tight jeans.

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I lie to myself all the time, usually about a pair of jeans.

I swear they will fit if I dance or shimmy in some kind of way and am convinced they will look good when the impossible finally happens (even if it means I can’t eat or sit down). I am often deceived by the memory they bring and overlook their rips and shrunken belt line. I ignore the obvious solution: ditch the pants.

I reject so much needed change in my life. I will tell myself anything to keep from having to move on. I push the change away because it requires guts. Bravery can be a tough pill to swallow because it calls for admitting something is wrong.

As much as I tell people I love change, I really don’t, especially if it means changing me. I flip between countries, workouts and foods like it ain’t no thing but I will fight to the death to keep from changing an emotional or spiritual habit that I have come to rely on. Old habits truly die hard, people.

I recently had to make a very difficult decision. There was nothing wrong with these so-called ‘pair of jeans’ but something wasn’t lining up. It was subtle, like a loose seam, but I couldn’t ignore or fix it. They were one heck of a pair of jeans that changed my life, but they no longer belonged in my closet.

For months I was shocked at my lack of courage and indecisiveness. I have only recently regained the notion of what it means to be and feel brave. My true self started telling myself the pieces didn’t fit but I fought tooth and nail to ignore it. Change was calling and I was hanging up the phone.

I hate tight jeans. No matter how awesome your body may look, it won’t feel normal and certainly won’t look normal in a shape that isn’t yours.

I don’t know if this is a woman thing, but I will often struggle through something just to prove I can do it. I feel stronger by putting myself through torture. I easily accept this deep-down feeling of discontent as a normal way to prove I’m tough. I know keeping the tight jeans on all day won’t make me skinnier (or eat less) but I cling to them and remember a time when they were my best friend, when they had my back (er, butt) and literally lifted me up! What changed!? I did! And that’s ok.

It’s called life.

I was no longer the person I was meant to be and I was pretending I was someone I wasn’t. The margin between the old me and the person I was striving to be was about a half a size different. Enough to be called a difference and enough to make me take notice.

I can better detect areas in my life where I need to change when I am by myself, listening and praying. I am a pro at ignoring the truth but there comes a point when I have to throw myself over the edge and trust that God’s best is there and waiting. I hit a point when my heart facts are undeniable and cannot be suppressed anymore.

I have to first see my own disobedience or unwillingness to listen before change is put in motion. It usually takes walking through hell to get out, but please believe me when I tell you it is worth it.

The necessary suffering that leads to change will also bring peace.

If being you means letting something (or someone) go, then prepare for extreme heartache. The road less traveled is not an easy one to walk. Often I feel like I am crawling. But the joy and freedom on this side of living closer with who you are meant to be is liberating. I find myself breathing again, with the tight jeans all tangled on the floor.

stories for the grandkids.

sunsetMy sweet grandmother and namesake died six years ago this week. I was there by her side when she took her final breath but I must say, it was one of the sweetest and most peaceful moments of my life and arguably of hers too. She seemed to be just a simple, God-fearing loyal woman. She grew up in Mississippi, raised two girls and loved a man with a fatal heart disease. However, if you scratched anywhere below her surface you would find a tiger, whip and dreamer, never close to shaking her conservative roots but always willing to push the social envelope. I’d like to say she passed some of those genes on to me. 

Like my grandma, I realize I do most things in life for the story. I crave the round table discussions when strings of memories become facts to those who listen. Even at 92, my grandmother’s stories were relevant and vivid despite carrying decades of dust and life on their shoulders. Though her body aged and eventually died, she never lost her sharp mind or her ability to share secrets and musings of her past. I miss her, but I really miss her stories. 

Since moving to Qatar, I share all parts of my day with family and friends who live seven or eight hours behind me in the past tense. My day can sound dull or riveting, largely depending on how I choose to paint it. It’s a strange freedom, to orchestrate the soundings of my day, but it has given me perspective on my life too. Each day when I tell those I love of what I’ve done I’m suddenly held to account for every hour I spent. I have to actually think about my moments on this Earth and share how I lived them. With time, my audience will change. As I grow into adulthood I have begun to dream and long for the day when the audience listening are generations younger and share my blood. I am beginning to realize the menagerie of stories I collect now will one day be stories for the grandkids. My grandkids. 

Mind you, I have no grandchildren (you can add kids and a husband to the list as well) but I do enjoy the idea of the juxtaposition of one day telling the stories of my youth with the apocalyptic look of aged skin. I love the thought that the way I live my life today can inspire and amuse a future generation in the same way my grandmother’s tales did for me. 

Since starting my job I have traveled immensely, but when I come back home (Doha) after days away it’s as if I am able to see myself in third person, as if I am meeting myself for the first time. It is in those few days of vulnerability and post-holiday blues that I am able to offer myself advice about what I would change as if I were a friend asking for my perspective. In those sensitive days I feel as if I’m giving advice to my future loved-ones about the lives they have yet to live. Though deep in the middle of my ‘roaring twenties’, I truly want to live these years in such a way as to encourage and entertain others down the line. ‘Grandma moved to the Middle East as a young single girl so I can move to Singapore.’ I barely grasp the rarity of this time as being the first in my life when wisdom and youth begin to overlap but, quite frankly, it’s exhilarating.

I am able to see myself as a child, yet have the job and the friends to reassure me that I am in fact (legally) an adult. I’m caught between two worlds (in more ways than one) and I’m thankful I can step outside of myself to see myself and help myself. I live alone so few people really observe the flaws glaring at me every day. I have to be my own mirror and shape and guide this fragile sparrow that so often wants to soar. As I see myself getting older and maturing I feel torn between fighting the openness of being younger and the ‘set in your ways’ attitude shared by many adults. I’m afraid of turning to stone because the only thing worse than a bad story is a good one whose teller has soured with age. I’m afraid of not wanting to care or change. I wouldn’t want that for my grandkids and I don’t want that for me. 

So what would I tell them, two generations removed, about keys to growing up, ways to stay humble and wild secrets about youth? I would tell them to travel. I would tell them to move far away, start a new job, feel stupid as often as possible, to cry without shame and to soak in a few rays of sunshine every evening. I would warn them of silent and lonely moments but would encourage them to embrace it. I would tell them to date (and date long distance at that!) and make eye contact with strangers before saying hello. 

My advice to them would largely be to do what I try to do in my life now. Thinking of my future guidance helps me live without regret.

Be strong, I would say, but never fear weakness. And when you feel you have no meaning and nothing to look forward to, sit down and write a story. Scribble down a memory you’d want your grandkids to hear.

laugh or cry.

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In this country, you can pay an upwards of $10,000 and buy yourself a shiny little license plate with just four numbers on it. Yes, you heard me right. Four sharply cut numbers can be yours and with it the protection to bully every other car in the region, park where you want, bypass speeding tickets and attempt to flatten little blonde American girls and get away with it. It’s hard to dodge the rich young men in white Toyota Land Cruisers while driving a miniature rental, but you try to if you see those four charachters creeping up in your rear-view. Wait, no. Let me rephrase that. You have to dodge them or they will flash their lights at you and try to wreck your car. And your day. And your life. And any positive vibes you may have had up until that point.

So what do you do? Laugh or cry? Usually I want to tap my breaks for a little round of revenge, cry about the handcuffs on my wrists then laugh about it once I’m a granny and the burn has subsided.

There’s no winner in this cultural rubiks cube.

Wrong.

There can be a winner and it can be you. Every game has someone come out on top. Sometimes there are two. My goal is to always be one of them. Even if it’s just in my head.

So if he comes up behind me flashing his lights, honking and going five thousand miles over the speed limit? I turn up Adele and throw a concert for my little mirror audience. Then I calmly move over. Because his actions do not determine my reaction. I choose to not let him make me mad (er, furious and ruthless and criminal).

This mentality carries over in every part of my life (it doesn’t just curb my road rage).

You think my workout clothes are too revealing? That my apartment is too expensive? That I’m too young? Great! Want me to bake you banana bread? Or do you prefer house parties?

Thriving in the Middle Eastern desert demands surviving under critique, criticism and cultural collision. It so easily wears you down so I prop myself up with a heavy dose of scripture, tunes and chats with friends about the ironies of life. Then I throw on a game face that even fools Leah Harding.

I try to meet negativity with optimism and hope. Throwing in humor makes it a game.

I can get irritated at the waiter for calling me ‘ma’am sir’ or adopt that phrase and rename a friend.

Saying ‘hello’ to a stranger who responds with the look of a devil can shut me up or drive me to greet everyone, searching for that one normal response in return.

I have learned in these last six months that I am the ultimate ruler of my emotions, which ultimately shape my perspective of reality. If I let my knee-jerk emotions rule me, I am caving in to a pitiful life filled with a foundation easily cracked by the lightest breeze (or speeding villain). I have learned that my mind is strong and my will to create is undeniable. If indeed every force has an equal and opposite reaction, then my choice is split 50-50. Newton tells me that I can choose hate or love. Irritation or peace. Laughter or tears.

With a choice comes freedom, thanksgiving and clarity to know how to change.

It would be unfair to omit the fact that I have also cried more in these six months than ever before. It took tears to see the beauty in being raw and to help me address the reality behind my fears of being judged. It then took perspective to realize I will always be a victim if I play the game with shame and self-doubt. I now try to live in thanksgiving for this newly found perspective.

It starts with a ‘pick yourself up by your bootstraps’ kind of thought and then eases into a childlike wonder of the world. The child in me loves the game boards that I find myself standing at the edge of every single day. I can choose to play with wonder or play like a victim. Do I laugh or should I cry?

That four digit dude shares oxygen in this bubble with me. I see him and respect him because he is a God-made human. But I will not let his warped degradation of me shape my perception of my surroundings or my ability to love him through a power greater than words can explain. The gift of grace frees me from reacting to his actions. I am free to see things differently and to play with love.

Spoiled Toyota man can wreck your day and shift your focus or he can remind you to laugh at how utterly ridiculous it is that low counting digits on the back of a speeding bullet somehow makes someone think they are better than you.

The game can be tricky. It usually is. We are each confronted with a thousand versions of our own speeding Land Cruisers every hour and we each have a decision staring us down. Though some would call it self-deception, I call it inception. You have a chance to choose your reaction. That may be the most important decision of your day.

So the question remains: Laugh or cry?

Try both and tell me which one feels like winning.

happy by the sea.

dohaI’ve done it. I’ve managed to pack up my life into nine boxes, say goodbye to my family and friends, move to Doha and complete a week of work all in a week and a half! God is certainly good, isn’t he?

Week one as a single lady in the Middle East has been a whirlwind. I have processed very little and I am well into spending my entire first day off in bed sipping tea, mesmerized by my view of the sea. I am a bit glazed over wondering how I got here but so happy to blink and still be where I am. The twists and turns of life are marvelous. I hope to spend my days here with my palms up, open to receiving the little gifts each day brings.

Complaining is a part time job for some folks who live here and I am making it a pledge to not fall into that myself. Is everything a bit more difficult? Yes, but it’s also that much sweeter. It’s like camp for adults. Some kids cry the entire time and only talk about ‘home’ and some kids learn to climb the trees and make life-long friends out of total strangers. I want to be willing to get scraped knees and smelly clothes to build a life that’s worth telling stories about in a decade. As it was to come over here, happiness is also a choice.

I have dreamed of this week for most of my life and the fact that I get to live this life now blows my mind. Following your dreams is a real thing, people. It takes a solid chunk of time, a decent wad of cash and weeks of lonely days but it is absolutely worth it. The challenge to achieve something you once could only think of is riveting. It’s a rush that I have grown addicted to. I want to stay hungry. Even when I’m 35.

It is true that I might stumble for trying to do too much too soon,

but it is also certain that I will never succeed if I hope for too little

or, out of fear of failing, start nothing at all. -Teresa of Avila

The drive and the adventure has to stem from happiness. I don’t want anything to do with this if I am an old grump low on love and desperate for joy. Most of this week has been me preaching to myself encouraging me to spend those extra minutes in the stillness of the morning with my palms up, sinking deeper into a happiness that I could never create on my own. I want to be free to receive gifts from above to help me see the strands of happiness in the life around me.

I am such a thankful lady. I am infinitely thankful for you. I am thankful for this chance at the greatest adventure of my life. Part of the drive to get here was to see if I could even do it. Now it is time to do it well.

If life is a choice then I choose to be happy, right here by the sea.

ladies, date your girlfriends.

IMG_8849I have been on the most elaborate, whimsical, planned and off-the-cuff dates this year. I’m talking Taylor Swift album six worthy dates. It’s something I truly didn’t expect. Something you probably don’t expect is that the dates were shared with my closest girlfriends. No boys allowed.

Yes we are twenty-somethings and are ready to mingle, but why wait for someone to ask us out when we can plan the whole shebang ourselves? Our brilliant trio-mind orchestrates the most creative ideas so when the three of us are out together we often ask if it’s even real. Are we really having high tea in Atlanta after giggling in a park for hours? Surely there’s a camera crew here or something. Nope, no cameras. Just us. Just our fabulousness.

When we are together we are such an unbreakable band of brothers, er, sisters, and we live with no reservations, awkwardness or disappointments. The pressure to go out with a guy has faded with the excitement to be reunited with my gang. It may sound counterintuitive for someone who doesn’t see herself as single forever but it’s been the best possible use of my time and I wouldn’t trade a second of it.

And there are no rules. I don’t have to wait to text anyone or wonder why they aren’t calling me. I just call. I am more me and I learn to be more normal when I don’t feel like I have to put on a show. I have learned what it means to feel comfortable in my own skin without the pressure to perform.

Boyfriends have started to enter our little group and date nights sometimes take the first chair in our once all-lady orchestra. And that’s ok. I am by no means opposed to a dinner with a view tucked behind a marina with a persistent and intriguing fellow. But when the guy-dates do happen it isn’t about the fanfare, the location and the topics as much as it is about getting to know the person. The three of us have walked down the streets of Nashville, crashed at a mansion in Daytona and floated across a lake chatting about all things under the sun. Throw in a guy instead of one of my girlfriends and the shock that an adventure is actually happening subsides and the true ability to enjoy the moment and engage in better conversation deepens. And of course the best part comes after a date when your clan of eager beavers is waiting to micro-analyze every detail.

The point? My girlfriends taught me how to date. Guys won’t teach you how to date.

When you go on dates with your girlfriends you aren’t as impressed when a guy does the same thing. You already know it can be done and sometimes you realize you do it even better (that’s when you walk away). You won’t be in such a fog by his charm (or non-charm) when you already know what kind of pure fun is possible to be had.

Call us what you want. Tag us with whatever sexual orientation comes to mind. We know who we are and that’s what makes this so much fun and so liberating.

So say yes to that date, or heck, plan it yourself. Home alone tonight? Invite your closest girlfriends and share with the world how a night under the stars with a glass of red doesn’t have to just be reserved for a dude.

“Baby we’re the new romantics//The best people in life are free.” -Taylor Swift

for conway.

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As I move through the years I tend to forget what tripped me up or inspired me in the stage before the one I find myself in now. I have been asked to recall my thoughts and struggles as a 12, 13 and 14 year-old and it has been such a challenge! I spoke at Conway Middle School’s FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) this morning and at Conway’s Awards Ceremony tonight. I attended both functions as a student (when Outkast was beyond trendy, Hilary Duff first starting singing and Usher taught us what it meant to burn) and I am honored to be back. I have been trying to think and act like I did in middle school in order to reconnect with this pivotal age group. Sometimes my biggest fears seem to have happened–have I truly forgotten what it was like to be in middle school? For the sake of those in middle school now, I will try to remember what fed me then and what has made me into who I am today.

To the wonderful Conway Middle schoolers reading this–hello. I am truly honored to have met each of you today and I hope my words encourage you and your journey to find yourself and your career in the colorful years ahead. This post is for you. To my fellow Shark, Leopard and Wolfpack team members, well, we know what teams are the best ones. 🙂

Let me start out with this: Middle school is a crucial time in your life.

Are grades important? Absolutely. But this is also a time that I look back on as having learned the most about relationships, social cues and leadership strengths in myself and others. Middle school is filled with a seemingly endless series of tests measuring how cool you can be and how cool others think you are. Are your shoes Tory Burch flats or cheaper Payless knock-offs? Mine were always, and still are, the knock-offs.

Brands in middle school are a huge deal. I get that. But why? It’s because people are trying so hard to define themselves that many people can only do it through the clothes they wear. Let me challenge you to be different.

I decided early on that the only way to break away from the chains and predictability in middle school was to question what “normal” was and to dream.

I desperately wanted to be in the in-crowd (and I still remember each of the girl’s names who were in it) but it just wasn’t working for me. I tried to sit with them one day and was told I couldn’t because I “didn’t have a freckle on my left ear.” Seriously. I cursed God for a while for not giving me a freckle on that ear and then I realized I have more to give to this world than a skin dot on the side of my face. So I started blazing my own trail. If I couldn’t be on their team then I was going to make them wish they were on mine. I had to be confident in myself and I had to be nice to everyone if things were going to change. I was fed-up with the cattiness and I realized that if I wanted more for myself then I needed to start acting that way.

But I couldn’t be nice to other people if I wasn’t comfortable with myself. I started dreaming of who I would be once I escaped middle school but realized that I had to start now. If I wanted to be a journalist or if I wanted to be a politician then I had to start as a 12 year-old. The serious middle school athletes already had college in mind, so why couldn’t I? I wanted to be remembered for something great but I knew greatness meant nothing if I didn’t love people well. So I started changing the way I saw the in-crowd and started challenging what was considered “normal”. I started dreaming under that big oak tree by the sixth grade area.

I became friends with most of my teachers and took it upon myself to ask about their children and to visit them in between classes. I started saying hello to the janitors who cleaned the bathrooms and to the kids who struggled with speaking English. No one was below a simple “hello” and every person deserved my respect. In the process, I learned that girls are mean and boys are stupid. It’s when I learned that treating everyone with dignity and respect was difficult but the only path to take. I learned to laugh at myself after others had laughed at me. It’s where I learned that rejection can either fuel you or shrink you.

I went out for any sports team at Conway that peaked my interest. I wanted to try volleyball so I showed up and gave it a shot. During tryouts, I punched the ball so hard it landed in the rafters and never came down. I wasn’t asked back for the second round. So I went out for the track team. I had worked hard for it and was thrilled when I found out I made then team (then I found out everyone made the team. ha!). I also tried out for my church’s music group. I received an email the next week that literally said, “We believe God has better plans for you”. The girls and guys in the in-group weren’t trying new things. They were too afraid. I never wanted fear of failure to stop me from trying–from dreaming.

I ran for student government that year and called on all of my friends to help me win. I realized then that the popular “in” group probably wasn’t going to vote anyway. I started campaigning to the goths, the smart kids, the athletes, the first generation immigrants and the book lovers. Through campaigning I built friendships with people all over campus. I made it a point to know as many names as possible. At the end of the campaign, I made friends with the janitors and bathroom keepers to help me take down the flyers. I won that election and I started tasting the results of my dreams. I found great strength and inspiration by simply being nice to the people around me.

I always felt a rush from accomplishing a goal. I would always write it down and stop at nothing until it became a reality. I got a rush of sorts from breaking a stereotype and became obsessed with turning a “no” into a “yes”. I respected authority (and still do) but I hope I always challenge it. I would often (and still) ask myself, “Why can’t I do that?”. Usually it’s just because I haven’t tried yet.

It was still cool to curse, kiss more boys (or girls), stay out late at the mall and show the most skin without breaking the dress code (or breaking it and raising your shoulders so your arms seemed shorter so your shorter shorts could stay shorter). The “cool” kids kissed the hottest people in the class (and in between classes), broke rules and didn’t get caught, had their parents consent to getting them a belly-button ring and seemed to not care about a test but would later boast about getting the highest grade.

I learned the path to popularity wasn’t the only road to travel. Knowing a kid’s name in sixth grade as an eighth grader became more important to me than laughing at that same kid wearing the awkward shorts. By following my own dreams and goals I found people who were desperate to follow theirs but were too afraid to try.

I felt the most cool in middle school when I could say, “Yea, I love this shirt and yes, it’s from Goodwill, not Abercrombie”. Sitting at the lunch table reserved for the group of girls who all look alike doesn’t help you meet new people. It’s hard to get up and sit at another table but I encourage you to push down the “I am going to throw-up now” feeling and do it. I would rather be a freak and stand up for myself and my friends than be cool and say nothing at all. With a sense of social freedom came the ability to act as myself and grow my dreams. If I wanted to do something I would do it because I knew how I felt was not based on how other people viewed me. Following my dreams helped me be myself and there is nothing cooler than that.

When I was your age one girl kept calling me an @$$ (a word that should never be in your vocabulary). I was so mad and angry and told my parents about this mean girl at school. Without skipping a beat my mom said, “Well, if she thinks you are a donkey then make the sounds of a donkey”. The next day when she called me a donkey/mule I started braying (follow the link if you don’t know what that sounds like. It’s not pleasant). Needless to say, she never made fun of me again. Like I said earlier, you have to laugh at yourself sometimes and not be so afraid of what everyone else thinks. Haters gonna hate, am I right?

So who do you want to be when you grow up? What do you dream about? The world is not black and white and some rules are meant to be broken. Starting in middle school is the best place to start. If you go on a family vacation and like where you visit, make it a goal to work there one day. Why not! I always dreamed of having an apartment in a big city in the Middle East and here I am taking a break from packing to write this because it’s actually happening for me now.

I realized, down to my knock-off Payless shoes, that I determine where my life will go. Even with bumps and failures along the way, people would either remember me as someone who judged them or as someone who made them feel important. I realized that I could play the game and be slimy and mean towards other people to get closer to the top of the social ladder or I could lock into my own potential and surround myself with people, music and words that inspired me to press on.

If you want to run for student government, do it. If you want to run track, do it. If you want to say “hi” to the janitor cleaning the bathroom, do it. Listen to your gut and develop a sensitivity to your thoughts. If you don’t do it, then who will? If you want to sing for a living then I suggest you get involved with the FCA band. If you want to write then talk to your language arts teacher after class about how to set up a blog. You literally have your whole life in front of you. You are not old and you have not aged. If you want to do something, now is the time to try. If you fail, let that push you to try harder the next time. The worst thing that can come from failure is you never trying again.

Oh yea, and “be yourself; everyone else is already taken” (Oscar Wilde).

Middle school can be rough. Trust me, I know. But let me promise you something: If you can survive middle school with dignity and a little sense of who you are then conquering the rest of the world won’t seem that hard.

dawn.

cropped-plane.jpgWhat happens when what you were expecting starts to happen? What do you do when the baby in the manger starts to cry? When the friendship you prayed would grow finally buds? When the student walks across a stage and becomes a graduate? What is next when what you have been waiting for starts to formulate and blossom?

I think the human (and initial) reaction is to forget that you were ever anticipating a change to begin with– to passively accept the change and move on. The second reaction is to be afraid and cling to what you know.

What if we are called to shed the older versions of ourselves without forgetting who we were?

In this season of advent, I am reminded of my Christian roots. I am sick of living apart from the truth I proclaim. I normally celebrate advent but have never before observed it. It has been a choice to dig deeper this year and to put the Christ story to work in my own life– in the good and the bad. There is so much death, despair and pure heartbreak happening around me and part of this longing for something more has come from the grieving alongside others and in the begging for hope and peace in their lives.

ad·vent (n): the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.

Advent is a season to recognize the past, identify the need for change in the now and accept the journey into the next. While still in the first week of advent, my identity as a follower of Christ has been questioned and my morals, beliefs and thoughts shaken and disturbed.

My uncle, Stephen W. Smith, recently shared on Facebook that starting a new year and a new season involves “giving up notions of God and accepting a God one still can’t comprehend or manipulate.” Isn’t the same true with relationships, events and circumstances? Isn’t the idea behind advent applicable in all areas of life and shouldn’t it mean more than just a perfect family standing in front of a pulpit on Sunday to light a candle? I want this season to resonate this year and not fade when the candle is blown out.

In the midst of the change we ask and pray for, we have to remember to release the old and accept the next chapter, the fresh gift from God. But the grip to let go of the old and embrace the new involves close soul care, similar to that of pruning a young tree.

“Some tables of mine are being upturned. Some ideas and illusions are being turned over.”

My uncle, decades my senior, captures my own thoughts better than I.

“Advent is for me, a season of purgation–a season of deep inner cleansing–a time of anticipation and in most every way, a time to envision a future that I need and desperately long for right now.”

I spend so much of my time thinking that the promise of the “next” will never fully develop. Richard Rohr, a profound yet humble Christian author, explains the harm done when we minimize the potential of the promises in our lives and when we ignore the growth that should be changing us:

We do the Gospel no favor when we make Jesus, the Eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, a baby able to ask little or no adult response from us. One even wonders what the mind is that would keep Jesus a baby. Maybe it was “baby Christianity.”

Am I asking for things in faith but unable to fully accept their arrival? Am I too weak to be challenged by what I am called to face? Jesus comes as a baby first, yes, but he also grows into a man and a leader. Our hopes, dreams, thoughts and aspirations must start at some infantile stage, but we must not fear their development into mature and fulfilled realities, nor hinder their ability to grow.

C.S. Lewis struggled with the same thing.

“Like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Joy is what waits on the other side. The other side of this mound, this pile of bile, that no longer smells to the one wading in it. I do not want to be satisfied in the slums of my soul.

This season of advent is not a season of guilt, shame or fear. I pray it is a season of light, change and renewal. The road to get there from the slums we have accepted as home is attainable. Joy, peace, hope and love is extended and the offer stands.

But where to start?

The better questions is, when? A synonym for advent is “dawn”– start then.

running out of it.

cropped-img_4401.jpgI can literally feel the chapter in this book coming to a close. I can read the pages I have been writing for four and a half years but find myself trying to manipulate the ending– praying it’s avoidable. Judging by the number of pages left to create, I know the events to attend and the conversations to be had are limited. A month from now I will be a University of Florida graduate and that’s about as far as my little mind can realistically see into the future (post-grad plans or not).

So yes, I am terrified.

I have known it was coming and it has been the plan for my entire life, but one month out and the reality is all too sweet and bitter to handle at one time.

I am running out of a lot of things right now. Sanity is obviously the first thing on the list but time seems to be ticking away with it. My mind is at the center of this debacle. When it wanders it’s gone then my emotions take the reigns and direct my heart along with it. The renewing of my mind is not “just a wake up and do it” kind of thing. It takes time. The irony is mysterious, real and irritating.

If it takes time to process that I am running out of time (just on campus, not in life), then what happens when time is no longer the defining measurement? How do you take something constructed in time and make it last? I am tempted to get on the next Russian launch mission (R.I.P. NASA) and test the time-warp theory in Interstellar (but I seem to be running out of funds too). I am desperate for solutions but I know enjoying this time for what it is and reminiscing on these years is the only band-aid for this wound and that conversations with sweet friends and nights out are the boldest medicines. Somewhere within me believes that if I talk, think and sip slower then time will slow down and the memories I have and the friends I have made them with will linger. Am I the fool? If I am I hope to be the happy one that goes down with a fight and an Instagram pic to prove it.

So much of this anxiety and fear is rooted in the way I want to be remembered, if I am to be remembered at all. When everything changes, when the tears dry up and the scars and smiles fade I just want to be remembered, even if it’s “standing in a nice dress staring at the sunset“. Taylor Swift obviously feels the same way.  How sweet, blissful and ridiculous that is (Let’s meet at Paynes Praire at 5pm– Semi-formal attire).

When all is said and done, when the years start to simmer from the boil, what still stands? What will my legacy be? The rabbit holes in my mind are ever-winding and so-changing that an attempt to answer that question only leads to more questions and fatigue. To those who have already passed the threshold that is graduating from college, thank you for your advice. It has truly served me well.  However, I can’t handle any more “the real world is ready for you” or the “best years are yet to come” clichés. It may be true (and I hope it is) but I am stubborn and reluctant to accept that now. I am in denial. Let me grovel.

This unrest is also deeply rooted in thanksgiving. I am so thankful for the grace, love and joy woven into these years and the gift this time has truly been. The part of me not wanting to let this go is also the part wrestling with the fact that I can’t believe it was given to me in the first place.

Part of leaving a place and people you love is the fear that the person you became throughout the years together will somehow be stripped away and that that piece of yourself will be forever lost. Yes there is Facebook, texting and reunions, but this ant colony we have created among ourselves has a fingerprinted identity that can’t be replicated or duplicated. I want more of this to last than just the memories that will live in my mind. I have moved countless times before, but this time this town and these people are mine and mine to lose. My knuckles are burning from this grip, but I have few options but to start the release.

Human as I am, I quickly forget that I did come here to leave. I came here to grow. I came here to learn. I just don’t want to learn what it’s like to say goodbye and walk away.

tribes.

cropped-img_2077.jpgI spent my night counting shooting stars 30,000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. I couldn’t think of a better way to decompress and ponder the reasons and  remember the people that brought me to this point. I lost track of the number of stars the same way I have lost count of each person that has blessed my journey. There are far too many of you to number but I couldn’t be more thankful for each.

I could not have done this without you.

As I write this, I am sitting alone in the city of love doing what I love by sharing my thoughts with you. Paris is a city draped with expectations, yet here I am shattering them all. I can’t even find the Eiffel Tower and I have a piece of luggage holding my hand—no dedicated man.

But in a city such as this, having been in cities around the world, I am reminded as to why I am here to begin with. I am here to share the stories of those I meet. My goal is to shatter stereotypes. When you read my work, I want you to see the world and catch a glimpse of the people in it in a way that you never did before. I want you to see a similarity between you and someone you think you have nothing in common with. Whether it’s an audible gasp or a new sense of humanity, I strive to be truthful and let you in the very window that others across the world have been humble enough to let me witness.

This summer has been a summer of stories, a summer of shared experiences with new tribes from around the globe. The moments I have captured only tell a fragment of the story of the people I have met. As long as people have a voice to speak, I have a reason to share.

rashid

“I leave Doha for India in January. It’s just a visit. I think my boys are so excited to see me.”

q

“People only think twice a day: Before they go to bed and when they’re on the toilet.”

ukraine“My sister and I change who takes care of my parents in Ukraine. They are very old and afraid of war. I go now to visit family in America but it is hard. I am so tired.” 

These are blurbs from people, from humans. Their very cultures possess stereotypes that may leave you believing that the words I share with you are figments of my imagination. They are not. These people are humans and are removed from you only by distance. The Ukrainian woman fears Russia and puts her family first, the Indian man found a new home in the Middle East as a way to provide for his growing family and the single shop keeper speaks near perfect English because he loves America. Is the media you are consuming an accurate depiction of various tribes and their beliefs or is it propaganda shoved into a western lens?

The gift of travel for me has been a push of reality. I can think about an issue all I want, but it means nothing in comparison to the people who actually live it. World issues always have a thousand faces behind it. My calling as a journalist is to show you humanity in a way that my parents fought to show me.  Growing up in Jordan and Ethiopia wasn’t easy, but I see now why my God allowed it to happen. This world is so much bigger than you and me and I think there is something to be said about unearthing issues and a history that have nothing and yet everything to do with your life. Are we not all humans? Are we not all loved? Do we not all want to be remembered members of our tribes?

We all belong to a tribe: A culture, a feeling and a family that keeps us alive and pushes us to follow our goals and kindle our inner person. Whether you live in the Middle East, Arkansas or Bangladesh, I believe the similarities between you far outweigh the differences. The stereotypes of each region shouldn’t define the people that live in it. The beauty is when the different tribes intertwine, when the billions of strands of human life mingle together and openly learn from one another.

when God speaks.

doha

It’s not always audible, but when it happens, you know.

My first memory of hearing God was in Maitland, Florida when I was about nine years old. He/she/it/they (let’s stick with “he” from here on out, simply because it’s shorter) told me, in a roundabout way, that I had to work to be heard but that I wouldn’t be silenced along the way. I have held on to that and I remember it often. Every time he has spoken since, it has in some way solidified that nudge brought to my attention 13 years ago.

But what does that even mean? Do I get notions that seem to originate from a divine source or am I schizophrenic, paranoid or ultra sensitive to my thoughts? I will let you be the judge of that, but I think we have all heard something or someone at some time and are unable to rest until we have fed the flame and obeyed.

I know I am writing to Atheists, Muslims, Jews and Christians (perhaps my stiffest audience) but I think this “still small voice” transcends all religions (or lack thereof).

When I am given a nudge, a push, I simply cannot be effective, coherent or useful until I acknowledge it and act. I have known for my entire life that the United States is not home and that I will forever live between two worlds. I have known that my childhood was spun into motion with reasons that still amaze me. I have known that the words I say can be used against me in the future (this post not excluded) and I have known that I am in training to be a vocal chord of truth, justice and respect for human life in the journalistic community.

I also know that the small things prepare me for the big things. When the small voice tells me to throw away that random piece of trash that I am not responsible for, I have to do it. I have to tell that lady her dress is pretty without snapping back when she doesn’t acknowledge my apparel.  I have to run that extra kilometer because that endurance transcends beyond my physical body. I know I have to rest and abstain from social media to even begin to listen. I know the small voice can render big effects.

I am not saying I live in a world that was built to astonish Leah, but I do know that my God is big enough to care about the details in my life. I know he smiles when I smile, mutually appreciating his fine-tuned networking and collaboration skills.

But like any good thing, side effects are just as real.

When God speaks, my first reaction is to hide. The fig leaf approach is all too natural and I often want to shoot down the thoughts, curl up and go back to bed. Ignoring the nudges would be easier, but will only produce anxiety and a shield from experiencing raw joy.

People often ask me if I am afraid of what is next for me. Mostly no, but when I am, it’s intense.

I was numbingly afraid when I hugged my family at Orlando International Airport and set out for Doha for a job description that seemed vague with people I had never met. What was I doing and how did I get there? I had asked for it for years, but when the time came, my knees were screaming at me to turn around.

Turning my back on my family with suitcases in hand was difficult but that’s what I had to do. My body took over and I walked to the desk to check in for my flight. Had my mind or my fear been in control, I would have never left. But we are meant to leave home. The moments when you are on the edge looking over the water before you free fall into it are the scariest moments of obedience. The free fall, however, is worth waiting for.

Whatever it is you are supposed to do, do not expect it to happen after the first warm up. It’s not like a Facebook status that you creatively come up with and can passively watch while the like buttons glow up. You have to rely on the silence where you first heard that voice to get you through the times when you hear nothing at all.

So what is your God speaking to you about? I know you have heard it. You are bound to have heard something.

A dear friend reached out to me this week telling me he has decided to study journalism. He has been studying finance for years in college but couldn’t stand the itch and the burn of brushing off the voice he has undeniably heard. The voice was telling him to dabble, to take a risk and try something even if the safety net protecting him from failure seemed shaky and eroded. He had been hiding it for years, a closet writer if you will, but is slowly making moves towards embracing the voice that, with time, will become his story.

You have to act. You have to do it and jump. The vomit sensation is real, but so is the joy and peace from knowing you are doing something that the voice in your head has been screaming at you to do for days, weeks, months and years. Learn how to write HTML code, pitch that story to your new boss about a TV shoot in Dubai, throw away the food in your pantry that is making you fat and join the rowing team in Austin that has caught your eye.  Just do it. Nike got more than the treading on its shoes right.

I often read the profiles of the people on Humans of New York and found one woman particularly stunning.

god

I believe that sharing your story and hearing the stories of others can inspire you to change, to break away from the usual and the expected and to experience the raw delights of the free fall.

The book I am reading now, Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell, is a telling story of how complacency and self entitlement has riddled mankind into paralysis since its creation:

“Take away the comforts of the kingdom, deprive people of the structures and institutions of empire, and they just might find the spine to envision a new tomorrow. Push them to the limits of suffering, and they just might become revolutionaries.”

Living in the west is tempting for me because it is comfortable, expected and fits within a particular comfort zone that isn’t tampered with the absence of luxuries like freedom of speech, expression, religion and the press. But are we meant to be comfortable? Are we meant to reject suffering at every turn? Are we meant to live in a social and proverbial “west” (if you will) and ignore the unknown?

I know too many people decades my senior who wear horse blinders, feed on social norms and fear change. It’s the 92 year old woman who writes a book for the first time and the man who doesn’t press charges on a case he would have won that drives me to be better, to do better and to challenge the expected.

I do not want to accumulate years of regret that leave me wondering who I would be had I done the very thing I was too afraid to do. With common sense and youth dueling in my mind,  I hope even shortcomings can stretch my soul.

I want to always get on that flight. I want to always feel sick before that move but still say I did it anyway. I want to always push, grow, fail, question and learn.

But it’s a two way street: When God speaks, you have to listen and act.