Finding (or rather… being found by) Thin Places

“You know, we could go camping this weekend…”

Those words, uttered in the kitchen on a Wednesday night is how our adventure started.

With just ten weeks left of living in my home of three years, I want to soak up all the time I can with these roommates that have come to feel like sisters. Macy was in her final days of a break before heading into another semester of nursing school. After some travel plans fell through, this idea made itself known as a brilliant Plan B.

Reveling in the shiny newness of our spontaneous decision, we debated where we should go.

“Somewhere we haven’t been before…”

“But somewhere close-ish…”

“And by a body of water!”

“Ooh. Yes.”

And just like that, Saturday afternoon, we loaded up the car with a few essentials (my new tent, hiking boots, a C.S Lewis book, whiskey…) and we hit the road.

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Two hours and one Sonic trip later, we ended up at the Harry S. Truman State Park. You guys. This place felt like the most well kept secret. I was one part mad I’m only just now discovering this hidden gem, and three parts delighted by the subtly stunning beauty we discovered in central Missouri. Winding roads weaved in and out of a network of peninsulas and bluffs that make up the Ozarks. The tidy efficiency of the Missouri State Park system, with brown and yellow signs pointed the way to quaint locations such as “Wild Turkey Ridge” and “Devil’s Backbone.”

I was once again reminded of just how alive I feel when I am on an adventure. When I choose to seek out beauty, even in a place that has become familiar. The joy I feel when I say yes to simple, good things. All of me rejoices when I jettison the comforts of my cozy couch and numbing Netflix.

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We found the perfect spot, near the water, and even, joy of joys, a dock on which to watch the sunrise the next morning. We pitched our little tent (dwarfed by the mansion tents  that those expert campers around us were lounging in) and got the lay of the land.

Elated by the sheer perfection of this campground, we set out for a short hike before dinner. The trail loop we picked promised an array of midwestern fauna. A moss carpeted green canopy gave way to a savannah of quietly dancing grass. It was there, up on a ridge, overlooking the lake, with lavender skies bleeding to apricot, I felt that Macy and I had stumbled into a thin place.

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Photo by Macy Brisben

Wait—what is a “thin place” you ask?

You know. Because you’ve probably been to one before. I had, many times, but only recently heard of this term, first used by Celtic Mystics (got to love the Irish.) Shauna Niequist, an author that I adore, wrote about it in book I’ve been reading, Bittersweet, so it’s been an idea in my attention collection recently.

“A thin place, according to the Celtic mystics, is a place where the boundary between the natural world and the supernatural one is more permeable—thinner, if you will…a place where God’s presence is almost palpable…places where the boundary between the divine world and the human world becomes almost nonexistent, and the two, divine and human, can for a moment, dance together uninterrupted.”

Now you know what I’m talking about, right? These places that we find, often when we aren’t expecting it, where something inside us senses this glory, this deep feeling of rightness, and for a fleeting moment, everything makes sense. Or maybe it’s that we make peace with the mystery. All I know is that I love the way Shauna said it, and my heart totally resonates—it’s these moments of dancing with the divine.

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These thin places can be anywhere, but they aren’t predictable. If I were to go back to that wildflower bedecked ridge, the thin place may not still be there. It was a beautiful moment, and the holiness did reside in that physical location. I just know it. We can’t use a GPS to find them, we can’t manufacture them, or force our way in. We find them, or they find us when our posture is one of open expectancy.

I’ve found thin places on stormy beaches near Muir Woods and on the top of plateaus in central Brazil. And those Irish discovered them for a reason. I do believe they are all over that Emerald Isle as well. 

But I’ve also stumbled upon thin places on quiet walks in my neighborhood, or even in my car while driving to my parent’s house. There’s this secret spot on the Missouri River just north of town where I’ve found that the veil between ordinary and holy was translucent, and I’ve often returned there and found clarity and peace.

Ordinary and mundane, or extravagant and sacred, I think thin places are everywhere. At least that’s what I’m beginning to suspect. It seems like I find them more when I’m traveling, but maybe that’s just because my eyes are more open to the beauty around me when I’m somewhere new.

“Truth abides in thin places; naked, raw, hard to face truth.  Yet the comfort, safety and strength to face that truth also abides there.  Thin places captivate our imagination, yet diminish our existence.  We become very small, yet we gain connection and become part of something larger than we can perceive.”  —Mindie Burgoyne

We are changed when we encounter this holy ground, just like Moses was. When I find myself in a thin place, things are put into perspective. My eyes are taken off of myself. I realize that a lot of my “emergencies,” aren’t. My heart feels reminded of who and why I am as I glimpse the reality of this Divine Beauty.

I am refreshed.

I am renewed.

I am restored.

And thin places can be physical locations, but these heaven-meets-earth moments can also arrive in certain occasions, ceremonies, or even seasons.

Like a season of transition.

(There’s that word again. I just keep bringing it up, probably mostly because I’m in the midst of one, but I think they are so important for just this reason!)

I deeply believe that times of transition are ripe with thin places. Maybe our hearts feel raw and vulnerable in the upheaval of all certainty and consistency. Our eyes are unveiled and we see just how close the sacred is to our ordinary humanness. God’s almost tangible presence has been a consistent closeness time and time again during transition. I feel the invitation to look up from my navel-gazing and see his hand extended. I sense a deeper desire to be rooted in the present moment, to Be Here Now and not miss it by distracting worries or regrets. 

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Photo by Macy Brisben

The thing about transitions is that they often have to do with identity. The where, or the what, or the with whom changes, and it brings up deep questions of identity and purpose. Rather than tailspinning into an existential crisis, these thin places are a reminder, anchoring us to the Truth of who we were always meant to be, who we are in the process of becoming.

“Thin places…transform us—or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves. —Eric Weiner

Where have you encountered thin places in your life? What does it look like to engage with the present ordinary moments of familiarity and routine, looking for thin places? How are you being invited to dance with the divine?

 

 

The Importance of Ending Well

May is full of transition. So many endings intertwined with new beginnings. End of school year parties and Summer Kickoffs. Winter clothes being stored away and the tank tops and skirts reappearing in the wardrobe. Weddings. Graduations. Birthdays. Oh my!

I guess I’m realizing that May has been such a transitional month for most of my life. Probably because my life has revolved around a school calendar since I was in Kindergarten. In a few short weeks, though, I will be walking away from the academic world. Looming ahead of me is one of the biggest transitions I’ve experienced in a long time: leaving Kansas City, my career as a teacher, and setting out to find what the next season of life will look like for me.

Perhaps your twenties are one big transition, or a string of transitions, one after another. It seems everyone I know is in the midst of a transition, just recovering from one, or about to experience a big change in some way. In looking back at my blog, I realize this has been a theme in my writing—naming the struggle and the beauty of seasons of transition. As I am about to shift into this next season, it is so easy to set my focus entirely on the new. My attention is lured in by the planning, dreaming, and investing in the Up & Coming, and I lose sight of the Here & Now. I forget to look back.

I think we have a tendency, in our fast paced culture, to avoid endings. We rush into the next thing headlong, not leaving margin to process what just happened. Or we see an ending coming up and we start to withdraw, subtly and efficiently self protecting to avoid the pain of goodbye. We put such emphasis on beginning well, making good first impressions. We labor to invest in things in the midst of things even, but how often do we focus on intentionally ending well?

Ending doesn’t always mean finality, nor do we often have fairytale endings where everything is tidily resolved. But there is such a beautiful power in giving space to honor something that is coming to a close. As a society we have rituals to honor the big moments, graduation ceremonies, funerals, and retirements. But interwoven into our ordinary lives are so many beginnings and endings. Moving out of a home you’ve lived in for years, switching jobs, the end of a school year, the end of a relationship, the end of a big project you’ve been working on even—I think these endings need to be recognized as well!

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What does it mean to end well? This is a question I’ve been pondering a lot, with so many things coming to an end in my near future. How can I honor and name what has been, and gracefully move forward in my story? I’m learning the importance of remembering what has passed with ritual, honestly grieving the losses and naming the hurt, as well as celebrating with a grateful heart.

Intention-Infused Ritual

Ceremonies and ritual has become somewhat of a lost art in our culture. It’s gotten somewhat of a bad rap, especially when rituals become an empty shell of what they were intended to be. Just going through the motions can certainly leave a bad taste in your mouth. But ritual infused with meaning and intention is a powerful thing. It integrates and engages body, mind, and spirit in the midst of community. “This is what rituals are for,” says one of my favorite humans, Elizabeth Gilbert. “We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.”

My roommates and I have started a ritual for when someone in our home gets married (and believe me, it’s been necessary—four of the eight people I’ve lived with in the last three years have gotten married or are getting married!) We named this ritual the Fiancé Beyoncé Seancé. We all wear white and light candles up in the attic and sit in a circle. We gather up in that attic space and share a prayer or hope for the bride. We drink wine remember our time of living together and laugh. (It feels very Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants meets what I imagine a sorority initiation ceremony would be like.) I know what you’re thinking—this is so ridiculous. Even filled with laughter and shaking our own heads at our silly pomp and circumstance, this was a ritual that we made up to help name the end of that roommate’s time in our home and the beginning of their new life with their husband.

I’m finding myself longing for more rituals like this in my life. Wanting to mark or recognize in some way all of the monumental and even little changes that are happening all around me. I’m dreaming up simple rituals I can create for myself to mark the end of my time as a teacher. Leaving Kansas City. Saying goodbye (for now) to friends I have mad here. It might be as simple as lighting a candle and writing a goodbye letter or as elaborate as a gathering of friends with music and ceremony. There is a release that happens in our bodies when we mark important events in our lives with intentional rituals.

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Good Grief

Saying yes to something new always comes at a cost. It requires us to say goodbye to other things, and to say no to alternate options. At some point along the way, we feel the weight of our choices. We grieve the losses we chose. It’s part of accepting the limitations of being human.  As I have been thinking about things coming to a close in my life, I realized how integral grieving is in the process.

Endings are rarely the neat and satisfying denouement that we find in fairy tales. Transitions are messy, especially in relationships. And endings sometimes come from a boundary line being drawn because of that hurt or frustration. Mostly unintentionally, but sometimes on purpose, we hurt each other. It’s tempting to just try to ignore those wounds, especially in rhythm of “normal life,” but when goodbyes are looming, there is a question of what to do with myriad of emotions. I have been discovering the power and healthiness of naming those hurts. When I am honest with myself and others, rather than the easier but much more detrimental habit of pretending like everything is fine, I am able to heal faster and more fully. I need to grieve over my hurt. Colossal or seemingly silly, our pain needs to be reckoned with. Reckoned with so that we can actually feel the freedom that comes in forgiveness.

Grateful Celebration

Equally important in ending well is practicing gratitude. In many major transitions that we do recognize as a culture, we often have our sights set on what is ahead. Celebrating what is to come—a marriage, a promotion at work, a new addition to the family. These things should bring us joy and we are right to revel in them. But I think it is also just as important to celebrate what we finish as well. To create space to remember and to name the season we are leaving. And to honor what that season brought us, how it shaped us.

You know how Jimmy Fallon writes thank you letters to random things? I think I want to do something similar. To practice gratitude by writing thank you letters to not just people, but places, events, things, locations that have made my last season memorable.

Thank you, Kansas City, for being such a well kept secret of a city. I picked an incredible five years in your life to live here as you transformed into a city of dynamic growth.

Thank you, park bench where I sometimes eat my lunch when it’s nice outside. You were a refuge of quiet space in the middle of chaotic days. 

Thank you, Flute Busker that shows up at the Farmer’s Market every week and plays random notes that somewhat assemble a recognizable tune. Your unpredictable jazzy notes never failed to bring a wide grin to my face.

 Knowing that my time here is coming to a close, I don’t want to hold back my gratitude from anything or anyone. A kind of boldness comes alongside me when I know I am leaving, and I feel more gumption to say what’s on my mind. To tell people what they’ve meant to me. I want to lean into that impulse.

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Certainly, there can be a trap of nostalgia when we look back. Being filled with wistful longing for “the way things were” is not engaging with reality. It keeps us bogged down in the past and an easy temptation to fall into when the rawness of a new season leaves us aching for the familiar.  Creating margin in the transitions to remember, name, grieve, and celebrate what was helps us process so as to move on. When we do this, we are laying the past down as a foundation, so that we can step off into the next season with open hands, ready to receive.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Getting Ready to Get Ready

I have become a creative inspiration glutton of late. I have been gorging myself on inspirational podcasts, filling my free time with books* on creativity and how to live holistically, and watching films of people chasing their dreams.

IMG_0302I started this book The Artist’s Way almost 4 months ago. Each of these twelve weeks has discussed how to recover and nurture a creative lifestyle. It’s been great.

Except.

Except I haven’t been creating as much as I thought I would. Well, I have been writing more, which is absolutely is a creative endeavor. But I used to get out my watercolors several times a week, but for the past few months I haven’t been making stuff with my hands. I know that the seasons in which I’m in the routine of creativity, I am healthier, more fully myself, but right now, my creative life has shifted to an almost exclusively cerebral realm. I’ve been reading about creativity. I’ve been thinking about creativity and even writing about creativity, but I haven’t been actually creating.

Luckily, I am armed with an arsenal of knowledge about creativity, as my brain has been overstocked with nourishing wisdom for my inner artist. One thing I keep reading about is the importance of getting curious. Of paying close attention to our lives and leaning into the rawness of finding out what lies behind our actions. Or in my case, inaction.

There’s a helpful practice that I have picked up this year in my professional development at school. It’s a part of the Design Process.Originally a procedure for engineers to problem solve, Design Thinking guides any creative person from a problem to a solution. The first step is to accurately define the problem. To clarify the issue, you start with an assumed problem, a surface level frustration, and ask “why?” five times. The introspective geek who loves digging deeper into the root of things in me l-o-v-e-s this. I use it all the time to get curious about emotions that I notice arising on the surface. It helps clear the clutter and get to the heart of the matter more quickly. It could go something like this:

I haven’t been creating very much art in the last few months.

Why?

I haven’t had the energy to do get out my watercolors.

Why?

I have been putting my energy into reading, and also more into social media.

Why?

I’ve been wanting to research creativity as an occupation because it’s something I want to be doing more full time. I want to feel really prepared.

Why?

I think I connect feeling prepared and knowledgeable and fully resourced with feeling valid as a human being.

Why?

I’m not trusting that my creativity is enough. That I’m enough. I’m really scared to take this leap from creativity as a hobby to more of a full time thing.

Usually, around the third or fourth question, things start to get real. The excuses disrobe and the naked fear and insecurity are exposed. My problem isn’t that I’m not sitting down with my watercolors as much as I used to, it’s that I’m letting fear keep me from things that I know bring life. In getting curious about the why’s behind my inaction, these inner motives are revealed as attempts at self protection.

So, time to fess up Allie: what am I actually gaining by trying to self protect here? If I keep up the guise of preparing to be creative, I don’t actually have to be creative (yet.) I’m like a plane on the runway, with the captain telling the passengers that we will be “taking off shortly” (always code for 20 more minutes…) I’m afraid of failure. I’m afraid of being exposed as an impostor. Of being uncomfortable. Or that I’ll be told I’m not good enough.

I typed those words out, and then I heard myself (or maybe it was Liz Gilbert’s voice in my head) reply “Oh, is that it? Yeah, those thoughts aren’t new, and they aren’t going away, but fear is boring! Being stuck in fear is even more boring. Acknowledge it, and move on!

Sometimes we get stuck in these habits of numbing comfortability—and it feels harmless, or maybe even “important” to our goals. Looking for a quick inspiration on Pinterest leads to 45 minutes of mindless scrolling and rabbit trails. Craving some stress relief, we turn on Netflix, and before we know it, the somewhat condescending notice pops up: “Continue Episode?” We make plans to start projects or pursue a dream, but they shift to the back burner because we are chronically and incredibly “busy.” Busy with what, exactly? Sometimes (for me anyway) “Busy” is just a covert version of “Scared,” frantically running around trying to feel important.

So I’ve been scared that my creativity isn’t enough. I’ve been making myself busy with blogs and podcasts and books about creativity. Now, I don’t want to throw any babies out with the bathwater here. I will probably continue to read and listen to mediums that fuel my creative thinking, but I need balance. I’ve come to learn that balance, for me, looks like a combination of reading and writing, consuming beautiful art and producing art, even when there isn’t a specific purpose.

So, this week, I started a creative project. One that will take awhile. The idea came while I was reading in bed, and I decided to close my book, to go over to my art table and start the project right then. I decided that it would be a project that I would do completely in secret. But before I began, I wrote myself this permission slip.

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When my focus is on the process of creativity, rather than the end result, the measure of success is in the very act of creating. And that’s when I thrive as an artist.

 *  Seriously though, if you are looking for some creative inspiration, here are some books you should check out! These books have deeply shaped me throughout the course of the last year.

Big Magic | Elizabeth Gilbert

Rising Strong | Brené Brown

The Artist’s Way | Julia Cameron

Eat, Pray, Love | Elizabeth Gilbert

Show Your Work! | Austin Kleon

The Art of Travel | Alain de Button

Essentialism | Greg McKeown

Walking on Water | Madeleine L’Engle

The Harry Potter Series (JK…lol) | J.K. Rowling