Do you ever feel like you are heading down life’s highway, and suddenly a billboard pops up that seems to be speaking directly to you? And then another one. And then another one. And at some point, you realize God has a big message he is trying to get through to you?
It all began with a trip to Virginia. I can pinpoint a specific moment: dinner with six incredible women. Susan finished her meal and then asked: ‘What is your next big thing?’ The conversation circled the table as each woman in turn told about her plans for the near or not-so-near future. I listened to plans of travel, and writing projects, and business ventures. And I thought to myself: This is the big thing. I’m going home to make PB&J sandwiches for the rest of my life.
I’m not talking about comparing myself with other women or feeling like I wasn’t worth something because I didn’t have big plans. I’m not even talking about whether someone should have plans or what they should be. Or what sacrifices one should (or should not) be willing to make for those plans. I’m talking about the fact that I use fear and excuses (lots and lots of excuses) to keep me from living a full life. A life full of possibility instead of restriction. I used to be a big dreamer-planner, but I allowed the daily grind of reality steal my dreams.
A billboard was staring me in the face. Big things are scary and hard, but they are still in the realm of possibility if you are willing to work toward them.
It had been a long time since I had read the blog Resolved 2 Worship. For some reason, I found myself reading pages and pages of archives recently.
The billboard read: What is your excuse, Heidi? You use four children as an excuse to not do anything or go anywhere. Because it is too much trouble, not enough fun. Well, it is time to step up and go on adventures. DO SOMETHING, even if it is complicated, and messy, and not every second of it is fun.
(Now, there are all sorts of other things to be learned at Resolved 2 Worship, but I felt as if God had that particular message for me at this particular time.)
Those were just warm-ups.
Then I felt called to an impromptu road trip to see my grandparents. In California. With the kids. Without Russ.
After we returned home, a friend posted a TED talk video on Facebook. I took the time to listen. To read that billboard.
The billboard read: You have to do something. Little things. But SOMETHING. Often.
And I made a list of little things (physical, mental, emotional, and social) that I could do during any hour of any day. But that kind of list doesn’t do anything, unless you do the things.
There was another kind of list I needed to create that was a form of action. It was the gratitude list I’d been thinking I should make ever since reading the remarkable book One Thousand Gifts. I needed to go through the action of writing down all the gifts God has given me, all day, every day.
I pulled out the journal Russ and the boys had given me for my birthday and thought it was just waiting for this purpose. I started my gratitude list.
Then a friend on Facebook (another point for social media) posted a picture with a quote. Yes, an inspirational quote. A dime a dozen. It got under my skin. Another billboard.
I had excuses. I’m not brave. I’m lazy and undisciplined. I can’t do it. But what is that thing? It has to have a point. I don’t want to do a thing just to say I’ve done a thing.
We went to a local Mexican restaurant. I placed our take-out order. Enchilada. Picadillo. Now, those words might not seem like much to you, but I’ve had proper Spanish pronunciation drilled into me from my infancy. It seems all wrong to say them with an English accent. So I tried to say them correctly, but nonchalantly. Because I’m insecure about doing or saying anything in front of someone else who does or says it well.
Then I get to fajitas. (It is much easier to say that with an English accent, because it is practically an English word, isn’t it? Like pizza.) Chicken. (That’s an easy one.) The (good-looking) guy smirked and said pollo. And then he asked if I wanted flour or corn tortillas. In Spanish. I turned to Russ and asked him if he wanted flour or corn tortillas. He said flour. I told the guy flour. He repeated flour in Spanish (with another smirk). I nodded. (I promise this story is going somewhere…)
See, here’s the deal. I can pronounce Spanish fairly well when I’m not feeling all self-conscious about it (which is never), but I don’t have a large Spanish vocabulary. I picked ‘corn’ out of his question and inferred based on context. But I couldn’t hear exactly what he said for ‘flour.’ Certainly not enough to repeat it. And I’m self-conscious as heck in situations like this. I should have just laughed, asked him to tell me the word for ‘flour’ again, and tried to repeat it. But instead I wanted to find a hole somewhere to hide in.
So Russ didn’t understand what was going on and thought the guy was questioning why he would want flour tortillas with his fajitas. And the guy said (with the smirk that was now permanent), ‘No, it is just that she was speaking so beautifully until she got to fajitas.’
It might come as a surprise to you all, with my life hanging out here in public like this, but I hate any sort of attention like this. I get embarrassed so. very. easily. It shouldn’t have been a big deal.
Billboard: Learn to speak Spanish fluently because I’ve always wanted to. And then be brave enough to do it.
I picked up the next book on my stack. Twelve other books on the stack have bookmarks a few pages in. The other 34 haven’t been cracked open. But book club was the following week. I should have at least a chapter under my belt before book club, no?
In two days I had finished A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller.
I wanted it to be an easy story. But nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That’s what makes a good story.
We get robbed of the glory of life because we aren’t capable of remembering how we got here. When you are born, you wake slowly to everything… The experience is so slow you could easily come to believe life isn’t that big of a deal, that life isn’t staggering. What I’m saying is I think life is staggering and we’re just used to it. We all are like spoiled children no longer impressed with the gifts we’re given—it’s just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over the mountain, just another child being born, just another funeral.
I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants.
If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation… If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet.
But I also wondered if… we were designed to live through something rather than to attain something, and the thing we were meant to live through was designed to change us.
‘Beneath the surface of characterization,… regardless of appearances, who is this person? At the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly? The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure, to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire.”
In the room where I’m writing today, nothing is happening. And later there will be laundry happening, which is nothing to daydream about. I can’t deal with reality.
My entire life had been designed to make myself more comfortable, to insulate myself from the interruption of my daydreams.
I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.
The real Voice is stiller and smaller and seems to know, without confusion, the difference between right and wrong and the subtle delineation between the beautiful and profane.
A general rule in creating stories is that characters don’t want to change. They must be forced to change…
The rule exists in story because it’s a true thing about people. Humans are designed to seek comfort and order, and so if they have comfort and order, they tend to plant themselves, even if their comfort isn’t all that comfortable. And even if they secretly want for something better.
I realized how much of our lives are spent trying to avoid conflict. Half the commercials on television are selling us something that will make life easier. Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life.
It’s interesting that in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes, the only practical advice given about living a meaningful life is to find a job you like, enjoy your marriage, and obey God. It’s as though God is saying, Write a good story, take somebody with you, and let me help.
One gigantic billboard: Face your fears. Be grateful for this staggering life. Be willing to change. Don’t daydream as a way to escape your life. Listen to the Master Writer. Step outside your comfort zone. Work hard.
I thought again about the inspirational quote. Do the crazy thing… I wondered who wrote it. I googled Ciona Rouse. It turns out she wrote Like Breath and Water: Praying with Africa. It is about hope-filled prayer that keeps track of miracles instead of pains. About living a story filled with prayer as vital as breath and water and being intertwined in one another’s stories.
The billboard read: Add prayer to that list. To the top of the list. Because God writes a better story.
I went to Ciona’s page on Facebook. (Uh-huh.) She lists her favorite quotes.
"Hope is the thing with feathers that perches on the soul" -Emily Dickinson
It is the first one on her list. And the quote in my email signature. And one of my inspirations for Mt. Hope. (Well, that and doing hard things. I must have forgotten somewhere along the way.)
Her cover photo? It says: You are living your story.
I think I’m getting the message.
Live a good story and DO that thing.
- Pray (as if my life depended on it).
- Keep a written record of miracles and God-given gifts.
- Eat well and exercise hard.
- Seek adventure (even when it is messy and difficult. especially when it is messy and difficult).
- Learn Spanish fluently and be brave enough to speak it.
- Be open to finding a BIG thing and working toward it.
I’m still thinking about several ideas. I still have lots of questions. (Such as: How to decide if a thing is worth doing, and why. Whether everyone is meant to do epic things. How to do these things in the context of family. And how to create ‘inciting incidents.’) They might come up for discussion in future blog posts. I even created a category (Living a Good Story) for the occasion.
Will you join me in this journey?
“A good storyteller doesn’t just tell a better story, though. He invites other people into the story with him, giving them a better story too… Nobody gets to watch the parade.” ~Donald Miller
Listen to the story God is writing for you. And do it.