I spent days obsessing about my clothes and shoes. I pre-selected my nail polish color and waited until the last minute to perform my very careful gel manicure so it would endure. I researched and almost bought new shoes based on how they might complement a pair of pants I was considering wearing (read: I didn’t know if they were even going to win the distinction of being The Pants I Wore, and for the record they were not, but I was on the cusp of purchasing new shoes for them!). I perfected my hair, made sure it could weather the drive and survive until the actual event, took additional styling tools and product just in case. I must have said that phrase to myself a thousand times the week before. I’ll be ready just in case. I’ll prepare. Just in case.
I don’t know why I can’t seem to learn this lesson, given the number of times I’ve repeated the course, because for me, the Just In Case method is really just a nice way of saying I am trying super hard to control my environment and the circumstances I encounter. It is not a practical “always be prepared” mentality. It is a sickness. Being prepared means having an extra set of sheets, or keeping the three total foods your toddler agrees to eat on hand so he doesn’t starve to death, or, I don’t know, not letting your gas tank get so low your car starts making that obnoxious beeping sound you can never identify. That is a normal kind of preparedness. What I do is more along the lines of securing a prescription for Tamiflu just in case someone in our house gets the flu (I have not actually done this), or making sure the weather alarm on my phone is turned on at full volume just in case there is a tornado in the middle of the night (I may have done this), or making the front door mat into a sort of barrier so that just in case someone tries to break into our house, the sound of the door resisting the rug will be enough to alert the dog and scare off the home invader (I totally do this every night). It isn’t always that extreme–I even manage to convince myself some days that everything is not falling apart–but it’s a mentality I can’t fully shake, and it creeps into even the most potentially awesome moments.
Which is why the week before my friend P and I drove to Atlanta to hear Momastery and Carry On, Warrior author Glennon Doyle Melton found me losing my mind over details like my shoe choice and sleeve length. It was a sold-out event, and we were not among the first 500 to purchase tickets, so we were not invited to the meet-and-greet after the speaking event. Still, just in case, I wanted to be ready. I wanted to look my best, like someone who has her act together, someone who has purchased new clothes (that are not t-shirts and running shorts or maternity items) in the past 5 years, someone whose idea of fixing her hair is not making sure the ponytail holder matches her aforementioned t-shirt or putting on a hat. You know, just in case I ran into Glennon in a crowd of 2000 in one of downtown Atlanta’s biggest churches. Just in case.
A few days before the event, the venue sent out some helpful information, reminders, tips for parking, etc., and in that email was this note for those fortunate enough to be attending the meet-and-greet: “Glennon will not be signing books. It is her preference to spend that time getting to talk with you and take pictures.” I won’t lie–I wanted to be there, snapping pics and talking with Glennon, because we have A LOT to catch up on. Believe me. This woman knows me. I know her. It’s deep and it’s real. P and I have a tag for people like Glennon: “one of us.” She is one of us. A friend asked me recently if she is my hero, because I regularly share her words on social media, and the question caught me off guard. Hero? She has certainly done some heroic things, but hero isn’t the right word. Friend is the right word. Sister is an even better one. If you don’t know what I mean, you haven’t spent enough time with her courageous, raw, powerful stories. And if you do know what I mean, you totally understand why I had to be ready, just in case. Hanging out with a sister-friend is no small matter.
Freshly changed and revived by a quick late lunch, we walked the few blocks from our hotel to the venue. When we got to the event I was more than a little intimidated by how many women were already there. By start time there would be thousands. I’m not even exaggerating. Over 2000. Aisle after aisle after aisle of women. I checked in, left P in her much longer line, and went to the side balcony to escape them all. I mean, to see better. They were young and middle aged and old, some were carrying babies, some were in tight groups and some were alone. It was impressive. I’m pretty sure the crowd in that room could have formed a pretty powerful army and taken down some bad guys.
From our minimally populated side balcony we had the perfect view of the stage, of the pair of comfy chairs where Glennon (and her actual sister, whom she refers to as Sister) would be sitting, of the beautiful pipe organ and colorful stained glass windows of the church. I sat there in silence taking in the energy of the room, the beauty of things meant to symbolize and glorify Jesus and love and peace, the thrill of being on a road trip with this friend I have known my entire adult life. It was one of those times when I knew I was in the right place at the right time. I was there for a reason. I was meant to receive something amazing. I could feel it, like a little elbow in the ribs from God. And then all of a sudden it hit me that maybe this feeling of rightness meant I really was going to get to meet this long lost sister. I was like Kristen Bell on the Ellen show telling her sloth story–“I immediately was overcome, and I thought, ‘There is a sloth near. There is a sloth here, it’s close, it’s gonna happen.” Glennon was near. It was gonna happen.
About 15 minutes before go time I walked down to the main level to find a restroom. I asked a man I had seen setting up mics earlier to point me in the right direction, and he sent me to a hallway that ran behind the stage. It was deserted and quiet, and I knew without a doubt that Glennon and Sister were nearby. I braced myself. I didn’t want to go full on Kristen Bell, but that’s how I was feeling on the inside. I went into the restroom and got a grip, and when I came out there were four people in line. All strangers. I was mildly disappointed but I walked back to my seat unable to shake the feeling that I was going to run into Glennon. P left for the restroom, and as soon as she cleared the top stair of the balcony I knew what she was going to say: “I just ran into Glennon and Sister!” she exclaimed. I couldn’t believe it. “Yay!” I said, and I meant it. I jokingly called P a bad name. I did not mean that. I was a little disappointed in my timing, but my feeling of conviction remained. “Patience,” it whispered. And then a hush fell over the room and the church host stood and introduced Glennon, and for the next 90 minutes, which felt like more like nine minutes, I was schooled in God’s nudges and quiet whispers and feelings of conviction.
When I was a high school kid there was no shortage of people telling me my writing was a gift (hi, Leigh!). In college a professor told me a paper I wrote on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was the best college paper she had ever read. After my grandmother’s death in 2007 I found a folder in her things marked “college fund;” inside it was a stack of pieces I’d written, dating back to a poem called “Bubbles” from 1982. When I started blogging in 2005 I found a small community of fellow bloggers and we wrote with and for each other; it was so much fun, and also my first taste of writer’s jealousy. Some of my favorite bloggers were publishing books and writing articles for national publications. I decided I could never do that–because they were already doing it, and doing it well. They were saying All The Clever Things. There was no room for me. And then I got an email from an editor at Wonder Time Magazine who, having read a post I wrote about tofu adventures with my daughter, invited me to explore submission–a mere two months before Disney, Wonder Time’s parent company, shut down the publication. Instead of taking her initial invitation as a sign that maybe I could finally claim my gift and call myself a writer, I declared the demise of the magazine a dismissal of the invitation, and I basically stopped writing, period.
I started and stopped again several more times in the four years that followed. Mostly stopped. I would write about how I was going to start writing again, and then six months would pass and I would write once more about how I was going to start writing again. It was a lot like finding birthday gifts you bought and forgot to give tucked away in a closet and trying to decide if you should just fess up and go ahead and pass them along to their recipients, or go on with your life as if those birthdays never happened. The problem with the latter, though, is that every time you open the closet you are reminded of those unrealized gifts. And so the desire to finally not stop, to keep moving forward, even slowly, was enough. I vowed consistency and failed miserably–but I didn’t quit. I often had no idea what to write, despite the fact that my brain is one continuous “compose” screen. I scoured the web for prompts. I read the blogs and essays of other awesome people and fought those old voices telling me they were already cornering my market. And then one day I wrote this, which at last check has been viewed over 20,000 times. That was two months ago.
There has been a lot of back and forth between the voices in my head since that post became my most read entry of all time. I have spent a great deal of time straddling a fence and debating about hopping off on the side that looks a lot like quitting while I’m ahead. But then I found myself sitting in a room full of 2000 sisters last Monday night with no doubt in my mind that the “encounter” I had been preparing to have with Glennon was unfolding before my eyes. She might as well have turned her chair to face the right balcony. I would not have even flinched if she had said my actual name. God used Glennon to talk to me that night, I have no doubt. “Tell me who you’re jealous of and I’ll tell you what you should be doing with your life,” she said. “God doesn’t just give you one invitation, and if you don’t accept that one, that’s it, no more invitations,” she said. “Tell the truth,” she said. “Create,” she said. I thought about posts from back when I was writing almost daily, like the tofu post–I read that old stuff sometimes and think, “That’s actually good. Can I even do that anymore?” I thought about that post from a few months ago that made so many rounds on Facebook, and to other more recent things that have not gone viral but have resonated with my faithful few readers. It all has something in common: honesty. My voice, telling my stories. It really is that simple, and yet…I worry so much about perfection, about saying too much, about hurting someone’s feelings, about putting my insides out there to be judged and dissected. What will happen if I say that, I ask myself so often. Well, Glennon told me.
There is an Anne Lamott quote I love about writing that goes, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” It is good and scary advice. It is advice I follow regularly–inside my head. But I keep getting these divine invitations to live it on the outside, to write all the stories, the good ones and the bad, and I have to believe it’s high time I checked yes. Because here’s the thing–every ounce of who I am comes from the same place. All of me, all my determination and creativity and compassion, all my humor and resourcefulness and independence, and yes, all my anxiety and sadness and insecurity is part of the same story. I can’t just write the good parts. I mean, I literally cannot. This should have been obvious to me a long time ago, but I am a stubborn student of life, and so when I found myself frozen in front of this blank screen a few years ago, vowing to write, swearing this was it, a new beginning, this time I will keep going–and then failing again and again, I just kept telling myself lies like, “You obviously can’t write anymore, just give it up.” I remember clearly trying to string together a post about the spring colors outside my office window. It sucked, and I deleted it. I was in a period of my life that was trying to destroy me. I had a panic attack for lunch most days, and I stopped sleeping at night. It never occurred to me to write about that.
I get it now, though. In truth I have “gotten it” for a while and have done nothing with it. But once you know about something, something God has been trying to grow in you, you can’t unknow it. Jen Hatmaker calls it “pulling the thread.” I’ve been playing with that thread for a while now, and enough has unraveled that I can’t shove it back in like a loose string on your favorite sweater. There’s an opening now that is permanent, and I have to pay attention to what’s in there–or quit altogether. And that’s an option I have toyed with already. The taste of regret is still bitter on my tongue. But I can’t dwell on that lost time. Those invitations are expired. I can’t change my response or revisit the places I was being called to back then. I can only say yes today, and then I can go, every day, to the places I’m being called to now. This is the nudge I felt last Monday night as I listened to Glennon, and that conviction I’d felt about receiving something amazing–well, I did, just not in the way I was imagining. And when does God ever work that way? The way WE think He should work? When will I ever stop being surprised by how He chooses to lead me where I need to go?
Never, apparently. Because the next morning, still processing pulled threads and divine invitations and truth-telling and the like, I decided to drag myself out of bed and go to the hotel gym for a run. And I ran hard. I ran and I pondered and I prayed, and I ran even harder. When I returned to our room to collect P for breakfast and a power walk around the block, I considered changing, but I didn’t, because why put on clean clothes just to get sweaty again? We went down to the lobby and got coffee and bagels and sat down near some women who had obviously been at Glennon’s event the night before (they were talking about “Sistering,” it was an easy leap). Not five minutes after we sat down, I heard one of those women say enthusiastically to someone entering the lobby through the entrance behind me, “Good morning, ladies!” and immediately I was thrust back into my Kristen Bell moment: Glennon was near. I knew it as sure as I know the sky is blue. I was not even surprised. I may be a slow learner, but it’s not for lack of remembering the lessons. This is how God works on me.
I watched Glennon and her sister walk into the breakfast area, and I looked at P and shook my head. My gray Marvel comics t-shirt was visibly sweaty. I was wearing a 20 year-old bandanna as a headband. I had on no trace of makeup. My cute hair and passably stylish outfit from the night before were a distant memory. I was, if you will, in a state of my outsides matching my insides (which is pretty much the way I look most of the time). And I still can’t believe what I am about to say, because if things had turned out differently the night before, had we attended the meet-and-greet, had I actually been the one to run into Glennon and Sister in the hallway, I’m not sure I would have said a word, but there in the hotel lobby next to the coffee in my sweaty running clothes and my messy hair, I walked right up and hugged this sweet sister-friend-messenger of God who inspires me daily to be real in my writing and in my life. I apologized for my appearance and told her I was in a much better state the night before, and she said, “No, this is good. This is real.” And it was.
I’ve thought about that 2 minute encounter more than is probably reasonable, and I have some regrets (of course I do, because regret is one of my native languages). For instance, I did not introduce myself. Really? WHO DOES THAT? If Glennon remembers our meeting, it will be because I was that grubby runner who interrupted her coffee acquisition, not because I told her anything remotely defining about myself. Another regret is not speaking to Sister, who appears to be Zen personified. (I also regret not asking how one might acquire one of those amazing Together Rising sweatshirts, because doesn’t that thing look like the most perfect sweatshirt?) But that is all. Because the whole experience, from setting foot in that church the night before to snapping a picture in front of the coffee dispenser the next morning, was a loud whisper in my ear that I don’t get to decide most things and I don’t get to control my circumstances or their timing. I do get to show up every day, to embrace this life I’ve been given, to participate and use my talents and love all these people who are gifted to me on a daily basis, and that is more important than cute hair and a good manicure. It’s easier said than done some days, both the not deciding or controlling part, and the showing up part. Meeting Glennon that morning, all spontaneous and sweaty and not at all how I had carefully planned it just in case, is the life metaphor I needed, the perfect reminder for me that there is no dress code, no schedule, no list of rules. There is just showing up, coming as you are, being real, telling the truth. There’s a lot of waiting, and sometimes there is agony and disappointment and paralyzing fear, but the good stuff is born from all of that, and we just have to be there for all of it, no matter how unprepared or scared or untidy we are.
I am hardwired to expect disaster on a regular basis, so even though I’m working on it, losing the just in case mentality is challenging for me. I’ve decided to cut it out in moderation, in the same way one might cut back on carbs except for the ones in chocolate, or give up caffeine except for morning coffee. So I leave you this advice: if there is a chance you might run into someone you’d love to meet, don’t worry about how you look or where you’ve been or what you are wearing. Focus on the important things, like being yourself and having the courage to step out of your quiet comfort zone. And just in case, for the love of all things holy, don’t forget to introduce yourself.
(Featured image courtesy of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church)