Why You Should Have Conversations With Yourself

I’ve been staying with my parents, my cozy childhood hometown for the month of August. It’s been a month of family dinners, wedding planning (for my younger sister), reconnecting with high school friends, and preparing for my trip out west.

Being in small town Iowa means running into old acquaintances and family friends wherever I go. So I’ve gotten my one-minute explanation of what I’m doing this fall down to a well-rehearsed elevator pitch.

The thing is, words can get hollow with repetition. The intention can subtly lose its vibrancy as this thing I’ve been planning starts to feel more like an idea than reality. Comfort and familiarity have lulled me into this sneaking suspicion that I won’t actually be getting into my car and driving out to California in just a few short days. The moment of departure is almost here, and I find myself oscillating between moments of Christmas-morning level anticipation and the kind of self-doubt that punches you in the solar plexus.

After spending a night tossing and turning, I woke up to find this letter on my doorstep.

Dear Allie,

I thought I could remain quiet. I mean, you haven’t been really listening to me for awhile. But I must voice my concerns. This was a lovely millennial dream for you to have, but come on. You don’t actually think you can do this, do you? I mean, who do you think you are?! Annie freakin’ Oakley?

Driving out to the west coast, on your own, for four months, with no job to speak of and a pathetic excuse for a plan?! Where do I even begin to point out the risks of this plan?

This is dangerous. What if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere? Or you come across some creep when you’re hiking? I mean, maybe if you had a husband to go with you, that’d be one thing. But you are practically hurling yourself into harms way.

This is irresponsible. You walked away from a secure, predictable job. Your dream to be a writer is cute, but be real. No one is going to pay you to be an “artist.” You don’t have what it takes. You don’t want to face the heartbreak of discovering that you aren’t good enough. Why not just take an easier job that is less risky? You may not love it, but hey. But at least you’ll save your dignity.

This is selfish. How dare you abandon everything familiar and all the people who care about you to go do what you feel like doing? You’re quitting this very noble profession of teaching elementary to do what!? Travel and do things that are life giving??? People are going to think you are a self-centered hippy.

This is not healthy. You already struggle with loneliness. Now you want to go thousands of miles away from everyone you know, and travel by yourself? That is the definition of isolation. You’re read Into the Wild, right? That guy ended up dead. Just saying.

Change is too risky. Please listen to reason and just accept your ordinariness. Here’s what you should do. Just stay put, get some easy job. It may not be life-giving, but it’ll be good enough. It’s fine if you want to keep writing and making art, but keep it to yourself please! We can’t face the possibility of rejection. Just do the things that are expected of you, will you? 

Just looking out for what’s best,

Fear

IMG_4797I read these words with both a smirk on my face and a heavy heart. I knew this voice well. Fear had been whispering these sentiments for awhile now.

That’s the thing. Fear’s concerns aren’t going to go away. “Trust me, your fear will always show up—-especially when you’re trying to be inventive or innovative. Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into a realm of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcomes.” Elizabeth Gilbert’s helpful and enCOURAGE-ing words helped equip me with an ability to respond well to Fear.

Rather than trying to fight fear, or ignore it completely, I can take a different approach. “It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes too. I cordially invite fear to come along with me everywhere I go.”

IMG_3530.jpgSo I grabbed some morning coffee, headed out to my parent’s front porch, and penned this response.

Dearest Fear,

I appreciate you voicing your concerns. I want you to know that you are heard and that your voice is valid. I can tell that you are trying your best to protect this one wild and precious life that I have, and I sense your urgency to do just that. This is absolutely a scary thing, and there are very real risks in the venture I am about to take.

Yes, I am still going to go. And I know that you will be my companion every step of the way. While you get a say, you do not get the final say.

You asked me who I thought I was. I’m so glad you asked. Let me tell you.

I am Allie.

I am a truth-speaker.

A beauty-bringer,

a gentle brave soul

committed to living

the wholehearted truth of my being.

I am loved,

I am taken care of,

and I am Illuminated

by Love Himself.

Yes, there are risks involved in this trip, but I believe that the bigger risk is to stay in the comfortable known at the cost of being fully alive.

Making security an idol is just as reckless.

While I have not lived the narrative I thought I was going to live, I am stepping into the story I have in front of me. There are no guarantees as I move forward, but trying to stay stagnant isn’t a foolproof way of staying safe either!

I’m not disagreeing with you—it will probably be hard and there will be moments of loneliness. So much bravery will be required. But I promise (as much as possible) to take calculated risks. To not actually put my life in danger or be financially reckless.

You’re right—it feels very vulnerable to pursue a creative passion like writing. There’s no way of controlling the outcome. But I can choose to enter into the craft of it. To daily choose the joy of submitting to the process. What if we made that the measure of my success, rather than how many people like or don’t like what I’m doing? That makes the stakes a lot less high.

You mentioned lots of phrases about this being unwise, unrealistic, and even arrogant. While conventional wisdom might see that, I don’t believe this is reality. I know I am called to live a wholehearted life. These comments, both of being too much and not enough, are the voice of Shame. And that is not welcome here, Fear.

Sometimes getting hung up on “right” and “wrong” ends up being nothing more than a paralyzing comparison game. Sometimes there is a wise and unwise choice, but a lot of times, there’s just choice. Beautiful, messy, complex choice. And I know that terrifies you, Fear. But be honest.

What is is that terrifies you more than the risks ahead? Isn’t it a life not fully lived?

I believe that choosing the things that are life-giving, even if they are risky or hard or require change, will lead to Joy.

So take a deep breath with me, Fear. Relax. I promise it will all be ok. 

Love,

Me

IMG_0107

Embracing Your Own Mystery

“To be totally honest, I don’t know who I am. And I don’t think people ever will know who they are. We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question. Who am I? I am a mystery to myself. I am someone who is in this pilgrimage from the moment that I was born to the day to come that I’m going to die… So, what I have to do is to honor this pilgrimage through life. And so I am this pilgrim…who’s constantly amazed by this journey. Who is learning a new thing every single day. But who’s not accumulating knowledge, because then it becomes a very heavy burden in your back. I am this person who is proud to be a pilgrim, and who’s trying to honor his journey.”      Paolo Cuehlo

A lot of the time, I want to have myself “All Figured Out.” I used to think I was one good journal session away from an Ultimate Breakthrough. I’d pour over personality test literature like a gold miner in California. Rather than searching for gold, I was yearning for a mirror to reflect back all the subtleties of my identity. Such relief was felt in articulating just how I was feeling and why, and then what I was going to do with that. Action plans and poetic self-actualization at its finest, folks.

The thing about entering into transitions, planned or not, is that they expose to us our own mysteries. Our predetermined presumptions fall away as new environments or situations bring out inner enigmas and paradoxes.

canoe girlSee, transitions have a way of slowing us down, or at least breaking us out of our normal routines of insulating familiarity. The hidden undercurrents of what we have been taking for granted become exposed. Our habits, our way of interacting with the world, our desires and interests, our very personality are seen in new light.

Inklings come to the surface: I thought this is what I wanted, but now I’m not so sure…I never thought I would’ve even considered that opportunity, but now I find myself intrigued…I used to assume that this was the way it was, but what if it isn’t? Rather than the clear-cut assumptions we’ve been living out of, we find within ourselves a cacophony of opposing desires and driving forces.

What will we do with these new revelations? Change at any level can be scary. When we sense this metamorphosis happening at our core, we are faced with a choice. Do we submit to the process of death (of our old selves, our old way of being) and the painful/awkward process of figuring out a new life? Or do we run to the safety of business-as-usual?

It depends on whether you see the world you inhabit as static or dynamic.

A static view of the world: Things are finished. Already written. I am the way that I am. The world is going to keep going on the trajectory that has been set since the beginning of time.

A dynamic view of the world: The world is unfinished. Things were set in motion, but we have agency, choice, response-ability to interact. I can change things and be changed.

A static viewpoint would dismiss new awakenings as passing fancies.

A dynamic viewpoint would listen attentively, holding back judgment.

A static viewpoint sees life as something that is happening to you.

A dynamic viewpoint sees life as an open invitation to enter into the creative process.

A static viewpoint says “This is the way I am.”

A dynamic viewpoint says, “That was who I was. Who am I now becoming?”

A static viewpoint sticks to the planned narrative.

A dynamic viewpoint is open to plot twists.

dock lake mountainsWe feel frustrated when others tell us about ourselves, announcing with a smug gleam in their eye something to the effect of “Oh, let me tell you who you are. I know what you are thinking. I know what you want. This is the way you always act.”

How dare you? You don’t know the first thing about me! We think daggers at them as we smile tight smiles with our ingrained politeness.

And yet, isn’t this exactly what we do with ourselves all the time? Well, that’s just the way that I am. I always (fill in the blank). I’ll never (fill in the blank). We get stuck in our own ruts of familiarity. We succumb to repeated history, with a shrug. Truth is, we’ve started letting others, our past, and our current circumstances name us a long time ago, and it’s just a lot easier to stay the course.

There’s something comforting in choosing a static view of the world and ourselves. We take solace in thinking that we don’t really change that much over the course of our lives. We like the stories our mothers tell at family gatherings about how we were when we were toddlers, and how our personality traits that we now possess were evident, even then.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I geek out about discussions around personality. I find the dynamics of how we are wired and how that affects us fascinating. But I felt a paradigm shift happening while listening to NPR’s Invisibilia a couple of weeks ago. (If you don’t listen to this podcast, you’re wrong. Start at season 1, and then let me know so we can talk about it!)

There was an episode on the “myth of personality.” What if these assumptions about how our dispositions stay constant throughout our lives were just that, assumptions? Assumptions that we build our lives around. Personality tests are excellent diagnostic tools to discover why we are the way we are currently, but they can be dangerous when they start becoming the definition of who we are, a sentence of who we will remain. Equally dangerous is the act of putting our full identity in our occupation, or a specific relationship, role or tribe.

Even though we hate the idea of labels and bristle at others trying to put us into boxes, why is it that we cling to these self-descriptions? Why do I feel just a little bit lost now that I don’t have a nice and tidy answer to the question “What do you do?” It’s harder than it sounds to make peace with our own mysteries and contradictions. I feel a safe sense of control when I have things “figured out.” When I can pin things down in a static viewpoint, I know how to operate.

It is true that there are patterns, predictable tendencies from the interwoven mystery of our genes and our environment. And our brains need to have categories, which involve labels. Sitting down to wrap my mind around something is a necessary step in moving forward. That’s not the issue. The issue comes when we settle into those categories, becoming rigid in the way we see our own possibilities of who we are.

The question is, how willing are we to be surprised by ourselves?

mountain canoeThe quote at the beginning of this post is from Krista Tippett’s interview with Paulo Coehlo. I am challenged and inspired by what he said. “We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question. Who am I?” Author of the book The Alchemist, Coelho was a man who lived his life as one on the journey of pilgrimage. To say, at the age of 66 “I don’t know who I am” is a statement that belies a humble wisdom. I like to think that I’ve got myself figured out at age 28 1/2. But in transition’s stark clarity, I see that I have so much unlearning to do. I want to adopt Paolo’s generous curiosity towards myself.

I want to fully enter into the “endless process of becoming” as Rob Bell calls it. And the older I get, the more I’m realizing that wisdom isn’t in arriving at conclusions and staying there. It’s more a series of funerals and birthdays; letting go of the old and being open to the new. I truly am being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I’m not letting go of who I am, but becoming more deeply myself.

How to be Messy Well

You know that moment when Wile E. Coyote, suspended in mid-air, realized that he’s just run off the cliff?

Processed with VSCO with b1 preset

That’s a little bit of what it feels like to be me right now.

Another school year ended last week. Ceremonies, deadlines, field trips, checklists, picnics, meetings, grading, cleaning, games, packing, and the flurry of activity that marks the end of an elementary year. The rhythm wasn’t a healthy  one and I couldn’t wait for it to end, and yet, now that it’s come, I feel bereft.

Every year, the first week of summer feels somewhat like this. Throughout the school year, I become addicted to the rhythm of structured chaos and productive busyness. When summer comes, it’s always hard at first. Like I’m going through a detox, the painful withdrawal symptoms being a mild existential crisis. I’m feeling this uncomfortable downshift more keenly than other summers, as the end of this school year signified not just saying goodbye to being a teaching to this group of students, but I’m saying goodbye to being a teacher altogether. I’m in this surreal realization that I just walked away from my first career, a steady salary, the solid ground of my expected narrative.

So many things came to an end this week, and the new beginnings aren’t quite clear just yet. Similar to that cartoon Coyote, I’ve been running, and I’ve taken for granted the solid ground that’s always been beneath my feet. There’s always been a logical next step. The comfort of predictability. But now I’m stepping out into a reality where the level of unknowns are unprecedented. And I feel like just like Wile E., coming to grips with my reality, eyes bugging out in the pause before the plunge.

But unlike Coyote, I knew what I was getting into. Sure, I’ve been running full steam ahead, but I had been counting down the days till the end for a long time. I knew the cliff was coming and have been preparing myself to end well. I even sought out counseling months ago, knowing the turbulence of the upcoming transition would be challenging.

My counselor has been asking me a powerful question. “What does it mean to end well?” I wrote about my thoughts a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been trying so hard to lean into being fully present in this transition. Of speaking my truth and staying engaged, rather than withdrawing or jumping into planning for the future. I’ve been creating rituals to name and honor the season that is ending, practicing gratitude for the people and places that have become familiar companions these last few years.

I was so determined to end well, that I ran right into an all-too-familar trap, just like a Looney Toons character. The anvil that landed on my head might have had “Perfectionist-Expectations” written across it.

Which is why I sat down in the chair across from my counselor a few weeks ago, exhausted, bitter, and heart aching over the weight of my own expectations to “do it right.” I felt so tired from trying to muster up the energy to remain fully present to all things. I was expecting myself to remain “all in” until the last moment. I turned the idea of “ending well” into a checklist of rules to perform perfectly, and it wasn’t working.

Throughout the course of that counseling session, we sat with that tension, acknowledging the desire to end well and to fully honor the process as a good thing. But I also needed to realize (or remember) that I can’t and won’t “end perfectly.” I can’t say all the right things and end well with every interaction. Yes, it is good to engage with the process, to try to remain present in the moment. I don’t want to regret leaving things undone or unsaid. But part of ending is acknowledge the inevitable deaths occurring. Submitting to letting go, which doesn’t happen all at once. Gradients of change happen in the dying process. Grief and sadness need space, and that means not doing all of the things all of the time. There are a myriad of emotions, complex and vibrant, emerging throughout endings, and they need to be reckoned with. My heart posture was trying keep pace with the chaos of the end of the school year. I just wanted permission to start letting go. To let go of these expectations to “end well perfectly.”

Ok, so endings are messy. Challenging, laced with uncertainty and the inability to have a gameplan. (And can we just acknowledge for a moment, that “messy” has become glorified in our millennial culture? A lifestyle concept that has the appearance of free-spirited authenticity from the other side of a Instagram, but in the daily grind of messy, it’s not so glamourous. I can attest to that.) But when messiness is my reality, it can just turn into another thing to try to master. I try to be messy perfectly. Ha.

So this time around, I’m trying as much as possible to get out of my own way and to be where I am. To feel all the feels, as my friend Jordan would say. This is what my counselor and I came up with. Not a list of rules, but some thoughts on stepping into messiness in a healthy, holistic sense. Practical ways of giving myself permission to be where I am.

Pay Attention

heart rockSo often, in questions about the pursuit of joy, or finding peace, or living in reality, the answer comes back to the present moment. It’s the magnetic pole that the compass keeps pointing towards. “Pay attention to what you’re feeling, and even where in your body you are feeling it,” my counselor advised. Open your eyes to what’s going on around you and listen to how your spirit is responding internally. So easily, my mind fixates on something that happened last week or gravitates towards neurotically scrolling through my to-do list. Patiently, kindly, I keep leading my wandering self back to this moment. Be here, now. Be awake to this moment. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.

Get Curious

Ocean BoulderAs much as possible, I’m trying to not get stuck in the rut of assumptions, even about my own self. I’m practicing a posture of curiosity towards myself and my reactions. This is not an open invitation to indulge in self-analysis or to slip into a downward spiral of introspection. Rather, it is a posture of open-handedness. What am I feeling in this moment? Why did I feel that way? What thought patterns need to be discarded in this new season? With the gentleness that I find easier to extend to others, I’m trying to be kind with myself in sitting with these questions, either through journaling, on a long walk, or in processing with a friend. 

Honor Yourself

flower handoffFor a perfectionist, part of being messy is breaking the rules of expectations that I hold over myself. Asking “what do I need in this moment? What does it look like to honor myself right now?” And then (most of the time) doing just that. I’ve been keeping a big stack of pretend permission slips close by and giving them to myself when the moment calls for it. You need to skip going to the gym today? You got it. You need to not care about state testing anymore? OK. My counselor added that if honoring yourself can lead to connection, great. Practice needing to need, as Brené Brown says. Reaching out and asking to get coffee with a friend. Asking for a hug from my roommate. Sharing my messy processing with someone via text rather than carrying the burden alone. That’s what it has been looking like to honor myself in small ways that add up to mean big things.

Make Peace with the “Negative”

IMG_0108I’ve been noticing, within my own thought patterns, how much I’m believing the story that I’m only worthy, or desirable for connection when I’m bringing positive emotions to the table. When I’m feeling stable, optimistic in the face of frustrating situations. That I often try to do whatever I can to silence the sadness, to numb the funk that just comes with transitions. A big part of “being messy” well means fully accepting all the parts of me. Because when I allow the scared, whiny, self-pitying parts of me to air their grievances, rather than shushing them into a resentful repression, they actually don’t feel as heavy. Ironically, when I give myself permission to be in a weird mood, it doesn’t last as long.

The truth is, I’m walking contradiction these days. So many complex emotions are swimming around. I feel like I’m a pinprick away from a much needed ugly cry, and I’m also resting in a contented excitement over my upcoming adventure. I am delighting in this season, and also glad to be rid of it. If I start to zoom out too far, I get dizzy at the prospect of so many unknowns, but if I take just the next step, I’m fine. More than fine. Exactly where I’m supposed to be.  I’m writing to you from the midst of all of this. And this post reflects the messiness I find myself in. Someone who doesn’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to step into the questions.

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.

Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

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.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
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.

IMG_0545

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.

*unnamed

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. 

IMG_0547.JPG

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?