When I was a kid, everyone in the house knew they could get me to do anything they wanted with three simple words: I’ll time you. (It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I was first shocked, then crushed, to learn that no one ever so much as glanced at a clock.) All kidding aside (and there is still much kidding about it among my siblings to this day), a competitive spirit is part of who I am; feeding it was one of the best gifts my family ever gave me, growing in me an unbridled love of sport. Like most things we invest in, passion came first, passion begetting hard work, all of which would eventually culminate in a college track scholarship.
Only things didn’t go exactly as planned.
In the early spring of my freshman year, at the three-quarter mark of a 400-meter sprint, I collapsed in the grass of the football field, the rubber track grainy under my heels, dark pellets clinging to the sweat of my calves, tears streaming, pain writhing. A bone scan revealed hairline fractures in both of my shins. I was handed a redshirt, immediately halting my ability to compete. Later that spring, my team would win the conference championship for the one and only time in my college career. I watched in my warm-up jersey from the fifty-yard line.
Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy. —Søren Kierkegaard
I’d call my dad during this time—the first time in my young life I felt the demoralization of failure, stripped of the part of me I had embraced the most, vacant of performance, questioning if I was really any good at the thing I was supposed to be good at. It was my first heavy-weight wrestling match with identity and significance.
My dad would listen patiently, and then the fibers would carry the reassurance of his voice back to me, always saying the same thing from the other end of the phone: “Keep plugging away. It will eventually pay off. Just keep plugging away.” I took his advice to heart and each day mustered just enough courage to gather the shards of rejection and embarrassment and failure that were splattered like freckles on my skin and went to work—again and again. The next spring I’d earn my first of three All-Conference honors and, two years later, went on to be voted team captain by my peers.
Just keep plugging away. It will eventually pay off.
I still say it to myself repeatedly. Like every five minutes of every day.
My alarm goes off at 5:04 a.m.
My first thought is incomprehensible even to myself, nothing more than a loath-filled grunt. My second is a foggy inventory of my day, racing to pinpoint the moment I can drop into bed and lie here again.
I head to the gym and walk back through my garage door at 6:45 a.m. I flip on the coffee, shake the kids awake for school, and spend the next hour clumsily moving back and forth between parent and working professional. My morning, like every morning, is an intermittent to-do list, a scavenger hunt for clean socks and missing homework: Shower. Pack lunches. Put on make-up. Dig through dirty clothes for PE uniforms. Dry hair. Locate missing homework. Get dressed. Yell things from the bathroom door like “finish your breakfast,” “brush your teeth,” and “put on your shoes” (ad nauseam) as I straighten my hair. Throw back coffee and toast. At 7:15 yell, “Bus is here!” and give hasty kisses as the kids scoot across the street. Check myself: Keys. Phone. Wallet. Backpack. I’m out the door to catch the 7:55 Metra. Work, commute in reverse, dinner at 6 p.m., homework, mad dash for practice, church, meetings, writing, social engagements, whatever the evening holds.
Sleep. Grunt. Start all over again.
Like the crashing force of a cascading waterfall, I am a broken record of rushing noise, a perpetual cycle of busyness, chronically exhausted, except when I’m not. I am also a mirror: I look no different than most people I know. Drowning was the word I’d first used with my friend Carla when I’d asked her to mentor me nearly two years before and was the word in my pleading email she’d honed in on more than any other. The drowning, at its worst, is a throwback to hot summer evenings spent in swimming pools with teenage boys who’d dunk my head, pushing me down repeatedly, sputtering, before I could catch my next breath, an adolescent game I never thought was funny. The fear of being without air, even momentarily, has never brought me anything but panic.
Over breakfast one morning, Carla asks me when I rest. I do, I know I do, but I stare at her incredulously, like she just asked me to solve an eighth grade algebra problem without pencil or paper (not that it would matter), and I am unable to come up with a straight answer. I rest, I say. I do. And I mean it, but after a few fumbled attempts to come up with anything concrete, my words trail off. I’m as incapable of calculating rest as I am of solving the algebra problem.
The waterfall feels like it will never stop crashing. I try to muster enough energy to rise to the surface for a gulp or two of air before the uninhibited force comes crashing again, pushing me deep into waters where I don’t belong nor want to be. My lungs burn as the undercurrent finds its way around my ankles, and I desperately seek the next opening where I can catch my breath before it pushes me down again. Perhaps what frustrates me most is that I’m not the kind of person who’s wired for a hurried life. I actually abhor it. I live it out of necessity, scrambling to my feet to keep up with its incessant demands, often resigning myself to hurl my leftovers at the world. For the record, I don’t think this is a good way to live. I’m not cut out for the rushing. I wonder how many of us really are.
And so I find myself longing for a slower pace.
Sometimes I blame my location, rationalizing that if I only lived somewhere life didn’t move so swiftly, like in the country where I grew up, I could finally catch my breath. (On our first trip to Chicago, they’d scheduled Eric’s interviews so tightly that they’d forgotten to feed us dinner. I’d come home with blisters on my feet after our “break” blitzing the outdoor mall.) My phone dings and my sister-in-law’s photo stream shows a picture of my nephews tending what seems to me like their acre-wide garden, making homemade jam from blackberries they’d picked themselves. Yearning seeps as I fight the creeping envy of children being raised on the Farm in the way I wish my kids were, away from the concrete and strip malls and the endless registration deadlines of activities that give rise to the pressure of missing out and fear of falling behind always bearing down, despite how determined we’ve been not to get sucked into those lies. The Farm, where I can ingest long, sweeping breaths that fill my chest with air that is pure and clean, uncontaminated with the congestion of the suburbs, filled with the wings of fireflies, the pixie dust of milkweed, and the soft, fuzzy seeds of the dandelions that dance with the evening breeze.
Even in my utopia, I know it’s a lie.
Geography won’t contain the rushing. Rushing is a state of being, a manner of living, and it resides within each one of us. “In our rushing, bulls in china shops,” says Ann Voskamp, “we break our own lives.”
And it always seems to get in the way of the Stirring.
When I’m not blaming my geography, I tend to blame the season. In my current season: kids, husband, work—in that order.
But I’ve learned this as I look back at the seasons of my life: there’s not been one that’s been absent of the waterfall. I think back to a few years ago when Sadie and Clay were both finally in school all day. I dreamed of all the things I would do with my extra time, only to fill it so quickly that I felt like I never had enough. Then I thought back to when my kids were very little, the long days full of unending interruptions and playdough and PBS and then there was all the crying and how I couldn’t think straight and couldn’t find a minute to spend with myself or my thoughts and there was no way I had time to pursue the dreams in my heart or even know what they were because I was just so busy. And then there was the time when I was a young working professional, newly married, and we were just so busy.
“Time can seem like an enemy,” Kathleen Norris says. “It chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease.”
I take great comfort in knowing there will be seasons in my life where I’ll be more available than others, seasons that ebb and flow, and I will change and flow with them, my time no longer dictated by the incessant ticking of the clock. I take comfort in it because it gives me hope that there will come a day when I can step out of the rushing. And so I hold on to the vapor of days to come when I’m sure things will change, where the continuum of time will open its doors, bend its knee, and finally curtsey. “You’ve made it,” she’ll say. “You now may do as you please.”
But then I sit on my friend Jeannine’s couch and I’m reminded of the lie once again.
Jeannine is a beautiful woman who makes space to listen to God; her easy nature and kind spirit are magnetic. I thought I’d have more time to figure things out when I retired, she says, but we’re so busy. And there are so many ways I can spend my time, she says, I don’t often know which way to turn. And I deflate every time I hear this from someone her age, because I’ve been so certain of the illusion that the future is surely where my respite lies. I dream of long days of leisure, hiking, writing, napping, a mile-high stack of books on a sunny patio with a sweating glass of iced tea. I imagine it never rains and it’s never cold and I’m always happy, because what in the world could I have to be unhappy about in this sweet life of leisure and pleasure? And then I see actual people I know who are retired—the real ones—and all they talk about is how busy they are. Busy with projects and volunteer work and grandchildren and gardens and cruises through Alaska and the open sea. Jeannine interrupts my thoughts: “It’s really interesting,” she says. “I’m not sure what God is calling me to in this new season (i.e., I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up), but I’m open to listening and figuring it out.” I deflate even more. Even beautiful and wise Jeannine hasn’t figured it out by now?
The most suffocating part in the midst of all the rushing is that I ache to live out my dream. I ache to feed the Stirring, to float on my back at the pace of a lazy river and follow it wherever it leads. To go to new heights, experience new depths, to take long uninterrupted walks; to sit in coffee shops, to read the great minds of literature and ponder the deep things of life; to spend quality time with the ones I most love without feeling pressure to get to the next thing. To tear up the intermittent to-do list. To not be interrupted. To live only out of my sweet spot, the places where my gifts are celebrated and my limitations evaporate with the breeze of the dandelion seeds.
Altruistic and unrealistic, for sure, but still, when it comes to listening to the sound of my dreams, I long to be free of the seasons—all of them—and live out my passion without restraint. At my worst, every task of my day begins to feel like an obstacle to the thing I’m really supposed to be doing. And this is when I know I’ve lost perspective: I’m focused too much on the destination and not enough on the becoming. I’ve become self-absorbed. I’m so busy chasing the future that I miss the beauty of the present, and this is nothing less than tragic.
Yet, at the same time I believe in being attentive to the present, I also believe that our dreams both deserve and demand our attention; that our dreams and longings and callings deserve the very best part of our gifts and our efforts right smack dab in the middle of all the rushing. The paradox is maddening and, frankly, exhausting, but this is the tension we live within each frenetic day: Choosing the present. Choosing the future. Choosing to live out our dreams, to keep plugging away, while the force of the waterfall threatens to thrust us against the rocks and drown us entirely. Because if we don’t live intentionally toward our dreams, the water will swallow us whole, and someday we’ll look at the bottom of an ocean somewhere and see our souls left for dead on the lonely soot of its dark and depressing floor.
“Do not lose hold of your dreams or aspirations,” says Henry David Thoreau. “For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live.”
A few months ago, I spent a Friday night tucked away in our home office with nothing more than my laptop and printer. I needed to get a handle on where I was with my writing and was weary of staring at too many screens. I needed paper. I needed a pen. I needed to see and touch. I spent more than three hours printing everything I’d written in the last eight years. I couldn’t believe how many files I had; things I didn’t even remember writing, things, at the time, I thought were simply a waste of time. I’d written many of them as I wrestled with the Stirring—some were fist-pounding rants about what God was or wasn’t doing in my life, some were creative exercises, others were articles I’d published or pieces I was trying on for size that were, in the end, really, truly terrible.
But some of them were gems.
After I’d finished printing, I went through each document and did a word count, marking each page. By the end of the night, to my astonishment, I’d discovered I’d written more than 100,000 words over these last eight years. I started to cry. Malcom Gladwell would be proud.
Keep plugging away.
In the midst of all the rushing, I had taken the time I could, the nooks and crannies of my days and nights, the pieces of myself that I could muster in the midst of the exhaustion, and I wrote them down, I offered them to my dream. I wrote them to help me, as E. B. White says, to know what I think; I wrote them as prayers to God. I wrote them as a way of practicing my craft. I wrote them because even in the midst of all the ambiguity, I must have believed that I was supposed to; something inside of me kept pulling me back to work toward my dream.
Our biggest fear is that season after season will go by and we will be no further down the path than we were in season number one or two or three. That we’ll end up at season eight and wonder what we’ve been doing all this time. And so in each season, regardless of the rushing, we fight to keep our dreams in front of us. We cling to God and beg for grace. And sometimes we must sleep.
Knowing what we want to be and being intentional about getting there are two different things. I think how many people want to become but don’t have a plan, people that let the chaos of life push them around and get them off course, people that don’t keep holding the dream out in front of them despite the crashing of the waterfall and continue to take small steps in the same direction until they eventually end up at the place they, by faith, believed they might end up.