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I was looking back over my pictures from my recent visit to Hawaii and this one caught my eye. When I saw it, my initial response was, “Yikes, my age is really starting to show!” Each wrinkle, spot, and bead of sweat seemed terribly glaring. My reaction to this photo matches my reactions to several things these days…

A few years back, I was going through a tough time and things started to feel pretty dark. I decided to take a chance and join a mindfulness group for people dealing with depression and anxiety. It was during this group, that I realized I spend a lot of time in my head with my thoughts running on auto-pilot. Before this experience, I had known the power of thought on an intellectual level, but I had never fully translated this information to a personal experience. The group allowed me to identify that when I am doing poorly, without even noticing, I can spend far too much time having imaginary, angry arguments in my head or perseverating over situations, mistakes, or conversations that had long since passed. This was not only an invaluable lesson for me, but it made the work I would someday do with clients that much more powerful. I wouldn’t just be preaching the practice of mindfulness, I would be speaking from experience as I had benefited from it myself. I knew what it was like to be overrun by what felt like uncontrollable, unbearable thoughts and then experience the freedom that comes with acceptance and being fully present.

For the past couple of years, I have been feeling a bit discouraged about my chosen career path. I did not research as diligently as I probably should have before moving to California and I had no idea how tough life still was for clinical counselors in this state. It is uncertain if this knowledge would have ultimately changed my decision about the move, but it still would have been nice to know what I was getting myself into. That’s why it was so therapeutic for me to attend the American Counseling Association Conference and Expo that was just recently hosted in San Francisco. To be surrounded by so many people who share such passion and knowledge of my field was a gift. Beyond that, it was a reminder that I chose this path for a reason and people are doing incredible things with degrees like mine all over the country (even though most people have no clue who we are and what we do in California). During one of the keynotes, Jessica Pettitt, made a statement that was perhaps the most poignant for me and has stuck even though some time has passed. The statement was, “being mad at someone for doing exactly what you thought they would do is dumb.” I went to the conference to learn skills to bring back to my clients, but what I found was a reminder to myself. I’ve spent a lot of time being mad lately. Mad at people for their actions, mad at God for His seeming inaction, mad at life for the ways I felt it was supposed to go, but it hasn’t… Now, I don’t have any objection to anger. Over time I’ve learned to express it quite freely and believe its expression can be a powerful source of healing. However, constant or entirely unfounded anger is just wasteful of both energy and time. It could become very easy for me to get stuck in that anger… to feel I’m entitled to that job, that house, that relationship, that church, that family… I could wallow in sadness and bitterness for ages, but I think I’d like to try gratitude instead.

Let’s bring things back to that picture… I’m pretty angry I’m having another birthday next month and I’m even more angry that my face looks like it’s having a birthday next month. However, if I spend my time fixating on every line and wrinkle, what I’d miss is the beauty of the fact that I physically, mentally, and financially had the capacity to do a trail run in Hawaii. Who complains about a trail run in Hawaii?! So while in reality there are a lot of things to be hurt, angry, and sad about, there are also unlimited things to be thankful for… the friends who text me to check in no matter how near or far they live, the ones who call and say they are here for whatever, whenever I need them, the community of people that share my faith and pray for me or spur me on when I’m confused or feel like giving up, those who value my opinion and ask me for support or advice, the job that pays my bills even when it doesn’t fulfill all my dreams, the landlords who love on me in ways I would never expect, the chances to travel for work and for pleasure, and the kind words from those who know me best that remind me of who I am and what my value is… Thank you. You know exactly who you are. Yes, you… And I just want to say that in this season when there is a whole lot to be angry about, you are one of the fabulous reasons there are countless things to be thankful for.

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Let me set the scene for you… It’s Christmas morning and a young Caitlin is waiting to open the final gift. The most special and desired gift was always saved for last in my family and this year, I felt sure it was going to be a good one. My sister and I had been incredibly clear on what we wanted the main event to be. I watched as my sister opened up her gift. It was a Puppy Surprise… I knew it. You know, that toy from the 90s that allowed you to experience the joy of birth over and over again as the expectant mother stuffed animal produced her tiny, tender offspring through a Velcro slit in her stomach. If my sister got her Puppy Surprise, I knew what was coming my way. It was going to be a Kitty Surprise. I was sure of it. A grin was plastered to my face as I tore open the wrapping. Boy, was I wrong. Much to my chagrin, what I ended opening was a Beary Surprise. What on earth was a “beary” anyway?! Shouldn’t it be called Cubby Surprise or something?! What was worse was that the mother bear stood upright instead of lying on her stomach like the other versions of the toy. Apparently, in order to accommodate for this slight variation, the makers had decided to put the Velcro slit in the mother’s back. IN HER BACK! My young mind found this anatomical error to be very disturbing and did what any young child lacking any and all impulse control would do. I threw a fit. It turns out the stores were out of Kitty Surprise, which had been quite popular that Christmas and there was nothing my parents could do. So instead of being able to enjoy a happy, heartwarming Christmas morning as a family, my poor sister and parents had to endure my tantrums, which lead my mother to do what any sensible mother trying to teach her child some impulse control would do, she took that bear away. Of course, this action was immediately followed by another fit, which as you can imagine, didn’t help my cause any. Eventually, after things calmed down, maybe hours later, maybe days later, my Beary Surprise was returned and at some point I remember getting to a low-grade level of fondness for the toy.

I wish I could say this was the only time such an event occurred, but unfortunately this scenario played out many, many times over. It turns out I was a notoriously difficult child to buy gifts for (I’ve been told this characteristic remains). Along with the Beary Surprise there was the Storyland change purse debacle, the bunny with the broad embroidered smile my mother stitched together with love, and last but not least, a very large quantity of “Smile Jesus Loves You” paraphernalia (it is likely my mother was trying to subliminally coach her very difficult, miserable child to smile more). Some of these items were returned after a time, others were gifted to those who would be more grateful, none actually taught me to be thankful for what I was given…

I’m getting to a point in my life where I can honestly say, I have never, and I mean never, gotten what I actually wanted. In fact, these past couple of years have been littered with things, that if given the choice, I would have gone out of my way to avoid. Life is rough sometimes in a bunch of little, confusing ways I can’t even put my finger on and other times in fat, giant ways that no one can even begin to sugarcoat. Ways I can’t work my way out no matter how much I scheme or strategize. All the things I don’t want just sit there piled up, and much like with my Beary Surprise, the only option I’m left with is to see if it’s possible to muster up even a low-grade level of appreciation for them while trying to sprinkle in a little gratitude for the things in my life that I guess aren’t that bad.

Now everything I’ve just shared is completely and totally true. But I need to share another story about not getting what I want to give you a little context. I spent WAY too much of my young life pining after this one particular guy. We were obnoxiously terrible for each other. He really loved ego massages and my young self with my poor boundaries was absolutely great at giving them. I, of course, was oblivious to this flaw and was really convinced, that if he just wanted me as much as I wanted him, my life would be made. Clearly, since I’ve already stated pretty overtly that I never, ever get what I want, you know how the story ends. At that time, it was heartbreaking. Now, with the clarity that only comes with age and experience, I recognize that a life in which I got what I wanted in that situation would have resulted in my own personally handcrafted nightmare. You see, as it turns out, I am absolutely terrible at wanting the right things.

I want french fries and cheesecake instead of the food that will nourish my body. I want instant and immediate pleasure when patience and perseverance will prove to be more valuable in the long haul. I want ease and wealth and praise and power in doses that sometimes even disturb me. Worst of all, a lot of times, I want precisely what I know I can’t have and when it looks like there is a small possibility that it might become available to me, I don’t even want it anymore.

Slowly, I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t even want what I want at all. I’m exactly who I am because my life hasn’t been easy. It’s been frustratingly messy in fact. Funny thing is, it’s in my messiness and brokenness that I’ve found in the cracks and crevices my truest joys. If I’d never felt the loneliness and lack of belonging that created such a shadow over my youth, I don’t think I’d have the same power to make people feel so valued and loved. If I’d never experienced the heartbreak of failed relationships and unmet expectations, I know I wouldn’t be so effective in supporting others through the burden of pain and loss. I’m not going to lie to you now and say I’m thankful for the difficulties that season after season keeps throwing at me, but I can say, that I think I’m better because of them.

My senior year of college there was this “25 Things List” fad that was going around Facebook. You were supposed to write some things that were true of you and then challenge friends to do the same. Number 24 on my list read:

“I have an INCREDIBLY difficult time letting go of those I love. My relationships mean more to me than just about anything. Basically, I will drop everything in order to help a friend who needs me. I never forget about people or how it felt to be close to them. I think someday this will lead to my downfall…”

Apparently, I was reasonably self-aware in college, because this statement continues to prove true in my life. I’m loyal to a fault and it has become a big problem.

In the past 8 or so years, people I cared about truly have been my downfall. I don’t know when it started, but at some point in my life I began building the people I really loved and respected these pedestals. In my mind, the pedestals (and people) were nice and shiny and high. It felt good to show them off to others, to look up at them beaming at my good fortune. How wonderful it was to have been honored to know so many perfect people. The problem with this, however, is there are no perfect people and people rarely if ever stay up on their shiny pedestals. Sometimes they choose to come down, sometimes it shatters beneath them, always I’m left with disappointment.

So there can be a few really big problems with loyalty. The first is that not everyone is worth being totally loyal to. I’ve let many people use and abuse me over the years whilst I made excuses and buffed up their pedestals to the best of my ability. People might warn me of the unhealthy patterns I’d fallen into or the poor boundaries I was engaging in, but I’d convince myself that everything was ok. I thought I just needed to support these people a little longer, defend them a little harder, correct them a little more, hide the ways they’d done wrong from more people. Of course, this never worked and then the guilt disguised as “loyalty” would start. If only I’d said or done something differently, maybe their behavior would have changed, maybe, just maybe, they would have become worthy of the pedestal once again.

Another problem with loyalty is it only works if you are being loyal to something real and not a figment of your imagination… and as it turns out, I’ve had a wild imagination over the years. I’ve created these people in my mind that will never hurt me, that won’t let me down, and that will never fall from grace. This makes me sad for a couple of reasons when I look back. One, it means I may never have gotten the chance to know who these people really were, and two, it means I spent a whole lot of time and energy worrying about trying to be worthy of something (or someone rather) that didn’t even exist. You see, if in your mind, you know someone who is the prettiest person, the coolest person, the funniest person, and that person isn’t you, you will never measure up. So as it turns out you are never good enough for you and when everybody comes crashing down off their pedestals, no one else is good enough for you either.

I wish so much that I hadn’t taken so long to stop putting others and myself in these impossible positions. Perhaps if I’d started breaking down these pedestals of co-dependence long ago and instead started building some healthy boundaries, I wouldn’t be here learning the same hard lesson in yet another set of important relationships. I’m encouraged though. I suppose some people never notice or acknowledge their patterns and attempt to move away from them. I suppose I’m happy I’m 29 rather than 99 when God is lovingly moving me into a place where I have to finally learn this lesson. Plus, the fabulous truth is, the more I stop trying to control other people, the less the disappointment is able to control me.

Can you accept you?

Version 2

It’s strange the memories that stick out in our minds.

One of my most vivid memories hails from 1990s. The event took place at one of the more exciting places in southern Maine for pre-teens in those days. There was a small roller-skating rink semi-close to my home called Happy Wheels, and truth be told, it was one of my all time favorite ways to spend a Saturday. All the rest of my friends and family had switched to using roller blades long before me, but my fear of speed and nervousness regarding anything with wheels had me clinging on to my skates for dear life. So while the people I was with would always have themselves rapidly strapped into their blades, I always lagged behind at the benches tying my laces. I also lagged once I got onto the rink (due to my aforementioned concerns about speed and wheels) but I LOVED the music and didn’t mind to be skating alone.

This particular afternoon, Changes by 2Pac came on and I was overjoyed. It was a fabulous song, and even better, it sampled The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby, which had always been a family favorite. I got really into the music and started flapping my arms as I attempted to skate dance and pick up my pace. I’d made about one rotation around the rink, when I noticed something in my peripheral vision. There were a couple teenage boys making fun of me. I caught them mimicking my chicken-like arm movements as they pointed and laughed. I tried to be strong and ignore it, figuring I couldn’t keep them that entertained for much longer, but after the mockery continued for a couple more laps, I caved. I skated off the rink and didn’t get back on. My mom was concerned and kept asking me what was wrong, but I brushed her off with excuses about my feet hurting and feeling too tired to skate. For a while I didn’t want to go back to Happy Wheels. Eventually, I did. It was nearly impossible to live where I lived and not end up back there. Honestly though, it never really held the same magic for me as it once did. I never told my friends about the event (though at some point I revealed my experience in pieces to my family). I feigned excitement about returning to the rink and giggled and gossiped with other girls about who they would do the couple skate with, but I never quite skated quite so hard or as vibrantly as I had since Changes.

Now around 20 years have past and I still feel a little bit sick and sad when I think about that moment. Maybe I always will. The memory doesn’t stand alone though. It is just a small piece of a long string of self-preserving moments. I’ve spent so much time doing my best not to attempt something if there is a chance I will fail. Making sure to say the right things, to be strong, to be good… Even when I would do wonky things or wear quirky outfits, I’d be sure to always apologize for, defend, or make fun of myself before anyone else had the chance to.

Sure, I’m strong, respectable, interesting, and have a firm sense of justice… Try as I might to veer from these things, most of these descriptors are just core to who I am. However, what I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize, is that I never had to hide or excuse the soft, gooey part of me that wrestles with concepts like confusion, inadequacy, and imperfection, which are also such a strong part of my core.

I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had in recent years to work on acceptance. Accepting how I’m feeling and not judging myself for it, accepting prayers, help, or support, accepting failure… More than anything, accepting God’s love for me and accepting myself as human rather than some sort of robot who successfully completes every challenge with a smile that makes it all look so easy breezy. What acceptance has helped me realize is that if I could go back and talk to that girl flailing her arms to the music of the roller rink, I wouldn’t tell her to tough out the song, flapping her arms even more wildly, giving her mockers spiteful glances that communicate, “Ha, you couldn’t bring me down! I’m having fun anyway!” anymore than I would tell her to sit down and miss out on the magic of Happy Wheels. I think I would let her cry and tell her it makes sense to feel hurt to be a young girl being made fun of by teenage boys. Then I’d put in a special request to the management requesting they replay Changes and I’d take her by the hand and say, “It’s gonna hurt, we’re gonna look silly, we might even cry, but let’s go ahead and flap anyway.”

Do You Love Me?

When I was very little my mother bought me the book Mama, Do You Love Me? as a reinforcement of the fact that, yes, she did love me AND was willing to go to great lengths to make sure I got that love drilled into my young heart and head. As far back as my memories go, I remember strongly ascribing to the idea that I loved people with a depth that far surpassed their ability to love me. This came from both my belief that I was far too challenging and intense a human being to actually be lovable and my belief that the very intensity that made me unlovable, ironically, caused me to love on a more outrageous level than others seemed capable of. Goodbyes seemed harder for me, I never tired of those I cared for even after they had long become annoyed by me, and the wounds of rejection never seemed to fully heal. This theme was repeated over and over throughout my life (oftentimes due to being a self-fulfilling prophecy more than anything else) in a variety of ways. I frequently engaged with (maybe more accurately, I subconsciously sought out) people who did not have the capacity, desire, or sometimes both to love me in the ways I needed and wanted and cried my eyes out when they did precisely what they were always going to do and I used each friendship that went awry as more evidence and fuel for my beliefs.

Through years of wrestling through this with God and trusted ones, I can now on my good days view myself as quite loved and lovable. I wish more than anything though that I could say I’ve been fully freed from the chains of this myth. However, when things go wrong, it’s still sometimes the very first place my mind seems to go. A friend stops responding to calls, texts, and Facebook messages, a conflict occurs with someone I’m close to, there’s a dry spell in my social calendar… All of it can make that voice come out and lie, “You know why it happened… You know why they don’t love you…” It doesn’t help that some I believed have known me and cared for me most have been quick to point out my “intensity” just before they disappear either temporarily or permanently. This will likely be one of those lifelong battles for me. Funny thing is, I think this battle is shared with more people than I ever realized.

Does anyone else who works in mental health ever notice a theme in your clients? Well, I’m pretty sure I ended up with the exact caseload I was supposed to have because there is a STRONG theme among my clients right now and it was out in full force this week. So many feel completely and entirely unloved, unwanted… As if it would take just one mistake, one screw-up, for everyone in their life to say “Forget it… You’re not worth it. You were never worth it. You’ll never be worth it. We never wanted you. No one will ever want you.” And there with them I sit as they cry and they don’t know that I’ve cried the same tears, that so many of my other clients, too, have cried the same tears. No we didn’t feel unloved for all the same reasons, but we all felt it. The mistakes we made, the way we were, at some point, someone made us believe the lie that those things were unforgiveable… insurmountable…

As I’ve mentioned before, birthdays are rough for me. Mostly for all the reasons I noted in my past post on birthdays, but also for another reason I’m far more embarrassed to discuss. I used to view birthdays as a way to gauge just how loved I actually was. This was particularly true in my high school, college and early post-college years. I can’t believe I am admitting this, but I would actually look back and compare how many Facebook wall posts I had received from year to year and if the number had increased or decreased and if I had managed to get more or less posts than my peers had received on their birthdays. If my post number was “low,” if I hadn’t received “enough” cards, if it appeared no one had sought to make that day particularly “special,” it must mean I wasn’t all that loved that year, that others had once again succeeded in being more lovable than I could ever be. For that reason it seemed so incredibly perfect that on my birthday I provided tissues and empathy to those who are still in the struggle, those who still believe that something as magical, as mysterious, as meaningful as love could ever be measured. Those who still believe there might not be enough love for them, that someday love could run out.

I’ve learned a little something about love in the last few years. There’s this great quote from the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower… “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I’ve gotten a lot better at accepting true love and rejecting the counterfeits. I’ve gotten better at pursuing it, too. Now, I don’t wait for disappointment and then cry about it; I tell others what I need and if they can’t give it to me, I go and get it for myself. I cry out for love from the Source that always gives it immeasurably and unconditionally. I don’t hope for someone else to plan the birthday I want; I plan it for myself. I seek to give the kind of love I want to get. I try not to wait for a reason. If I love you, you’ll know. You won’t need to question it. You won’t need to ask. It will just be there, sure and true. Yeah, people still drop off for reasons I’ll never know or understand and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me. I still love them, though, perhaps in way that is less “intense.” But I’m finding as I go that there is always more than enough love to go around. The more love I accept and give, the more love seems to multiply.

So… Who do you love? Do they know? Who feels unloved around you? Do you have any extra love for them? Are you feeling loved enough? If not, do you have the courage to pursue it? To accept it? I hope so, because no matter who you are, where you are, you are loved and you are lovable. Take it from me. I promise. I know.

Who’s She?

Who’s She?.

Mountain

I’m driving in my car and a familiar voice comes onto the radio. I turn it up a little…

Shawty, I don’t mind, if you dance on a pole…

I can’t believe I’m still listening, but the curiosity is killing me…

You can take off your clothes, long as you coming home, girl, I don’t mind…

This can’t be for real…

They be lookin’, but they can’t touch you, shawty, I’m the only one to get it. So just go ahead and keep doing what you do, do it…

That was the last time I listened to that song. Now I can’t get past the opening notes before my stomach turns. Apparently, no one ever told Usher the truth about the stripping profession: the fact that women who make money through that line of work happen to be far more likely to fall victim to crimes such as rape and sexual assault or the fact that they are less likely to recommend it to friends and far more reliant upon it as their sole financial support than their male stripping counterparts.

Rewind a few weeks…

I’m sitting in a church service and the guest speaker is talking about Moses and the burning bush. He gets to the part where God asks Moses to put his staff on the ground and it turns into a serpent, then he makes a crack about that being one of the many reasons why women should not be in leadership, as a woman probably would have screamed and run away from the serpent before she could see the miracle completed and the serpent turned back into a staff. Apparently, no one told him that Jesus turned concepts related to gender on their head when he praised Mary for sitting at his feet and taking the male role of student while he corrected Martha for fulfilling the very female role of tending to her guests.

Rewind a few months…

I’m lounging on my couch watching Frozen for the first time and finally hearing the supposedly “empowering” song Let It Go in its entirety. Days later, I am strangely, angered and saddened as I see a majority of the little girls that come to my home trick or treating dressed as Elsa. Apparently, a glamorous dress, long blonde hair, and a pretty castle still beat out emotional maturity, a good, kind heart, and a healthy sense of community even on a good day.

 Am I crazy or is being a woman tough?

While some of us are stuck in “no woman’s land” as we wrestle with our singleness or marriages in the age of the romantic comedy and in family or friend groups that send us the message that our highest possible calling and deepest happiness is to be found in the role of loving wife and mother, the rest of us seek our comfort from some bizarre sexual revolution that ultimately still has us catering to some equally disheartening (or arguably more so) man-made construct of sexiness and desirability.

Living in the Bay Area has really brought issues of gender to the surface for me. It only takes plugging a few words into Google to learn about the incredible inequality women are facing in tech companies, such as the one powering your internet search for the topic.

I never felt like I fit prim and properly into the “woman” category. Always a little too loud, always a little too opinionated, often completely outrageous… The battle is never over. While the women at my office, in my very female dominated field, catch up on the latest buzz regarding their take on 50 Shades of Grey (a franchise I object to on a large variety of grounds) I’m not sure where or how I come in, but I feel no more at home when the talk is homemaking or child-rearing.

That being said, I never had any interest in the whole tomboy gig either. I am far too big a fan of perfume, jewelry, and makeup for that. Is it too much to ask to be permitted to engage in an intellectually stimulating debate, maybe even voice a wildly unpopular opinion, all while wearing glittery, golden shoes? Will the day ever come that a woman is seen as fiercely feminine, not for her sultry appearance, but because of the contents of her heart and mind? It’s not looking good… In fact, the prognosis is quite bad…

That’s where you and I come in. We think we don’t have the power, but we do. We think all the control has been stripped from us, but it hasn’t. We get to decide every day the kind of women we want to be, the kinds of daughters we want to raise, the movies we want to watch, and the books we want to read. We get to turn off the radio or the television and say, “We aren’t buying the garbage you are selling any more.” We get to look at our peers, our partners, and our parents and tell them we don’t see ourselves in the product they are marketing. We get to say it’s not ok to convey to young people that exploitation is sexy or that a woman is only as valuable as the man she stands behind. We won’t stop shining because it threatens you. We won’t stop speaking out because it scares you. We were made for a greater purpose, we are rooted in a deeper identity, we bear a more valuable image, we reflect a greater light than the one you’ve reduced us down to…

 Inside of me is the brightest light there is, and I can’t, I won’t, hide it.

Shall We Dance?

When I was itty bitty, I wanted nothing more than to become a ballerina. I had never even seen a real ballet, but somehow I had managed to get it engrained into my miniscule mind that there was nothing more glamourous, more beautiful, more elegant than dancing on a stage wearing a pink tutu and pointy, lacey shoes. When my parents put me in dance class as a remedy to the annoyance of my constant requests and maddening spins and leaps across the living room, I couldn’t have been happier. However, after a couple years, it became clear that not only did I not have the body of a ballerina; I also didn’t have the dedication or skill. I let go of my childish dream and took a random class here and there in other forms of dance, but ultimately, my former desires gave way to more realistic career ambitions. Despite my abandonment of this activity, from the time I can remember, I’ve always come alive when I am dancing. Moving my body to the beat of music brings out a happiness in me that sometimes surpasses even the other things I love most.

In an attempt to re-engage in this form of pleasure and through the help and encouragement of both an old friend and a new friend, I have recently begun to dance again. On Monday nights, I make my way over to a local dance studio for salsa lessons. During the most recent class, the instructor grabbed hold of me to demonstrate a portion of the routine. As the music played, I worked my hardest to make sure I was correctly hitting each and every step. That’s when the instructor said, “Woah, I guess she moves whether you tell her to or not!” My face blushed in embarrassment as it often does during salsa class since my enthusiasm usually far surpasses my confidence or ability, but I pushed forward and didn’t give what he had said much of a second thought. That is until I was partnered with another male in the class who stopped me at one point and said, “I guess he was right. You do move whether you are told to or not.”

For those of you who don’t know, salsa is a dance that relies on partnering skills just as much as it relies on technique. A woman may be an incredible dancer, but if she doesn’t know how to follow, it is all for naught. The man’s priority is to take charge and lead and it is the woman’s job to make sure she is in the perfect position that makes the man’s job of leading as easy as possible.

Now, let me go ahead and pause before you get the idea that this post is about gender roles and that somehow I am asserting that it is always man’s job to lead and always woman’s role to follow… While I find gender conversations enthralling, today isn’t the day for that discourse. Today is the day I come to terms with the fact that I have spent about ninety percent of the 28 years of my life honing my leadership skills and given little if any thought on how to let go and follow. Vulnerability is hard for me. Acknowledging I need to release and surrender is even more difficult. Willingly relinquishing every ounce of power and control is torture.

Whether teaching groups of elementary or college students, being the voice of reason in times of crisis, or offering guidance and wisdom in the midst of confusion, it’s not hard for me to be the loudest voice in the room. It comes naturally. I’ve even learned how to be really good at vulnerability in the context of leadership. Share just enough to be relatable, but not so much that you are no longer seen as a mentor. This skill set has served me well and I am grateful for it, but it has also had its downfalls. I’ve been too direct with friends when I could have taken a meeker approach. I’ve faltered in my faith when I’ve done things my own way instead of relying on the strength and wisdom of the One I serve. I’ve missed opportunities to learn from those who had quieter voices than I had, but equally brilliant things to say.

I’ve said it time and time again, life goes through seasons. I had a very LONG season of leadership, but that season seems to be screeching to a very abrupt halt. I’m no longer in the front of the classroom developing leaders in my job; I am the new one that doesn’t know anything and is constantly asking questions in order to gain clarity. Even when I know the right answer, those around me assume I don’t and seek out those with more experience. I don’t know my way around the city and instead of having tried many of the coolest restaurants and experienced many of the exciting things there are to do, I am completely oblivious regarding how to get from one place to the next or offering up suggestions for fun things to do. Even my personal relationships are demanding a different level of vulnerability I’m not used to or comfortable with. It appears salsa class may be useful for more than just bringing me pleasure. There’s a larger lesson there. I will continue to grow in my technique. I’m a good leader for a reason. I can’t hide my light and I need to be willing to step into the “take charge” roles I may be called to in the future. But… It looks like I have no choice but to strengthen my partnering skills as well. Letting others lead and guide me, being willing to let go even when I’m “confident” I could do things better if I were just permitted to do it myself, allowing myself to be just downright bad at something so that I experience firsthand that it’s ok to let other people take care of me for a change… It’s not what I would have chosen, but it seems to be just what I need. So with resignation, I join this dance, hoping that in due time, my fellow dancers will be taken by how beautifully I manage to follow.

I moved to California with little more than clothes and my itty-bitty car, which my sister and friend had so strategically packed with said clothes (I’m worthless at packing, so I will forever be grateful that these two lovely women did the job for me). Moving with so few of my things has led to several necessary trips back and forth to various stores in the area, purchasing all the things I need. From groceries, to hangers, to a proper shower cap, my many life requirements have left me spending FAR more money than I would have liked to spend in double or even triple the amount of time. There is one thing, however, that I refuse to spend another cent on for months and months to come.

The county I live in, and apparently much of the rest of the Bay Area as well, has decided to make a grand, green gesture, by getting rid of all the plastic bags in stores. The only options shoppers such as myself, now have upon arrival at the checkout counter is to either pay ten cents for a paper bag or purchase a reusable bag, usually donned with the logo of the store that has recently been mandated into environmental consciousness. I actually really love the concept and I am fully and totally on board. There seems to be just one problem. I never, NEVER remember to put my reusable bags back into the car after I have unpacked them. I immediately realize my blunder as I step into the store, but at that point, my bags are still lying in some corner of my house and I just end up buying another bag or two before I exit the establishment. Due to this dilemma, I have now purchased a number of reusable bags more suitable for a large, hearty, hungry family than a single woman attempting to cut down on her sugars and carbs.

Plastic bags, or the lack thereof, aren’t the only things that are taking some getting used to. My sister still rolls her eyes at me as I pronounce all the city and street signs I see with a Spanish accent… the way it seems to me they should be pronounced even though “everyone else” butchers them using awful, American accents. The freeway exits don’t have numbers. Therefore, I spend much of the time I’m driving wondering if I’ve already past the point I need to be watching for. I also have to be diligent about when I do and don’t need cash since there isn’t a Chase ATM on every corner like there was in Chicago.

When push comes to shove, those are just the small things. I stop myself from referring to Chicago as “home” at least once a day as I think about the friends and festivals that used to be just a train ride away in the midst of the season The Windy City does best. I seek to learn the differences between Medicaid (which I am familiar with) and Medi-Cal (which I am not) as I stumble through California’s unique take on providing mental health services. I scramble to find a welcoming church that values having conversations on diversity and justice as much as my church did in the Midwest.

Despite all of this, the move feels right. I’m valuing the time with my sister even more than I imagined possible, the sunshine perfectly coupled with a breeze and beautifully absent of humidity is proving good for my soul, and the freedom of not having a million things scheduled at all times seems to be mellowing me out. What was supposed to happen, happened, and even in the moments I feel stretched, I can tell this change is good for me.

All that to say, I’m a far cry from “normalcy,” whatever that is. I don’t know how long I’ll have to spend in California to re-wire almost a decade of “normal” in Chicago. I’m also not sure how long it will take me to remember to bring those stupid reusable bags with me to the store! Judging by the fact I loaded my bag-less ground beef and cucumbers directly into the trunk of my car this evening, it could take a while…

Is it Saturday?

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I was awoken at 3am this morning by a fire alarm. Despite many attempts to disarm it, it persisted off and on beyond 6:30am when I dragged myself out of bed to ensure that approximately 200 students safely navigated their way out of the building that has been their home for the last nine and a half months. As they shuffled their belongings out of their minuscule rooms and into their even tinier minivans, I put my “serious” face on as my student workers and I fought to make sure they left as little destruction in their wake as possible. Now, a little over 12 hours later, I am left with a silence that is as deafening as it is beautiful and I am overwhelmed with a familiar feeling of relief that few outside of the realm of Residence Life will ever know or understand.

For the past four years, I have made my home in the midst of primarily first year college students in what most outside of student affairs (though the word makes those of us within it cringe) commonly refer to as a “dorm.” I fell in love with student development during my time as a resident assistant when I was an undergraduate student. After Easters and Thanksgivings, Bible studies and pancake breakfasts spent with residence directors who took the time to nurture and develop me as an individual, but more importantly as a member of a larger community, I knew I wanted to pay it forward and pass the love on to young adults such as myself. My journey as a residence director began when I wasn’t much older than the students I was overseeing. Still needing to do so much growing of my own, I’m not sure how much meaningful development of students I did in that initial year on the job. Learning firsthand that no one has a clue what an RD does unless he or she has been an RA or RD before hit harder than I ever could have anticipated. Being a person who likes to be viewed as competent and intelligent, I was embittered by the negating reality that people thought of me as little more than a glorified student. Even when I used all the words in my vocabulary to talk them out of their false assumptions, their only other point of reference landed them on the conclusion that I was some sort of 24 hour a day “house mother,” which was almost equally as frustrating. Sometimes even those within higher ed (or worse within student affairs) didn’t even get it! Unlike other friends who were spending their Friday and Saturday nights out on the town, I was attending on-campus talent shows and making middle of the night trips to the emergency room. In a role like this, sometimes a weekend can feel more stressful than a Monday morning. While others were working 9 to 5, I was working 9 to 9 or 8am to Midnight or 5pm to 2am. With an unpredictable, emotionally-draining schedule, that first year I discovered that it is only the love of students that will keep an RD going. If that love is forgotten, for even a moment, what is already tough becomes just about impossible. That love (along with a little bit of coffee, a lot of support from others in the field, and constant prayer) is what has kept me standing all these four years.

Indescribable ups and downs mark this path. One day you may be sitting with a student in the depths of their greatest brokenness and the next thing you know you are staying up late into the night with students and colleagues playing Settlers of Catan, laughing until your sides feel like they are going to split open and tears are running from your eyes. The same student who infuriates you to the point of wanting to throw a few punches (though your professionalism would never allow you to actually do it) can make you beam with joy and pride after just one semester of maturing through dedication, soul-searching, and hard work. Everyday is a fight for balance as you learn to open your heart and life up to those you must also hold accountable to policies and procedures.

Being an RD was my dream job for a time. I am grateful for the chance to have been able to live that dream even though the dream was brief. It has left me with stories I will never forget, lessons I may not have learned anywhere else, and a deeper sense of community than your average Joe ever thought possible. Though some manage to remain in such a position for far longer than I have, alas, no one is an RD forever. There is a time when peace and quiet and self-care, forward movement and more fully engaging in relationships with those your own age or older becomes far too tempting. Whether people leave the position for desires to own their own property, grow their families, or abandon the stress of always feeling pulled in a thousand different directions, for some reason or another, each RD’s time comes to an end. I’m glad to be gracefully bowing out before this potential thing of beauty became far too big of a burden to bear, before I stopped being any good at it or started despising the reason I stepped into the position in the first place. Even during times it made me so busy that I thought it was pulling me away from these things, being an RD has made me a better person, a better professional, a better friend… The best experiences have reminded me that this thing they call “vocation” is real and I should never stop pursuing it, while the worst have taught me how to cope, to overcome, to be a loving, capable supervisor, to give more grace, to set higher, more worthy expectations.

Sometimes when things get harder, it is time to put your nose to the grindstone and fight with more fervor than you ever have before and sometimes maybe it is getting so hard because it is time to say goodbye. So as I lay on the couch exhausted on a Saturday night that could have been spent dancing or catching a movie, my feet sore from climbing up and down six flights of stairs and my mind tired from repeating myself over and over to people who don’t want to take the time to read the informative e-mails I have so carefully crafted, I give honor to the memory of this gift I once cherished and smile with satisfaction as I think of all the fun ways I will be spending Saturday nights in the future.