Open Mind, Narrow Focus: Learning to Prioritize with Joy

In the past year, one concept that’s really latched onto me is the importance of prioritizing. We all know that life often feels crazy, beyond our control, that there aren’t enough hours in the day. And it’s so hard to choose those few things we want to focus on in our limited time.

Alex and I got married when we were still in college, so maybe the realization that I had to prioritize my time hit me extra early. I had to choose from the get go that when it came down to it, my relationship and time with him was more important than all the intricacies of a college education.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I totally slacked at my work, or that I considered my personal development not important. If anything, this new arrangement gave me more responsibility for my own priorities. I’m someone who has the tendency to throw aside my own agenda for others, especially people I love or respect. While I truly believe there’s a time and place for that, I came to a sobering realization:  I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

For me, as a newlywed college student, that meant two discernible things: first, that I could not let the expectations put on me as a student by teachers or coursework dictate the time and attention I spent on my husband; and second, I could not let my desire to be a good partner to my husband detract from the work I had as a student.

This may sound contradictory. How can partner and personal growth both be the most important thing at the same time? I spent the rest of my college career trying to figure out that balance, and I went on to grad school trying to learn the same thing, and every job I’ve had and will have is a challenge in trying to figure it out.

Because for me, prioritizing boils down to the daily questions of: What things are most important to me? and When must I say no to one important thing so I can say yes to another? 

This week, my best friend Jenny and I were chatting about this concept. We noticed how many of the people we meet seem perpetually rushed, with absolutely no time to spare. We noticed how it’s so easy to say, “I don’t have time to work out,” or “I don’t have time for self-care,” or “I wish I could do xyz, but I just can’t.”

Jenny has a full time job, a lengthy commute, various activities that all take time, and her husband has a demanding and time-consuming job as well. But the truth, she said, is that we all do have the time for whatever we want to do. We just don’t always use the resources we have wisely. As she put it, “The way you spend your time shows what your priorities are.” In other words, what we do with our time reflects the things we most value.

In pondering this, I had another thought: what if the priorities that people commonly feel that they should have, say working out or social time or whatever it is, aren’t actually priorities they want to have? But instead of admitting, “hey, that’s not something I value or even want, and I choose to spend my time elsewhere,” we frame ourselves as victims. “I don’t want to” becomes “I would if I could, but I can’t,” and that makes us feel better, more justified, in not doing what we feel pressured to do. But that also ends up making us feel more strained, more stressed, less free to spend our time as we like. And we feel constantly defeated, because we don’t meet those lofty goals we feel we should.

One thing I found helpful in this process of refocusing my priorities was to look big-picture. In my life, what are a handful of things I want to be true? A handful of goals I want to accomplish? For me, it narrowed down to three things: I want to have a good relationship with God (and by extension, everyone else); I want to be physically healthy; and I want to publish a book.

With these big picture ideals in mind, I try to do something every day that cultivates those things. I spend time in prayer or devotional reading. I work out or do yoga. I read and write. Suddenly my days are very simplified; I don’t have to worry that I didn’t do enough or that I’m not succeeding enough. As long as I hit the three big priorities on my list, everything else is a bonus. And suddenly, life feels a lot more victorious, a lot more joyful.

On paper it sounds simple, but it’s not always fun, and it’s not always easy. For example, being physically healthy is one of my life goals, but it’s not a life goal that’s always joyful to pursue. I have to set aside time to work out, I have to endure the moments of pain that come with working out, and I have to be mindful about not stuffing my face with cake at every whim.

What keeps me motivated is realizing that this goal is mine, and no one else’s. I am doing this because I want to, even if in the moment I don’t really “want” to. It also encourages me to make my goals on my own terms. For me, this means I don’t run super fast or participate in insane cardio or go to hot yoga classes, because honestly, I don’t want to. I don’t completely abstain from carbs or sugar or dairy, because I don’t want to. My goal is not to win a bikini contest; my goal is to create sustainable, mindful health. I challenge myself according to my own ability and lifestyle, not someone else’s. As a result, I feel good not only physically, but mentally.

Despite the best of intentions, prioritizing is still a struggle, especially in a society that is perennially rushed and always comparing one person with another. But I keep coming back to that conviction I first put together in college: I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

I don’t have to be a victim to other people’s values. I don’t have to be a victim to society’s values. If each of us took back those reins a little bit, if we chose our priorities with mindfulness, I wonder how much society, big bad wolf that it is, might change little by little. I wonder if eventually, we might become more peaceful, more joyful, as a whole.

And it’s not something we can achieve with a snap. It’s a daily practice, one that will change with each season of life. I am still learning the balance between being married and following my personal callings, and I’m realizing its a daily mindfulness more than a one-and-done decision. But it’s a mindfulness we can each practice in little ways, little baby steps.

At first it might seem really hard, and it is! For the first time we’re going against the current; there’s bound to be some resistance. Ultimately, though, I am convinced that setting priorities leads to a more joyful heart, open mind, and narrow focus. It leads to more intentionally enjoying life, not just for our own sake, but so we can take the newfound peace we have and pour into others.

Masala Sauce: Anger, the Internet, and Indian Food

A few weeks ago I made Indian Masala sauce. It’s a tomato base with a blend of amazing spices: curry, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, red pepper. Butter and cream. It’s tomato-ey and spicy and cozy and creamy all at once. It’s called a simmer sauce, because you’re supposed to keep it on low heat for an hour or so, letting the flavors blend together.

The thing with tomato sauces, I’ve found, is that you can’t just let them have a pleasant, tiny-bubble simmer like you can with water or milk. The heat stays deep at the bottom, mingling with all the stuff you’ve put in the sauce, until suddenly, big bubbles reach the surface, pop pop, splattering red all over the stove. And on your clothes, if you’re unlucky (I am).

The masala sauce has become a metaphor for me, as most things in my life do. In this case, the masala sauce reminds me of myself, especially those feelings I tend to keep deep inside.

I don’t usually consider myself to be an angry person. I’m pretty even keel, keeping a straight face and feeling my emotions on the inside. This sounds pretty good, healthy even. But feeling all your feelings on the inside doesn’t mean they don’t exist; it just means other people can’t see them.

Take anger, for instance. I usually keep my anger close to the chest. It bubbles deep in the sea of my soul, making the waters bitter and murky, poisoning myself and the people closest to me. Now, I truly do mean well. I truly do love people. I truly am kind. I’m not one of those perennially angry people who get cut off in the grocery line and unleash a string of expletives. Out loud.

No, my anger is like the masala sauce. The blend of introversion and high sensitivity and empathy, my own personal curry, combine with the garlic of current events and the cinnamon of relationships, the nutmeg of tender memories, the red pepper of painful events. Butter of better judgement, cream of spiritual wisdom. And in the thick, murky tomato sauce of clouded perspective, all these things blend together. Add heat (the stress of really anything), and there’s my anger. It looks good and smells amazing on the outside, but if you get too close, it’ll sear and stain.

Last week I took an unplanned social media hiatus. It was only for a few days, and it wasn’t a straight fast, but it was a big reduction in how much social media I consume. While I didn’t experience a drastic change in my inner psyche, I did notice something: I wasn’t as perpetually, simmeringly angry.

I think we underestimate how much scrolling through the inner thoughts and opinions of friends and strangers can completely overwhelm us. If you’re like me, you have a wide variety of friends and people you follow, all from various social, religious, economic, and political backgrounds. My average day on Facebook is a mental Red Rover. As someone who has a lot of empathy, this is emotionally exhausting, and I want to scream, CAN ALL MY FRIENDS JUST GET ALONG? Social media often feels like one of those cartoon fights where everyone’s in a cloud of dust kicking and punching each other. It’s easy to feel like the real world is this way too, and then it’s easy to feel utterly, perpetually… angry.

So part of my fast was a simple act of removing myself from it all, to enjoy the feeling of thinking my own thoughts and making sense of my own experience, without the filter of others’ opinions. Even if your friends and followers aren’t actively attacking your viewpoints, it’s easy to feel that sense of judgement, that sense that you need to polish up your life and thoughts before presenting them. All this stress, real and perceived, mixes with our personal blend of anxieties and insecurities, with the pain of current events, the peppery taste of snark. And soon we’re all simmering, stewing vats of masala sauce, bubbling up at each other, searing and staining.

I’m still learning what to do about this. I think there’s a place for anger, if only as an indicator that something is going on under the surface that needs to be addressed. I think anger can be useful, but I also think that none of it are well equipped to handle it wisely. Anger attaches all our strong parts to our vulnerable ones, riddling otherwise righteous intent with selfishness. The pot boils over with so much stuff that we can’t distinguish the helpful from the unhelpful, the actions we must take from the actions that are reactive.

The only thing to do, I’ve found, is to turn off the heat. It’s only when the pot has cooled down that you can start to work with the sauce. That looks different for each of us, but I’d bet that for most of us it means stepping back and trying to relate to each other, and not merely attacking the issue at hand. It means challenging the way things are and asking how they got there in the first place. It means curiosity: why are we reacting this way? What do we all want? How can we really get to where we want to go?

For me, it’s important to remember that anger, whether it simmers (stays internal) or boils over (is externally expressed) is only useful if I do two things: think about it critically, and then once I’ve made sense of it, express it.

For someone who tends to fly off the proverbial handle, this means asking those deeper questions, and for someone like me, it means not stopping at those questions, but continuing on to share my feelings after those questions have been asked.

I wonder what would happen if we got more curious about our own thoughts and the thoughts of others. I wonder if it would look more like integration than division. Because the truth is this: no matter what your cooking methods are, all food has to cool down before it can be eaten. And eating—that act of communion and comfort and joy—is the whole point of food—ideas and emotions—in the first place.

I wonder what could happen if we learned to enjoy that meal together.

 

 

Are You Finished?

At the beginning of this summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland as part of my master’s program. I spent most of those two weeks in writing classes, learning about the craft and business of being a writer.

Each day for two hours or so, I sat down with a little group of fellow students and our mentor, and we workshopped each other’s writing. Workshopping, for writers, is always an inspirational and terrifying experience. It usually consists of sharing a story or a piece of one, and giving your colleagues free reign to say whatever they think of it. Thankfully, my classmates are kind people, but it’s still a fragile experience. While you end up learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in your writing, you are putting a piece of your life on a literal table to be dissected. Hours spent thinking, feeling, remembering, and writing are all boiled down to a few sheets of paper that can be marked up and crossed out, and it’s easy to feel judged as a person when the work is the actual thing being judged.

Workshopping, though, is a part of being a writer. Even if you never have a formal sit-down in a room somewhere on the campus of an Irish university (though I definitely recommend it), every writer has to send their work to someone at some point. It might be a friend, a teacher, an editor, or a publisher. In all of these situations, the work will be judged, and you have to learn to chant I’mnotbeingjudged I’mnotbeingjudged in your head the whole time.

For most creative pursuits, the principle is the same: the artist must separate herself from the work in order to take constructive criticism, and to offer constructive criticism herself. You can only grow as a writer if you learn to look at your work objectively.

When the day came for me to share my short story with the workshop, I selected a piece that was several years in the making, and had been written and re-written a few times. I liked the story; I felt confident about it, and that’s really rare for me, let me tell you. The workshop went well, with some good discussions and suggestions from the class, and afterward we had a coffee break.

Usually after a workshop, I stuff all the copies of my work, copies with the scrawled notes and opinions of other people, the teacher, and myself, into a folder. I forget about them for a few months, until I feel strong enough to look back and start working on the errors.

During the coffee break, our mentor, a celebrated Irish writer in her sixties, took me aside. She had a few thoughts about our workshop, and we chatted. Then she asked me,

“Now tell me, is the story finished?”

I felt ill-equipped to answer. “What?”

“Do you feel satisfied that the story is finished?”

“Um…” The truth was, I did. Despite some minor things the class had pointed out, I felt like the story was finished. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to say such a thing. Please tell me, celebrated Irish writer; you’re the expert.

But I answered truthfully. “Yes, I do.”

“Ah, good.” She smiled, satisfied, and we finished our coffee break.

It was a simple question, but it turned my perception on writing and workshopping and the endless cycles of editing on its head. So often in my experience as a writer, I’ve turned to whatever workshop I’m dealing with (formal or informal) to validate whether I’m a good writer or not. I come prepared to feel the burn of judgement, to feel foolish for saying this or that. The little morsels of “I really liked this part” and “you did that well” give me comfort. But at the end I still stuff my work in a folder, feeling rather inadequate, promising myself I’ll work on it later, when I’m ready.

Sometimes, yes, the work is trash. Sometimes other people are smarter than me, and find things to improve in my work. More often than not, actually. But the fact remains that I am still the writer, and as the writer I retain the right to be finished. I retain the right to open the door for suggestions, let a few in, and then shut the door and say, “The discussion has been closed. Thank you for your comments; your insight is very important to us.”

This is a tricky balance, because you don’t want to be too puffed up with the pride of creativity. You don’t want to be that person in a workshop that says, “Well joke’s on you idiots; this here is a finished story! Suck it!” But you don’t want to be a fearful quivering sap either.

I’m learning to go with my gut on these things. I can usually tell I need to pay attention to a constructive criticism when it stings, when it resonates with some deep sense inside of me that says, “Yes, they’re right; that was a bad idea.” Sometimes whole stories feel that way.

But there are times when a suggestion is made for my work, and a very tiny, calm voice in my head says, “No. I disagree.” This voice has thought about it, and is making a level-headed decision, with no hysterics or emotional pain. That’s the voice of the authority-bearing artist, and that’s the voice I can trust.

So for the aforementioned story, I made a few minor changes, and then I put it in a new folder on my computer: “Finished Work.” It was weird to see it so blatantly put. It seemed audacious.

But it also felt good to tell myself I had finished something, to tell myself and the rest of the world that I had worked hard and done well and would work no further. It felt good to think that no matter how ill-received the story might be in the future, that going back and changing it was not an option. From now on, if people didn’t like it, it was a matter of their opinion, and not of my own shortcomings as an artist.

I’m still getting used to this feeling. It’s still frighteningly presumptuous to me. But that artist’s voice still rings in my heart, the one that politely disagrees with my doubts and tells me, “This is finished.”

 

 

Too Fine a Point

I always assumed I hated real pencils.

I remember long days in high school, spending all this time trying to sharpen my pencils into a fine point, hearing the shh shh shh of the pencil sharpener shaving away thin layers of wood and graphite. Then finally, the perfect point. Then pressing against it to test its strength, and snap. Broken. Or even worse, broken deep in the pencil shaft, gouging out a piece of wood with it. Ribbons of shavings stuffed into the pencil sharpener, the quickly dulling blade, fine flakes of graphite staining my hands gray, pencils growing shorter and shorter until they were the same length as my fingers.

I quickly switched to mechanical pencils. Finally, a point that was always sharp, and all you had to do was click click. I scavenged the best mechanical pencils I could find; I hoarded them. My favorite was the Mother of All Mechanical Pencils, with a retractable eraser you could screw up and down like lipstick.

Jenny, my best friend, has always loved real pencils. When she told me about her affection, I sighed in longing. I wished I could love pencils as she did. But all the promises they made of simplicity, practicality, and a certain quotidian charm, had proven empty to me.

But then Jenny got me a collection of lovely floral pencils from the Target dollar section. And you can’t not love something your best friend gets you from the Target dollar section. The pencils came pre-sharpened, which was a boon. I used them, and fell in love with them, and when the points finally dulled so much that they were useless even for underlining in books, the thought of going back to mechanicals was one I couldn’t bear. I had grown to love the feel of solid wood and graphite in my hand, and the flimsy plastic of a mechanical pencil can’t compare to it.

So, committed to the idea of loving these pencils, I bought a pencil sharpener for them. I figured, if it’s a new pencil sharpener, perhaps it won’t be like before. I had great optimism and began sharpening. But soon the old pattern emerged. Shh shh shh. Shh shh shh. Wiggle wiggle. Snap. Damn.

Once again, I had pencils as long as my fingers. But at least they were floral. At least they looked pretty in the pencil cup on my desk. We moved house, and I took the useless pencils in their pretty pencil cup with my desk and set them up in a new space. Every so often I looked at them ruefully.

Finally, one day I couldn’t take it any longer. I went searching through the new house, which we share with other people with belongings unbeknownst to me, for a forgotten and unused pencil sharpener that might magically help my ailing floral pencils. I found one, teal blue and gray. It was stuffed with ribbons of wood shavings, the blades caked with graphite. I took it apart and scraped off years of pencil sharpenings with a letter opener. I put it back together again.

I also found a single pencil with a tiny gaping hole where the lead should be. The sight was one I had obviously seen before. It sent shivers down my spine. But the pencil itself, I realized, was a Dixon Ticonderoga #2. And in case you didn’t know, Dixon Ticonderoga #2s are the best pencils forged by human hands. I was first introduced to them back in grade school when I took a standardized test at the public school. No homeschool or Christian school, which were the scope of my educational experience, ever had the resources to invest in Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. Only a public school, with government funding, could ever afford such a luxury.

But now I had one, in my hands, free for the taking, along with a teal and gray pencil sharpener. I sharpened the Dixon Ticonderoga #2, and the shavings slid off the pencil like slices of butter. The perfect point.

I took my loot to my desk and sharpened my floral pencils. One by one, the perfect point.

Now I have four pencils in use, and I occasionally line them up to behold their beauty. They have bewitched me, body and soul.

I realize this might all sound rather over the top. I realize not everyone is as excited with the nuances of office supplies as me. But my pencil issues taught me something, as office supplies can do. Things aren’t always as perfect as we’d like, be they people, situations, or pencil points. But that doesn’t mean the thing itself is wrong; sometimes it merely takes time, practice, and a new mindset to sharpen those things into what we’re searching after. The important thing, I’ve found, is to not give up.

Get you a best friend who loves pencils. Get you a new sharpener. Enjoy and adapt to every stage. Keep searching. Keep sharpening.

 

Learning to be Spicy

I’ve always had a hard time speaking up. Maybe it was a conservative upbringing coupled with my naturally quiet nature. I prefer to go with the flow, stay quiet even if I’m suffering, let others have their way so I don’t have to make a scene.

People have told me I’m sweet and flexible, and I like to think I am (thanks guys). But more often than not, my reasons are less than noble. I’m not always sweet and flexible because I want to be; it’s often due to the fear of conflict that I keep my mouth shut.

My senior year of college, I was in a play, and our tradition in student theater was that each senior would get a notebook in which everyone would write a parting note or thought. The note from our director stuck out to me:

“I know there is a little spice in there with all the sweet,” she wrote. “Stay spicy.”

Those words have remained in my mind ever since, and I’ve tried to figure out what they mean to me. It’s hard, as a shy person, to feel okay with being spicy. It’s hard to be okay with the idea that people may not like your flavor.

I think the internet has magnified my fears in this area. The internet, of course, is a place where everyone speaks their mind, whether it’s well-thought or not, and on the internet people form mobs and crucify each other while, in the real world, eating breakfast or pooping. On the internet, if you give a moderately controversial opinion, or even worse, your raw and unfiltered opinion, you get a bunch of comments from people who are supposed to be your family and friends, who all say things to you with varying degrees of anger or encouragement. These people say things, to you and to each other, that people would rarely say out loud, making vast assumptions about your motivations, your level of education, and your overall character.

Interestingly, I’ve found that this feature of the internet bleeds into my physical conversations, in that I’m so used to seeing bombastic opinions, terrible rhetoric, and knee-jerk reactions that I assume a real-life conversation will contain those too. I might venture that, “Fall is my favorite season,” and I expect a “OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID PREPPY WHITE GIRL WITH YOUR BOOTS AND PUMPKIN SPICE LATTES WHEN WILL IT ALL END?” in return.

Of course, no one in real life says that. (If you do, shame on you. I wish an afterlife of Pumpkin Spice Latte Hell upon you. May you burn in 160 degrees Fahrenheit milk foam.) But the internet, which has succeeded in making so many people stupidly loud, has bullied me into staying quiet.

Of course, being too timid and people-pleasy has been a fault of mine for a while. As a shy and quiet teenager, I got used to coming up with excuses for what I didn’t want to do, because I was terrified of saying, “No.” I’m so busy with schoolwork. I have to watch my little brother. I wish I could, but I… can’t. Or, I went for a compromise: I can’t help with the whole thing, but I’ll help with some of it. When I didn’t want to do any of it.

A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany. Someone asked me if I would be willing to do a certain thing, and while, ironically, I actually did, I was so used to feeling pressured by my internal fears that I was trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t do the thing. And in that moment, I realized how ridiculous and self-sabotaging this was. My fear of speaking up had slowly eroded my sense of what I liked and didn’t like, what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do. I honestly didn’t know, because I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to choose.

I can say anything I want, I thought to myself. I’m an adult. I can say anything I damn well please. I don’t have to come up with an excuse. I can say yes, or I can say no. I can make a decision for myself, and whatever I say won’t be met with an OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID GIRL SHOW SOME RESPECT, because real people don’t say that. Or if they do, well, they have their own problems and I can just turn around and go home.

So in little ways, I’ve tried being more honest with myself. I take the chance and say the thing I think, instead of pretending I agree when I don’t. I take the chance and say what I’d really like to do, instead of pretending that everyone else’s plans sound good to me when they don’t. These decisions aren’t ones I make lightly, and they often cause me a lot of pain.

But I realize it’s an important thing to do, because this is what builds character and integrity: living according to your convictions, even when you want to take the path of least resistance, to keep quiet, to not cause a scene. I’m learning that the voice inside my head which tells me people will be angry, or react like they do on the internet, isn’t telling the whole truth. Because I can be a kind person, and still have convictions. I can disagree with others, and still have friends at the end of the day.

I can be sweet, and still a little spicy.

On Being a Lefty

As a young child, I was the only left-handed person in my immediate family. (As it turns out, my youngest brother is also a lefty, but because he’s ambidextrous in many areas, I like to think I’m the only true lefty. We can ignore the fact that I swing a baseball and a golf club right-handed.)

My grandmother, my Mom’s mom, was left-handed too, and she grew up in the thirties and forties, when society was not so kindly to left-handed people as it is now. Schools forced children to use their right hand in writing classes, even punishing kids for daring to prefer another perfectly good hand. My grandma, however, was lucky to have parents who didn’t force the issue, and she grew up a proud and unabashed lefty. When she had two sons who were left-handed (my uncles), and several left-handed grandchildren (one currently present), she encouraged it as a badge of honor.

“Lefties are the only people in their right minds,” she would joke. (Because the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body. Get it? Har har.)

As a kid, I felt especially honored to be the only one in my household with such a skill. I didn’t realize, and perhaps you haven’t either, that society is in fact biased toward right-handed people. I used can openers with mild discomfort, not realizing they were made to go the other way around. I used scissors with intense discomfort, because my left-hand fingers didn’t conform to the intended right-hand finger angles. When I was at summer camp and we were practicing archery and they gave me a left-handed bow, I was upset because the tension was all off, and I was used to practicing on my brother’s right-handed bow.

“Can I try a right-handed bow?” I asked.

“Aw, honey, you don’t want that. You’re a lefty.”

“Dammit Carl, give me the right-handed bow,” I would have said, if I were me now.

Carl (or Bill or whoever) did, and I massacred a foam deer with one well-shot arrow.

Take that, Carl. Or Bill.

When I go shopping and sign credit card receipts, the cashier either says, “Whoa, you’re a lefty!” or “Whoa, I’m also a lefty!” As someone who doesn’t like attention being drawn to herself during what ought to be a normal business transaction, I learned to cover up my embarrassment with snark.

“What’s it like being a lefty?” asked one cashier at a jewelry store.

“You get used to it,” I said, and did a pen drop and walked away with my earrings.

Perhaps the most perplexing instance of this came recently, when I was working at a bank. If you’re a lefty who works at a bank, watch out. Every time you fill out someone’s deposit slip, they go nuts that you dare to write out their account number with your left hand. It’s practically un-American. I’ve never been made so aware of my hand dominance in my life.

One day this ragged-looking fellow, about thirty years old and wearing a beard like a brown brillo pad, came up to my window and wanted to take out some money. Whatever his particular transaction required, I had to ask my coworker for help, and she stood next to me while I filled out the man’s withdrawal ticket.

“She’s a lefty,” he said, not to me, but to my coworker.

I continued writing out the withdrawal ticket. Account number. Date. Name.

“Lefties are as mean as cat shit,” he said, to my coworker.

I’m sorry if this language offends you. If it helps, it offended me. We finished the transaction and then I went to the bathroom and stared at my face in the mirror.

Lefties are as mean as cat shit. As mean. As cat shit. The words rang in my head. I felt stunned and vaguely harassed. Vaguely insulted. Vaguely mocked.

But most of all, I felt just… What the hell does that even mean? Is cat shit inherently malicious? Are lefties somehow biologically related to cat shit in a way that righties aren’t? Is this a scientific fact I missed? Have there been studies done on this? The guy didn’t even cite his sources. A philosopher of his caliber should know better.

(I still want to know what this means. If someone can enlighten me, please do.)

I’m still proud to be a lefty, and I still cannot, for the life of me, understand why people act so weird about it. It’s not like I chose left-handedness. It’s not like I chose to live in a world that favors righties by the very makeup of its appliances and school desks, by the fact that most languages are written left to right, or that smug guys named Carl or Bill think they can decide what bows people will use. And don’t even get me started on musical instruments.

But in a way, being left-handed has offered me perspective. How often do I make assumptions about people based on biological facts they can’t control, like Brillo-Beard did to me? How often do I make unconscious comments that bewilder and offend others? (I still really want to know what “mean as cat shit” means.) How often do I assume life is the same for everyone, not seeing the little adjustments and painful adaptations people make to fit in, like I have to make with can openers and scissors? How often do I simply not see that society is better designed to help out some people and not others, because the design happens to favor me?

This realization is the key, I think, to fixing those seemingly insurmountable issues we come across in society. Our biggest problem is usually not that we disagree, but that we misunderstand each other. That when someone asks, “What’s it like being a lefty?” we offer the snarky answer instead of the honest one. It’s only when we’re honest that we can start coming up with solutions.

So see guys? I’m not mean as cat shit.

Learning to Live with Question Marks

My least favorite part of any social exchange, (especially a professional one where I’m trying to make a good impression) is when someone asks me, “Do you have any questions?”

It’s a perfectly considerate thing to ask. But I feel put on the spot. If I do have questions, I feel like they may be stupid ones. If I don’t, it may seem like I haven’t thought things through enough. Should I have questions? I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

So my typical answer is half casual, half flattering: “No, I think you’ve explained everything pretty well.” Or I take a rain check: “You know, I probably will down the road, but at this point no.”

Maybe someday I’ll pull a Kelly from The Office, and answer, “Yeah, I have a lot of questions. Number one: how dare you?” but unfortunately (or fortunately) no situation has called for that, and I doubt I’d be brave enough to say it anyway.

That’s what it all really boils down to: bravery. Or the lack thereof. I don’t ask questions because my goal in any given social exchange, particularly one where I feel the lesser of two powers, is to keep my head down and gather as much information as possible while causing as little a scene as possible.

I also don’t have confidence in my brain’s ability to come up with dazzling, insightful questions on the spot. It’s only later, at home, while I’m brushing my teeth, that I realize I’m wondering something and that that person earlier could have answered my questions. But at this point, of course, it’s too much of a bother to go back and ask, so I’ll figure it out on my own.

Figure it out on my own. The phrase is code, I’ve realized, for I’m too afraid to ask for help.

Or maybe, I’m afraid of the answer.

The second one isn’t usually my reason for not asking questions in, say, a job interview or a writing class. But it has, in the past, been my reason for not asking the deep questions of life and faith.

In my experience, this fear of asking questions is especially marked when you grow up as a Christian kid. In the church, you’re often subtly discouraged to ask tough questions, because even the existence of a question shows some level of doubt, and doubt is terrifying.

We become obsessed with finding the single right, godly, biblical answer that will be 100% correct 100% of the time. That’s why good church people squirm around the tough questions on things like war and miscarriage and poverty and addiction and divorce and sex. These subjects are not tidy; there’s no single, right, godly, biblical answer, and it’s easier to just make a blanket statement and move on.

It’s understandable. Questions make us all uncomfortable no matter who we are, because an answered question changes the status quo, and an unanswered question shows weakness in the status quo. Questions drive us deeper, make us evaluate the situation and ourselves, and sometimes we don’t like what we see. It’s easier to keep plodding along the way we’ve always been, to resist change, to be an object in motion staying in motion, instead of defying inertia for a moment and asking, “why?”

A few years ago, during one of the hardest times in my life, I was questioning everything. It was terrifying. I was like a two-year-old, experiencing everything for the first time, asking why why why?

Why do we do things this way? Why don’t we question that? Why did I only ever learn that Christianity could be aligned with a single political ideology? Why didn’t I learn that art and culture can be beautiful things that point us to God? Why have I always learned to look at marriage a single way? Why are we so quick to make the Bible into a calculating list of appearance-keeping? Why do we treat some sinners worse than others?

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t accepting my world the way it had been presented to me. I was asking all the questions about all the things.

And you know what? God still found me. God wasn’t wringing his hands, lamenting about how Hannah had walked away from the faith with all her questions. No, God followed me through each dark thicket and shadowed forest, until I realized that God wasn’t following me at all: I was following him.

For the first time in my life, my faith was my own. I had wrestled with it, using the brain and words and thoughts and emotions God gave me. And that’s when I realized that God is stronger than our questions. Curiosity and faith do not exist on the opposite ends of a spectrum. God is never threatened by my desire to know more; he’s honored and loved by it. Because to love is to know. The desire to know is the desire to more deeply love.

Do I trust the Holy Spirit to guide me into all truth, which he promised to do? Do I trust that my questions are God tugging at the corners of my mind to pull me into a deeper knowledge of him? Do I trust that if I’m seeking the truth, I will find it?

And the answer is this: I must trust that these things are true, because God already promised these things to me. He has promised that his spirit will lead me into truth (John 16:13). He has promised that when I seek, I will find what I’m truly looking for (Matthew 7:7-8).

It wasn’t easy to question everything. It still isn’t, because I still am questioning. I’ve found that even believing some things for sure doesn’t mean other things won’t be in flux. I think that’s why the most powerful prayer we find in the Bible is “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:23).

God’s response to us wanting and needing to question our faith isn’t “Go to hell! (Literally and figuratively!)” God doesn’t turn his back on us and say, “Go have your hippie fun and come back to me when you’re good and ready.”

God pursues us, relentlessly, and delights in us, always. Especially when, like little children or angry teenagers or curious adults we ask questions about our Father. Filled with love and compassion, he looks for us, runs to us, and embraces us (Luke 15:20). All he wants, all he has ever wanted, is our companionship. All he wants is generous, lavish community and oneness and love.

Because plot twist: God was never concerned with our tidy answers anyway.

A List of Tooth Complaints

I have a recurring dream in which I have a loose tooth.

Damn, I think to myself. I’m too old for this. Okay; I’ll just take out this one tooth, and no one will notice.

So I wiggle the tooth, and little by little it becomes looser and looser, and then it falls out. Mission accomplished. Except, in a weird turn of events, the tooth isn’t the only thing that wants free of my jaw. There’s another loose tooth, and another, and then a piece of bone I can’t recognize, and then another, and suddenly all this bone and enamel has come from my mouth.

Damn, I think to myself. I never knew there was this much jaw in a jaw.

I wake up feeling hot and cold, my heart pounding. I feel my face, tapping my jaw to make sure it’s still solid, running my tongue over my teeth. All twenty-eight, still intact. I lay back down and replay the dream in my head, cringing at the memory, the feeling, of pulling teeth out of my jaw.

I don’t remember when this fear of dental injury first started, but in the past few years I’ve noticed I carry a certain squeamishness around teeth. Odontophobia, I’ve found it’s called. Maybe it’s due to a few things:

The time I was five and an older kid told me about how he’d knocked out his two front teeth on the handlebars of his bike. I remember cupping my hands over my mouth and thinking, that will never happen to me, you barbarian.

The time I was eight and a dentist extracted one of my baby teeth. The tooth died right in my mouth and wouldn’t budge to let the new teeth grow in. The tooth was gray. They gave me a tiny red plastic treasure chest to put it in. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a child.)

The time I was fifteen and got braces (thank you dead gray tooth) and felt wire cutters just a little too close to my teeth for comfort.

The time I was seventeen and got the braces off, and they had to scrape cement off my teeth. (Scrape. Cement. Off my teeth.)

The time I was eighteen and I got all four of my wisdom teeth out, which were so impacted in my gums that I had to be drugged into a deep sleep while the oral surgeon cut them out, and I was in pain for a week and looked like a chipmunk for two, and they gave me all four wisdom teeth to take home in a sandwich bag. (That’s a terribly morbid thing to do to a college freshman.)

The time I confided to my best friend that my greatest fear is a razor somehow, magically, coming into contact with my teeth and… I don’t know, shaving them? And every time she mimes shaving her teeth like it’s some kind of joke just to bother me, and how my mouth tastes like vinegar every time, and how she’s not even miming it the way I really imagine and fear it, but I’m definitely not telling her how I really envision it, because best friends are terrible people when they know your greatest fear.

(It’s not a joke Jennifer!)

And then the dental hygienist wonders why I don’t floss enough. Haven’t my teeth been through enough, lady? Have mercy!

Clearly I have some deep-seated tooth trauma I need to take care of. And the funny thing is, I didn’t realize how much until I wrote out my list of tooth complaints just then. It’s funny how the stuff that bothers you, the memories and fears, lurk in your subconscious and only peek out from time to time, like when you have a weird dream about pulling bone from your jaw or when your best friend asks if you want to brush your teeth with a Venus razor. (Shut up Jennifer!)

This isn’t only true of teeth, either. There are several areas in my life where I’m coasting along, doing my own thing, and then a stray word from someone else or an unfamiliar circumstance or a random memory in my head sends me on a road of cringy anxiety.

Just this week I got to the bottom of tender subject that has been bothering me for months. I was talking to my husband, thinking out loud, and suddenly the list of complaints spilled out, and it led me, like a map, to the real root of the problem (root. teeth. hm).

It was awful and wonderful and painful and cathartic. Like pulling out a tooth, wiggling and wiggling and feeling sharp jabs of pain, then finally taking a deep breath and pulling. It hurts, a lot. But then the pain is worth it, because the pain has gotten you somewhere, and like that dead tooth from when I was eight, there’s now room to grow.

There’s room for a beautiful smile.

(I still don’t understand the red plastic treasure chest, though.)

Rest in Solitude, Heal in Community

This summer has been a season of transition. Amidst moving, new living situations, new jobs, and new prospects for the future, I’ve found myself overwhelmed and suddenly unsure of everything. It’s interesting how when you’re in a life stage that has a deadline (i.e. school), you look forward to the time of endless possibilities, and then when the gate opens and you have the freedom to do anything, all those endless possibilities suddenly seem like too much.

I’ve noticed that I freeze up whenever I have too many choices. Just ask my husband how long it takes me to pick out cold medicine at Walmart. I’ll stand in the aisle, staring blankly at the shelves while my nose runs and my eyes water and I whine that my head and body and everything hurts. You know how they make fun of men for being bad at being sick? They never met me.

“Just get the DayQuil,” Alex says.

“But there might be another brand with more caplets in it for less money!” I cry. “I have to look at them all. Or I could get liquid medicine. But there are so many brands of that! Oh, I hate being sick! Oh, to be well again!” and I wring my hands.

Thirty minutes later, we walk out of there with a box of DayQuil.

(I’ve since learned that a store with less options, like Aldi, is a better bet for me.)

As with DayQuil, so with life. The choices and decisions pile up until I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what I even value.

My approach to overwhelmth is often to retreat, monklike, into my own space and where I feel comfortable and in control. Since I’ve started doing research on human behavior and psychology and have discovered the ins and outs of introversion, of which I am a subscriber, it’s become a little easier to excuse my monkish state and to be okay with excessive solitude. I’m recharging, I tell myself. I’m self-caring. I’m figuring things out in the quiet.

And many times, I am. I’m still a firm believer that we find rest in solitude. And that goes for all of us, not just those introvertedly-inclined. We all need a moment to be with ourselves, to tune into our inner minds and hearts. I discover a lot in prayer, in reading, in yoga, in writing. These are all things that pack the most punch when I do them alone.

But solitude is only one side of the equation. Self-care only goes so far, and self-care doesn’t always look like sitting alone on your bed with a candle (don’t do that; it’s a fire hazard). Human beings are made for community, too. We may find rest in solitude, but we find healing in community. It’s in community where I gain perspective, where I realize that the things which freak me out most in life are not things I carry alone.

In The Quotidian Mysteries, a collection of essays which is just an excellent book that everyone should read, writer and poet Kathleen Norris talks about how the everyday routines we take for granted serve to ground us in reality. And part of this is spending time with others:

[We] need the daily love of other people to reassure us that our lives have value.

In community I find solidarity, and I learn to pay attention to other people’s needs and fears too. In community I can be honest about my failings and find some catharsis. And often, community even connects me with people who have answers to the very questions that are overwhelming me, from the family friend who knows of a job I’d be good at, to the new friend who’s doing good things in my hometown, to the best friend who understands how I feel and prays for me.

Engaging with community can be as simple as putting aside my work to chat with my husband, taking a day trip with my family, or socializing after church. Or it can be as complicated and challenging as introducing myself to someone I haven’t met or going to an event I’m nervous about.

Solitude is only good when it doesn’t become loneliness. When I’m lonely, I forget who I truly am and I forget that my life has value. I need my friends, my family, my community, to connect me with the world again. And the beauty of it is that they need me too.

Giving love away doesn’t deplete or decrease; it only multiplies. And taking part in community only multiplies and strengthens the ties we have to each other and to our inner selves.

When I do that, the wall of overwhelming life doesn’t see so scary anymore.

Fighting Vocational FOMO

This summer I have one overarching goal: to focus on my writing. There are several aspects of this in play: there’s the editing business I’m building, the book I’m writing with my best friend, the coursework for my creative writing MFA, and of course, the lifelong journey of learning to Just Write.

In many ways, I’m very well cut out for this life. I love thinking thoughts and exploring life through the written word. I enjoy both the solitude and the collaboration that this vocation requires.

But one sneaky part of my personality comes into play when I decide to Just Write: apparently, I have Vocational FOMO.

According to the kids these days, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I don’t really have FOMO in the sense that the kids these days do; I’ll stay home while you party on a Friday night and I don’t really care about missing out. But show me your steady job while I’m building a freelance career, and hello, FOMO. Soon I am diverging from my own career path to follow someone else’s, and of course it doesn’t work, because, well, it’s someone else’s. Then I’m back to square one, knowing what I, me, myself, should be focusing on, and feeling guilty that I haven’t gotten farther, and guilty that I keep losing focus. Vocational FOMO.

In the Bible there’s a letter in which Paul, a writer in his own right, looks forward to the day the church is brought together in unity, not “blown aside by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). Paul is a very metaphorical writer, and this letter is no exception. Many of Paul’s letters to his friends talk about guarding against various false messengers. These evil people often bullied and manipulated Paul’s fellow Christians into losing focus, abandoning what they believed in favor of something that sounded true, but was actually a ticket back to mental and spiritual slavery. “Stop letting these heavy winds of doctrine blow you aside,” says Paul. “Enough with the spiritual FOMO.”

Some days I feel very much like Paul’s friends. I get excited by this opportunity, that job, this career path, that life philosophy. But they all distract me from what I know I need to do. It ends up taking me weeks to detox myself of all the mental noise, the you should be doing thises and why aren’t you doing thats. The fear that I’m not doing what I ought keeps me from doing what I must.

Luckily, I have a Paul. I have a best friend who is always telling me not to be blown aside by the winds of doctrine. She knows I am happier when I’m not giving into Vocational FOMO. She also, unlike Paul, has unlimited texting, so the message gets to me sooner.

This, I’ve found, is why community is extremely important for writers. We need Pauls to keep us focused, to use metaphors to keep us on our own unique career paths, to remind us not to be blown aside by the winds of doctrine.

I suspect this doesn’t just apply to writing, either. All of us, especially in our success-driven culture, give way to FOMO. We are always unconsciously sacrificing what we must do to chase what we feel we should do. The catch-22 is that society’s definition of success changes on a decade-to-decade basis. Luckily, I think we’re realizing just how important it is to have Vocational Joy, not Vocational FOMO. If we’re all different and unique, our vocations will be different, and that’s okay.

As a millennial, I grew up with a sense of insecurity in any given career path or economic system, and this is actually a blessing in disguise. The lack of surety is freedom, because it means I can follow my calling in my timeline. I don’t have to fear missing out. None of us do.

Knowing this, of course, is one thing, and putting it into practice is another. I have to remind myself daily that my pursuits are worthwhile, even when they don’t immediately pay off. I have to learn to quiet the noise, clear the table, and Just Write, and little by little the small voice that tells me what I truly need gets louder and louder.