The Four R's.

Last week, I attended a writing conference in Nashville. It was the refresh I needed, the different setting, the pretty gazebos (at Belmont University), the bagel place, the reminder that I can drive 500 miles by myself (even loopy mountain ups and downs) and sing along to CDs (yes I still have those) whose lyrics I have on autopilot (Newsies, anyone?).

It was the re-connection I wanted with friends from college, the mesmerizing surreality that I've known them all for 11 years and now they are stalwart and settled and successful, and some have not-so-little ones running around, and yet in more ways than one they are the same people whose hands I first shook more than a decade ago. Their voices hearken me back to those college days that were fast and fizzy in the moment, but now I just look back on them as languid and easily full. Their voices have carried me through the intervening years, and so we come back together on different planes, and yet, still the same. 

It was the reminder I needed, that I am a writer, no matter how much I doubt myself, that I have a story to tell and the gift of words to tell it. The reminder that it does take hard work, and devoted time, and it's not going to get done (draft 1, 2, 3, 4 and on and on) by itself. I need to show up, butt in chair, shitty first draft, we can all quote Anne Lamott in our sleep, but I needed that reminder. If I put in the work and stay present, and write my way out of any slumps that knock me sideways, then I can one day (one day!) wind up with the ripe passel of words that has been stirring inside me to tell the world. It's so funny that sometimes you can see that passel as a vision, an idea, a concept in your head more than you can easily put it down on paper. (Why is the action the hardest thing?) Sometimes I feel like I can see the outline of a circle but I can't get close enough to what's inside. But ultimately, I'm reminded, there is no other way. You're not going to write the book in a day, they reminded me. But by doing the work every day, you will slowly write the book.

And finally, it was the reaffirmation I hoped for, to meet and connect with others who do this hard work too--who feel they have no choice but this calling. To share my hopes and plans with them, and to hear their stories and inspirations in return, and realize that we're all in the same boat. The same excitement, search for discipline, the same worries and devotion. It was a pleasure to be in such company, and of all ages, too. In this instance, it was also a gathering of fellow writers whose wide variety of experiences fall under the umbrella of faith in a man called Jesus, a storyteller who described his love for the world in small, rich details he hoped we'd understand (I'm always so grateful to Rachel Held Evans for first pointing that out to me).

Because the small, rich details build up the full, wide picture that reminds us of all that we share as human beings (news flash: it's a lot).

And I felt all of that as I looped and sang my way back down the mountain towards my love and daily life--refreshed, reconnected, reminded, reaffirmed.

Giving Up

For years, I refused to give up chocolate for Lent like my dad does every year. (The closest I came was giving up Pillsbury break n' bake chocolate chip cookies in 10th grade--a weekly occurrence that then became nonexistent, probably a good thing overall.) I knew I wouldn't be doing it for a really spiritual reason, but a health-related one, and that was a good excuse to not do it at all (how clever!). But junior year of college, with the temptation of regular dining hall desserts in full reach, I decided to dive in and give up chocolate. I'm not sure what sparked it, exactly; maybe I was more sure of myself after spending a semester abroad, maybe I knew what I was capable of in terms of... discipline? Big picture time and perspective? Who knows. Anyway, I didn't tell anyone for the first few days after Ash Wednesday, just in case I decided to back out. But I followed through, until midnight on Easter Sunday, when Dad made a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

This year, I decided to give up all desserts and sweets for the first time. I knew that at this point in life I can't go full Whole 30 or paleo--don't want to, really, plus I didn't want to hold myself to something that I logistically and practically cannot achieve right now. But even though sugar is in everything these days, I knew that could at least control my sweets intake. My work environment is full of folks who I affectionately refer to as "food pushers," and sweets pushers in particular. We are big on potlucks, birthday cake, and frequent leftovers from catered meetings or events. It's fantastic, don't get me wrong, but I felt like I needed a reset. So after lunch on February 28, I bought myself a massive chocolate cupcake (pictured above), polished it off, and said farewell not only to chocolate, but to any and all dessert.

So what have I learned?

Even though I went into this "giving up" mode without as much of a spiritual bent (primarily health-driven), I feel like I have been enriched spiritually and otherwise by simply realizing that I can say no. That I have control. I can attend a birthday party at work without eating cake. I can go to a meeting without grabbing a cookie, I can sit across from someone savoring a sumptuous restaurant dessert. And though sometimes friends have tried to make me feel "better" by not eating sweets in front of me, I've felt a lot less bothered or irked than I thought I might, and always encourage them to enjoy what they're eating. Does it look good? Yes. Do I want it? Kind of. Do I have to have it? No. 

If that paragraph sounds super angelic and perfect, of course I've still had sugar in my diet--bread, condiments, what have you. One night in lieu of dessert (when everyone else was ordering it), I went for cornbread and lemon butter, which definitely involved le sucre. I've found myself looking at nutrition labels more frequently, picking salad dressings with very limited sugar, getting hooked on Triscuits (0 grams of sugar), treating an orange or blackberries as dessert, being more aware of how many veggies I eat. And I've noticed how much I love (and rely on?) cheese and other savory items that can also be bad in excess. So maybe that's a goal for another Lent. But, in the meantime:

I can say no. I can hold back and be aware of what I need or don't need in that moment. It's possible, I've proven it to myself more than I ever have before, and that feels good.

Now: What the heck do I do come Easter Sunday?

Part of me wants to keep going. I'm on such a good streak! I know it can be problematic to put "good" and "bad" labels on eating, but I really do feel good about achieving this and knowing that I'm probably healthier for doing so. Plus, I'm mostly used to it now--why go back?

And yet, I chose Lent as my time to lessen my sugar intake partly because it's a set period of time. Forty-seven days (I count the Sundays). I didn't want to attempt it on January 1 because then there's no sense of when it might end and it's harder to say no when you're in charge of when it ends. I don't want to live a life completely without the dessert menu. But I'm also afraid--if I can use that word very, very lightly here--that once I take one bite of whatever sweetness next crosses my path, I'm going to backslide. Hard.

Maybe that's the in-between of Lent and Easter, temptation and giving in, despair and hope, dust and sky, death and life. Bitter and sweet? Finding that balance. Sometimes it tips one way for a bit. But I think the most important lesson I've learned is that I can be proactive in tipping it back towards even-keel.

Mindful March.

Wanted to recap March before we got TOO far into April (yes, I know it's 1/3 over)...

March 1 marked the beginning of Lent this year, and I set for myself two Lenten "goals" (if it's right to call them that): I would give up all dessert/sweets, and I would take on praying the hours with Phyllis Tickle's Prayers for Lent Through Easter from her Divine Hours collection. Both have been good in different ways, and I hope to write some thoughts about both practices during this Holy Week.

I've had a chance to serve as a Confirmation mentor to our seventh graders at church this year; not only has this experience caused me to reflect on my own confirmation 16 years ago, it's also meant that I've gotten to scratch the surface of faith and life with these great kids. Part of that included a day retreat here in Atlanta, working in the Clarkston Community Center garden in the morning, writing a creed for Confirmation Day during lunch, and bowling at the Comet before dinner.

It's far from a bad thing when you get to listen to amazing speakers for "work," and last month I got to hear from two prophetic voices of our time: The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler of the Riverside Church in New York City (that historic church's first female senior pastor), and the Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and organizer of the Moral Monday protest movement in that state. Both pastors preached stellar sermons that spoke truth to power in a way that I needed to soak in, and I hope and pray that many more are exposed to their messages of authenticity, hope, and the need to dismantle systemic racism in our country.

Can't remember the last time that I went to a movie on opening day (probably a Harry Potter midnight showing), but a good pal and I took a Friday afternoon to go see the new version of Beauty and the Beast. Sang along like crazy, of course. Music really does make me well up, especially when I realize how imprinted on my brain and heart it is, even after years of not singing it. And while seeing B&B onstage in Dublin on my first trip out of the country will always be my favorite experience of it, Hermione, Matthew Crawley, Gandalf, Olaf, Obi-Wan, Professor Trelawney, Audra (doesn't need a character name because she is a legend) etc. were all lovely. Watching it also made me pretty sure that the original is where I first heard/learned the words "provincial" and "asylum." Who knew?

We got together with a group of friends that hadn't all been together in awhile for a delicious meal, laughter, and fellowship. It also happened to be the day that Sean passed his Certified Financial Planner licensing exam (woohoo! so proud of him), so that added to the celebration!

I was thankful for two more chances to get to know others in my community and talk through important issues of social justice, specifically racial justice: another Round Table dinner at Emory (subject: March? AKA, what does it mean to be an activist?) and as part of a group from our church meeting with a group from a predominantly black congregation. Both felt so important to me, the experiences themselves and beginning to process them (like I did in this post). There's so much more to be done, and I'm excited for future discussions with both of these groups. I strongly recommend--especially to my fellow white people--trying to find an opportunity like this in your own community, and pray that more will crop up for me and for you, wherever you are.

Switching from the profound to the superficial, a thrift store near us is having a going out of business sale and I got some sweet (nearly) new spring things for a VERY discounted price. Since I go shopping approximately 1.5 times per year and only enjoy it for about 1.5 hours, this was an excellent development!

My folks celebrated 32 (!) years of marriage in March, so of course a dinner was warranted. We tried out M572 and really enjoyed it--the atmosphere and the food were both top-notch!

The next day, I drove out to a double birthday potluck for two of my best friends (happy day, A&A!), and got to see one's new house. It was a perfect spring day and besides good friends, there was pimento cheese, so really nothing could have been better. 

I spent an afternoon hearing from Edward Mitchell, the executive director of CAIR (Counsel on American-Islamic Relations) Georgia, in a talk dispelling myths about Islam and refugees. It was really great, and taught me a lot about Islam that I didn't know before, in terms of the belief system itself and the origins of important practices like prayer five times a day and the Hajj to Mecca. A really great opportunity! 

I'd love to hear: what were your favorite March moments? Or any from April already?