Monday, September 24, 2012

thirtieth day of thirty years

The thirtieth year of my life: September 24, 2011- September 24, 2012.

They say that thirty is the new twenty, and you will probably hear me say that a lot for a while after today. Trust me when I say that I have thought many times this year about how twenty-nine is, to many people, the ideal age. I don't know of any other age that people lie more frequently about being, except for twenty-one and that is for different reasons. Twenty-nine seems to be the age in our culture that so many people, women especially, want to freeze in time. It is full adulthood without the full effects of aging. I certainly didn't want to let it pass me by without taking a good look at myself on the outside and inside.

This year was, in many ways, just an extension of the year before. I lived life in very much the same way as I did last year-- the same jobs, same community, same home renovation-- and it flew by in the blink of an eye. One of the few changes that happened is that our cat, Max, left our home and we brought a new kitty, Lars, into it.

Several years ago someone very wise once pointed out to me that eternal life wasn't meant to be a reference for the afterlife for those of us who believe. The essence of the word eternal means without beginning or end, and so eternal life is now, just as it always was and will be. So what we do with today really matters for eternity, in the same way that the promises of God's faithfulness are offered to us now and not just after we die.

This thirty day project was meant for me to pause in the present moment, in the midst of the "busyness" that we so often use to excuse ourselves from experiencing gratitude, enjoying simple pleasures or giving to others, and sing the hymn of a life not perfectly but well lived.

Henri Nouwen says this:

Birthdays need to be celebrated. I think it is more important to celebrate a birthday than a successful exam, a promotion or a victory. Because to celebrate a birthday means to say to someone: 'Thank you for being you.' Celebrating a birthday is exalting life and being glad for it. On a birthday we do not say: 'thanks for what you did or said or accomplished.' No, we say: 'Thank you for being born and being among us.' On birthdays we celebrate the present. We do not complain about what happened or speculate what will happen, but we lift someone up and let everyone say: 'we love you.'"

If this project were a book then now, at the end, is when I would write my introduction. I think it would go something like this:

If I possess love it is because I have been loved to no end. If I possess generosity it is because I have received countless gifts. If I possess humility it is because I have been brought low. If I possess strength or beauty it is because God has lifted up my head in due time. I write because the maker of my soul has compelled me to do so and I can only tell the story that was authored for me before one of my days came to be. This is my story, this is my song; it is real, it is raw and it is mine. And this is just the beginning.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: twenty-nine

Year twenty-nine, age twenty-eight: September 2010-2011.

When Nathan and I moved to the mountains in Colorado, we dove right in to life. The day that we officially moved into our church house we knocked down at least one wall. We started up a new business recycling used automotive oil, which we aptly called, Green Thum. It took several months to start up, of course, so we were poor for a while and could only afford to entertain ourselves with free internet TV.

It was actually pretty easy to meet people and make friends in our small, mountain town. First off, it is a small town so it felt like everyone had heard of us, the couple that bought the old Presbyterian church, before they met us so many of our first interactions with people happened like this: Someone would come up to us and say, "Aren't you the couple that bought that old church?" and we would reply something like, "Yes, I'm Nathan and this is my wife, Ashley."

Nate and I also pursued the opportunity to be involved with Young Life in the valley, as it was just starting up for the first time in more than a decade. I, of course, have a huge heart for Young Life as it was one of the greatest influences on my life and Nathan has a heart for me, so he gave it a shot. Now, I kid you not, every time Nathan gives thanks for a meal that we are about to eat at our house, he prays for the high school kids in Grand County and asks that we can continue to be a part of what God is doing there.

There was definitely a time during our first, long winter in the mountains that Nathan deeply missed the place he called home and the people he called friends for the first thirty-one years of his life. It felt like we were floundering for a bit trying to start our business and we were inside at home pretty much all the time, escaping the snow and cold and working on one thing or another, so it was hard to tell when it was supposed to be time to relax.

But soon enough our business started to become more than a pipe dream and we started to meet people through Young Life and the churches we were visiting and this young-adult hang out that we would go to every couple weeks. So by the time January rolled around, Nathan was attending the first Bible study of his life and I found one as well. We were really starting to connect with people on a deeper level and these were people we could really call friends.

Toward the beginning of the year I was offered a part time position at Crooked Creek Ranch, the Young Life camp about twenty minutes away from my house. It turned out to be a really great job for me and it allowed me to still maintain my responsibilities as C.E.O. of Green Thum, which is my official title because I said so.

It was during this year that I really started to feel this sense that so much of the waiting I had done for all those years in my early- to mid-twenties was for such a time as this. I was finally getting the satisfaction and joy from my jobs that every person wishes they could have. I was in a happy, happy marriage with a person who is 100% right for me and we had three wonderful pets. I had many wonderful friends, both near and far away, and a home and community in a place that inspires me. I even felt like, after I had married into a wonderful family, I had a mom for the first time in my life.

It's not that I looked around and thought to myself, "I've arrived," but I definitely thought, "now, I see."  Now I see how the heartache and loss and longing were meant to do something in me rather than to me.  Now I see how all those jobs and adventures were equipping me to be successful, even-- or, especially--  if it weren't in a traditional way. Now I see how it didn't really matter where I lived because I will end up where I belong when the time is right.

There was a time last year when I felt like I wanted to write everyone who had supported me during my internship year at Frontier Ranch and thank them for that, because in supporting a wandering twenty-one year-old, they had given me the opportunity to end up where I am in this time. I think it is important to support people in whatever they feel purposeful about because it gives us the opportunity to be a part of that greater purpose. When I look back on all the people who gave me financial support, prayers, late night phone calls, a couch to crash on, words of encouragement and station wagon moving services, I want to bottle up my blessings and give each of them a drink because that is their victory, too.


thirty days of thirty years: twenty-eight

Year twenty-eight, age twenty-seven: September 2009-2010.

I had been dating Nathan Thum for just a little while before I knew that he was the one for me. We had our ups and downs like every couple, but most of our downs came from outside of us. We were pretty great together, actually. We figured that 90% of the time things were easy and we wondered why we ever wasted so much time in relationships that didn't have such a positive percentage yield. I think that too many people hear the cliche that relationships are hard, and they forget that they are not supposed to be that hard. Also, it is difficult to know until you just know, as they say. You spend a lot of time wondering, could this be it?

On our first date, months earlier, Nate said to me at one point, "I like how you share what you're feeling." I think I said something like, "Really? Thanks," but inside I was going, What? No you don't. Guys don't like when girls share their feelings. That's when I really knew that this guy was something special; he wasn't squeamish about what he found inside when I opened up a little.

The thing is that so many of my previous experiences with Christian guys-- although not all of them, to be fair--  led me to believe that they wanted more of a wall flower than wild flower; someone who would not speak until spoken to, at least when it came to my feelings about our relationship. I don't mean to judge their hearts, by any means, because I did after all find something admirable and honorable in them. But I do think that too many Christians have been ill-prepared for entering into dating relationships in a healthy way.

For a long time I knew that I wanted an out-of-the-box kind of Christian, someone who didn't necessarily speak the language or obey all of the rules of the sub-culture. I went a little too outside of the box for the comfort of many who knew and loved me when I started dating someone who didn't quite match me in the way we walked our personal faiths. We weren't even sure if he was a Christian. Or if he was but just didn't like using all the same words to say so, or didn't yet know how to really go to church or fellowship or do all the other things that Christians normally do.

Nate and I were very intentional about working this out because we both knew that even though we were a match in every other way, the faith piece was a deal-breaker. I would come to realize over time that we were very like-minded, actually, and that he was more pure of heart than many so-called Christians I have met.

We loved to travel and find adventure together and one day we found this mid-century church building that was for sale in Granby, CO. We started dreaming about the life we could live together up in the mountains, and I love that we weren't afraid to do so.

It is a long story, really, the way we came about getting engaged and buying a church house within a matter of minutes, although not necessarily in that order. Suffice it to say that by this time Nathan had earned my trust and, as I told him when he had gotten up off his knee in the basement of a hotel in downtown Denver with the auctioneer bid-calling in the background, "I don't know about all this going on around us, but I know about us."

Two-and a half months later Nathan and I were married on the most perfect Sunday afternoon in June. I wore Spanish lace and walked down the aisle to Jars of Clay's, This Road:

All heavy laden, acquainted with sorrow
May Christ in our marrow, carry us home
From alabaster come blessings of laughter
A fragrance of passion and joy from the truth

Grant the unbroken tears ever flowing
From hearts of contrition only for you
May sin never hold true that love never broke through
For God's mercy holds us and we are his own

This road that we travel, may it be the straight and narrow
God give us peace and grace from you, all the day
Shelter with fire, our voices we raise still higher
God give us peace and grace from you, all the day through

Two months after that we finally packed up the big, yellow moving truck that we affectionately called Banana Boat and headed out west. This road, as it turns out, is "the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: twenty-seven

Year twenty-seven, age twenty-six: September 2008-2009.

Just before my birthday this year I signed a lease for a second year in my flat in Dogtown and I took in two roommates: brother and sister kittens from a farm in Indiana. I wasn't worried about being perceived as a cat lady because the true definition of a cat lady, in my opinion, is someone who will decline to hang out with people just to hang out with her cats and that was not and never will be me, so help me God. Maximus-- Max for short-- and Stella were the cutest things I think I have ever seen and I am pretty sure I will love them until the day I die.

During this year I was still waiting tables and by this time I had gotten over feeling ashamed of it. When I first started years before, my dad told me that I was "flushing [my] degree down the toilet." And it would bother me when I would be serving a table and we would start chatting and someone would say something like, "what else do you do?" or "what's next for you," as if it weren't a suitable job for a capable, intelligent young lady.

By this time I had come to realize that being a server was one of the most suitable jobs there could possibly be for me. I had realized by this point that I was gifted in the area of service and that serving food was actually a really fulfilling way for me to serve people. I had come to love and appreciate dining experiences as a way for people in our culture to gather in order to celebrate or mark an occasion or turn a friend or stranger into a companion. I even loved serving individuals who seemed to have some quiet sense of personal satisfaction from dining alone and savoring every last bite in silence. I also loved that my job provided quite a bit of autonomy and that every day and every table was different. I loved that the flexibility in my schedule allowed me to travel an extraordinary amount and to shop for groceries in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, when fewer people were crowding the isles and parking lots. I loved learning about culture and hospitality and even culinary skills from being in restaurants. I really loved my job and I loved the sense of personal fulfillment that I got from such a simple life.

For my birthday I planned a little camping trip about 40 minutes from where I lived. St. Louis has a surprising amount of natural beauty just outside the city. I called it the "Celebration of Life Camping Trip," which kind of sounds cheesy, I know, but I thought it was appropriate because being out of doors was my favorite way to celebrate being alive. Then about a week or so later I showed up for this engagement party that my friend, Liz, was throwing for our friends Casey and Angela and when I walked through the door a bunch of people were already there and they yelled, "Surprise!" I am not kidding when I say that it took me a good minute and a half of standing there, just looking around, to realize that it was a surprise birthday party for me.

A couple weeks later I started seeing a counselor. I had been thinking about it for a long time but had only then pulled the trigger. I felt like I had some stuff to unpack and, really, I think everybody's got stuff to unpack and could benefit from talking things through with a counselor. There is a seminary in St. Louis that has a counseling program and you can see one of the graduate students for free, which helps you and helps them complete their required hours to become certified, so I took advantage of that.

The first visit I told my counselor that I felt weird about being there because my friends had just had this great party for me and I was feeling pretty good. I didn't know at the time to tell her that I generally felt insecure and that sometimes I got kind of depressed. But I kept going once a week for a couple months and she had me do a couple things to help guide my thoughts, but mostly I just talked about what was going on and eventually she was able to give me feedback from her observations. I cannot say exactly what lessons I took from that experience but I know that it helped me to sort through the mess of thoughts that were tangled inside my head.

In the springtime of my twenty-seventh year I met this guy at a film festival. We had mutual friends and we knew of each other but we didn't shake hands until intermission that night. Then the next week he showed up at one of these parties that my friend, Liz, and I had for single people every-other week called, Gin Bucket Thursdays. He stayed until the very end and I could tell that he was waiting around to ask me out but Liz had asked me to stay around after so she could talk to me about this guy she was kind of starting to date. Finally it got awkward so Nate left. Liz talked to me about what was going on with her and then she said, "I think Nate was waiting around to ask you out." I said, "yeah, I know." She asked me what I thought about that and I said I was up for it because it would probably be fun, because I liked talking to him. She apologized for keeping me around and preventing him from asking me out but I said, "If he wants to ask me out, he'll ask me out."

Two weeks later he asked me out in the middle of a conversation about something completely unrelated, with our friend, John, sitting right there. I was happy to say yes, and I glanced over at John as he took a bite of a cracker and just looked straight ahead. Our first date was on Cinco De Mayo, which I thought was so fun, and we were pretty much smitten from that point on. And still are.

Friday, September 21, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: twenty-six

Year twenty-six, age twenty-five: September 2007-2008.

I spent my twenty-fifth birthday in Dogtown, which is the neighborhood in St. Louis where I lived. I rented this little, one bedroom flat next door to a bar and just across from the St. Louis Zoo and Forest Park, which is to St. Louis what Central Park is to New York. Words cannot express how much I loved that place.

I worked at this fancy restaurant in downtown Clayton for a few months but I hated it because it was so poorly ran and the computer system was so archaic that I felt unprepared to do my job well. That, and I kind of felt like the owners stole money from the servers in roundabout ways. It was almost a moral decision to quit more than anything. It took me a little more than a month to find another job because I was so determined to make it a good one.

Just before I went home to Kansas City for Christmas that year I made a significant life choice: I got a tattoo. I had been thinking about it for more than a year, things like what it would be and where I would put it. Generally, I feel like the only reason a person should get a tattoo is for him- or herself. Because there is always going to be somebody who disapproves or dislikes it and because you will live with it for the rest of your life, you have to be able to stand by your decision and it has to be able to give you and only you a sense of its purpose.

My tattoo kind of looks like the Timberland brand logo from a distance or with an unfamiliar eye. It is a circular-shaped silhouette of a tree with roots next to a stream of water. I had been looking for an image of a really good looking tree for a while, and then one day I was at this meeting for the church I was going to at the time and the guy across from me was drinking coffee from a mug with a tree on it. I said, "that is a good looking tree." I asked him about the mug and it turned out to be the logo for the church before they changed the name from Greentree to Riverside. He said they had a bunch of those mugs that they couldn't get rid of because of the name thing, so he offered to give me about a half-dozen of them. I took one and a couple weeks later I brought it with me to the tattoo shop.

I picked this particular tattoo shop because one day I saw this lady sitting across from me at a Bread Co. (which is the same thing as Panera, but in St. Louis it is still called the St. Louis Bread Co.) and I thought she had beautiful tattoos. I eventually went over to her and asked her not to think I was weird for asking but, "where did you get your tattoos done?" It turned out that her husband was an artist at one of the more reputable shops on the Loop, so that's how I made my decision. The artist ended up really liking the tree, too, so I gave him the mug.

So I got this little tattoo on the inside of my wrist, mostly because I wanted to be able to see it every day and I liked how people could see it well when I served them plates of food, and at the same time I can easily cover it with a bracelet or watch if I need to. I love it so much and for a while after I got it I had these reoccurring dreams where it got erased, so I would wake up with a gasp and check to make sure it was still there.

Most people who see my tattoo guess that it is the tree of life. I usually say, "yeah, kind of." The thing is that it doesn't mean just one thing to me, it is a symbol of many deep truths. The origin of the name Ashley stems from the ash tree, so the tree is kind of like me. And the most common explanation that I give when people ask about it is that it is from a passage in Jeremiah 17 in the Bible that says this:

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who's confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.

It's a reminder of who I want to be.

At the beginning of 2008 I started working at this great, very well-run restaurant in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of St. Louis. I was still traveling a lot, including trips with my new friend, Liz and that summer I got to lead a backpacking trip with my brother and an awesome group of high school students from Kansas City. We actually spent a week in the wilderness that is just miles from where I live now.

Liz and I attended this house group with the church where we both went. One day our group was having a discussion and I chimed in with some statement about how I think that a lot of guys-- Christian guys, to be exact-- seem to be put-off by strong, single women. About five minutes later Liz came up to me and asked if we could get coffee sometime.

So she and I would lament to one another about the woes of being intense and "intimidating," to the opposite sex and then we would spur one another on toward further bad-ass-ness. We would travel together and find adventure and talk on the phone and eat at delicious restaurants.

St. Louis was probably the easiest place for me to make friends since college, where it is easy for everyone to make friends because you are thrown into close proximity with a bunch of people in the same life stage for a significant length of time. There is so much to be said about the good, genuine people of the Midwest, and the neighborhood feel of the city of St. Louis. After my first year in that city I had made several friends and no two were alike. It was an easy decision for me to stay another year.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: twenty-five

My twenty-fifth year of life, 2006-2007, I did one of the most random things I have ever done: I moved to Chattanooga, TN.

In August my dad helped me load everything I owned into the same 1976 Caprice Estate station wagon that we used to take our family vacations in, and he moved me to southeastern Tennessee. Oh, it was terrible because he kept getting flat tires, which meant that we had to unload half my stuff from the back onto the side of the highway in order to access the spare in the side-panel. And then there was the pit-stop in Metropolis, IL-- the home of Superman, if you don't know-- where we spent a few hours getting something fixed under the hood. I will say that we got some awesome pictures from that trip, though.

I had befriended a couple people from Chattanooga during my internship year at Frontier and the following year I had visited the town a couple times. I thought it was one of the most charming places I had ever been and to this day I say that I like everybody I have ever met from there.

I basically went to Chattanooga because I liked the town and people and I was ready for something new. But officially I was there to go to Grad school. I did take some classes toward getting my masters in physical education, but soon enough I realized that there were too many politics in education for my taste. That and I didn't love it. So about a year after I arrived, when my roommate was getting ready to move out, I had to decide if I wanted to stay longer and get a new place or if it was time to leave. I decided to leave

Even though I love the city of Chattanooga and the people and there is something about the eastern time zone that just works well with my internal clock, that was one of the hardest years of my life. I had people around me but I found it very difficult to connect with most of them on a personal level. It felt like I was this new kid on the playground and I was walking around every day asking, "can I play?" 

I don't mean to knock the south because I can go on about how I loved it, but I found that the whole cliche about southern hospitality left something to be desired when it came to newcomers. I felt like people would say all the time things like, "Let's get together," or, "I'll have you over," and it rarely happened. Most of the people I really connected with there were transplants from somewhere else. 

So I put myself out there a lot and I did do a significant amount of dating but a lot of times I would go do things by myself. Every week, for example I would go to church and then to the Farmer's Market, which ended up being one of my favorite things in the city. I did a lot of walking into downtown and Coolidge Park via the pedestrian bridge and spend many nights at one coffee shop or another. I will say that the thing I probably value most about that year was my quality solitary time.

Some of the best writing I have ever done came out of my year in Chattanooga. I poured myself out into my journal and onto my blog. I found that I experienced this odd breed of friendship that came with people I kind of knew from real life, in college or something, where I would read their stuff and they would read mine and we connected on a deeper level because of it. Paper-- or computer screen or whatever-- has always been the most patient ear for me to pour myself out to and I have found in my life that whenever I have fewer people around to hear me, I speak less and write more. 

So when I was thinking about moving or staying I emailed some of my best girl friends to ask for their advice. I told them that they knew me and I was only confusing myself so I needed to hear them speak to me and help me understand what I needed to do next. One of my friends, Amy, wrote back and told me to "quit with the Lone Ranger stuff." She was right. I had spent the last couple years moving about every six months or so and I shouldn't have been surprised by the gypsy that looked back at me in the mirror every day. So I did what I though I would have done a couple years before: I moved to St. Louis, MO. 

St. Louis is where most of my best friends lived and it was a lot closer to my family and it seemed right. So my dad, as loving and supportive as ever, came the 700 miles back down to Chattanooga from Kansas City with his station wagon, loaded up my stuff one last time and moved me to a place I could finally put down roots. 

thirty days of thirty years: twenty-four

Year twenty-four age twenty three: September 2005-2006.

I spent my twenty-third birthday in Boston with my sister, Becky, which is the only time I have ever been there but it was a lovely city. After my internship at Frontier Ranch I traveled for about a month, mostly with friends from that year. Within that month I saw the sunset over the Pacific Ocean and the sunrise over the Atlantic; from San Diego, California to Portland, Maine and many, many places in between. 

After that time I moved in with my brother in Kansas City. For a very brief time I worked as a personal trainer but then I realized my unofficial title would be salesperson, so I quit. I wanted so badly to go back to Colorado, but I felt like I needed to have a good reason. I tried to go anyway, after leaving the fitness club, but I just did not have the confidence to start from scratch. I don't know where it came from, this need to have to always be able to explain myself, but it would haunt me even into premarital counseling with my husband. One glorious and surprising gift from this time was that I had many solid and genuine phone conversations with some dear friends who loved me too much to give me answers but gave me unconditional support and encouragement, instead. 

So, like I said, I moved back to Kansas City and worked as a server in this restaurant that my uncle's tennis buddy owned. It was a half-hour commute and many people wondered why I wouldn't just get a job closer to my house, but one of the things I dislike most about going home is bumping into people from high school. 

I don't remember if it was this year or later but one time I bumped into an old friend at the store and he told me about how he was getting his MBA and working at some fancy place downtown, or something. When I told him I was waiting tables he said, "well, it happens." Just like that. As if my job was a pile of poop in the street that I had stepped into by accident. When I bump into people from high school I always feel like I have five minutes or less to explain each of my personal or career choices in such a way that they will judge me as successful rather than not, and I hate that. Because, let's be honest, it's not like we don't really want people to judge us, we just don't want them to judge us negatively

After about six months in my hometown I accepted a position to work with my friend, Natalie, from college. She was directing this day camp run by the Navigators and I would be working as a counselor alongside several college students, getting paid a hundred dollars a week. The thing about this job, though, was that it would get me back out to Colorado and I got to live next door to the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. I may have been poor, but I was in prime real estate.

Fortunately, I had Natalie and this hippie sort of girl about my age who surprised me by becoming one of my most beloved friends, even to this day. One day Molly, my new friend, and I were riding our bikes together through the Garden. We started cruising down this steep hill and all of a sudden this little chipmunk darted out in front of me, then back a bit, then back in front of my tires to meet its death. That's right, I ran over a chipmunk with my bike. I started screaming the instant I felt the thud, and so did Molly, who was right behind me. Then we stopped at some look-out and she opened up to me about life and loneliness and that's when I really knew that I had friended-up again.

It was at about this point in life that I really started examining the idea of waiting. I went through phases when I was embarrassed to admit that I was waiting for anything but the reality was that I went through years of waiting; for what, I don't exactly know. Maybe I was waiting for a husband but that wasn't all. I was waiting for a lot more than that and all I knew was that I would recognize it when I saw it.

I found in a journal or blog recently that it was around this time, maybe a year earlier, when I first penned the words, "waiting is not a passive thing." That became another mantra in my life and that is one of my favorite things to tell people when I recognize the symptoms in them: confusion, discontentment with their present state, a crossroad of possibilities before them, the simultaneous presence of hope and fear. I think people need to know that it is okay to wait because waiting is just as significant a time in someone's life as anything else. Because a lot of life happens while you wait.

I wonder if most people, if given the chance to really think about it, would choose waiting or floating mindlessly. Because I think that a lot of people go through life mindlessly on auto-pilot because they have reached some false-peak, rather than waiting for the real thing. I don't mean to judge and I am not thinking of anyone in particular, but all I know is that our days are made up of incessant decisions coming at us and that it is easy to arrange it so that we just do the same thing every day based on some decisions we made one day long ago. Even if a girl doesn't know what she is waiting for, I think that waiting is a heroic action.

When I think back on this year I remember people being very excited for me while I was generally scared. I remember saying a lot that choosing one thing means giving up everything else, and feeling that conviction to wait for the right thing. It turns out that life is not so short that you cannot chose different things at different times and I wish I knew to chill out a bit more back then. But during this time I learned the other key ingredient in waiting: active resistance. I feel like it was okay for me to not move out to Colorado if the time was not right for me, or to pass up the opportunity to make more money so that I could have a more fulfilling experience. A lot of the time, waiting means turning down some opportunities so that you are available to take the right one at the right time. In hindsight, I had a lot more time than I thought I did but I learned to give myself a little breathing room and to look at the decisions flying at me every day like they could actually change my life for the better.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: twenty-three

Year twenty-three, age twenty-two: September 2004-2005.

In August of this year I arrived at Frontier Ranch. I like to tell people that I lived in a log cabin on the side of a mountain, and that is when it happened. In 1996, the first time I stepped foot on the grounds of Frontier Ranch, I said to myself, this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The second time, in 2004, I said to myself, this is where I belong.

I could write a book about my experience that year, and in fact I just might, but not tonight. That was my first experience with really leaving my comfort zone and walking leaping into the unknown. I didn't want to miss a minute of that year, and I don't think I did.

I spent a day of solitude in Santa Fe, hiked a fourteener and met a celebrity. I survived a windstorm at the Great Sand Dunes and wrestled alligators. I worked in a metal shop in the Dominican Republic and stood up at my best friend's wedding. I watched a Better Than Ezra Concert outside while it snowed in Vail and went skydiving over Boulder. I got to work behind the scenes to create one of the most magical events in all of Young Life camping: Tableau night. I cleaned probably every toilet at Frontier Ranch and every time I would make the bed where I slept all those years before, I was overcome with joy and gratitude.

When I arrived at Frontier Ranch I was somewhat closed off and afraid. But at one point during the year my mentor, Angie, told me that although I experience a lot of fear, I do not let fear stop me. She was right and therein lie both one of my greatest weaknesses and greatest strengths. It's funny how they life in the same place inside me, like two conflicting roommates.

It was during this year-- on New Year's Eve, to be exact-- that I began one of my most favorite traditions: instead of making a New Year's resolution, I come up with one word that describes how I want to grow and be changed in the next year. That year my word was transparent. I wanted for the walls I built with fear to be seen as glass, straight through to the real me.

At the end of the year Angie made each of us girls something that cost her something. For me, she made a patchwork quilt. Patchwork quilts are meant to tell a story and while there were small stories within some of the fabrics, the larger story that it told was that it, like me, went from darkness to light. I don't know how, but I opened up that year.

One of the things you'll hear me say all the time, if you know me long enough, is that some of the greatest things in life are also the hardest. I think it was in that year that I started saying that, because it was definitely one of the hardest years of my life and also one of the greatest.

Pretty early on, when I was feeling stretched beyond what I thought I could bear, I took this on as my mantra: if the Lord chooses to change me, then I must consider myself blessed. When I am in community and friction happens, God could change someone else and leave me here where I am, but I'm not interested in staying the same day after day and year after year. In life you cannot control what you can't control, especially other people and how they respond to you. Sometimes, when something's gotta give, it needs to be you and even though it might feel like losing at first, that's almost always the best thing that ever could have happened.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: twenty-two

Year twenty-two, age twenty-one, last semester at Mizzou and first semester of life: September 2003-2004.

For my twenty-first birthday my dad and brother came to Columbia to take me out to dinner. I did not even have a drink on that day because we as Young Life leaders signed an agreement that we would not drink in public, to avoid misunderstandings with high school students. Like I have said before, I have pretty much always taken commitments seriously, so I didn't drink that day. I could have had a glass of wine or something at home but it didn't turn out to be that big of a deal for me. I think I just love birthdays for birthdays' sake, so drinking wasn't going to make it or break it for me. 

That fall was my last semester at Mizzou. Ever since that rough second year, I had not skipped one more class and I improved my GPA in just six days a week. After that year and the academic probation, I realized that I was fully capable of succeeding in school but there was another factor at play: my heart and my priorities. Sure, getting a degree was important but I was also in college to learn about life and being an adult and finding my purpose. All this is to say that I decided to take a practical approach to both succeeding in school and being true to myself. I decided to take one day of rest every week to set school work aside and pursue some other things that gave me life, all for the sake of trusting that God would work everything out for good. 

Sunday turned out to be my day, not because it is more holy than the other days but because that was always a really social and playful day for me. I went to this church that I loved and helped out with the senior high group in the mornings. I had time to catch lunch with friends or play ultimate frisbee, take a nap or watch a movie before Young Life leadership in the evening. After Sundays, I had enough rest for my soul to hit it hard on Mondays. 

It's funny because the few times I tried to study or write a paper or do something else to prepare for Monday on Sunday, something always came up to prevent that. Like this one time I sat down at my computer to work and one of my roommates came knocking on my door in search of a friend. I knew that being a friend was more important to me than school work, so I put it aside until the next day and everything worked out just fine. And then when it was time for me to deliver my capstone research during this last semester, I emailed my professor and told him that I would really prefer to go on Saturday. I told him that it wasn't a huge deal, that it wasn't a religious obligation or anything, but it was a personal conviction that I had not done any school work on Sunday since sophomore year and if all things were equal, I would really prefer to go on Saturday. Well, I didn't ever get an email back from him and that was okay by me because the day was chosen by luck of the draw and I figured what would be, would be. But when my professor came to me first, with this hat full of little pieces of paper that said either Saturday or Sunday, he leaned in and said, "we'll work it out." So I reached my hand in and pulled out a little scrap that said, "Saturday." 

When it was time for my capstone symposium my dad came into town because I invited him to come watch, even though it would be boring. I had pulled several long nights in preparation for my presentation and I was starting to get sick. Dad arrived on Friday and I apologized for not being a very good hostess, but I wanted to take every minute I could to prepare. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning and the few hours of sleep I did get were interrupted by thoughts of ferrous sulfate.

There was a dance that night for Campus Crusade, which a few of my roommates attended, so Megan and her boyfriend came home especially late and when he headed home the whole house was dark. My dad was sleeping on the couch but he apparently got up in the middle of the night for a snack. As Jeremy was tip-toeing out of our kitchen he was startled by my dad who was sitting about six inches off the ground, on the bottom rung of our foot-stool next to the wall, eating a taco in the dark and wearing nothing but his tighty-whities. As the story goes, they exchanged a "hey," and Jeremy went on his way.

The next day I delivered my presentation and Dad taped the whole thing with his camcorder. I was told that he took it home and had my aunt and uncle watch me go on about the effects of iron supplementation on muscle fatigability, which I was also told was very boring. But he was one proud Papa.

I graduated in December with a B.S. in Nutrition and Fitness. My whole family came and my sister, Suzanne, and I posed for pictures in front of some of Mizzou's iconic structures and bonded over our shared alma mater.

After Christmas I went back to live in the Chat on Paris Road for another semester while I figured out what I was going to do next. It's funny because I always knew what I was going to do next, until then. I always knew that high school came after middle school and college came after high school, but no one told me what happened after college. I had a hard time about this for a while and then one day my mentor, Kelley, told me to ask myself this one question: What would you do with your life if you weren't afraid. I though about it until our next meeting and I figured that, if I weren't afraid, I'd move to Colorado.

I had been interviewing for jobs in Nutrition throughout that semester and I kept finding that I wanted to be rejected. I didn't want to just get some job and get stuck in a career and end up looking back on my life, wondering what happened. Then one day, after I knew the answer to that critical question, I basically said screw it and I started looking for work in Colorado. That's when I came across the year-long internship at Young Life's Frontier Ranch.

I applied and had two phone interviews and the process was almost over until Brett Wingo, who was giving my second interview, said he would like to stray from his written questions for a minute. He said he sensed the Holy Spirit leading him to ask me some things and he brought up some possible areas of concern about my readiness for the program. I answered vulnerably and after we hung up I felt like there was a giant mirror in front of me. Then I had this dream where I was in the program but we had to take a test. I didn't know any of the answers and I had to turn it in blank. The reality is that I felt completely unprepared to do the internship and I found myself, again, hoping I would be rejected.

In the meantime, my roommate Megan Crowley and I took a spring break road trip. During this year I had figured out that Megan was my best friend. She and I were probably as opposite as could be, but we got very close and I trusted her like you can only trust a bestie. Anyway, one day Megan told me it was a tragedy that I was twenty-one and had never seen the ocean, so she said she was going to take me. We went from Missouri to Arizona to California and up the coast, then back through Utah and Colorado and home again. We called that our Gloriously Wasteful Spring Break Road Trip.

A few weeks later I got a phone call accepting me into the Year Long Intern Program at Frontier Ranch. I didn't know if I would take it but then one day my brother said, "I think if you do it, you won't regret it. But if you don't do it, you might regret it." And I realized that of all the excuses I was giving, the only real reason that I didn't want to do it was because of fear. I decided then and there that I did not want to be the kind of person who let fear dictate her choices, so I accepted. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: twenty-one

The twenty-first year of my life was definitely one of my favorites. I turned twenty in September and it was my third year at Mizzou. In August I moved into this big, old house on Paris Road with four girls who started as kind-of friends and ended up dear friends. I remember when I was approached to be their fifth roommate, I sort of did a double-take like when that little girl called me pretty when I was in seventh grade.

Ever since freshman year it had been one of my secret dreams to live in one of those big, old houses off campus with a bunch of girls. It was exactly the kind of college experience I wanted to have after I moved out of the dorm. The girls I knew who lived in those homes seemed like they had such a sense of community and hospitality. That and I am kind of a sucker for big, old houses. So when a couple of these girls said they were getting a house together and they wanted me to be their roommate, I felt like God had seen my heart and said, yes.

Sometimes I still wonder why they chose me. These girls were kind of friends-- a few of us were in a Bible study together-- but there were probably a dozen other girls they could have chosen before me. At this point in my life I really struggled with feeling inferior; there were these people I really felt like I could connect with, who I wanted to be friends with, but I also had so much fear. I felt like I didn't deserve to be their friend and I had difficulty opening up with them. The thing with these girls is that they saw something in me that I wasn't trying to expose. And even though we were all different in different ways, we became very close and I still adore each of them.

So five of us shared this house that we called the Chat, short for Chateau, and our answering machine sounded like we were a sorority house, "You've reached Natalie, Megan, Megan, Christina and Ashley..." We had people over all the time, whether it was our Super Bowl party for fifty, our boyfriends, my Young Life girls or hanging out after going out. I have so many memories of so many faces in that place.

Our house was a mile from campus and a mile from the high school where I led Young Life and coached track and cross country. For my birthday this year my dad bought me a new bike from Walt's Bike Shop down the street, which I used almost every day to commute. This one day a couple weeks after I got it I had gone home for a couple hours between classes to study and parked Larry-- that's my bike's name-- on our front porch. A while later one of my roommates came and told me that a police officer was at the door for me. This was odd. Anyway, I met him at the door and he informed me that my bike had been located. That is, it had been stolen and found before I knew it was gone, which is the best way to have your bike stolen if it's going to happen. Apparently our crazy, old neighbor with the long, white beard who lived next door saw somebody take it and he called the cops on his cordless phone as he chased the thief down the street. So the police officer drove my neighbor and me less than a mile to the Papa Johns Pizza parking lot so that he could identify the thief and I could identify my bike. Later that night I told my story at Bible study and one of the girls said, "that was you?" Apparently she had been listening to the police scanner at the newspaper where she was working and heard the whole exchange.

Another secret dream I had was to be mentored by someone like Kelley Wampler, who was the super fun wife of the pastor I was closest to at the Crossing, where I went to church all throughout college. I told him one day that I was looking for a mentor but I didn't mention Kelley. Then one day Kelley came up to me and said that Ryan had told her I was looking for someone to meet with, and that she wanted to do it. I just about peed myself and I don't know if I ever told her that she was exactly the one I was hoping for. This was just one more example of someone who I thought was totally out of my league, who actually wanted to be my friend, too. And meeting with her, going deep and having someone who would listen and counsel me during those years, that was one of the most precious relationships of my life. 

I still friend-up, as I call it, where I make friends with people I completely admire even though I don't think I deserve them. But now I am not ashamed. I think everyone should friend-up because that is how we grow and reach our full potential. I have this theory that the reason we admire the people that we do, is because we see something in them that we have the potential to become ourselves. And if we befriend them then they will only help us become the best versions of ourselves. 

And then there is friending-out. This is about making friends with people who need a friend like you, someone who has enough to pour out into another's life. I became a Young Life leader because I had a wonderful Young Life leader and I wanted to be that for someone else, even if it was just one person. The twenty-first year of my life is when I met Andrea, who surprised me by being that one. She came to club one night because a girl in her class told her that if she came to club and didn't laugh then she would give her something, I don't remember what. I met Andrea in the driveway outside, before club even started, and she laughed about a minute later. 

One day during the fall of this year Andrea called me and asked me if I would go traipsing through these creeks in the woods with her. Sure, it's weird, but I didn't hesitate for a second before I said, "Sure, yeah!" When you are a Young Life leader you get weird looks and rejection all the time from high school kids, so when one of them calls and asks you to hang out, you say yes automatically. So we did this one day and it was muddy and wet but she opened up to me about maybe wanting to go into the military and about her friends and parents, and that was when we started becoming friends. Then the summer of that year she convinced her parents to let her go to Young Life camp with me at Windy Gap in North Carolina, and that's where she met Jesus.  

I don't like to hyper-spiritualize things, but I cannot help but believe that God is the greatest matchmaker ever. 

thirty days of thirty years: twenty

Year twenty, age nineteen and second year at Mizzou: September 2001-2002.

September 2001 is most universally remembered for the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center. I remember watching the events unfold on TV that morning, including the attack on the second tower. Everybody seemed to be watching TV that morning, although I eventually had to go to organic chemistry.

The thing I most remember about that day is that my brother called to tell me that Popo had suffered from a stroke the night before. I think he had been at the hospital all night with him, waiting to hear from the doctors what was happening.

September 13, yesterday as I write this, was his birthday and I went home to see him in the hospital that year and I gave him a gift-wrapped baseball cap from Mizzou. He was very out of it; it was like he got Alzheimer's Disease over night. My brother told me I should not have given him anything but I wanted everything to be normal.

Soon I started into a routine of going the 136 miles home every week. One week I was there to visit Popo and take care of an appointment with my ear, nose and throat doctor. The summer before I got what I affectionately call the nerdiest sports injury ever, which was a wicked ear infection from my attempt at training for a triathlon. I also got head lice, but that is a story for another time.

So I woke up the morning of my doctor appointment and when I walked into the kitchen for some cereal, my dad informed me rather casually that he had been having chest pains. "What do you mean, chest pains?" I said, "do you need to go to the doctor?" He said that he already had an appointment later that morning, so he would just go then. He was so nonchalant that I just let it go.

I went with him to the doctor a couple hours later and he hooked my dad up to the EKG and didn't see any signs of a heart attack. "But," he told him, "if you experience the pain again, go to the emergency room." So we were on our way to lunch or my appointment or something, and dad suggested that we go to the emergency room. That kind of thing always takes forever, so he told me to go to my appointment across the street while he waited. By the time I came back the ER doctor had come and gone.

"Well... what did he say?" I asked. "He said I had a heart attack," he answered, and then quickly followed with, "Well, you'd better get on the road before traffic hits." I stayed a while longer but then he gave me some gas money and sent me on my way.

Before I went back to Columbia I stopped by Mindy's. We talked for a while and she asked me about Popo, who absolutely adored Mindy, and I answered about how he was still pretty bad and, oh, by the way,  my dad had a heart attack today.

My dad had been so easy-going about the whole thing that I didn't make much fuss over it, either. But then Mindy looked at me so seriously and said, "Oh, Ash, I am so sorry. This is a big deal." It's funny but I swear I didn't know it until that second. And that's when I cried.

Dad had a stint put in and was sent home in the next few days, which was good for my brother who was spending every minute of every day at one hospital or another. I was still coming home every week but I also had to be in school. And I was a Young Life leader and I was volunteering as an assistant cross country coach at Hickman High School. My classes were usually the last thing on my mind.

When I went home I would spend as much time as I could at whatever hospital or rehab center Popo was living in at the time. And by that I mean as much time as I could possibly bear, watching one of the strongest and most loving men I will ever know be humbled by dementia and diapers. It is one thing to witness death, it is quite another to witness dying.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention this one thing, because I think about it all the time: I have mentioned before that my dad and grandparents didn't always have the best relationship. Popo was my mom's dad but during this time my dad visited him every day that he was not in the hospital himself, and he changed his diapers and spoon-fed him soft food. If anyone ever were to wonder how I know what love or loyaly are, that is how. That and, when my grandpa was on his last leg and completely out of his mind, he still knew enough to say this to my dad: "you take care of my little girl, nothing compares to my little girl." He never, not for one second, forgot me.

Popo died in January and I was a complete mess for quite a while after that. Later that month one of my old Young Life leaders, who had befriended my grandparents from Taco Tuesdays at the Mexican restaurant by us, came up to me and said, "I heard your family had some sad news." I cried instantly.

Then a little later that spring my Dad had his second heart attack. He was scheduled for a triple bypass surgery and at this point I had emailed all of my professors to ask them for grace. I told them that if I were not at every class, it was not because I meant any disrespect. I remember taking my anatomy text book into the waiting room of the hospital, and that it was futile. Dad made it through to recovery and my professors definitely showed me grace, but I still got pretty bad grades that semester.

Despite much internal conflict, I decided to stay in Columbia that summer and get a job, or four, as it turned out. I moved into a townhouse with my friend, Amy, and that was the summer that I really felt like I was becoming an adult. Shortly into the summer I got a letter from the University stating that I was on academic probation. I didn't cut myself any slack whatsoever, but looking back I can see that I was wrong to be so hard on myself. It was a really rough year for me and it taught me to say to myself, "your grades are not an accurate representation of you as a person." That was the year that I got a degree in life and love.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: nineteen

Year nineteen, age eighteen and first year at Mizzou: September 2000-2001.

Technically I entered Mizzou as a sophomore. I took advantage of this dual-credit program my senior year of high school, where you can take college classes in high school for ridiculously discounted prices, so I had something like 31 hours of college credit when I first stepped foot on campus. The only downside to this was that I felt pressure to figure out what major I would declare more quickly than a lot of other freshman. At first I was undecided but I had this personal goal to declare by the second semester of that first year. I saw advisers, I thumbed through course catalogs and I talked with friends to figure out my strengths and weaknesses and desires. I think it is a lot of pressure for someone who is 17 or 18 to declare their course of study and subsequently their career path. I just figured I would pick the thing I would most enjoy studying for the next four years.

At first I took classes in history and english because that's where the standardized tests from high school said I excelled. But those classes ended up being really boring, for the most part. By the time winter rolled around I had pretty much figured out that I was most passionate about health and physical fitness. If Mizzou would have had physical education as a major I probably would have chosen that, but they didn't so I picked Nutrition & Fitness and never looked back. It was actually a really science-heavy major, which I found challenging in a good way and I felt like we were actually paying for an education and not just a degree.

In my spare time I trained to be a Young Life leader and was placed at Hickman High School second semester. I went to Campus Crusade for Christ on Thursday nights and got involved with a bible study through that ministry. That is where I met some of my favorite friends from my college memories. I got along really well with my randomly assigned roommate, Debbie, who I roomed with the next year and who also had me as a bridesmaid in her wedding. I really thrived in the dorm that year, making friends with practically everybody on my floor. For most of the year a bunch of us would go out to this field across the street, which was lit up by tennis court lights, and play soccer every night from 10 PM til the lights went out at midnight. That felt to me like the epitome of college living, and I was sober the whole time.

Second semester I took this class called Personal and Family Management. It was a very popular class that mostly upperclassmen took, but I audaciously showed up for class the first day with a permission slip for the professor to sign to let me add it, even though it was a full roster. Dr. Israelsen signed my slip and I showed up and sat in the front row for the rest of the semester. It was a writing-intensive course, officially, and unofficially it was extremely thought provoking. It was probably the best class I ever took at Mizzou.

About midway through the semester I made it a habit of going to visit him during office hours, just to talk. I don't know how it started, but he was so wise and personal with students and he was a runner, like me, so conversation just flowed like I imagine it did for the student-teacher pair in Tuesdays with Morrie.

One day during one of our visits it came up that I didn't have a mom. Dr. Israelsen was a family man and a professor in family studies so family was a common topic for us. Anyway, when I mentioned this he looked at me and said, "Your dad raised you by himself?" I answered, "Yes, me and my brother and sisters." He sat back in his chair and kind of exhaled as he said, "Wow, he did a great job." To this day, that is probably the best compliment that I have ever received. I know he was really complimenting my dad, but it made me think about the fourth commandment in a different way; like even though I didn't know I was doing it, I was honoring my father and mother with my life.

thirty days of thirty years: eighteen

Year eighteen, age seventeen and senior year at Oak Park: September 1999-Y2K.

New Years Eve countdown to 2000, also known as Y2K-- for those of my readers too young to remember-- was this big hype because it was possible to end the world as we knew it, although it actually turned out to be nothing. But in the weeks preceding there were all these news stories covering the event. One afternoon this girl who wrote for the school newspaper called my house and asked for me. She wanted to know if she could come over and do a story about my family and the stash of dry-goods that we kept in our basement. At first I was a little confused but then I figured it out and politely informed her that, while we did have a large stash of dry-goods in our basement, it wasn't there for Y2K. "My dad just always keeps a lot of food in our basement," I said. 

The summer before senior year I took this supplemental summer class called, Peak Performance. It was basically a combination of running, weight lifting, sports psychology and physiology. It was co-taught by my cross country coach, Coach Warner, and the wrestling coach, Coach Mayab. Mayab was notorious not only for coaching the best high school wrestling team in the state and one of the best in the country, but also for his psychology classes. I took sports psychology senior year with him and one day he dropped a piece of paper on my desk. We did this thing regularly where we would bring in a quote, read it aloud, and tell what it meant to us. This particular day he had me read this quote:

All your life you are told the things you cannot do. All your life they will say you're not good enough or strong enough or talented enough; they'll say you're the wrong height or the wrong weight or the wrong type to play this or be this or achieve this. They will tell you no, a thousand times no, until all the no's become meaningless. All your life they will tell you no, quite firmly and very quickly. And you will tell them yes

Maybe it was random that he set that particular quote on my desk that day, but I don't think so. 

During the fall of this year I was finally on the varsity cross country team. It took me four years to get there but I finally achieved that dream. And it was a dream. I started out as a terrible runner, but by my senior year I led our team of girls to the most competitive sectional meet in the state. And by that I mean I was a leader on the team, not necessarily the fastest. There was at least one girl who was faster and she actually made it to state that year. But our coaches asked me to come along on the trip also, to run with her the last week she practiced, to warm up and cool down with her the day of the big meet and help her to stay focused and encouraged. This was actually a huge honor for me. 

Senior year is when I remember first understanding what it meant to be a leader. I remember watching this girl break down emotionally at this thing called Worship Jam that I would go to with other Young Lifers at William Jewel College on Thursday nights. I looked at her and I remembered what it felt like to be in that place emotionally and spiritually. Then it clicked that I was not there anymore, that I was now in the position to be the one helping people like her walk through things like that. And I felt the call of responsibility to not let the gospel of Jesus or the experience of running or anything else, stop with me. Not that I had somehow fully arrived, but it was time for me to pay it forward.

The state cross country meet was in Columbia, Missouri and that was where I had wanted to go to college since I was eight and I got to go help my sister, Suzanne, move into her dorm room there, not that I did any heavy lifting or anything. When I saw her go off to college, that became the only college experience I wanted. That night after we dropped her off and got back home to Kansas City, I actually got out a scrap piece of paper, a pencil and my bank book and I calculated how much money I would have by the time I was old enough to go there. I had been dreaming and planning it from that day on. 

Later this particular year, as graduation was drawing nearer, I practically begged my dad to let me go to school there. He really wanted me to go for two years to the community college down the road from our house, since I qualified for this program that would allow me to go there for free. But I felt so strongly that Mizzou was the place for me that one night I actually printed off the lyrics to the song Wide Open Spaces by the Dixie Chicks and put them on his bed. 

Who doesn't know what I'm talking about
Who's never left home, who's never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

Many precede and many will follow
A young girl's dream no longer hollow
It takes the shape of a place out west
But what it holds for her, she hasn't yet guessed

She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes

She traveled this road as a child
Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
But now she won't be coming back with the rest
If these are life's lessons, she'll take this test

She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes

As her folks drive away, her dad yells, "check the oil!"
Mom stares out the window and says, "I'm leaving my girl"
She said, "It didn't seem like that long ago"
When she stood there and let her own folks know

She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes
She knows the highest stakes

The next day Dad said to me quietly, "If you want to go to school at MU, we'll make it happen."

Senior year I was really good friends with this guy named Aaron. I used to go with him to the youth group at his church and I would cut his and his brothers's hair on the side. Cutting hair is another random skill of mine. Anyway, Aaron and I had this thing where we would go get pie together, in the same way that friends today go get coffee. It was exactly like a coffee shop experience, except that it happened in Perkins or Burger King, which has surprisingly good pie for like a dollar. 

One night before we both went off to college, Aaron and I met at Burger King for what would be our last pie chat. We talked like always and then we talked about where we saw ourselves and each other in the near and far future. I told him that I thought I would go to college and then come back to Kansas City, get married and have a family. I couldn't really imagine settling down anywhere else. He told me that he didn't think that's how things would go for me. He said he rather saw me off traveling and living an adventure. 

Turns out, he was right.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: seventeen

Year seventeen, sweet sixteen and junior year: September 1998-1999

I finally reached the coveted age of sixteen and I got to go into school late that day so I could take my driver's exam. It was raining and I passed with a 96%. Parallel parking is one of my spiritual gifts.

My dad was generous to buy my first car for me, although it wasn't exactly what I was looking for. It was a 1987 Toyota Corolla hatchback, in blue. It started most of the time, although not well in the winter, and instead of a radio it had a plastic plate. Apparently in 1987 a radio was not a standard feature. So when I was driving somewhere with my friends, especially to Young Life club, I would bring along a little battery-operated FM radio player and we would rock out. I eventually got a radio with a tape player when I graduated from high school.

A few weeks ago I saw another late-80's model Corolla hatchback in a parking lot and when I saw the owner get into it, I told her that I loved her car because it was my first car. I told her how I loved the rear windshield wiper. I told her how people used to hit my car all the time by accident, but it didn't matter because everything would just bounce off the bumper. They don't seem to make bumpers that you can bump anymore. And I told her how my paint job faded pretty bad so whenever someone would ask what color my car was, I told them it was tie-dyed. She loved that and said she was going to use it from then on. I think it is a real blessing in disguise to have a crappy first car.

At this point in my life I had decided that I was going to be a follower of Jesus. Inwardly I had peace but outwardly I felt awkward. Growing up in my Catholic family, we talked a lot about Catholic things but not a lot about Jesus. I wasn't used to expressing my faith and I knew this would be a problem because I was all in at that point. I wasn't planning on being a preacher or anything, but I knew that eventually people would ask me what I believed or why I was a certain way and I knew I would want to answer confidently. Especially at school-- a public high school-- where being friends with Jesus could very well send you to a different lunch table, I wanted to be able to express my choice without embarrassment.

So early on this year I shut myself into my room and I practiced saying the words out loud that I was so uncomfortable uttering. I would say, "Jesus. God. I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus. I am a believer. Christian. Jesus. Jesus," and on and on until I felt prepared to answer for myself to real people.

The Bible says, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect," 1 Peter 3:15. I am sorry to everyone who has been turned off from Christ because of Christians. We are supposed to be able to answer for the hope we have, with gentleness and respect. When the Bible says this it is basically saying to do it for our own good, so that we can have a clear conscience, not to try to convince anybody of anything. But I digress.

I was going to a small Young Life "Campaigners" group all year and I loved it. I even showed up the day after my grandma's funeral and Mindy said she was surprised to see me there, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be.

This was supposed to be the time that I would get confirmed in the Catholic church. I went to confirmation classes for almost two years but when the sacrament drew near, I wrestled more and more with how I would marry this commitment with my new faith. I think I have always taken commitments very seriously and so for me to just go through the motions, knowing full well that I did not want to continue in the Catholic church, was not an option. The thought of that felt like self-betrayal to me.

So I eventually got the guts to tell my dad, who had fortunately been prepared by two of my older siblings who decided to be non-Catholic Christians as well. I think he took it pretty well but my Aunt Mary, on the other hand, did not. She was supposed to be my confirmation sponsor or mentor or whatever they are called.

I don't remember the exact sequence of events but I remember Aunt Mary showing up at my school one day to try to take me to stay at her house for a while. I got wind that she was there and sneaked a ride home with a friend. She later showed up at my house but I refused to go with her. I remember that my dad was home, standing by, but he pretty much left the decision up to me and supported it. After Aunt Mary went home, he offered to take me shopping at the mall. We shopped at malls back then.

Then sometime later my dad and brother and I were having lunch or dinner at Aunt Mary and Uncle Gene's house and she got very emotional about how rebellious she thought I was being. I'm pretty sure she called me things like selfish and spoiled and then she definitely slapped me in the face. I rode home with my brother and I remember having a good, long talk about everything and I think we took a detour to a parking lot so he could teach me how to drive a stick shift. That is when I remember really starting to become friends with Zac.

The Bible also says, just before that bit about being able to give a reason for your hope, "Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. 'Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened,'" 1 Peter 3:13-14. I don't want to paint a bad picture of Aunt Mary or anything. She apologized later and I think she was going through a rough patch in life and she and Uncle Gene are a couple of my favorites now. That time was important for me and the testing of my faith. I think that everyone has to find their own faith and decide for themselves what they do or do not believe, and that was my time. That was when my faith first grew legs.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: sixteen

Year sixteen, age fifteen and sophomore year: September 1997-1998

During this year my Aunt Lora died and it was the first time I really remember being broken by immediate death. The night before her funeral we went over to her house as a family and I think I spent hours in the room I would stay as a child, just crying without pause. I told myself that I would leave the room when I stopped crying but it never happened. Eventually my grandpa came in and hugged me and walked me out, and eventually I stopped crying. But that was a great loss, indeed. 

Sophomore year I was in the journalism class at school and one day I was asked to write a story about Young Life for Cambia, the year book. So I went to club that week with a mini tape recorder that I borrowed from my brother. Before and after club I interviewed people about their experience with Young Life; what it was, why they went, etc. I eventually went up to Mindy and asked, "So, Mindy, why are you a Young Life leader?" And she answered, without skipping a beat, "For you." I think I awkwardly giggled a little and went on with the interview. 

A couple hours later, when I got home, I went straight to my room and closed the door. I took out that mini tape recorder and queued it to Mindy's interview, pressed play and listened to her words, "For you." Then I pressed rewind and play, "For you." Rewind and play again, "For you." Rewind and play again and again for quite a while until I was just sobbing. Those two words, for you, were the first two words of the gospel of Jesus for me. I don't know if I could have understood what it meant to be the object of God's affection, until I understood that I meant something to somebody like Mindy. 

I had been going out with this boy named David for most of my sophomore year. We essentially broke up because I wouldn't have sex with him and that break-up is what caused me to take a good look around and wonder who my friends really were and where I had been finding my identity for the past eight months or so. It was at this point that I realized how much I cared about who my friends or boyfriends were and what they thought of me, because I was finding my identity in my relationships. That was not the kind of person I wanted to be. I desired a more steadfast identity; a solid foundation.

This girl and guy in a couple of my classes had told me that they were going to this camp that summer called Circle-C. I had actually been to Circle-C Ranch three times before, all throughout middle school, so I knew what it was. After this break-up and before the registration deadline, I signed up to go.

During that week all the missing pieces of the gospel of Jesus came together for me. Having grown up Catholic, I believed that my standing in God's favor was dependent on me and what I did or didn't do and I wasted a lot of time feeling guilty or unfulfilled. I was religious but that's about it. That week I listened closely to what everybody had to say about really having a relationship with Jesus, and what that meant not only for me in the after-life, but for my real life. There was a time when all the campers had the opportunity to share something significant about the week and I said, in a microphone in front of a couple hundred teenagers, "I came here looking for something and I found it."

I cannot say there was one exact ah-ha moment where I became a Christian, but when I got home I opened my Bible and I did it again every night after that for a long time. That was when I found my life.

Monday, September 10, 2012

thirty days of thirty years: fifteen

Year fifteen, 1996-1997, was my freshman year at Oak Park High School. I turned fourteen in September. 

I was on the cross country team, basically because my brother told me to do it. He was a really good runner and so when I showed up everybody had high expectations. I went to this Freshman orientation before school started and met this girl named Sara, who would later be come a friend. She knew my brother from the team and so she asked, "Do you have your brother's running genes?" The question confused me a bit because I knew that no authentic runner ever ran in jeans, so I replied, "Um, no, but he did give me some t-shirts." Unfortunately, I turned out to be a pretty bad runner but I really liked the sport, mostly because of the people. 

The cross country coach's wife, Mindy, was a Young Life leader. I also went to Young Life because my brother told me to, and some of my friends from the cross country team also liked to go. Young Life was just a couple years old at Oak Park so there would be some weeks when about 20 people went, and other weeks when it was me and three of my friends. 

Freshman year was the only year I played soccer for Oak Park. I loved the sport but several of the girls on the team gave me a pretty hard time. I remember one day at practice a couple girls teased me and said, "Breitenstein talks like she's writing an essay." Even though I laugh about that now, such a random insult, that day I cried.

The summer after freshman year, I got on a bus with some other students and we made our way to Young Life camp in Buena Vista, Colorado. It was love at first sight and Frontier Ranch is still my favorite place in the world.

When I got on the bus with a long night ahead of us, I sat in what I thought would be a pretty desirable seat. I was still a quiet girl and so I needed to position myself in a place where I was not so likely to feel left out. Pretty quickly, a girl I was kind of friends with asked if she could sit next to me. I say kind of because she always seemed like a fair-weather friend, to me. I agreed and was frankly happy that the seat next to me was not the last one taken. It didn't take long, however, before she was asking to switch seats with me, so she could sit in the aisle. At first I said no but she kept pressing the issue and tried to make the window seat seem really great, even though I knew better. Window seats are great on airplanes but when you are in a chartered bus full of your peers, hyped up on Twizzlers and anticipation for what is said to be the best week of your life, the aisle is where you want to be. Eventually, I caved in and switched seats with her.

That is a really sad moment for me to think back on. I didn't recognize it at the time, but I was deeply insecure and for me to switch seats with that girl meant that I believed a lie. The reason I switched with her was not because I wanted her to shut up about it, it was because I didn't believe that I deserved to sit there. I felt in my heart that I was a window-seat kind of girl, the kind who should sit quietly and look out the window while friendships and conversations happened in the aisle. I actually cried quietly for a minute as the bus pulled away in the dark, looking out that window and mourning my self-esteem.

Mindy was a leader in my cabin that week. I had gotten to know her from cross country meets and Young Life club, and I always admired her. She and another girl from the team and I went running on the mountain once or twice that week during free time and because I was a terrible runner they had to circle back for me a couple times, while I wheezed away. And once I happened to mention that I liked a particular wild flower and the next day I found a fresh blossom laying on my bed, with a little note from Mindy. I couldn't understand why at the time, but she pursued me and gave me an aisle-seat kind of dignity.