Once Upon a Time in Italy


There’s a picture that hangs in my bedroom. It’s one of those photos which gets more detailed, more rich, the longer you look at it. At first, it’s simply a view of an alley between two buildings. They are stone, very rough and old. Some of their windows are bricked up, others covered with shutters. There are two heavy metal lanterns hung over the alleyway. The alley soon turns into stairs which carves between the buildings and down to a path, which extends through trees to more, smaller houses farther away, then to cypress trees, and then the picture fades into the greens and browns of the countryside, where a little ridge of bluish mountains just barely blocks the horizon. Your eyes double back to the beginning, and you pick out the little tray of blue paint in one doorway, the bright green of a fence, the flaming red of a bush and deeper orange of a roof. Soon your eyes are at the horizon again, at the wispy bluish ridge of hills, and finally up to the cloudy sky marbled with blue.

My cousin Ian took this photo and had it put on a canvas as a wedding present to me and Alex. He took it in Assisi, Italy, going on five years ago when I joined a group from Ian’s school on a two-week tour of Italy, Austria, and Germany. Assisi was the third day of our trip, and it was the first day I actually enjoyed.

When we flew into Rome two days after Christmas, I was already tired and jetlagged. I had never taken such a long flight before. We got to the Rome airport and had a few hours to kill before our bus picked us up, and I was starving so much I ate some really bad pasta. Truly, truly terrible. I thought, hey, it’s Rome; they can’t get pasta wrong, right? Wrong. My mom literally makes better pasta, and she’s not Italian at all. Maybe they should have American moms of Irish descent working at the Rome airport.

But I digress. That first night in Rome, I threw up about three times, and I went down to breakfast the next morning, gagged at the sight of a croissant, and told Ian I was going back to bed. He very sweetly delivered me some bread and jam before they all left on the day’s sightseeing, and gave me the phone number of the nearest pizza place in case I miraculously desired Italian food again. And then I was alone in a strange hotel, in a foreign city, with nothing to do because the internet wasn’t working and I only had one book.

So I cried for my Irish mom who made better pasta than the schmucks at the Rome airport.

At one point, the maid tried to come in to clean up the room, so I had to turn her away apologetically. Thankfully, “no” is no in Italian too. But I didn’t know how to say “I’m sorry,” because I’d prepared more for the German leg of the trip, so I just shrugged and looked as ill as possible. Then I spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating croissants and jam. At one point I went out on the balcony and took in the balmy, sunny weather of a December day in Rome. And something about that smell of warmth in the air made it a little better. Nice days smell very similar, no matter where you go in the world.

The next day, we packed up our bus and drove north. A long bus trip is probably the worst thing you can do after being sick off bad Italian airport pasta. I felt woozy and wobbly, and stared out the window as far to the horizon as I could. Ian kept me supplied with croissants and sour gummy candy. Soon the stucco and dirt of the city were swaddled by the blanket-like countryside, small and massive scraps of farmland stitched together with lines of cypress trees. We passed villas and cottages and forests and rivers, and it was everything you imagine when you read the storybooks.

At some point in the afternoon the land became more hilly. We went through a village which looked too fragile to let a big tour bus go through it, and we charged up a hill which was suddenly swarmed with more cars we’d seen all day, and we parked in a lot full of tourists. I wondered if they too had tried the bad airport pasta.

“We’re here! This is Assisi,” our guide said.

A parking lot full of tourists. This would be Assisi. I wanted to go back to the bus and sleep with my croissants. But true to my nature, I followed the rest of the group as we alighted a very modern-looking, a very long, staircase that led up the hill. Despite my wobbling knees and aching head and sloshing stomach, I followed the mob of fellow tourists. (Side note: I’ve read that based on my personality, I’m susceptible to cults. Who knew.) When we finally got to the top, there was nothing but a driveway leading further up the hill. Oh, lovely. My favorite thing is to document driveways around the world. This would be an excellent addition to my collection. But the mob pressed on, and up the driveway we went.

And suddenly, the driveway became cobblestone, and suddenly, it led through a tawny stone gate with opened doors. And as the mob of tourists floated through with cult-susceptible me in tow, it was like another world opened up on the hill, and it was bigger and more beautiful than it seemed it could be. Suddenly I was surrounded by stone houses and cobblestone streets and colorfully-painted doors and alleys pancaked on each other and stairs leading up to gardens or down to shadows. This was Assisi.

Hundreds of tourists were all packed into this little, ancient city, yet it seemed there was more than enough room for us all. The place was bigger on the inside. We were only there for an afternoon, but I don’t think we could’ve seen it all even if we spent our entire two weeks there. Despite the hubbub, the tourists and the Christmas lights and shops selling cheap mementos, I felt like I was back in time, or out of time, and it was a giddy feeling. My headache mellowed. My knees were stronger.

At lunchtime our group broke off to find food, and Ian and I stepped into a little sandwich shop and got paninis with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. We ate outside in a courtyard where small, shiny Fiats and BMWs occasionally came through, honking at the droves of tourists. It was a mostly cloudy day, but the sky was marbled with blue, and little mists of rain mixed with the stone and made that peppery scent in your nose. I nervously bit into my sandwich, hyper aware of my sensitive stomach. But the first bite went well, and then the second, and soon I was really eating Italian food, good Italian food not from the Rome airport. I realized I did like Italy after all. Assisi saved Italy for me.

We spent the rest of the afternoon milling around. Ian and I took pictures of each other and of all the same sights. We snuck pictures inside the Basilica of Saint Francis. We both took the same shot of that alley with the lanterns. It was my favorite scrap of Assisi, and that’s a hard choice to make.

And so now, almost five years later, that shot is what hangs in my bedroom. I look at it every now and then, and I appreciate it, of course. But I very rarely really look at it, closely, until recently.

A lot of change is coming in the next few months. Some of it I know, and some I feel. Some, to be fair, is probably imagined. But I don’t deal with any change, real or imagined, very well. Even though I know life contains change, and I know we would all be miserable without it, and I know I’m excited overall, there’s still that nagging fear of unpleasantness and mess I must push through in order to reach some equilibrium again.

And then I look at the picture of my favorite alley in Assisi. I remember that tiring first morning at the airport in Rome, that awful first night throwing up in Rome, the awkward second day driving out a maid in Rome, and finally that glorious third day in Assisi. I remember all the nerves and stress and hunger and illness finally dissolving as the Tuscan countryside swaddled it up and gave me one of the best experiences of my life. And I realize that all change, no matter how unpleasant, is only the jet lag, the food poisoning, the tourist-infested parking lot, the driveway, the ancient gate to a beautiful experience. In the end, it’s that beauty I remember; it’s that favorite view I hang on the wall. The joy is what lasts and what matters.

Later that day, we had authentic Italian lasagna for dinner. My mom’s lasagna is way better.


Finding God in the No Man’s Land

I’m not proud to admit it: I’ve become ostrich-like when it comes to the news. Whenever there’s political or social turmoil, I want to bury myself in the sand.

This isn’t because I don’t want to be informed, or I don’t want things to change, or that I prefer to look at the world through a rose-colored monocle. It’s because I’m just overwhelmed. I’m tired of violence and pain, tired of media, tired of Facebook debates.

I’m tired of the little light bulbs of random opinions, each shining a different color, until the air is ablaze with blinding, dizzying, vitriolic reactions. I’m tired of the arguments being wrung out like clothes in a washing machine, twisted and stretched and flung round and round.

I’m a peacemaker by nature, which I think is why I get so especially exhausted. I’m naturally inclined to see both sides, to try to find common ground, to reach compromise. I dwell in the no man’s land.

So when something like, say, a shooting happens, when children die because they happened to be in school, when a highschooler is so riddled with nihilism he commits homicide, I am pained not only by the event itself but by the tsunami of reactions that inevitably arrives. Two discernable sides emerge, as if on cue, and tragedy instantly becomes politicized. I find something to agree with in every side, threads of cause and effect in every opinion, a common ground in every argument. And I feel sick.

It happens over and over again, every time this happens, in many similar things that happen. The opinions ping back and forth: should we pass stricter gun laws? Should we pass looser gun laws? Would this happen if kids could pray in school? Would this happen if no one prayed at all? But the talk doesn’t accomplish anything, at least where it really matters.

I’ve been pondering these things, and I’ve been trying to figure out what the Christian response should be. Sadly, Christians can be found on both sides of any given argument, both sides of the culture war. But the more I think and pray on the subject (I don’t think thoughts and prayers are completely worthless), the more I become convinced: Christians are not to fight in the culture war at all. God calls us to be peacemakers.

God calls us to the no man’s land.

I find a worrying trend for Christians in conservative circles to focus on protecting our political rights above all else, even at the cost of our credibility and our witness. I wonder if maybe God calls us to be citizens of His kingdom first, to give up our earthly rights in order to better show love to the people who need it. I wonder if maybe our allegiance should not be to the flag of the United States of America, but to Jesus, first. Always.

We are called to be above the petty squabbles of the political sphere, because Jesus made it very clear that His kingdom is not dependent on the systems of the world. We are called, instead, to love, to make disciples, to be known for how we cherish each other (John 18:28-40, 13:34, 35).

This realization has taken a long time to retool my brain. I’ve dwelt and prayed and meditated on its implications for a long time. And the more I do, the more I become convinced that our Christian response to socio-political issues should never be to dig in and root down in our preconceived cultural ideals. Rather, we need to cling to Jesus, because He is the only truth we are guaranteed. We need to think about the ways we took on the values of Americanism and the world at large, and how we baptized those values until they became woven into our religious belief. We need to let God unravel these ideals, little by little, until we hold them loosely, as we should.

We will never affect change by voting for a “Christian” president or lobbying for “moral” laws. We will never maintain peace by clinging to our rights or hearkening back to the “good old days.” Rather, we maintain peace in the no man’s land, getting down where it is ugly and messy, and loving the casualties of war who need it most. And maybe this means we give up our earthly rights so we can love better. Maybe it means switching political parties or belonging to no political party at all. Maybe true, sacrificial love is the only way to stop the violent cycle.

And maybe that’s the point.

Foolish Love

I really love Valentine’s Day. I know to some people it’s magical because of the roses and chocolates and candlelight, and for other people it’s repulsive because of those very things. But I love it, because it’s the one day everyone sets aside to love each other. We can gripe about the capitalistic plot to make us buy Hallmark cards, or the hypersexualized cultural atmosphere, or the overpriced chocolate, but we are missing the point when we do that. Holidays aren’t a dictation of our love; they’re a reminder for us to show it. They are a mark on the calendar that says, “This day is special from all other days. Go make it so.”

And this is why I love Valentine’s Day.

Now that my PSA is out of the way, I want to talk about God. Sorry if you feel a bait and switch. But lately I’ve felt very drawn to the concept of the love of God, which I find poignant given the time of year.

The Bible tells us that God speaks in a still, small voice. A whisper. Lately I’ve been trying to grow more quiet and still so I can hear the whisper. But I’m not very good at it. I don’t talk much, but my internal chatter is loud. So I ask God a question, and He answers, but it’s in a whisper, and like a deaf grandmother I shout, “I can’t hear you!” but then I let my mind chatter more, so when God answers again, I have to warble, “What?” And He refuses to play this game, so I have many painful days of feeling that God doesn’t speak to me at all, and then I finally get the hint and start to turn down the internal chatter notch by notch, and then I hear God. And geez, does He talk a lot.

God: “Let me tell you about how much I love you.”

Me: “Oh I already know all about that. I was homeschooled.”

God: “I know. So let me tell you about how much I love you.”

Me: “I told you; I know all about it. I asked Jesus into my heart when I was like seven.”

God: “So then I assume you know all about how you can’t do anything to make me love you more than I already do? And you can’t do a thing to make me love you less? And that when you feel most weak and ineffective, that’s when you are most resting in my love?”

Me: “Well I have to do a little. I mean, there’s the whole bootstrap mentality.”

God: “F–k the bootstrap mentality.”

I’ve never heard God actually say the F word, but sometimes there’s a sense of Him damning an idea so heartily that the only English equivalent is the F word. Sorry if that offends you. If I knew more languages, I could do better.

Because the truth is, I know very little about God’s love. Not despite my Christian upbringing, either. Often because of it. As Christians, we get very used to the basics of Christianity. Saved by grace through faith, yada yada yada. We move on very quickly, because the gospel is simple. Ridiculously simple. Too simple. It makes us feel better to start squabbling about details. What words are okay to say. What music to play at church. How short a skirt should be. Whether to let a woman talk to people about God.

Little by little, we turn salvation into the exact opposite of what it was meant to be: works-driven. And when you grow up in the church, or spend extensive time in the church, and learn that [good behavior]=[people being happy with you]=[you are loved], it’s incredibly easy to transfer that same equation to the love of God. You learn that doing well in your Christian school satisfies the Christian school’s values of excellence, so that must satisfy God too. You learn that following the rules satisfies your parents’ values of a godly family, so that must satisfy God too. You learn that voting a certain way satisfies the popular paradigm of faithful Christian politics, so it must satisfy God too.

On and on we go, subconsciously learning that God’s love depends, or is at least enriched, by our good behavior.

A few months ago, I had to quit a job we desperately needed, because of some anxiety issues. Despite the peace I felt in God calling me to other endeavors, I still felt riddled with guilt. When money was tight and opportunities were limited, I cried out to God, but my mind beat me down.

What right do you have to ask God anything? It taunted. God doesn’t owe you any help until you start pulling your own weight. You got yourself into this mess; get yourself out.

This is the voice of sinful, works-driven human nature. This is the voice of the success-driven culture. This is the voice of American capitalism. This is the voice of legalism. This is the voice of the devil.

This is not the voice of God.

God asks me, pointedly, if doing stuff is how I got my salvation (it isn’t). God asks me why I’m trying to work for the wages of a house servant when I have the inheritance of a daughter (Gal. 3). God loves me with an everlasting love, which is never contingent on my action or inaction (Jer. 31:3, Eph. 2:9-10). God damns, quite harshly, anyone who preaches a gospel different than one based on the love He gives because He wants to (Gal. 1:8-9).

F–k the bootstrap mentality, indeed.

It sounds too good to be true, because it is. That’s the point. If anyone tells you there’s more to it than that, they are wrong. If anyone tells you, “well according to this one verse we found here, we actually have to also—” they are wrong. If anyone tells you there are structures and dogma you must also adhere to, they are wrong. Run so far.

God’s love is a welcoming love. God doesn’t wait for us to get cleaned up before He lets us into the house. God does the cleaning afterward, and yes, that’s not always fun. Sometimes we have layers of gunk that have to get washed off with a sandblaster. Good times. But that comes later. God never stands in the doorway, barring our entrance, pointing to the outdoor shower. God has no outdoor showers. God lets us in and sits us down and gives us something to eat and sends us to bed and gives us rest, and He doesn’t get mad as us for sleeping in (Matt. 11:28-30).

God’s love is simple, rather juvenile. The Bible actually calls it “foolish” (1 Cor. 1:24-25). It’s a love that enjoys, not because it’s obligated to based on our merits, but because it wants to based on His nature.

And this is why I really love Valentine’s Day.



On Ukuleles

I’m not always good at asking for gifts. Someone says, “What do you want for Christmas?” and I’m like, “Um… stuff and things, please.”

But this past holiday season I planned ahead. I gave little lists to the various people who wanted them, and one of the presents I asked for was a thing I’d had tucked in my mind for a long time:

a ukulele.

I don’t know what drew me to the ukulele in particular. Maybe it’s because they’re small and only have four strings, although I did used to play the violin, which fits all those requirements. But a violin is much more labor-intensive; I appreciate the compact little ukulele, which you can pick up and strum with cheerful determination.

Sure enough, on Christmas morning an oddly-shaped package was labeled to me. It was my very own gorgeous little ukulele. I was so excited I spent three hours learning chords.

While I’m still rusty—though I do fancy myself a quick learner—the ukulele has already brought a lot of joy to me. There’s something about being able to sit down and make music, with no need to talk, no need to think really, and to be creative simply by showing up and letting your mind spill out into sound.

Sometimes as a writer, I want to be able to write without using any words, letting the repetition and flow of my mind create something without effort. But of course, this is the antithesis of writing. One must naturally exert effort, in order for the words to make any sense.

Playing the ukulele is my writing without words; my creativity finds a voice even when my words are knotted, and I can create something beautiful even when my mind is numb.

Writing to Myself

I love journals.

I’ve kept a personal journal since I was ten or eleven, and I have them all lined up on a shelf in my room. Every Christmas and birthday, I acquire journals as gifts, and I use gift money to buy more journals. Something about the pretty covers and blank pages of yet-unlived stories gets me every time.

I don’t recall how exactly it started, but I do remember starting to journal my thoughts, daily life, and memories with the conviction that these were all very important. I remember becoming so overwhelmed with each detail of life, so convinced that they were all significant, that I had no choice but to write my life down as I was living it.

I still don’t know why the ins and outs of daily life have always been so significant to me, unless of course it has something to do with me being a writer. I always wrote with the conviction that people in the future would want to know what my life was like, and I wrote, at first, like I was writing a story.

As I got older, of course, my journals became more raw, more honest, more stream-of-consciousness. This shift has made each journal like a tiny time capsule of who I was at the time. Now, I look back at my numerous autobiographical tomes and see patterns in my life that led to where I am now. I read about an event that happened six years ago, and I see how that led to some of my present-day behaviors. It’s fascinating how my own words, thoughts, and feelings jog my present memory. They put me in situations long forgotten.

Reading a diary is like time travelling; you meet your old self, hear her hopes and fears, and tell her things you’ve learned, things you know now that you didn’t know then. It’s very therapeutic in a way; it closes a loop and completes a journey. The things I struggled with in the past find peace, or at the very least explanation, in the future. The older and wiser me can meet the younger with more knowledge, more grace. It makes you more forgiving of yourself, more aware of the process that life entails. And even this pseudo-time travel is a process, because someday I’ll be older and wiser than I am now, and the cycle, the journey, continues.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? While I thought I was writing for posterity, I was really writing for myself.


Quintessential New Year’s Post

It’s inevitable. Any blog post I write will be the first of the new year, and so it must naturally be rife with sentiments like, “Oh my gosh! 2018? Already? New year new me! As the world turns, so we mark the passing of the seasons with contentment and burgeoning joy.”

There it is. Bask in it.

Like most people, I made some resolutions. They aren’t your stereotypical change-my-whole-nature-and-body-and-being-in-365-days resolutions; they’re more like tiny tweaks, little realignments for what I really want to be doing anyway. I’ve always liked having the new year to do this, cliche as it can get. Yes, time is relative, and no, we don’t need to depend on a calendar date to change. But something about the new year, a new calendar of blank, unfilled-up months, a fresh slate to draw upon, makes it fitting.

I am going to share my new year’s resolutions, and not just because all the kids are doing it. My reason is twofold: one, putting them out in public is an accountability builder, even if none of you email me and ask how I did (please don’t). Two, I have a hard time remembering what any life resolutions are at any given time, so I feel like putting them on a blog will give me, at the very least, a place to refer to.

Luckily, I made my resolutions simple. In the past I’ve made some grand aspirations. I will work out every day! I will eat only vegetables and ancient grains! I will suddenly change inherent qualities about myself and take up activities I previously had no interest in! I figured that the best strategy, this time, would be to start small, to do things I know I can and will do, and to build from there.

One, I’m going to do yoga every day in January. I follow a YouTuber yogi who does a yearly January challenge, and I’ve never faithfully followed it along. So I’m going to try it.

Two, for the month of January I’m not eating sugar and sweets. My husband has a problem with eating too many sweets, and I love him but it really has come to a point where public shame is the way to go (he gave his permission to be so shamed). I am a classic sympathy eater, so if he eats sweets, I eat sweets. And for thirty-one days, I put my foot down. (February will be a free for all.)

Three, in 2018 I’m going to take my vitamins. I don’t eat super well (see point two), but I’m not the most unhealthy person either (see husband comment). I try to eat mindfully and intuitively, but I know I still have a few gaps in my diet, because while I enjoy healthy eating, I also refuse to do any kind of “diet.” I will never go gluten-free, dairy-free, or heaven forbid, vegan. When I was a child, I was a sick child, I ate as a sick child, I had many food restrictions as a sick child. When I became a woman, I put away sick child food restrictions. For better or worse. All this to say, vitamins.

Four, I’m going to wear more blue. It’s my favorite color. It’s pretty. It makes me happy. And blue always matches other blue.

I have a few other floating resolutions, but these are the biggies. I have plans to update the list month-by-month, throwing out some ideas and incorporating others. I got a lot of candy for Christmas, and there’s no way I’m saving it all for months on end.

So far, in the cliche, quintessential way, I’m very hopeful for 2018. I’ve been working through a lot of life stuff lately. Some of these things I have power over, and others I have none. The latter group often seems larger than the former. But for the most part I am hopeful. Little glimmers of light shine through the cracks as the old year shatters to reveal the new, and I can mark the passing of the seasons with contentment and burgeoning joy.



Magic in the Quiet

It’s less than a week til Christmas. Like any adult, I feel it’s come too soon, and yet somehow I feel it hasn’t really come at all.

Life is incredibly crazy this time of year, especially in America, and especially in the household of a grad student married to a college student. It’s all rushing and stress and deadlines, followed by lights and glitz and shopping and spending and music and advertisements and decorations. Everywhere, even when you open up a social media site to wish someone a happy holiday season, you are met with a damn advertisement. I don’t want to find ads for things (I really do want to buy) when I’m scrolling Pinterest for something to make for dinner, okay? In my day, we met materialism in the newspaper, where it belongs. Thank you very much.

This year, I’m more belligerent about all the hype. I love me some lights and good food and presents, but to me they miss the mark. People have been celebrating Christmas, specifically, for thousands of years. That’s incredibly powerful. It’s magical. Each ancient tradition carries meaning, and if you are a Christian yourself, it’s even more poignant. But all this commercialism is a slap in the face of thousands of years of precious tradition. The trimmings of our Christmas celebrations should be the just that, the trimmings, an outward enjoyment of the holiday, not the functions of the holiday itself.

I know I’m not saying anything new. I know my fellow believers have been crying to Keep Christ in CHRISTmas for decades now. But to be honest, we haven’t exactly preserved our traditions very well either. Campaigning to say “Merry CHRISTmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” also misses the mark. It does nothing to change the deeply-rooted consumerism in our culture, because this deeply-rooted consumerism is in the human heart itself, and we know this because Christians are just as guilty of overspending, overcrowding, and overrushing as people to whom the holiday means far less.

Our efforts to keep Christ in Christmas have become outward focused, trying to convince nonbelievers of something; when we should be of inward focused, celebrating the holiday because of what it means to our faith… which is, in fact, its true meaning. I think if we see it more this way, connecting, rebraiding, reknitting ourselves with each other, God, and the people who’ve come before us, we will be much less frazzled, much more filled, and more like Christ ourselves.

So, good introvert that I am, I find intense meaning in being inward focused. Christmas is not in the blazing lights and blaring music and nostalgia for a Bing Crosby-esque snowfall. Christmas is in the flame of a candle, the hush of snow, the printed words of a true legend we can’t get out of our heads.

And this isn’t to say we should burn our Christmas trees and eschew all gift giving. I mean, if that would help you, go for it (unless you are someone who was going to give me a present. DO NOT go for it). But these stoic approaches also miss the point. Christmas should be a time of feasting and giving and joy, because of the ancient traditions. You can’t have one without the other. Mainstream society gets it wrong when it triumphs celebration over spiritual tradition, and we get it just as wrong when we do it the other way around. There is an order, but both are important.

I know I am biased. I’m an introvert; I’m a grandma. But I keep coming back to the fact that the first Christmas was very quiet. Yet it was powerful enough, magical enough, to stick with us. So perhaps I’m not a complete fuddy-duddy. Perhaps we really should stop looking for magic in all the noise. Perhaps the magic is in the quiet.

Be a Person, Not a Brand

As a freelance writer, a lot of the advice I’ve come across for building a blog, a client base, and social media following all boils down to one mantra, humming over and over and over:

Build your brand.

It’s the mantra of many a millennial. In the internet age, the dream is that we can all achieve success with our passions. We just have to market ourselves enough, post on social media enough, add a healthy dose of capitalism, and boom. The career of our dreams.

The phrase means that if you want to be an entrepreneur or creative, if you want to have a nontraditional career where you work from home or build a business, you must market yourself, sell yourself like a product. You must create an empire of one: you.

Every time I hear that phrase, build your brand, my soul shrinks back and grits its teeth, as if my entire being has just bitten into a metaphysical lemon. The mantra sounds good, and it’s worked, really well, for a lot of people. And I’m happy for them; I really am. But the idea at the root of branding yourself is one that absolutely terrifies me, because I think the implications of it go farther than we’re willing to consider.

A brand is a created entity. A brand is something a corporation makes to sell another thing. A brand is a surface-level household name constructed to be consumed. Oreos: you eat them. Nikes: you wear them. Sharpies: you bleed them dry. (I think I have a future in slogan writing, by the way.)

The truth is, human beings are so much more valuable than that. Humans are fragile and strong. We are terrifying and beautiful. We fly high and sink low. We are perfect and flawed, and the work we create is the same. There is so much more to us than the selling of a product or service.

Maybe you insist that I’m misunderstanding this phrase. Maybe it doesn’t mean what I’m taking it to mean. But then I have to ask: why are we using words like “brand” to describe people? People, with minds and souls that are somehow, magically, blessedly able to transcend the physical and inject everyday life with resilience and beauty and hope. The term “brand” to describe personhood is not just inappropriate; it’s insulting. Perhaps by using such paltry words to describe something so inherently magnificent, we are unconsciously saying what we tend to believe. Perhaps we are falling into the universal human trap: to take something valuable and trash it.

I’ve tried, as a writer, to build my brand, to treat my craft like a business and my self like a product. I’ve tried to blog in a way that sells, with flashy catchphrases and trendy buzzwords. I’ve tried to use social media to optimize my followers, with perfectly-curated pictures and relatable captions. I’ve tried to make flimsy business connections that are no more than a click on a web platform.

And all due respect to those who’ve achieved great success this way, but it’s not for me. When I write, I want it to be what I was born to say. When I post photos and say things online, I want it to be sharing something beautiful and making someone laugh. When I meet people, I want it to be in person, and I want it to be a real relationship.

The build-your-brand mentality may seem innocuous, but the problem is that this mentality doesn’t stay in the business world; it seeps into our mental states and social lives and personal development. I see a generation just a little younger than me growing up thinking that it’s normal to always be building yourself as a marketable image, never getting the chance to close the blinds, loosen up, have fun, and just be a person. I see us unable to accept each other as complex, three-dimensional people, instead choosing to commodify each other, to buy each other and throw each other away. I see us compromising the purity of our passions, crafts, and trades in the name of what seems like an easy ticket to a career. The internet may allow us to pursue our vocations like never before, but it has the danger of making our vocations the only thing people see in us. And this is a tragic, tragic thing.

So please: don’t be a brand. Be a person. It’s awkward and painful and vulnerable, but it’s also wild and beautiful and unique. You can create and accomplish far more meaningful things, a far more meaningful life, by just being a person. Because you already have, and you already are.

Being Still

Lately I’ve had the sense that I’m supposed to be more still. There are several things in my life I’m trying to get started, to make happen, to hustle into being, and time and time again it seems the answer that comes back to me is this: Wait.

And I didn’t think this would be such a problem for me. I’m Miss Introvert Homebody (that’s Mrs. Introvert Homebody to you). Being still is my jam. Nothing makes me happier than knitting and watching Netflix (the above photo is Exhibit A). When my best friend and I plan a wild Friday night, it usually includes staying home and dancing like old ladies to rap and injuring a ligament and retiring before midnight. It’s a good system.

But apparently, I’m not as good at being still as I thought. while I crave a life of stillness, I often loathe myself for being still. It feels too lazy to be peaceful, to wait. It feels like a waste. And so when I sense stillness being imposed upon me, I get belligerent. “Do you have any idea how wasteful this is?” I grumble. Instead of enjoying the rest in waiting, I do busywork to feel more accomplished. Instead of having hope that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, I drown myself in guilt for not doing more.

And so I run around in circles, doing more, trying more, and when all I try to do falls through and the message comes back, louder, JUST WAIT! I get more frustrated and more exhausted, until I don’t have energy to even do what one is supposed to do when waiting: being faithful in the little things. I’ve bought into the culture-wide lie that the little things aren’t good enough, that if I want to be successful, I must hustle! werk it! believe it dream it do it! So let me work on all that while I’m waiting!

And still the answer comes back: Wait. Busywork does not count.

And there’s really nothing to say but, “Okay.”

So I’ve been trying to focus more on the little things, the daily tasks in front of me. And oddly enough, I see some of what I’ve strived so hard to hustle into being come together on its own, just a little bit. Almost as if it’s not really up to me at all.

Almost as if all I need to do, is wait.




Know Thyself

In the past few months, my best friend and I have become inadvertent personality scholars.

I don’t quite remember how it started. We bought the same book, Better than Before, about temperament and habit formation. Then we hit a streak where, ironically, we got competitive about reading Quiet, the book on introverts (which we both are). Then during the semester, she read a Myers-Briggs textbook, and we figured out each of our personalities and those of our respective husbands, and read each feature of each personality to oblivion.

(In case you were wondering, I’m a shy introvert, an obliger with a rebel streak, an INFP with a turbulent nature, and a highly-sensitive person. On the Pinterest chart of introverted types as pets, I’m a cute cuddly mouse. According to Buzzfeed, which is even more scientific than Pinterest, I’m a meerkat.)

At some point Jenny asked me whether I thought our newfound knowledge of personality types made us almost too knowledgeable. “Do you think it might make us not rely on God enough?” she wondered. In our shared spiritual tradition, there’s a principle of recognizing, with humility, that we as human beings don’t know everything. And we certainly didn’t want to know so much we became smug, unable to relate to people without first asking the four letters of their Myers-Briggs personality type.

“I find it’s making me rely on him more,” I answered. For one thing, I need guidance outside of myself for putting my newfound knowledge to good use. Also, knowing a lot makes me that smug asshole. So I need help with that too.

But in all seriousness, figuring out how to use one’s knowledge of oneself is incredibly important. Learning so much about myself has taught me that I’m not always as impervious to cultural peer pressure as I think I am. Sometimes I adopt the values of my environment because everyone else thinks those values are common sense, when in reality they often squelch the very strengths I have. And then instead of being thoughtful about my nature, I’ve often been the hardest squelcher of them all, thinking I must fix myself in some way.

I’ve worked fast-paced jobs, but I’m a more quiet, deliberate person. I’ve worked in environments that encourage making sales, but I value authenticity and good causes. I’ve put myself in situations where I am expected to be chatty and engaging and to connect with a ton of people in any given day, but to me connection is something you can’t force. It must be deep and intentional and take a lot of time.

All of this pushing against my own nature has left me frustrated and even more disappointed with who I am. But when Jenny and I started studying personalities, (admittedly) becoming greater nerds on the subject, something clicked. It’s no longer a matter of changing myself to fit a mold, but rather of finding a mold that I can fit into already, a mold with a shape I fit and room I can grow in.

The catch, of course, is that we all have to spend our lives figuring out the tension between who we are and what life is, between who we should be and what life should be. We have to figure out when it’s okay to change and when it’s okay to stick to our nature, when it’s appropriate to build on our strengths, and when it’s better to strengthen our weaknesses. This goes along with that spiritual principle of realizing that no matter how much I know, I don’t know everything. I need guidance and strength outside myself to make big decisions and little decisions, moment by moment, that will polish me more and more into the person I truly am.

So that’s step two.