ever.

I might be more of an asshole, too, if I had to eat the same thing everyday, no treats, no exceptions. Still I cringe when you stick your butt in front of us when we try to pet Alvin instead of you. You make me mad when you get mouthy with the mail lady. And why do you sometimes actually JUKE when I move towards you? If you had your own blog, I’ve long known what it would be called: #bitchplease.

Still, I love your hard to loves because they help me to love mine.

Like, when I tell people about you, “She makes bad first impressions but she’s a sweetheart after five,” I’m telling them about me, too. The way I clam up around others’ good cheer. Or use questions as a way to curtail connection. You remind me that it’s okay if it takes a while to find the fit of my true self.

Or, like, when you refuse to do “night rounds” and instead make the kiddos come to you, nose already buried under the covers, I think GENIUS and give myself permission to drop the ball every blue moon. Sometimes, the girls don’t even mind, relishing the chance to do the tucking, the forehead kissing.

Once, you rolled your eyes at Rush and said in your Cartman voice—because you have a voice and NO, it’s not us talking for you—“You animal! You went to the grocery store in your Crocs?” And I thought, “Thank you” and “God bless you.” While I suffer from a recurring tone problem, you always tell the truth with levity. I am learning from you still.

My buddy, Steve, once said to me, after I was through thoroughly discerning some inner darkness of mine, “But, like, imagine if you were a character in a t.v. show. Don’t you think you’d like yourself more? Like, sometimes I just shake my head and go, Steve. Steve?!? That guy. What a lovable nut.”

That’s it, isn’t it? Dogs, like good friends or grimy children or sitcom sidekicks, help us see ourselves outside of ourselves. There’s something about noticing the glint others find in rough edges that helps us to love our own. It’s loving our hard to loves that allows us to accept the totality of another’s.

From the moment we got you, Amelia, you have been complicated, a verifiable world of mystery behind your eyebrow arc. This is how all beings worth knowing are.

This kind of knowing never gets old, even though you and I do.

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But what if you didn’t?

There’s nothing sexy about a stopover at McDonald’s—except for when it’s en route to a romantic weekend away and you are responsible for monitoring exactly NO ONE’s appetite but your own.

Then, an afternoon snack on a swivel stool is everything, you with your cartoonishly big Diet Coke, your date with their Gumby-long fries. It’s as if you’re playing hooky on your real life— which isn’t a thing, and which you will soon learn when you leave your cell phone in the bathroom stall.

When it occurs to you that you and your screen have been separated, you will ask your date to call it first and then, with less lilt in your voice, to look for it in the car. Even as you are asking, you are also remembering. You remember telling yourself, as you took it out of your bib overalls and placed it atop the toilet paper dispenser, “Do not forget your cell phone.” You may have even paused and blinked, as if taking a mental picture would memorialize its placement. It didn’t, and now you are an hour away, checked into a groovy hotel, with your bikini bottoms on but your button-up shirt not yet off.

After your date pulls up the Find My iPhone app and it pinpoints the location of your lover’s stop, you will know what you must do. At least, you will think you know because there is often a ready script for the SHOULDS of your life. You must go back and get it. It is the responsible, adult thing to do, even though getting back in the car means you will miss drinking sangria from a box by the pool, miss the ink from your library book rubbing off on your thighs, and very likely miss the dinner reservations you and your date made two months ago.

There will be nothing sexy about the start of your getaway, save for the fact that you once were wearing only half a swimsuit.

And so, you will take your pants to the bathroom in order to put them back on in the privacy of your own shame. You know it’s okay to make mistakes. That it’s not the end of the world. Emotional recovery is possible. You are also not okay that it was YOU who made the mistake, embarrassed to have ended if not the world then at least the MOOD, and aware that the average time span for you to “emotionally recover” is more than your anticipated round trip. You are doomed, and you can’t stop thinking it.

“I have to go back,” you will mutter to yourself.

And then another voice will answer, “But what if you didn’t?”

You will take your palms off your face and look up as if to catch who said it. But there is no one there but you and a strange calm currently settling over your insides as if someone turned off the jets in a hundred-degree hot tub.

In the quiet, your inner compass will finally turn off auto-pilot and asses. What’s more important? Reconnecting with your phone or reconnecting with your date?

It will occur to you now that you do not even like your phone. It’s greasy with makeup and turns off at will and doesn’t even give the satisfaction of a doodle-y-do anymore when you plug it in at night to take its charge. The more you play this out—the getting in the car, the sullen look on your face (there’s no getting around it), the way your date tries too hard to reassure you, not to mention getting to McDonald’s with no guarantee that your phone isn’t in someone’s pocket or someone’s toilet water—the more you know that “but what if you didn’t” is your freedom song.

You will still do right by your phone. You will call and leave a message on the McDonald’s answering machine which you are sure ZERO people check. You will lock your phone and somehow—through the miracle of technology—post your date’s phone number should anyone find it. You will pray, too, and get a little lofty with the words, swanning, “What can mere mortals do to me?” Finally, yes, finally, you will put your bathing suit top on and feel as if the weekend has begun.

By the time you towel off to get ready for dinner, your phone has been found and is being held until you can drive back through on Sunday. PRAISE THE LORD. By the time you drive back through on Sunday, you have begun hearing “but what if you didn’t?” about almost everything.

But what if you didn’t reply to that text that’s testing your boundaries?

But what if you didn’t listen to your inner critic when she cries fraud?

But what if you didn’t try to make more money and learned to live on less?

But what if you didn’t pour four glasses when you got bored?

But what if you didn’t say every small thing you were thinking?

But what if you didn’t hold back on being honest about the big stuff?

But what if you didn’t try to fix other people’s bad behavior by being good?

But what if you didn’t decide on an end time for intimacy?

But what if you didn’t settle for less than you’re worth?

But what if you didn’t do the thing you always do?

You will not know the answers to all these questions, not yet. You will only know that the question itself is an invitation into another way, in which you are not an automaton in your own life. You are its co-author.

You know that a good story cannot move forward until it changes direction.

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You’re more than the sum of your parts.

My sabbatical year started two weeks before the adoption of our foster girls became final, and in everyone else’s mind but my own the two were related. A sabbatical year, however, was not code for maternity leave. 

It was how I would become MYSELF. 

Long before I met our children, like a whole three months at least, I had begun telling people at dinner parties that retirement was “bunk” and scheming how to dedicate one year out of every seven to rest, reboot, and renew my sense of purpose. Parenting would only highlight for me that I had gone adrift trading what if’s for well done’s.

It was the pursuit of what if’s that drew us to fostering in the first place. We geeked out over co-parenting with (bio)parents and social workers. We got ready to learn from Guardian ad Litems and mental health therapists. We were game to interface with school teachers and fire inspectors. The fact that children, delightful but DEPENDENT children, were 95% of the gig somehow got lost in our imagination.

And I, after our first and final placement, somehow got lost in our three kiddos’ needs: the appointments, the relaxation techniques, the family visits, the lice combings (er, the outsourcing of the lice combings to Rush.) The retreat work I had long loved but took big brain power continued to lose its luster. The writing practice I had long prized but took major vulnerability was even more impossible. #LikeaBoss took on new meaning as I manically moved, each day, from lunch-maker to bill-payer to professional-facilitator.

I suppose that was what my sabbatical year was for—to honor the person I was distinct from the roles that I played: I LIKED my roles, liked counting eight carrots to a container, liked the feel of a pen on an old-fashioned check, even liked agendas and meetings and business speak like “per my earlier email.” I was good at these things. 

But being good is not the same as being yourself. 

A sabbatical year, in the biblical sense, is an extension of the Judeo-Christian practice of a weekly Sabbath whereby we rest in the goodness not of our work but the God who animates it. We lift our chin from common worries and make eye-contact with the world again and our place in it. When the ancient Israelites began practicing not just the Sabbath day but whole years of Sabbath living, it became common to let the land—the bulk of their productive economy—lie unplowed and allow the poor and wild animals to glean from it. 

I suppose that was another way of narrating the need for rest; I had forgotten what it felt like to be FERAL, not free from responsibilities—or children—but free for a good larger than one’s own kin. 

And so, I laid out my plan for my husband, gave my notice at work, and withdrew a year’s worth of my Roth-IRA contributions to live off. (Adoption assistance payments that continue until the girls turn eighteen were crucial to caring for their needs.) There was no guarantee that my old job would be waiting when I returned (it wasn’t) or that I would be a better version of myself when it ended (I’m not). There was only the promise of time, time to grieve the person I had been and discover the one I was becoming. 

I grieved not just the legal transition from childfree to childfull that happened two weeks after the sabbatical had begun but the fact that at thirty-four I was no longer only, wholly, simply “somebody’s child.” I grieved that I was now the attentive ADULT in the room, eyes ready to read unnamed emotions, ears alert for a knock in the dark, tongue quick to tell the truth (that is, the infinitely impossible to discern age-appropriate truth.) 

A lot of this grieving looked like wandering around the quiet house in my Glerups and following a loose schedule of Yoga with Adriene, reading books without highlighter in hand, and watching the dogs pant in patches of sunlight. My twelve-year old dog, Amelia, became a surrogate mother for me, rolling her eyes at every nascent noise as if to say, “Missy, the world can wait.” 

Once I stopped fretting over my own transition to parenthood, I began following my nose toward sustainable parenting practices for others. I wrote proposals for two paid parental leave policies, one for the staff at my local church and another for a local nonprofit. One whole month was spent preparing a guest sermon for how American Christianity is too focused on the family and one whole month on shopping for—and returning—Christmas presents for my family (Note to self: This is NOT a sustainable parenting practice.) Eleven months in, I finally found a therapist— and finally wrote something that sounded true.

My sabbatical year trickled to an end with little to show for it—though that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?—other than a quiet celebration that I am more than the sum of my parts. My (re)productive parts. My partnering parts. My parenting parts. I am, as Alice Walker so poetically put it, like the shape of water who “is always only itself and does not belong to any of these containers though it creates them.”

And so it is with each of you, on this and EVERY day. 

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