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The girl who dances with shadows.

The girl who dances with shadows.

My senior year of high school began with the attack on the Twin Towers. Images of the flaming towers were fresh in all our minds that fall. This was an act of war, and even though I lived 3,000 miles away in Oregon, it still felt much too close to home. Who could do something like this? Is this the beginning of World War 3? I wondered.

That year I was part of a group called the Young Women’s Theater Collective. We wrote and performed original shows. We decided to name our fall show “Dancing with Shadows.” It was a declaration that in spite of the darkness in life, we could still find joy. Our show included comedic sketches, dancing, singing, and more somber pieces dealing with issues like substance abuse and depression. We performed to sold-out shows at the WOW Hall, and yes, even shared a promotional poster with Slick Rick.

A few years later, I found myself in Ghana, West Africa, on a study abroad program with the UO Journalism School. Wandering through an open-air market in Kumasi, I stopped at a woodcarver’s stall to browse for souvenirs. My eye was drawn to a carving of a woman, one hand balancing a jug of water on her head, her other hand resting on her hip. The carver looked at me. “That’s the girl who dances with shadows,” he said. “There are always shadows, but she is just dancing.”

My heart leapt into my throat in surprise. I had to have that carving. “How much?” I asked cautiously, fearing he might be eager to rip off an obroni. He quoted a reasonable price, so I paid him the few dollars and bought the carving.

The girl who dances with shadows now sits atop my tall bookshelf in our living room. Was this an interesting coincidence, or was it a purposeful message from God to me? I can’t say for sure, but it’s a reminder to me that in spite of whatever may come — I will dance.

“There is only the dance…” – T.S. Eliot (The Four Quartets)

Disclaimer: This post contains information about my personal beliefs! If you are offending by hearing about other people’s beliefs that may be different from your own, feel free to stop reading now. No hard feelings.

Throughout human history, people have been pondering the meaning of life. Of course some take a different view —  as one dear friend once said, “I’m not interested in being deep.” I’m amazed at those who don’t seem to give much thought to finding meaning in their lives, as it’s always been kind of important to me.

Well if you know me, you may know that it’s actually super important. I’ve thought about it quite a bit. And I am about to turn 30, so perhaps I am old and wise enough for my thoughts to be of value.

In the simplest of terms, I’ve found that life is about this: Love God and love people. In the Christian co-op that I lived in during college we had a huge art piece on the wall that said, “Love God with all you’ve got and love people with all He gives you.” This does come from the Bible, when Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind….Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39).

Then you ask, but what does this mean practically in my life? What specifically am I supposed to do each day? Because the meaning of life is really more of an essay question than a multiple choice test.

I think it’s important to make the best possible decisions with the choices we are faced with, in light of the goals of loving God and loving people. We do not have total control over our lives, we can only make choices based on the circumstances we find ourselves in.

I choose to be a part of a church because it helps me with both of these goals. It helps me to worship and learn more about God, and to be a part of a community where I can love and serve other people.

I’m also a wife and a mother. Being a stay-at-home mother to a toddler is a 24-7 job. Being the best wife and mother I can be is my main purpose right now during my daughter’s formative years. Sometimes I get discouraged because I think I should be doing more. I used to be a teacher and I think, perhaps I should be teaching. Perhaps I should be writing books. Perhaps this or that. But prayer has given me the perspective that being a good mother is the most important thing I can be doing right now.

I could go into a long diatribe about my meandering career path, but I will just say that circumstances have led me to surrender to God’s will again and again. I have aspired to great success in terms of this or that career but now I feel at peace just being a mom. It is well with my soul. I am also a writer and am enjoying writing for the sake of writing. Writing is one of the things that brings meaning into my life.

As for you, if you are grappling with this question I would encourage you to pray. Ask God to give you purpose and direction for your life, and opportunities to love others. Then watch for those opportunities. Make the best choices you can with the circumstances you have.

Also, do this: Dare greatly.  If you’re really into this guy and you’re pretty sure he’s into you, but he won’t say it, then ask him what’s going on. You might find that ten years later, you’re married, with a beautiful daughter. Or not. But at least you’ll have tried. Audition for the choir. Apply to graduate school. Call that acquaintance and ask them to have coffee with you. Don’t let fear hold you back.

Maybe this post is overly cheese-ball and cliche. I get like that sometimes, late at night. But this meaning of life stuff really matters.

“But now, this is what the Lord says – He who created you Jacob, He who formed you Israel. Fear not for I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” – Isaiah 43: 1

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For further, better edited writing regarding the meaning of life check out the following:

-Storyline by Donald Miller (a workbook to help you find meaning in your life, by one of my celebrity crushes)

-The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

– the Bible

– T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets

 

 

View of Seattle from Elliot Bay.

View of the Emerald City from Elliot Bay.

Fall term of my freshman year of college, my literature professor expressed her disdain for the Italian film Life is Beautiful. “No serious Holocaust scholar liked that film,” she said spitefully. “Life is not beautiful during the Holocaust.”

I think perhaps she missed the point of this highly acclaimed film. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but I believe the general idea is that love can still be found in the midst of tragedy, that God never abandons us, and that in the end good triumphs over evil.

She obviously didn’t agree with those ideas.

Why then did I go to this professor for advice when I was feeling lost and directionless as to my major and career path? I sat in her office and told her I wanted to major in creative writing.

“No,” she said, “you need a career.”

“I could always go to law school later,” I said.

“No. Lawyers are the most unhappy people I know,” she offered.

With that our meeting was over, leaving me more confused than before. I had hoped for some comfort, some direction, some mom-like advice from my only female professor. Is it a surprise that I found myself dropping out of college several months later?

That was such a hard and unhappy year in my life. But looking back on it 11 years later, I know that many of the decisions I made were right ones.

I was right to start my college years off in Seattle. I needed to get away from home, to find a new perspective and gain distance from old relationships. And I was right to leave Seattle and transfer back to the University of Oregon, my hometown school. Seattle was only a brief stopping point on my journey, a place to learn a few lessons and move on.

At the U of O I would reconnect deeply with my faith, meet my now husband, find a major I enjoyed, and make many long term friends. But that was sophomore year.

Freshman year began with me in my glamorous big city dorm, with its 8th story view looking out over the lights of downtown Seattle. There, in my favorite city, I was lonelier than ever before. I felt like I’d jumped into an ice cold river and was struggling to catch my breath. It was too hard, transitioning from my senior year of high school with lots of best friends, to a school where I didn’t know anyone.

And so after fall term I left. And I found that it’s true what they say. You can never go home again once you leave. Nothing was the same. Many of my friends had moved away for college, and those who had stayed were different. Or was I the one who’d changed?

I tried to reconnect with my friends, and ended up moving in with them briefly in a horrible apartment in a west campus alley. It was a bad situation, and it didn’t last long.

It was such an awful, painful year in my life. And yet I know now – God was there with me the whole time.

Sometimes we need to go through painful times in order to get where God wants us to go.

Colors of fall.

Colors of fall.

It’s September, and I can feel the anticipation that autumn brings. It is time to wrap up old ways and make room for the new. Change is coming.

I have been praying and hoping for the past 2.5 years that God would open up new opportunities and bring us family wage jobs. Our living situation was fine when it was just the two of us. But it is far less than ideal with a little one. I won’t go into all of my complaints here, but I will just say that it is not working.

Yet, our income remains modest, and we can’t afford something nicer here in Portland. I have always loved living in the city, but in recent months I’ve started craving a more peaceful environment. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’m growing weary of hearing drunks yelling outside my window at 2 a.m.

Portland no longer feels like home.

And that’s it – the gentle nudging of God’s still small voice. We secretly hope Jesus will call us up and ask to meet us for tea one day, at our favorite tea shop that used to be a bookstore and was a train car before that. We could sit across from Jesus and He would say in a kind voice, “Here, take this key to your new house in Sausalito. It’s an easy ferry ride across the bay to your new job as a magazine editor in downtown San Francisco. I called in a few favors from some old friends.”

But that doesn’t happen, does it? As much as we want Jesus to meet us for tea and tell us what to do next — life doesn’t work that way. God speaks to us in a quiet whisper, in the sense of unease that something isn’t quite right. And in the calm peace that comes when things are just as they should be.

So the subtle sense that I am no longer at home in the city tells me that we may be on the verge of a move. We may be getting close to an open door. And yet –

    “these are only hints and guesses,
                  hints followed by guesses; and the rest
                  is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action”
(T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets)

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photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/5115966185/”>Ian Sane</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Last week I had the opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak at the University of Oregon campus. I was thrilled to have this chance, and it was evident from the sold-out crowd packing the basketball arena that others felt the same. Although I am a devout Christian, I have been interested in the Dalai Lama since reading The Art of Happiness as a teenager. Maybe I’m weird — I recently told my pastor that I had been “very concerned about the meaning of life” as a middle school student, and he thought that was pretty funny. I’ve just always been more spiritually-inclined than your average person.

Sold-out crowd to hear Dalai Lama speak at UO.

Sold-out crowd to hear Dalai Lama speak at UO.

During his speech, the Dalai Lama spent a good amount of time emphasizing the oneness of humanity and said that “extreme selfishness closes our inner door and causes more loneliness and anxiety.”

He said that although he prays as part of his religious practice, he believes that “action is more important than prayer.” I certainly agree with this, although I also believe that prayer is more important than most people give it credit for. In my experience, prayer can lead to real changes. But what is prayer without action?

We must be willing to pray with our feet.

Most relevant to me, he emphasized the importance of mothers. He said, “the real source of compassion is our mother.” We learn to love by the love that our mothers give us as infants. He advised us to “provide the maximum compassion to your children and to spend more time with your children.” It felt so good to hear that. There have been times this past year when I felt like I was not contributing enough to the world by being a stay-at-home mom. But then — shazam — the Dalai Lama informs me that being a mom is the most important job of all.

I probably should have figured that out sooner.

Dream Big

When God lights you up,
pray big prayers.
Imagine what God can do,
as He illuminates the darkness
through your life.
God and His kingdom are here
and they’re breaking in.

 

This is a found poem, based on my notes from a sermon podcast I listened to this morning by Imago Dei’s Rick McKinley. I opened my journal to start working on today’s poem, and then I saw these notes and it seemed that the poem had written itself!