walnut infusion.

I was at a pub last week in Nashville, Tennessee talking to a bartender about which whisky concoction to order. He went on about how ‘sometimes whisky just isn’t enough’ and encouraged me to choose one with a whisp from nature. Ok. Sure! I opted for the Beneficiary, a blend of bourbon and banana with a walnut infusion. Oh. My. Gracious. Good can be better. But like so many things in my life, I usually am ok with just pouring the whisky (sorry mom, this is meant to be a metaphor) and calling it a day. I forget about the walnut and the banana. I forget I can spritz life with a little umph and make something sing louder. My bartender friend was preaching to me from the other side of that bar and it was exactly what I needed to hear: ‘sometimes good things can be better.’

In April I started seeing a counselor. I can officially say that one hour a week has changed my life (and I have a fabulous one at that!). I am working a job I didn’t think was possible until further down the line, I have family and friends that love and know me scattered around the world, and I have a healthy body that lets me travel this planet. But I had hit a wall.There was a subtle something I was missing. I needed tools to see the walnut infusion in my life again.

College was such a colorful, turbulent, and wonderful chapter that was always changing and growing. The race gates seemed far behind me and the roar of the crowd was invigorating. My ego was pleased. And then this real world life hit me in the face and I realized that some people are just bad people and others who get too close have lied about who they are. I learned that not all security guards are there to help you and not every horizon is worth chasing. This real life can be tough stuff man, and it’s hard to be ready for it. Even with the overall mild river I find myself floating down, the idea that there are decades ahead (God willing) and rapids to face can sometimes scare me into an oblivion of anxiety! How am I supposed to complete this assignment that is life? I’m ok with the ‘in four years you will be done with college’ time frame but I have no idea how to manage forever!

Life is loud and stressful. Adding more noise and hooplah does not help. My ‘walnut infusion’ came one morning when I realized that everything is already alright. It was a still, cool Doha spring day when I grasped that I needed to be quiet and still to be able to enjoy the exciting noise. I needed to calm down, put down my phone, and pray to my God at the start of every morning. Texts could not come first. Reading the Word and prayer had to supersede everything or else everything would be out of balance.

Have you ever tried fitting rocks into a jar of sand? You can’t. But, if you add the rocks in first, the sand will spill in around it. Order matters. How you start your day matters. Prayer and meditation for me is the only way I can see clearly and begin to taste the walnut infusion in my life and start saying thank you for it.

Life is a lot and life is good, but perspective and time in silence at the start of any day erase the distractions (if only for literally one minute). The crux of my happiness tends depend on the amount of time spent on my phone. My phone isn’t the only issue, per se, but how much time I spend on it usually acts as a canary in a coal mine for me to judge just how I’m really doing. I try so hard not to check it as soon as I wake up. I try to silence my alarm, get up, have coffee, read, and pray. I try to focus on my heart, soul, and mind and ask for wisdom in silence. Once I am ready for work I will check my phone, but not until then. It has taken me a long time to get to this point but I feel happier and healthier for it.

Do you check your phone first thing? Try not to. It’s hard, especially at first, but like working out you will soon crave it. The itch from addiction is real when your phone is sitting in plain sight and you’re away from it soaking in silence and actually listening to your own thoughts. The thing is not a baby that needs constant love. It’s a piece of plastic that rules your mind and steals your attention and conversation.

Did you know the tech and science industries are working together to make your phone more addicting to your brain? Julia Roberts knows all about it. In the June 2016 issue of InStyle she said she doesn’t reply to messages straight away and keeps her phone on silent so she can focus! Hold on. What? Julia Roberts doesn’t answer texts immediately? Nope. She says she has nothing to prove about how quickly she responds to someone who may only be robbing her of time with loved ones or the ability to focus at work.  Recently I started keeping my phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ all day long, deleting Facebook from it and leaving it in the car during meals. Why? Because if I do read texts my minds takes me hostage: What time was I meeting that person? Oh gosh, but I haven’t done the laundry, ugh but I have to go to that place first because I promised someone something. And then BOOM I have robbed myself either from starting the day in meditation or from talking to the person siting across from me and actually listening to what they are saying. Sometimes I need to focus on my soul and care for my own thoughts before I am owned by every else’s.

I’ve heard it said that the devil doesn’t want to make you bad, he wants to make you busy. He wants to rob you of the ability to have or taste the walnut infusion that is usually already there but that we routinely shut down and miss.

‘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’ (C.S. Lewis).

My bartender buddy taught me more with a bottle of bourbon in his hand standing behind a bar than many do holding holy books behind a pulpit. We are meant to taste and enjoy the walnut infusion, the long uninterrupted walks, the quiet mornings alone. I rob myself of joy and too often forget that less is more, that good things can be better.

http://www.LeahHarding.us

capital ‘l’ love.

I am at a crossroads in my life again. How many of these am I supposed to have? I am coming off an incredibly disappointing chapter that seems to negate the happy seasons before it.

People can be such a let down.

Deceit, apathy and selfishness are poison to a relationship but it’s in the encounter of these drugs that we have no choice but to confront our true selves and aggressively stare our egos in the face. Our egos that want the last word and the final say. My ego is clawing at ways to be malicious, cruel and play the victim. I need to let this die. I need to grow deeper roots.

Growing involves splitting and ripping and creaking and aching. Why does something that is meant to be beautiful take such ugly qualifications to get there? God, I hate soul expansion.

My ego is wounded and I’m left with a choice: I can patch it up with shiny illusions and creative speech or I can let it die.

Retaliation (something I think I’m quite good at) has no place here. Let me rephrase that, it has every place here but I don’t want to give it a foothold. So I sit on my hands. So I pray. Another chunk of my ego is executed. Leah is one more man down (literally).

I am usually the one who gives people the benefit of the doubt and I’m quite expert at seeing potential. My downfall is the self sacrifice I make for others at the expense of my fragile heart. When trampled on I have trained myself to rise again but there comes a time to separate ‘work Leah’ from ‘relational Leah’ and give it a rest.

The pain is real and so is the anger. The gentle child side of me that enjoyed being sung goodnight to by my mom decades ago is back and I’m scared of being alone. I don’t want the song to end and I don’t want to have to face the dark.

Please, anything but me and my thoughts.

But I let the song end. I take a breathe and realize that with time will come morning. The darkness and evil from fear and sin will fade and dawn’s light will creep into my room and usher in new opportunities to try again.

Leah’s heart is still seven, even as my body ages and experiences make me grow up.

The kid in me is also the spirit in me. Jesus comes to me now as the same friend who I would run to as a child. Then, my ego was small and unformed. I was a master shape shifter but with age I have had to lay down my armor to start to get close to my real self. Being naked and exposed is painful but so is putting to rest an idea that you put your faith in.

Failed relationships are physical ailments. I believe it is the disappointment in the other, the holding of breathe in myself and the glimpses of betrayal that force me to return to my core and weep.

Jesus wept too.

It’s a scary dark place and we don’t want to go there, but it seems I am called to return (it’s just that it usually takes a breaking of trust and heart with another to get there). Sin is a nasty thing but it’s a lot like picking your nose. It’s disgusting when others do it but you probably do it too. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (it’s just way easier to see how much more corrupt the other person is).

The worst thing that could have happened in the Book I so strongly rely on was the death of the one who was supposed to come save us. The best thing in those pages was His coming back to be.

We must die before we live.

We must love and be broken before we can know Love. I cannot see this clearly and hear this sharply when my world is working. The shards on the ground draw me to the ground and it’s there my knees meet my maker and I begin to see. My tower that I often choose to live in cannot be based on people or accomplishments or another mile in the books.

I was loved before I did anything and it’s true Love that finds me time and time again when the fake stuff washes away.

http://www.LeahHarding.us

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.

http://www.LeahHarding.us

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.

http://www.LeahHarding.us

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.

http://www.LeahHarding.us

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.

http://www.LeahHarding.us

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

http://www.LeahHarding.us

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.