Beginner's Mind. Advent Heart.

Saturday, December 16, 2017


Photo by Andres F. Uran on Unsplash

Hey, friends, I'm back!

It's been three-ish months since I've last published a post. And while I could say that's because I've just been "too busy" to write for my blog, what with all of the papers I've been working on for graduate school, I think you'd be able to see right through that one.

Because it's a lie.

I mean, yes, I've been doing a lot of other writing during the past few months (grad programs in English lit are no joke, people). But I would have scheduled time to write here, too, if it were that much of a priority to me. And it hasn't been.

That is the truth.

My first semester of graduate school rattled me a bit. A lot, actually. See, I'm a recovering perfectionist, and as much as I would like to have already reached the point of emotional maturity where criticism doesn't bother me (read: doesn't personally attack my worth and dignity as a human being), I'm not quite there yet. And what I learned very quickly in this first semester was that... well, I still have a lot to learn.

This vulnerability of mind means that I didn't respond to feedback with humility of heart. My semester vacillated between days of feeling like I was totally rocking everything, and moments of crippling self-doubt.  My professors and classmates were nothing but kind and supportive as I tried to make my writing better than it's ever been, but pride still found ways to creep in, twist around all of their well-meaning critiques, and lock every door God was trying to use to slip into my heart in a very specific and necessary way during this season of my life.

I was afraid of blogging again because, essentially, I was worried it just wouldn't be good enough. Not in light of everything I was learning I didn't know.

...Which brings me to this post, and to you.

I'm willing to bet you've been there, too: thrashing about in the throes of "not good enough-ness," trying to make a name and a life for yourself. This is a very human reality, and frankly, for me, it's my own personal form of darkness -- the shadow that lurks behind me as I attempt to do any sort of good work, the demon that tries to keep me small, the gremlin who would have me believe (falsely) that I myself am responsible for creating my worth.

But tomorrow is the third Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season in which we await in hope the Light who will scatter the darkness. The God who seeks to make all things new -- to make us new. The God who continues, every hour of every day, to break His way into our hearts and our lives, as He did over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. The God who is Emmanuel -- "God With Us".

When we want to give ourselves permission to grow from failure, we have to cultivate what's known as "beginner's mind" -- the ability to go from failure to failure without fear of judgment or loss of childlike enthusiasm, and to trust instead that it's all part of "the learning experience". Advent is a season when we're encouraged to think this way with regard to our spiritual lives as well -- to keep making room for God, even if -- especially if -- we struggle.

So two weeks ago, when Advent began I asked myself where I needed God to breathe new life into my story. What did I need to do to grow closer to Him? Where do I need to make room for His coming?

The answer was immediate: surrender perfectionism and pride for humility.

It's definitely not easy. Like, not even a little bit. Praying for humility, in my experience, results in, um, humiliation. And I'm not about that life.

But I should be, because a humble, Advent, teachable heart gives God room to enter into it more and more, not just during Advent, and not only at Christmastime, but all year -- and all life -- long.


Sacred Slowness

Saturday, September 23, 2017



 Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

“Who else wants to do the grad student showcase?” my professor asked. The graduate student showcase is the opportunity every student has in the fall semester to present their research at a conference on campus, with research posters and judges and grant money awarded and everything -- the whole shebang.

I shot my hand into the air. Words my mother had spoken to me at the start of my senior year of college -- “Now is not the time to be afraid. Now is the time to be bold!” -- settled themselves over me, assuring -- commanding, even -- that this time everything would be different.

All things considered, I didn’t plan well for postgraduate life as an undergraduate. I suffered a great deal of general indecisiveness that I chalked up to “discernment.” I responded to most queries about future employment with worries that I “didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.” And I halfheartedly responded to a number of online job postings, hoping I’d just passively sort of stumble onto the right one. As it turns out, none of those things were an acceptable substitute for taking internships, arranging informational interviews, or any of the other things that traditionally go along with job hunting.

They were, however, extremely acceptable veils for my fear of failure.  

Well, in graduate school, things would be different, I told myself. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. But I no longer want to keep company with the fear that sits beside me. I want to lift its veil and ask uncomfortable questions that make it slink away. I want to run into every strategic opportunity, with such aplomb and abandon that I might trip over myself in my haste to do things right this time. And I believed applying for the graduate student showcase in my first semester was the first step to a killer CV and Ph.D. application. In other words, it was the first step toward my ideal future.  

The next day, I sat on the couch in my tiny apartment, tears sliding down my face as I fretted over a) how to make my project proposal suitable for submission, b) whether or not I was ready for such an endeavor in only my first semester, c) the amount of work this heralded for the coming semester on top of everything I already had on my plate, and d) the disaster I assumed my future would become if I didn’t take hold of this particular professional development opportunity.

That’s when God came down and gently smacked me upside the head (as He does when He has something important to say). “Sarah. What kind of God do you think I am? Don’t you think my plan for your life is bigger than this one thing?”

Mmhm.

People say, "Do something every day that scares you," as though that is the only way to self-growth. But what if, sometimes, it's okay not to do the scary thing? What if sometimes the scarier thing is to just breathe deep, go slowly, and be gentle with and forgiving of ourselves? And to be brave enough not to believe in the regret that comes from "missing out" or making what might be the “wrong choice” because we are wise enough to know that even if we don't take this particular chance... God still has a plan for our lives?

For me, saying no to the graduate student showcase was an act of faith. It said, “God, I trust in You. And I believe that my future hinges not on a single decision I could make, but rather, on your abundant grace and goodness. And so, I am going to let go. I am not going to cling so desperately to visions of what I need to do to be successful. Because it isn’t really up to, or about, me, anyway.”

Fellow hustling hearts: You will still get where you need to go if you lift a few things off your shoulders. So do it. Trust in a vision not your own. It’s okay. It's okay to not feel ready for something. It's okay to take the time to learn. It's okay to build confidence as you go along. It's okay to move slowly, and it is even okay not to label that movement cautious fear.

It’s better to consider it sacred. 

The Writing Workshop That Wasn't

Sunday, July 30, 2017


Photo by Johan Rydberg via Unsplash


One Saturday a month, my friend Lauren and I meet for a writing workshop at a cafĂ© in Loveland. This precious time gives us both the opportunity to practice a craft that is often overlooked in the course of our everyday to-do lists and activities (the rule being that we can’t work on anything we’re required to do). We get to engage in meaningful conversation and reconnect in exactly the way I feel friends always should – with hot drinks and warm hearts. Not to mention, the coffee shop we’ve selected is just about as cozy as can be – one of those independently owned places boasting a roster of original drinks for every flavor and mood, with cushy couches and armchairs on one side of the room, and baristas who like to chat with you about your favorite Hogwarts house.

We planned to write yesterday afternoon after hitting a few thrift stores where I hoped to find some cheap furniture to fill my new apartment. We made it as far as Goodwill (and an end table I snagged for $2!) before hitting a minor roadblock. And I mean that in an almost literal sense because… Lauren’s car wouldn’t start.

I’d turned on the ignition and was plotting how best to maneuver the Toyota RAV4 my sister had let me borrow for the day (which dwarfs my Mini Cooper and has a considerably greater amount of trunk space for thrifting, but also has this way of making me feel like I’m driving a tank) out of its parking space when she met me at my window with the bad news.

I invited her in and we sat with the windows rolled down while she called her mom (who lives in town), AAA, and her guy friend who’s gifted with cars and could advise her on what to do next. And then we waited forty-five minutes for the AAA technician to come and jump the car.

“I’m sorry I ruined our writing day,” she said.

In truth, she hadn’t ruined anything. I didn’t have a piece ready for her to critique, so while I would have used our two to three hours working on something new, I could do that just as easily on my own. What I value even more than the writing we accomplish during our workshops is the time we spend together as friends.

And we were still doing that, in the Goodwill parking lot, as we waited for the AAA technician to rescue her ’98 Toyota Camry.

“Hey, the way I see it,” I said, “I’m still getting to spend time with my friend!” It didn’t hurt that she’d also placed a bag of chocolate chip cookies in the cup holder.


And so we put it to good use, discussing work and my anxieties about moving, among other things. And while a writing workshop gives us the opportunity to be heard in the words we put on paper, the best kind of friendships give us the space to be heard in person… wherever that space might be.

Three Times Impostor Syndrome Sets In (And How to Kick It to the Curb)

Friday, July 21, 2017


Photo by Brooke Lark via Unsplash

Impostor Syndrome: the dry-mouthed, sticky-palmed feeling we get when we feel like we’re faking something. It manifests itself in any or all of the following thoughts: “I don’t deserve to be here,” “I’m out of my league,” and “I can’t, actually, do this.” And it always leads to a lack of confidence and self-esteem.

But you know something? We’re pretty awesome, you and I. And we don’t give ourselves nearly enough credit for all of the amazing accomplishments we are capable of performing. That stops now. Below, I’m breaking down three of the main reasons we struggle with impostor syndrome, and how to kick that feeling to the curb once and for all (because we have way too much potential to be suffocated by it any longer).  


1.    We’ve never done something before.


This is the brand of impostor syndrome that settles in on the first day of a new job, or the first day at a new school, or during some other momentous life transition. “I’ve never done this before!” we think. “Everyone will know I’m just kind of bungling my way through it.”

Kick it to the Curb: Maybe everyone will know you’re figuring it out as you go along. But the awesome part of starting something new is that a) nobody – no reasonable person, anyway – will expect you to do it well right away, and b) you’re allowed to not know what you’re doing when it’s your first time attempting something.

That’s right. You’re allowed to not be a pro just yet. You’ve never done this before, after all! Take some pressure off of yourself and just lean into the learning. Hold your head high, keep your heart open, and seek advice from the people who’ve been through it successfully (soon, you’ll be one of them).  


2. We’ve done something before, but we don’t feel experienced enough yet.

Maybe we did something a long time ago, but we’ve forgotten or fallen out of practice. When I picked up tutoring again this summer after a two-year hiatus, this is how I felt. What if I don’t remember how to do it?

This is also how I feel about admitting I’m a writer. It’s still a title I’m so hesitant to claim for myself. Sure, I blog. And I journal. And once a month, I meet with one of my best friends for a writing workshop. But don’t you have to have published a book to be a “real” writer?

Helloooooo, impostor syndrome.

Kick It to the Curb: We’ve all had similar experiences, but rarely do we remind ourselves of this critical truth: all we have to do to become something is, um, the thing we want to do. If we write, we’re writers. If we sing, we’re singers. If we run, we’re runners. Fill in the blank with your own dream, and practice it today. Stop thinking so much and just be the thing you’ve convinced yourself you aren’t. Soon you’ll prove yourself wrong. :)


3. Someone once told us we couldn’t do it.

This one is the hardest to confront. When someone criticizes our ability, their harsh words cast doubt on our dreams for and opinions of ourselves. And it is so, so easy to let their thoughts become the ones that shape our reality. So when we try again, impostor syndrome gets a neat little foothold in those voices that replay themselves in our heads.  

Kick it to the Curb: Please remember that who you are is not up to the haters. Again, the only requirement for becoming something is that you actually get out there and do the thing you want to do. And – bonus! – the more you do something, the better at it you’ll naturally get.

 ***

Now… you got this. I promise.

Practical Love (Or, How I Got Schooled by St. Catherine of Siena)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

 Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

I’ve been doing quite a bit of spiritual reading over the last year to help develop and inform my growing Catholic faith. And maybe it’s my bookworm inclinations, or my contemplative, introverted tendencies, but curling up in my bed or perching on my window seat with the writings of the saints, or of modern-day clergy and laypeople, has become one of my favorite pastimes.

Highlighter poised, pen in hand, I mark anything that resonates with me – sometimes with hearts or a “wow” or a “yes!” or a question mark, or my own comments on the material. The process isn’t so different from how I approach a close reading of any other memoir, novel, or treatise, except for one thing…

I can’t help but feel that through some sort of osmosis, this process is making me holier…?

(I put a question mark there for a reason. In case you were wondering.)

It’s a nice thought. And we do, to an extent, become what we read.

But. Underlining a couple of sentences written by a saint (“saintences”? Hehehehe ;)) doesn’t actually make me a better person. And yes, I might be able to feel my heart swelling in my chest, or find myself nodding along with an especially sage “saint”iment (okay, okay, I’ll stop)… but those things don’t really change me, either.

The real work comes when we leave our bedrooms to engage with other people. And St. Catherine of Siena has some thoughts on this in her Dialogue:

“You test the virtue of patience… when your neighbors insult you. Your humility is tested by the proud, your faith by the faithful, your hope by the person who has no hope. Your justice is tried by the unjust, your compassion by the cruel, and your gentleness and kindness by the wrathful. Your neighbors are the channel through which all your virtues are tested and come to birth…” (38).

Ain’t that the truth. It is so easy for me to get into “holy mode” when I am reading a book. It is so easy for me to feel, in that moment, that I’m doing something good, that my heart is changing, that my mind is transforming. And they are. I don’t mean to deny the value of the pursuit, because it does help anchor our souls in truth and goodness.

But if we don’t make good on those feelings? If we don’t “walk the walk,” so to speak, and love when it’s most challenging, when our neighbors try us in every possible way and push allll of our buttons?

Then it doesn’t really matter, does it?

I feel like a lot of modern, secular talk of love, in the sense that we should love everyone, is boiled down to a palatable feeling. And what Catherine is pointing to is something more: we should start with the feeling, but let the people God has placed in our lives be the places where we can sharpen that love on a more practical level. When it’s difficult. When it wounds our pride. When selfishness dominates our motives.

How the world would be different if we loved like that.

***

For anyone who's curious, the edition of The Dialogue I cited is this one:

Catherine of Siena. Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue. Trans. Suzanne Noffke. New York: Paulist, 1980. Print.