New Things I’ve Learned This Year (2017)

2017 has been a huge year. There have been momentous times of joy, and also, seasons of deep hurt. Adulthood is showing me this – that we carry these tensions together, often, and that holding both hope and pain at once is completely, one-hundred-percent okay. There have been travels, adventure, and also, writing, decision-making, and new seasons. This year, I’ve learned some important things, and I feel motivated to share. The truth is, we’re all always learning – can you see it? Can you notice it? Do you allow it to change you? It’s in these places that we grow and we can become consistently, fully ourselves. Cheers.

IDINA MENZEL IS THE REAL DEAL. 

Like everyone in the universe, I was a fan of Frozen when the Disney classic was first released. What I did not understand – fully – from enjoying the film was just how much talent Idina Menzel holds.

Luckily, in perusing options for celebrating Chelsea’s birthday, I stumbled across tickets for a summer Idina show. Chelsea once had mentioned that Idina was her “girl crush” and so attending her concert would be the perfect kind of gift. I purchased the tickets and she was delighted. We attended the concert and oh my good gracious – I was absolutely blown away. The cadence of her voice, the intensity of her stage present – it all rocked me. Finally, fully, I could appreciate the gift of Idina. It was easily one of the best concerts that I have ever attended.

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Idina at Fiddler’s Green in August.

NOBODY GRIEVES THE SAME WAY.

Tragically, during the month of August, Chelsea lost both of her grandparents, lovingly called “Omi” and “Poppi.” Simultaneously sifting through photographs from childhood and hearing stories of their life together, I knew this was a major loss for my beloved. As a partner, standing in the grief, I was initially overwhelmed. Ultimately, there was nothing I could do to change what had happened.

More than that, Chelsea was handling her sadness different than I would. She was handling it head on, where for me, I often put my grief or sadness in a box and deal with it later. Bravely, Chelsea chose another way. At first, it was hard for me to adjust to. But, eventually, I came to learn and respect the value of difference and how we each have to take steps in our journey that aren’t the same as others around us. It’s part of being human, and I am grateful that she could teach me this in a genuine and authentic way.

REST, FOR ME, MEANS SPONTANEITY. 

Towards the end of this year, I felt frazzled, overwhelmed, and really, just all over the place. Work was bleeding into my personal life and I felt like everything was meshing together. I was trying to take time to be quiet, to be still, but I wasn’t necessarily re-entering life fully refreshed. And then! One evening, Chelsea and I were discussing the way in which we wanted to live our lives, yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily. A common theme emerged: spontaneous fun. Yes, fun, but fun that wasn’t coordinated or planned or etched into the calendar. Literally, fun for the hell of it.

We have started to do this – whether it means grabbing our favorite sandwich instead of doing laundry, or seeing a movie last minute instead of watching our normal Netflix show – we are learning the value of going against a hard, rigid schedule sometimes. It is reenergizing, surprising, and honestly, so fun.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL (AHEM, THE SOONERS) ARE BETTER THAN THE NFL. 

One of the things that I have always known about Chelsea? She is from Oklahoma.

Because of that, inheriting Sooner fandom was a part of the package deal. Her family loves the fandom of Boomer Sooner and so this year, I had the opportunity to attend my very first college football game in Norman, Oklahoma. Together with Chelsea and her father, we went on a Sunday afternoon to arguably, the country’s epicenter for football. I could barely contain myself with everything – the colors, the size of the stadium, and the adrenaline. Sure, the NFL is fun to watch, but what is better than watching a sporting game with new, enthusiastic family? It’s pretty hard to beat.

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Oklahoma vs. Tulane in September. The Sooners won big, with a score of 56-14.

LONG DISTANCE RELATIONSHIPS ARE REALLY (REALLY) HARD. 

Beginning in early January until early March, I was in Rwanda for work with The Women’s Bakery. That meant that at an important time in my relationship, Chelsea and I would be growing together from a distance – a really long distance. When I flew out of Denver, to Detroit, and on to Kigali, I was nervous. I had never done this before, not like this, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I learned is that loving another human from far away is difficult. I grasped that sharing the little pieces of life becomes much more challenging over a screen. We persevered, of course, and what happened upon coming home was that I was surer than ever that this was the woman I loved and the woman I wanted to be with.

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Rwanda in February.

GOOD READERS NEED GOODREADS.

Several friends introduced me to Goodreads back in the day, but truthfully, I didn’t really understand how it worked. I gave it another go this year and it was exactly what I needed to help me read a book at least every 2 weeks. Goodreads is great, and certainly a must-have application for the phone, especially when tracking reading progress throughout the year.

MY BEST FRIENDS ARE STILL MY BEST FRIENDS.

For the first time in my life, I traveled to the state of Massachusetts and Rhode Island this year! With Ali, Michelle, Rachel, and Jordana – my best friends from college – we gathered together, again, to catch up on life and spend time together. We sipped coffee in the morning and wine at night. We went on walks. We told each other stories. I understood from these precious moments that these girls, now women, will always, always, have a special place in my heart. They will always be my best friends – and that makes me immensely joyful.

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Together again this past May! The Hey Girl Heys hit Rhode Island and it was everything.

HOME ISN’T NECESSARILY A PLACE.

I struggled in my early twenties to find “home.” Sure, there was home home back in Colorado, but I was confused with how much I had grown to also love Arkansas. And then, there was Rwanda. For many years, this was my home, a place that I felt most like myself. Yet, as I readjusted in my mid-twenties back to life in the United States, I was confused about where I belonged. Sure, Denver has always (and always will be) my first home. But this year, I learned that home is more about the people than the place itself. I fell in love hard this year. I began to love a woman that saw me differently than anyone ever had. Time with her, and being known by her, this was home. I was a bit surprised by this; I did not know love could be like that.

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Exploring Red Rocks over the summer with visiting family.

PURSUING DREAMS CAN SOMETIMES BE A CHOICE.

For many years, I have wanted to go back to school. Social Work. Education. Counseling. I have thrown many ideas around, hoping that I could land at one that would be the one – as if a diploma could complete or validate me at all (it can’t). In moments of peace, clarity, and quiet, along the shores of Kivu in Rwanda, I re-discovered a deep knowing. More than anything, I want to help people. And, more than that, I want to be a person that can hear the stories of others and help them. I want to be a counselor. I want to be a counselor because all of us deserve to be heard, and all of us deserve to find healing. In July, I applied to the Graduate Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver (specializing in Clinical Mental Health (Multicultural Track)). In October, I interviewed for a competitive spot. In November, I got in. I start classes next month and I could not be more ecstatic. 

PUFFY CHEETOS ARE CRAZY DELICIOUS.

I might be the vegetarian, and thus, have introduced Chelsea to all sorts of ways to prepare vegetables (deliciously), however, she has introduced me to White Cheddar Puffy Cheetos and my life will not be the same. You MUST eat these wonderfully addictive snacks. You won’t be sorry.

PROPOSING IS MORE THAN A QUESTION.

In October, I asked Chelsea to be my wife. Admittedly, I scoured the internet for ideas or stories of how other people have gone about proposing to their significant other. Eventually, though, I had to step back from the noise of others and reflect honestly and authentically. What did this experience mean for me? What did it mean for Chelsea? As I planned, I prepared my heart for this huge step. More than just a question, “will you marry me?” is a commitment, a statement of love, and to me, a promise. More than ever, I know that she is the woman I want to share life with. That deep knowing – that is what proposing is all about. 

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November: Celebrating our engagement in San Francisco, California.

ACCEPTING YOURSELF WON’T HAPPEN JUST BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE ACCEPT YOU.

One of my areas of weakness is that I sometimes do things for the sake of making other people happy. A less nice way to say this is being a “people pleaser.” While looking to others’ happiness can be a nice gesture, it is otherwise unhealthy when it becomes a centering objective in what you do. That’s what made “coming out” so hard – I knew that I would upset people. Eventually, I had to recognize that my happiness, in this case, had to come first. However, I still have a lot of work to do on this. This year, now with Chelsea and fully out, I discovered that even so, I still carry a lot of shame with me. Earning acceptance from others, I have supposed, would allow myself to come around fully to who I am. Honestly, this has failed. I cannot wait for the approval of others so that I have the approval of myself. That must – it must – come first.

WALKING IS THE SPORT OF THE SEASON.

There have been seasons of my life where running – the harsh breathing and flowing movement – has been my main way of de-stressing. Those days, at least for now, are over. Instead, this year, I’ve learned to love the joys of walking. One foot in front of another, looking up and around, I have found a lot of peace in taking morning and evening walks to re-center myself. The pace is slower than running, but for now, that’s what I need. I need to notice. I need to look. I need to take the world in. And still, I must move. That’s why walking has become so important for me.

 

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Walking & exploring the topography in New Mexico, just outside Sante Fe in September.

MIRACLES HAPPEN. 

I have always believed in miracles. However, sometimes the hardness of life stiffens my usually open spirituality and miss the many small miracles happening around us. This year, I witnessed a big one – my brother graduating college. This act, this celebration, propelled me forward to remember, always holding to the truth, that miracles are around us, and they are happening all the time. They don’t have to be dramatic or completely unheard of – they can be small, daily things that prove that we are stronger than we know and that we can do things that we thought to be impossible. I still believe in them, and I hope, really, really hope, that I always will.

It’s been a good year and I can’t wait to see what 2018 brings. 

What Our Bumper Stickers Say About Us

Since the Spring of 2016, I have driven my Subaru Legacy around with a royal blue and yellow Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sticker on the right-hand side of the trunk, just above the bumper.

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The HRC logo, depicting equality for all, was released in 1995 by the HRC, designed by Stone Yamashita.

I got the decal during Denver Pridefest and knew, immediately, that I wanted to put it on the back of my car. For some reason, it felt easier to put the sticker on the rear of my car first, and then, subsequently, tell my family and friends that not only did I support marriage equality, but that I too was gay. When I decided that this was the marker I wanted to put on my car – for all to see – I thought it would be best to do so with a handful of other stickers, too: the Rwandan flag, a Peace Corps logo, and a simple cross.

 

Aha, I thought.

Now people would be really confused, wondering, who is this person driving around with progressive Christian flag-focused stickers? Exactly. Like a declaration of identity, I wanted to spread the word that we could be all kinds of different things, all at once.

But, again, what was so compelling about presenting my identity through the medium of a vehicle? Couldn’t I have been happy enough with having conversations about these sorts of things? Why did I feel it necessary to stick adhesive on my trunk in order to say, “Hey! Look at me! This is what I stand for!”

I suppose a great deal of this drive is to identify or stand with something. Perhaps, subconsciously we can feel “in” when someone else sees the stickers and acknowledges that we are a certain kind of person. We feel validated, like our stickers subscribe us to a larger set of values or pillars. Unspoken, of course, as most of the time cars that are around us, speed down roads and highways, interchanging lanes, paying no attention to us anyway.

Bumper stickers aren’t all that old in the broader view of things; bumper stickers weren’t really a “thing” until after World War II. In an upgrade from “bumper signs” that were made from paper and string, Forest Gill was able to invent a new kind of adhesive combination that made for an actual bumper sticker. In the years following, these became incredibly popular for campaigning. By 1968, 20 million stickers were printed from the presidential campaign for Alabama Governor George Wallace, the famous segregationist. They were a big deal. Now, many historians and manufacturers alike believe they are on the decline, with political campaigns focusing more on the televised process, rather than the rally-like “hurrah” days.

More screen time equals less bumper stickers.

In some ways, however, they’re still booming around the city, especially Denver, with political affiliations (be it Obama or Trump), and also, things that are declarative like, “University of Colorado Mom”, “Proud Parent of an Honor Roll Student” or wishful thinking like “Coexist” or “Peace Not War.” There’s some a bit more on the defensive side, like, “9/11 was in Inside Job” or “Fear the Government that Fears your Guns” or “Put the Cellphone Down and Concentrate on Being a Shitty Driver.”

Really. I’ve seen it all.

Then, I know many people who claim that they would never and I mean, never, put a bumper sticker on their car. Maybe their water bottle. Maybe. Millennials certainly enjoy putting them on the back of their computer, so that’s always an option as well.

But for the resistant, what’s the hold up? Perhaps, in ways, it feels crass to declare our ideas or belonging simply with a paper stuck on our car. Isn’t that the function of social media these days? Isn’t Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest enough?

Also, it takes a long time to get bumper stickers off cars. I should know. Just this last week I removed two of my bumper stickers out of the feeling of wanting a clean slate. I was tired of having a trunk-full of stickers, and so, I decided to leave only two. But that is the thing: it took at least 45 minutes to remove them both. Is it really worth it? It’s kind of a funny store, too: driving through rural Kansas, Chelsea and I stopped for gas at a Shell station. As the gas poured into my tank, I took a ice pick and furiously began scraping the stickers off my car. Of course, in this moment, I was removing the cross, which I am sure, looked just fabulous in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure bystanders were wondering about what kind of heathen I was. Oops.

Moreover, bumper stickers, at least from my travels, are curiously a phenomenon in the United States. We love being a place of free speech, so hey, why not use one of the many canvasses we have. Additionally, we likely spend more time in our cars than anyone else, so why not decorate as we wish. There’s one problem that I’m noticing, though, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t want the back of my car loaded with stickers, especially of the political kind.

Bumper stickers – more commonly the political ones – create visceral reactions in the people around us. Okay, so maybe it’s just me, but if I see a sticker that rubs me the wrong way, immediately, I build up improper, incorrect, uninformed, and rude ideologies about the person behind the wheel. Let’s be clear: I don’t even know this person. So, perhaps, less of a problem than the bumper sticker itself is our reaction to it. As an already dangerously divided nation, we keep marking territories of “us” vs “them” faster than we can do anything else. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone, and yet, if I have to be honest, I would say that I’m really tired of everything being so divisive. I’m tired of hate. I’m tired of disunity. I’m tired of rancor. I’m ready for something a little deeper, and a lot more sustainable.

I’m not asking that everyone puts “love” stickers on the back of their cars. I’m also not suggesting that no one should have bumper stickers at all. I’m just noticing that they are there, and so are we, and that we can’t help ourselves to reacting. We think these stickers are saying something about us, but it’s possible, even likely, that the stickers are saying more about the drivers around, and how we’re reacting to all of them. I’m keeping my HRC sticker on my car. I’ll hold on to my Peace Corps one, too. These come from points of pride, honestly, and I like the way they look against the sky-blue color of my car. Sure, I could put the logo of the party that I voted for, or some smart-ass comment about our President, but right now, the most important thing to do is to find the right forum. Create discussion. Encourage conversation.

We don’t have to be defined by the labels – or stickers – we put around us.

We can always be more, always learning, always striving for what’s beyond the boundaries we create. This doesn’t mean agreeing in a kumbaya circle. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of hate to overcome, and a lot of healing to pursue. So, let’s find meaningful action, not assuming that a bumper sticker or a Facebook post or an Instagram picture is going to move the needle.

We need to read, to listen, to move. We need to become informed citizens, ready to articulate what is happening around us. We need to understand our history and what’s come before us. We need a lot of things, but divisiveness is not one.

I love a funny, good bumper sticker. Just next time you put one up, think about what you are putting out into the road, and therefore, the world.

You really just don’t know, until you think about it.

Drive Safe – and enjoy the view.

The 5 Books I Always Come Back To

The reality of what’s happening in our society (racism, hatred, violence, etc.) can cause anyone to be weary, exhausted, and tired. Charlottesville, among other things, evoked all sorts of things: anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief. As we figure out how to act, how to stand for (and seek) justice, it’s also important that we know how to take care of ourselves. We can’t be of any good until we’ve properly grounded ourselves with rest. It’s a tricky balance, but what I do know is that the world doesn’t need another person burned out on doing good.

We need energized, emboldened, committed mobilizers. We need to be healthy.

For me, one way I pursue health, wellness, and re-calibration is through books. Reading – whether books, articles, or any other medium, brings about new worlds, unique world views, and lives different than our own. Reading brings fresh stories. And my god, now, more than ever, we need fresh stories to come to light.

A couple of months ago, my reading life changed dramatically with the introduction of Goodreads. Goodreads is a digital application that is revolutionary for the book-lover’s world: you can track the books you read and keep lists of books you want to read in the future. It’s magic. You can also write reviews, give ratings, and see what friends are reading, too.

By rule, I’m the type of consumer that reads, watches, or does something once. I only repeat if I really love it (in TV we’re talking Parks & Recreation or Friends) and so, in the spirit of reading in these hard times, I wanted to compile a list of books that I would read again, and again, knowing that new knowledge, insights, and inspirations would be gleaned each time.

Here’s the five books I always come back to, whether on a plane, on a beach, or in the comfort of my own home. These are books I’ve read within the last year, so though they may not be “classics” they have had a meaningful, recent, and powerful impact.

Cheers – and happy reading.

 


 

Wouldn’t Take Nothing for the Journey Now

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By: Maya Angelou

Date Read: June 2016

Summary: Maya Angelou shares the wisdom of a remarkable life in this best-selling spiritual classic. This is Maya Angelou talking from the heart, down to earth and real, but also inspiring. This is a book to treasured, a book about being in all ways a woman, about living well, about the power of the word, and about the power to move and shape your life. Passionate, lively, and lyrical, Maya Angelou’s latest unforgettable work offers a gem of truth on every page [1].

Favorite Quote: 

“That knowledge humbles me, melts my bones, closes my ears, and makes my teeth rock loosely in their gums. And it also liberates me. I am a big bird winging over high mountains, down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I’m a spring leaf trembling in anticipation.” 

My Reaction:  

If you know anything about me, you know that I love Maya Angelou. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember, however, only have read a wider array of her works since entering my mid (and late) twenties. What I love about Maya’s work is that she uses words like art – to say something.

I found this book sitting a light blue Little Free Library box near the University of Denver. I was on my daily walk, listening to a podcast, when abruptly, I stopped and knew I should look for a piece of literature that would be a nice read for a rare, free summer evening I was having. I saw this book, noting the mere 130-ish pages and figured I could finish the book in a couple of days. I read the book in three hours.

Devouring the pages about what Angelou has learned in her life as an author, as an African American woman, and as a global citizen, over a glass of Merlot, I hung on every single word. I laughed, I cried, I gasped. She is a brutally frank author, still with a sense of softness that makes the heavy realities easier to absorb. This book functions like a striking list of learnings at the end of one’s life. Full of unaged wisdom, I gifted this book to all of my best friends that year for Christmas.

This was the book that gave me hope that if I came out (I did) that I would be okay. This book told me that I could be brave, be myself, and make it out of any struggle I have and would face. This book spoke to me, reminding me of an inherent strength I hold – just by being. I think it can speak to anyone and everyone – and so, yes, I would return to this book a million times before it would ever get old. It’s a classic, a gem, and y’all should absolutely read it in these uncertain times.

Love Warrior 

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By: Glennon Doyle Melton

Date Read: October 2016

Summary:  The highly anticipated new memoir by bestselling author Glennon Doyle Melton tells the story of her journey of self-discovery after the implosion of her marriage.

Love Warrior is the story of one marriage, but it is also the story of the healing that is possible for any of us when we refuse to settle for good enough and begin to face pain and love head-on. This astonishing memoir reveals how our ideals of masculinity and femininity can make it impossible for a man and a woman to truly know one another – and it captures the beauty that unfolds when one couple commits to unlearning everything they’ve been taught so that they can finally, after thirteen years of marriage, fall in love.

Love Warrior is a gorgeous and inspiring account of how we are born to be warriors: strong, powerful, and brave; able to confront the pain and claim the love that exists for us all. This chronicle of a beautiful, brutal journey speaks to anyone who yearns for deeper, truer relationships and a more abundant, authentic life [2].

Favorite Quote:

“So, what is it in a human life that creates bravery, kindness, wisdom, and resilience? What if it’s pain? What if it’s the struggle?… The bravest people I know are those who’ve walked through the fire and come out on the other side. They are those who’ve overcome, not those who’ve had nothing to overcome…people who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpless vigil to our pain.” 

My Reaction:  

I waited for this book on the circulation list for over two months. This book was in high-demand; I saw it listed on a summer “must-read” list and so, without knowing the contents, I signed up to be on the waiting list. When October of 2016 finally rolled around, voila! It was, finally, my turn.

Turns out, the wait was more than worth it. No big has ever made me cry this much. Scratch that – I sobbed my way through this book. It wasn’t that it was particularly sad, rather, the sentiment and truth that Melton writes about was exactly what I had been feeling – for years. This book challenges, persists, and celebrates vulnerability. Melton writes about the deep, real struggles she has had in her marriage and in intimate relationships. It was refreshing to access the typically hidden aspects of such an important relationship; Melton’s stories reminded me that everyone has a story, and certainly, everyone has their struggles. It’s these struggles, I saw in this book, that make us, form us, shape us – but they aren’t what define us.

I read this book before I began to date Chelsea, and right before I was going to “come out” to most of my family. I had joined a rugby team, had visited a gay club, but wasn’t still sure that I was ready to be public with the real, honest part of myself. Reading this book was cathartic; I wept after finishing, praying to God that I was grateful to read such honesty, such comfort. I needed it. And, since reading this, I’ve continued to follow Melton’s work, always admiring her imperfect yet still honest pursuit of authenticity, love, and community. Without question, this book changed my life.

Small Great Things

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By: Jodi Picoult

Date Read: December 2016

Summary: Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong. With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game [3].

Favorite Quote:

“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”

My Reaction:  

Anyone who has ever read Jodi Picoult knows that she is unafraid to explore difficult, challenging issues. Certainly, a great deal of her works focusses on the centrality of love, however, as time passes, I have noticed that her works incorporate issues like corporal punishment, disabilities, and with this book, race. This book was recommended to me by my partner, and frankly, was not expecting for how much this book impacted my understanding of privilege.

Since I was young, I’ve consumed books and books on the Civil Rights movement, however, there have been few moments where I’ve stopped back and thought, “how have I contributed to this? How have I benefited from the racial structures and systems in place?” This book does this.

This book pushes us to consider all types of racism: overt, passive, and historical. This book is difficult and painful but completely necessary to read. This book presses and encourages to consider: what does it mean to be an ally? What is really, truly our place? Most importantly, Picoult reminds us of a necessary truth: it’s never too late to change someone’s mind. We have influence, one way or the other, and we can yield our own power within this.

Present Over Perfect 

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By: Shauna Niequist

Date Read: July 2017

Summary: Written in Shauna’s warm and vulnerable style, this collection of essays focuses on the most important transformation in her life, and maybe yours too: leaving behind busyness and frantic living and rediscovering the person you were made to be. Present Over Perfect is a hand reaching out, pulling you free from the constant pressure to perform faster, push harder, and produce more, all while maintaining an exhausting image of perfection.

Shauna offers an honest account of what led her to begin this journey, and a compelling vision for an entirely new way to live: soaked in grace, rest, silence, simplicity, prayer, and connection with the people that matter most to us [4].

Favorite Quote:

“What kills a soul? Exhaustion, secret keeping, image management. And what brings a soul back from the dead? Honesty, connection, grace.” 

My Reaction:  

One of the unnamed diseases that I think women, in particular, suffer from is busy-ness. This isn’t a woman’s only kind of thing, but, I do think there is something more innate in how we exist: we try to be everything and worse, think we have to be. This book offers an intimate look at the consequences of such a life, one where we think we have to do it all to be it all.

Reading about Niequists’ break-down and subsequent learning is validating and mobilizing. Many times in this book I thought, “oh yeah, I know exactly what you are talking about.” Like many of the wonderful books I’ve read, I finished this book in two days. I could not put it down. Slowing down, living present – these things seems desirable but we don’t always know exactly how to live like this. Niequest presents not a “how-to” or self-help book, but instead, a memoir that guides us into the possibility for a more meaningful, present life that honors who we are, just as we are.

The Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give

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By: Ada Calhoun

Date Read: August 2017

Summary: Inspired by her wildly popular New York Times essay The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give, Ada Calhoun provides a funny (but not flip), smart (but not smug) take on the institution of marriage. Weaving intimate moments from her own married life with frank insight from experts, clergy, and friends, she upends expectations of total marital bliss to present a realistic—but ultimately optimistic—portrait of what marriage is really like. There will be fights, there will be existential angst, there may even be affairs; sometimes you’ll look at the person you love and feel nothing but rage. Despite it all, Calhoun contends, staying married is easy: just don’t get divorced.

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give offers bracing straight talk to the newly married and honors those who have weathered the storm. This exploration of modern marriage is at once wise and entertaining, a work of unexpected candor and literary grace [5].

Favorite Quote:

“By staying married, we give something to ourselves and to others: hope. Hope that in steadfastly loving someone, we ourselves, for all our faults, will be loved; that the broken world will be made whole. To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being — what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift.”  

My Reaction:

This is an excellent read for everything you could expect: open scrupulousness about the absolute lovely pieces of marriage and still, the completely demanding parts, too. In a series of short essays, Calhoun offers perspectives from her own experiences of marriage to give it a real, fair assessment. I appreciated this book because it did not deny the value of marriage, nor did it present the often “fluffy” versions of what marriage is built to be. She struck a beautiful balance; conveying new conceptions of what marriage can be, and what it is. The “toasts” present what we should be talking about when it comes to the institution, and how we can change the nature of these relationships to meet the reality of commitment.

I kept turning the pages because honestly, now, in my late-twenties, marriage is redeeming itself – slowly, but surely. For so many years, coming from a legacy of divorce, I didn’t believe that marriage was something I could honestly consider. I thought it would be the wrong choice for me, that I didn’t have anything to offer. Since coming out, everything has changed. There’s a place for it – an honest, real place. I want more of that. I don’t want the fairytale. That’s what Calhoun offers in her essays. They are bold, genuine, and sassy. That’s a combination I can really go for.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13210.Wouldn_t_Take_Nothing_for_My_Journey_Now

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31845516-love-warrior?from_search=true

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28587957-small-great-things?from_search=true

[4] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27840585-present-over-perfect?ac=1&from_search=true

[5] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32051305-wedding-toasts-i-ll-never-give?ac=1&from_search=true

what we are recovering from

Several weeks ago, upon returning from Rwanda, I arranged to have a chat with a close family relative. I had interviewed her for a book project I started earlier in the year and so we needed a follow-up conversation. The book is a narrative-based work, weaving together the many stories and experiences of women who shaped my life into my own personal narrative.

I’m going to be real: writing a book is a hellishly-slow experience.

I try to write something every few days but when the creative juices aren’t flowing, I feel stuck. When my schedule is full it can be challenging to find time to settle and just write.

Still, I stick with it because what I know to be true about writing is that it is a labor of love and often, you must sit and exist through the progression, knowing that even in the grueling creative process, you are still moving forward.

We sipped our black Starbuck coffees leisurely and chuckled nervously about the state of the world. Apparently, in just a couple of months, a lot can happen. I filled her in with some of my Rwandan anecdotes (namely, climbing mountains and learning about the processes for TWB bakeries throughout the country) while she informed me on grassroots work she had started and various family updates.

When we shifted towards the content of her interviews and contributions to my writing, I confided that some of what she shared had genuinely surprised me.

Well, what surprised you the most?”

I paused thoughtfully and replied,

I mean, for one, I just didn’t know all that my grandmother had been through. Previously, I hadn’t fully connected that her parents were also divorced…it’s unbelievable that I really do come from a family of divorce.”

She shifted her head ever so slightly and firmly, but gently spoke,

Alcoholism. You have alcoholism in your family. You must consider why so many of these divorces have happened, you must consider the root cause. You can’t simply blame divorce as a stand-alone entity.”

Mind. Blown.

The divorces (and there have been many) are symptomatic of something much larger. Her point shifted my mind (and attitude) entirely – which, is actually crazy, because I’ve been thinking about divorce and alcoholism for most of my life. However, her perspective was new and fresh. When you have people in your life that can offer that gift to you, the gift of perspective, take it. Always, take it.

I have forgotten that a legacy of divorce doesn’t just happen. The word “legacy” is, in fact, appropriate; my parents divorced, both of my grand-parents divorced, my grandmother’s parents also divorced. Generations upon generations upon generations.

Too often, I have blamed the rampancy of divorce in my family without digging deeper. Divorce is fueled by something, though. In this case, alcohol.

Weeks since that sobering conversation over coffee, I have intentionally sat with the reality of how alcoholism has affected me; just because I don’t have the disease does not mean that I have been left unscathed.

I have lied to myself for much of my life: you are fine. It’s not your problem. Ignore it. Just be happy.

Yet, the truth persists and it will always find a way to break through.

Alcoholism has driven me to the darkest places of myself, where anger flows likes blood through my veins, and I can hardly see anything but seething, writhing pain. The crack of beer cans continues to frustrate me and can swiftly bring me to moments of confusion and avoidance from my childhood. Addiction is carried as a burden for the one addicted, but the wounds never remain internal. They spread like a sprinkler across a yard, and often, I feel like the nature of this disease has hit me, again, again, and still again. Alcohol and addiction dance like shadowy silhouettes on the walls of my life and it is time for it to be revealed and removed.

In a search for healing, Al-Anon, a support group for family members and friends of alcoholics, has been something recommended to me as frequently as I am told about a new ice cream shop around town (a lot). Typically, when someone would mention the organization, I would nod and smile, but know immediately: hell no. I don’t need help. I’m fine.

Interestingly, since coming out fully, proudly, and openly, it has been easier to understand and see myself, as if the blind spots were beginning to fade away. Identity is strangely funny like that: the more open you can be with yourself – resisting the temptation for shame – the more you can learn about yourself, too.

So, with a more transparent lens, I began to see that it was time to address this issue in my life and take responsibility for my own health – both physical and mental. I might not be able to control alcoholism, but I could take responsibility for my reaction to it. Last month, I went to my first Al-Anon meeting.

I was simultaneously nervous and completely at peace at the same time. I have never figured out how you can feel so many things all at once. The human brain and heart are incredible that way.

When I entered the room, I saw Chelsea and was grateful that she had come with me for the first week. Everyone was gathered in a circle, discreet, but kind in their welcoming expressions and invitations. I received literature about Al-Anon, mostly to review the “steps” and the purpose of the meetings and group. It was overwhelming at first – I wanted to run. But, vigilant, I sat in my own uncomfortability for the hour it required and slowly, but surely, softened to the realization that I belonged, and that I could be understood.

This circle of strangers knew what it felt like to be present to a disease that manifested in beer cans and hard liquor bottles. These everyday people likely knew what it felt like to transform into a monster when reacting to bouts of drunkenness. These humans, none of whom I even know, could relate to the heartbreak of wanting someone to be fully, completely, healthy and yet having no control over that kind of healing.

I was heartbroken, I fathomed for the first time, and I had found a place that might be able to give some stitches, of sorts.

There are hundreds of these kinds of groups everywhere, each week. The sheer size of the group amazed me. The circle had at least 20 people, and in doing some reading before-hand, learned that 7% of Americans suffer from alcohol addiction. That is a lot of people, and that is a lot of lives touched.

Part of the meeting involves a theme or message, and the other half invites people to share and reflect on their stories of alcoholism. While individuals bravely spoke, I witnessed a faint but still consistent narrative. Instead of victimizing themselves in their own story, they acknowledged the impact of the disease, and focused more on the role they have in the situation. The focus was not the alcoholic themselves – it was understanding where freedom exists for us (the witnesses to alcoholism) within the arduous situations we all face, releasing any perceived control of the situation.

I don’t typically speak about alcoholism like this; for me, it’s often been framing the conversation about the pain I have experienced and the ridiculousness of words, situations, or traumas that have occurred. This is not inherently toxic, but when we fail to see the alcoholic as a person with a disease, we rob them of their humanity.

I am guilty of doing this.

Like I said, this disease has forced me to look in the darker places inside me and try to find what I hope to be possible: liberation.

Initially, this confused me. So many sentences of these stories began with, “my recovery…” and I mused defensively, wondering, “what, exactly, are we recovering from?”

It only took me a week to find out.

Recovery, in this context, means living in freedom, even while alcoholism persists. Recovery means reclaiming myself and releasing the blame I have previously claimed. Recovery means recognizing and overcoming the damage it has done in my life. Recovery means letting go.

Recovery removes my expectations of what should happen.

Most importantly, recovery acknowledges that I cannot save the people I love. Yet, I can still love them – regardless of the choices they make.

This does not insinuate a resignation of hope, or of love, or of the past.

After just a couple of Al-Anon meetings, I grasped that this chapter of healing has been (and will be) demanding and gritty and grueling.

Alcoholism is a terrible, unfair, and horrendous disease.

However, we persist. We must always persist.

Recovery is always an option – for everyone.

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20 questions you should always ask.

20 Questions You Should Always Ask

So, it turns out that I am (proudly) in my late twenties (holler).

A strong marker for reaching this age (somewhere in that fuzzy window between 25 and 35) is that you have likely attended at least a dozen awkward, slightly uncomfortable networking events.

Just gonna be real, here. For the most part, I enjoy going out and meeting new people. However, I must be honest and say that I am so, totally, completely, whole-heartedly over the trite question that permeates networking events everywhere,

“What do you do?”

You know, that dreaded, standardized and bastardized “getting to know you” inquiry that pervades nearly every schmoozing event known to man-kind.

I might be being dramatic, but I think that you know what I am talking about.

It’s not a horrendous question, I admit. However, if we are trying to get to know who people are, it has often confused me that we start with someone’s profession and employment, not insights about the person themselves.

Yes, our work matters.
Yes, our work can tell a lot about our interests, talents, abilities, or preferences.

However, sadly, I think we place too much stock in who a person is based on the job they hold. The employment written on our resume, Linked In, or name-tag has come to equate the value a person has. And that’s not a good thing, in my opinion.

I’m guilty as anyone.

For a good chunk of my life, I committed myself zealously to one thing, and to one thing only: I must change the world. And, obviously, this can only happen through my job or the work I do.

I’m being facetious, but this line of thinking was and has been 100% true.

Lately, instead, I’ve been trying to think “outside the box” and consider that perhaps, maybe our lives (and our jobs) don’t always need to be solution-driven. Our work doesn’t have to exist only in direct opposition to a problem that persists in the world.

Most of the time, our work is much more nuanced and complicated than this. What about researchers? Waitresses? Graphic designers? Bus-drivers?Principals? Ministers? Economists? Manufacturers? Car Salesmen?

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A lot of the time, our work is providing services, skills, projects, or tasks that are value-adds to economies (globally), to education, to business, to communities, to health services, or other kinds of sectors that then might be helping with the world simply by being a part of a collective work. We can change the world because we are a part of it and addressing injustices, gaps, and wholes in all kinds of ways.

Our singular job title will never tell the whole story. It adds to the story, I think. Usually, people are in a line of work for a reason: perhaps they need the paycheck only, but sometimes, they’ve selected that industry or sector because they are passionate, want to help, or are hella smart. Yes, I said hella.

This year, I have started writing a book that is focused on influential women in my life. The concept is still evolving, but the main idea is to capture the power that stories have relationally: who we are inherently affects the people around us. Writing a book that tells the stories of others has meant a lot of interviewing and asking questions – and my, oh my, I love asking questions.

In my handy-archive of questions that I enjoy asking to new friends, old friends, and strangers on the street (that’s not an exaggeration), here are the 20 that I love the most.

If you would like to change the conversation too, then hey, these questions are a great place to start. These questions help brighten those occasionally mundane and stuffy networking events – especially if there is cheese and wine – so have fun, and be bold. They help bring out stories – not resumes – and to me, that’s always a move in the right direction. These are good for those spaces – but also for friends, grandparents, neighbors, and co-workers.

You never know what small questions might lead to.

Good luck, and happy conversations.

What is the earliest memory you have?

 

When you were a kid, what did you want to be? Did it change?

 

Have you been in love? What was it like?

 

Do you believe in soulmates? Why or why not?

 

Who had the greatest impact on you in your life?

 

If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life what would it be?

 

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?

 

What three adjectives would your friends use to describe you?

 

What is the one thing you have always wanted to do in your life but

haven’t?

 

If you could only have one super power what would it be?

 

Describe your biggest fear.

 

Where would you go if you could go anywhere for one day?

 

In your world, what does “balance” mean and look like?

 

What makes you most sad about the world and do you think that issue or problem is solvable?

 

How would you describe “home”?

 

Share a moment from your life when you were completely, totally free and/or happy.

 

What do you like most about yourself?

 

What is your greatest weakness?

 

What do you think the point of life is?

 

What will always make you laugh?

 

when education is not enough.

I come from a family built solidly and firmly on the bedrock of education. Becoming an educator is a source of deep pride; my father, for example, attended Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado (a member of the first graduating class) and after receiving his education license during his undergraduate studies, he returned to Overland to teach and has been there ever since.

For nearly 30 years, my father has been teaching a diverse, multi-cultural student body in geography, history, and social studies. Much of his life has been formed within the confines of a classroom, and honestly, I think it’s super badass. He’s inspired me to know the incredible gift that education holds.

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That matters because I grew up noticing and observing and then believing that education was the tool. For me, it was. I attended school systems with resources, qualified teachers, and supportive add-ons to enable the highest student potential to be met. This extended into college too, as if education was assumed to always be present and existent in my life.

So, remaining always enthusiastic to the process of education, I am faced with a deeply important and stark question: what happens when education is not enough?

Kigali, Rwanda

Inside a thick-aired upper room of a small alimentation in Kimironko, Kigali (towards the east side of town) I sat together with a Rwandan student of mine of whom I have known for six years. I hadn’t seen her since my last work trip to the country (in late 2015) and so she updated me, slowly and meaningfully, on each fragment of her life. I leaned in, listening, hanging on every word, wanting to know exactly what was happening.

With bread and fanta on the table, she chewed and sipped and told me everything.

Her mom is sick. Gravely ill. I try to imagine her lively, energetic mother withdrawn and in pain. It’s agonizing, honestly, to even imagine. This student does not have a father – her mother is her only parent. She confesses a fear of what happens if her mother dies. It will be okay, I tell her. But, really? Will it?

Her older sister, in pursuit of a job, left for Kenya without telling anyone in her family. Her family is devastated. They are waiting, hoping she will return.

Her younger sister passed the national exam last year and was selected to a reputable school two hours away from their community. They could not afford the school fees, so instead, she is attending a school that requires a 90-minute walk each day, one-way trip. The school’s education is sub-par and so, she fears that her sister will retain little, and perhaps be confined to the fields for farming for the rest of her life.

This student has the same concerns for herself; she graduated secondary school last year (a major accomplishment) but now, without an accessible (or even permeable) job market in her rural community, she feels stuck, isolated, and alone. Her fear, in addition to being single, is how she could possibly support her family without finding a job.

As she tells her story, I listen. As I listen, the same question repeats itself. This is a girl who did everything “right.” She studied hard, got good grades, and yet still, remains stuck.

How does she get out?

That’s the question, and it’s one that I cannot shake.

As she confesses all of things before me, her throat tightens as she does her best to not cry. Crying in public is quite taboo in Rwanda, and she knows this as much as anyone else. I give her a few minutes to hold it together, reminding her that I’m there for her, and with her. She is stressed and rightfully so; she worked for the last six years (even coming back to school after her father’s death so she could make a life for herself) and now this?

Now what?

How do we fill this gap?

Certainly, that’s the root of the model with my work with TWB: we seek to provide a tangible, realistic, and powerful application for an educational foundation. Yet, our program hasn’t yet reached this young woman – nor has it for all the women in Rwanda (and around the world) that enter the sphere of education but fall short when it comes to applying it. Herein lies privilege – yes, privilege, that uncomfortable elephant in the room of a word where we confront what others have (or do not have) and try to understand how we leverage our own existing mobility.

This student of mine is currently immobile – at least in an opportunistic sense.

For now, I have encouraged her to join other girls that I have supported to map out “next steps” especially as it relates to community-based solutions that would enable her to continue to take care of her family. Whether a small business (of tutoring in English for example) or seeking out educator jobs, I have instilled the hope that she can seek with diligence and confidence. She has something to offer the world and my god, she will offer it.

Yet, even in these small actions that work for a better future, we must take a larger step back and think about the education systems we promote and the larger systems of society they exist within. The strongest education, I believe, is one that is experiential and applicable. Learning can be done for learning’s sake, but it also must allow the learner to build capacity to leverage their own work ethic, knowledge, and potential for a better life.

What if we could re-work our systems and integrate the job market with what we are teaching? What if instead of teaching rote memorization skills, we built a curriculum that was alive, active and channeling participants directly into a trajectory? What if, instead of de-funding our entire system, we invested in it and compensated teachers for the value that they are worth?

I don’t have an answer for these questions, thought I genuinely, authentically wish that I did.

What are your thoughts?

How can we address the gap of education and income security?

How do we protect those, especially women, who are left with limited opportunities and yet incredible, limitless, budding possibility?

These are hard, awkward questions.

But until we ask them, we cannot discover and work through possible solutions. Let’s begin the conversation together. Let’s do this together. Let’s make education work for everyone. And I do mean, everyone.

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“Love is bigger than you think.”

When I was 13, I bore witness to the death of my great-grandmother.

Slowly, she curled up into herself in those last moments. She was in her late 80’s and so her wrinkly, dry skin held her together like an old leather saddle left in the sun on horseback. Her last breath was ragged and soft. I touched her hand before her soul departed, perhaps hoping to hold onto the last piece of life she could give to the world around her. There were numerous family members circling her bed, including my own grandmother who would pass away a few years later. The air smelt still, pungent, and sad. I felt stuck; I couldn’t look, but I also wasn’t able to look away. I knew this woman, she was family after all, but I did not know her well. So, my heart grieved her life with a kind of distance that is both awkward and strange.

It was the first time that I had seen life leave a human being.

It was a haunting moment.

It was humbling too, reminding me that despite the pervasive differences soaked in the human experience, all of us must wrestle and reconcile the inevitability of our mortality. That is a weighty topic for a young teenager, but in many ways, I was ready to engage with it. I asked (and journaled) about my own life. What would I stand for? What was my purpose? If my life would end someday, what would I want people to remember?

If nothing else, I knew then that life was precious.

*

Three weeks ago, I had to face the reality of death again, but in a very different context.

As I’ve become an adult, I have learned that death, though bringing about the same outcome, looks different in the life of each person. Some individuals, like my great-grandmother, die in hospice of old age. Other deaths come more unexpectedly, through accidents or painful diseases. Other times, a person suffers for long periods of time, unsure when the end of their life may come.

As it happened, I was visiting a friend and professional contact of whom I had connected upon launching the Denver location of The Women’s Bakery in January 2015.

We laughed more than we talked when we first met, and I knew she would be a positive resource for me as I began to build my professional life back in Denver. With more than 20 years of experience in the legal arenas of business and finance and active involvement for women’s issues in the community, I respected her insights, opinions, and ideas. As 2016 unfolded, we met three times: all for wine. Over deep red merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this woman shed light on what her life had been like and how she had woven her career into the other areas that life offers us.

There was no wine during my most recent visit.

This woman had cancer and she was dying.

Months ago, after we sipped wine on a summer afternoon in the urban enclaves in one of Denver’s trendy neighborhoods, I emailed her about getting together again. Radio silence ensued. Eventually, she responded to my emails and invited me to her mother’s home, where she was now staying, to talk.

I knew it was serious when I saw the long, lingering tubes at the front of the house, connecting to a plethora of oxygen tanks. I knew it was serious when I saw that all her long, bold, red hair had fallen out. I knew that this woman would not continue to live when she looked me in the eyes and admitted to herself and the world that her battle would be coming to an end.

I sat on a chair across from her, silently praying that I would be able to show her all the love, comfort, and dignity that I possibly could. I was scared.

We spoke for 49 minutes.

“I’m so sorry this is happening. How are you getting through this?” I meekly asked.

“Friends. Family. Normal things. I am trying to stay connected as I can. It keeps me grounded. And since the diagnosis, I have been able to talk more openly with people in my life than I have in years.”

Her diagnosis was just a couple of months ago. And, the most recent CAT scans told their own story: she would be dying soon.

Wow. Why do you think that is? How can you feel free to talk with people in your life like that?”

She hesitated, but only for a moment.

“It’s about healing. And there’s been a lot of it. Take my mom. We didn’t talk for years. And with this, we have reconciled and acknowledged where we have both been wrong over the years. Situations like this bring experiences like that about.”

In an effort for true empathy, I mentioned a difficult conversation I had coming up with some people in my own family.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what is it about?”

I told her the truth. I told her everything.

And she smiled. Slowly. And then, she spoke words that I can still hear echo softly in my heart,

“Be patient. Love well. You are being exactly who you are supposed to be. But remember the journey you have traveled in this experience – others must take it too. Remember to have compassion on those that may not understand. You’ll see. Love is bigger than you think.”

I nodded. I felt encouraged. I was relieved.

I handed her an old black cardigan and a reading light.

She pushed me further in conversation.

“You are a woman of faith. Have you always loved Jesus?”

I was honest about that too.

“I’ve been a Christian for a while. 10 years, maybe. But only in the last couple of years have I understood what it is to be free of the rigidity and system of religion. I didn’t know that loving God was inherently a relationship. But when I knew that I was free from perfection, acceptance, and proof of worth because of Jesus’ love, my life changed. When I discovered that knowing God is far more of a relationship, I began to be free of my own fears.”

She seemed to agree willingly and quickly, “Fear. I think religious systems promote this more than anything. And let’s be real, we all probably need a savior. From fear, and, I think, from ourselves.”

I pursed my lips in soft agreement.

“You’re right. That’s the crazy thing; modeling a life like Jesus is far more radical than a lot of churches like to admit. Recognizing the impact of real, living grace is powerful. It’s not about following a set of rules. It’s a changing of heart. It’s a transforming of a mind. Jesus has provided me the freedom to love God, myself, and others. I can’t really describe it.”

I must have described it well enough.

One week before her death she sent me a short email.

“Dear Heather, thanks!  I also wanted to let you know that I consider our conversation to be the time I accepted Jesus as my savior!  Like I said, we all need one.  I already treasure our friendship!”

My mouth dropped and I cried.

*

I took her wisdom as I’ve entered difficult and important conversations in this season. I’ve held tightly to her word: compassion. It’s a word that has been repeated to me, time and time again, and so I suppose that’s what I’m learning: compassion creates pathways for healing and growth. It’s painful, but my, it’s necessary.

I learned of her death while driving late last Friday afternoon into the southern range of the Rocky Mountains. I pulled over. I exited my car, holding on the ledge for balance, and breathed in the chilly air with a new kind of heaviness.

Death had taken her early. Still, she left me (and I presume many others) with advice and hope to keep going.

We never know what life might teach us. We don’t know what death can teach us, either.

What I do know is that each person on this planet, friend, enemy, foe, colleague, neighbor, or the annoyingly slow driver ahead of us can teach us something. We are all teachers. We are all students.

I miss this friend of mine. I miss her quirky-sassy attitude. I mourn all the lives that are lost early. And I hope, fiercely hope, that we don’t take for granted the people around us for this very reason. As I learned when I was 13, life is fragile. Beautifully fragile. May we see it, and may we know it.