Running Into The Light

“ The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” John 1:5

 

 

I have always felt cliche when I say, “I used to be afraid of the dark.” Or better yet, “I’m still a little afraid of the dark.” Every sleep over, awkward ice breaker or faltering new encounter always somehow gets to this question, and every time there is a cacophony of individuals finding solidarity in this same fear: the darkness. As a child, the dark corners of my room were OBVIOUSLY filled with demons and monsters, and every tree in the dwindling sunset held captive the evil ready to pounce behind it. The dark woods in Beauty and The Beast? Forget about it. Power outage at NIGHT in Jurassic Park? Horrifying. The Nickelodeon show, Are You Afraid Of The Dark? OF COURSE I AM. Even my sweet JZ confessed that he would run from the house to the trash can at the end of his long driveway and back again due to this dark unknown of the suburbs. All these, to me, felt otherworldly. I imagined becoming the ninja I always knew I was, fighting the monsters with ease. I focused hard on the fact that my Dad was definitely stronger than whatever would come out from behind a tree. I whispered the word, “Jesus” over and over again, because that’s what my grandmother said to do. I knew the sun would rise and push back the darkness, and I knew when I woke up the dark corners that once bordered my room would disappear.

 

Collectively, we are all a little afraid of the dark.

 

As we grew older, the dark shadows filled with monsters morphed into a darkness uncontainable.  We saw it on the news or in our own homes. The darkness turned into depression and loneliness. It became injustice, abuse and prejudice. The fantastical darkness became all too real, and the fear no longer seemed under our beds but out in the world in broad daylight. Suddenly, we can’t just wake up to the dark corners disappearing. Real darkness stepped into my world when I came home from school in 8th grade to find an ambulance driving away with my mother. It was broad daylight, and the fear I had felt in my room at night as a child paralleled my state at 4 o’clock in my cul-de-sac. Darkness stayed in the broad daylight as I felt alone and misunderstood by my peers, and it sunk into my spirit as I cried over deaths, abusive boys and a dear friends destroyed by their family’s brokenness.

 

In this season of Advent (waiting for the birth of Christ in the month of December), I have been stirred by a piece of Christ’s story that we don’t really talk about.

 

John the Baptist.

 

John’s mom, Elizabeth, wasn’t exactly an age we would see as scientifically possible to make a child. As an elderly woman, God blessed her womb with a boy who would eventually be the man who would baptize the Messiah. Simultaneously, a young virgin named Mary (also deemed not scientifically available for a child) became pregnant with Jesus. So here you have two impossible things becoming possible because the Lord made it so. Elizabeth allows Mary to live with her for several months. In the midst of a very confusing and dark time in Mary’s life, a light beams for her to find security, guidance and strength: Elizabeth. I can imagine Mary’s engagement was in tension, her struggle to find joy in the obedience and the physical burden of her young body carrying another life. But here, God provided a light in the dark. It is a gleam of hope, and it points to the overwhelming hope that her child would provide the world.

 

So what about John the Baptist? Elizabeth’s baby became “a witness to testify concerning that light”. He shared a roof with Christ, though still in the womb, and became the man who made room for Jesus to be seen. God sent him to testify that he himself was not the light, but that “the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” John was sent to convince us that darkness will not win. The dark corners of our rooms and minds cannot take over if we run towards the light. The light will push back the dark, because the darkness does not understand how to fight it.

 

Do you ever wonder why we love Christmas lights? As a kid it was tradition to slowly drive around our neighborhood and look at the little lights strewn across a roof. Some were works of art, others threw some lights into a bush, but either way our noses pressed to the window and each exhale steamed the glass. I think there is something spiritual about seeing lights in the dark; they twinkle little bits of beauty. The dark becomes unarmed by Christmas lights, shooting stars, sunrises and night lights. A little glow sparks hope and an ability for us to see into what, at first, seems like an overwhelming cloth over our eyes. Our souls stir because it recognizes the truth: darkness doesn’t win. The wise men didn’t follow a star for nothing.

 

The world will always, without fail, hold darkness. Our media outlets regularly speak of darkness’s attempt to win. Your life will have moments that feel like the dark corners of your bedroom: confusing, uncontrollable, and unrelenting. In my moments, I think about the Israelites who were promised a Savior. They had been enslaved, exiled, killed, misled and rebellious, yet God still provided Hope despite their checkered past. Despite ourselves, Christ still fought off our hopelessness. Christ was born to die, and in doing so, defeat the darkness of death. In the moments we witness and experience darkness, we should run to the Light. Even when it feels like we are losing, the light can still shine in the darkness.

 

“The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” John 1:9

 

I still struggle to cast away my fears. The darkness still encroaches, and I still am weary from the deep wounds of our country and world that are fighting darkness with darkness. In those moments I have experienced darkness, Christ spoke into the overwhelming nothing with whispers of hope and rescue. I want to be like John, and I hope you do to. I desire to see the church be a people who don’t just claim the Light for ourselves, but who grab the hands of those around us and run with them through their darkness. We don’t run aimlessly, or even run to run away. We run with purpose towards the Light, just like the Wise Men traveled towards the star that reflected Jesus’ presence.


                        O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining…

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Running Backwards To Go Forwards

If you would have told me 5 years ago that I would find myself working in my old high school, in my old hometown, teaching American Literature-I would have punched you. Hard.

More realistically, I would maybe have thrown a few expletives your way accompanied by awkward, angry giggles. In the words of T-Swift, I was “feeling 22”. Living in Austin, Texas and fresh off the diploma high the University of Texas had given me, all I wanted was to be someone important. I never admitted that out loud, mostly because it felt so embarrassing to say, but I craved it. I wanted my life to be a story worth telling, and I wanted it to be written the way I had envisioned. To move back to Kingwood (a suburb of Houston) would admit early defeat. It would mean my life had ceased to be a narrative, and had become a magazine. Typical, cliche and b-b-b-boring.

Because, at 22, I firmly believed I would be making art with my voice or my words; that I would be changing the world with my theatrical aspirations and helping children overcome the injustices they faced. I believed that I knew (despite lack of money, a true job other than a travelling PE teacher for Pre-school and a lot of sass) how God was going to use me. I believed none of those things I dreamed of could happen back in Houston.

 

The summer following the euphoric feeling of graduating, I visited my family back in Kingwood. Some important facts you should know:

I am the oldest of four. I have one brother and two sisters, all with an average of 2 and a half to three years in between. My father explains the phenomenon with a hearty laugh and, “we would be in a tough spot maritally, fight, then one of you was born”. Gross, but I’ll take it.

My family is like a circus, my father the ring leader and my mother is the main attraction. Loud, boisterous and always drawing a crowd: the Olejniczak family never disappoints with entertainment.

I spend a majority of my childhood and adolescence as a second mother to my sisters, and an actual sister and friend to my brother.

 

So, as I sat in the kitchen watching the 3 ring circus start to begin, I became hyper aware of the relationship my two sisters had formed. They had inside jokes, the same friends and were relating the way sisters do.

 

I had nothing to contribute.

 

I was the other ‘Mom’, feeling the distance of my kids grown up, and I had missed four years of time to bond. There was jealousy rising up inside me, and sadness. I shared with a good friend over a camp fire my feelings. She let me finish, and then said something I didn’t want to hear, “Maybe God needs you to move home.”

 

Don’t you hate it when God speaks really loudly through really respectable, loving people? I hated it, because I knew I couldn’t ignore it. I had to move where I believed my dreams would die. My hometown.

 

When I returned to Austin, a few things happened in a month.

 

I was offered a Theater teaching job in a community thirsting for healthy outlets for their children that was located 30 minutes from my parents house.

 

I was fired from my travelling PE job.

 

I moved back into the circus: my parents house.

 

Ironically, I had to momentarily share a room with my youngest sister.

 

My 22 year old self was shell shocked, what just happened? This is not what I wanted. This isn’t what I dreamed of! I have no idea what I’m doing!

 

God did something very profound in the two years I taught theater. I struggled and failed a lot, but I also found my dreams shifting and morphing into beautiful shapes that I was learning to be proud of. I wrote my own musical called, “I AM”, which may be the most important piece of art I have ever done. Literally, it was divine inspiration. After a year of seeing students struggle with identity and feeling powerless, this idea was given to me in the middle of worship at a Young Life retreat. I was going to write about their lives, let them sing songs they believe in, and have people clap for being themselves. Students danced and sang with purpose, their purpose. They found purpose. The crowd was teary, not because I’m spectacular, but because they witnessed the reflection of God’s beauty in kids who had felt hopeless.

Sweet little nuggets singing, "Man In The Mirror".

Sweet little nuggets singing, “Man In The Mirror”.

In the midst of my creative endeavors, I was mentoring high school students through Young Life, including my sisters. God was weaving our lives into a more unified rhythm. I got to go to a Young Life camp with both of them and witness them ask hard questions about who God is, but see their hearts soften to the consuming love of God. My sisters were becoming my friends.

In two years, the place I had written off as a dream wasteland became a garden of old desires blooming and new ones growing. How could I have tried to write my own story? The Writer of Writers gave me a narrative I didn’t expect, in fact, He gave this protagonist a good swift kick of humility to see the beauty in what I had defied: home.

Home became not just a place, but a word that held all of my important relationships. Home encompassed my best friends, and soon to be husband. Home became the place I fell in love with Jon Zoch and got to marry with all of “home” to witness and celebrate it. What I had decided was a place of failure was actually a place of fulfillment.

And here is where I find myself, in the midst of the new fruit that bloomed in the wasteland. I was called to leave teaching theatre and go to my old highschool, in my hometown and teach American Literature in the place my sisters were. The original call to go there was loud, obviously purposeful and clearly for the sake of ministry. Like I said, don’t you hate it when God speaks to you through loving and respected people? After a year of seeing the purpose, the scenario changed. My role with YoungLife changed, so my role at the school changed. One sister graduated, leaving another in the wake of being (for the first time) the only child in the house, and my administration found my teaching team to be the one to increase in work load. My hours, my exhaustion, my boundaries with students all increased. The purpose, the desire all seemed to have erased. Fragments of my prayers became, “Can I leave yet?” and “This isn’t me, and you know it!” or “I can’t do this”.

 

I should make this very clear: I would quit now if I could.

 

Why am I here? You already know the answer. Because God told me too. Because there is and was reconciliation in all of this. There is beauty in the hardship, and despite me understanding the purpose I know my God is a God who fulfills dreams and then some. God has made my desires, my brokenness and my selfishness into a beautiful piece of art before. I have to point back to when it was good and believe where I am at IS good, even if my flesh screams ‘no’. I have to hold on to that when my day to day life feels so empty. I have to remember when it felt full.

 

So, my narrative isn’t just about what I didn’t expect, it’s about what I didn’t know. If you would have told me 5 years ago that I will get to write a musical, be friends with my sisters, get married to my favorite person, and actually love my hometown: I would have sighed a sad sigh of disbelief.

 

Because, 5 years ago, I had no idea that God was writing a story far beyond what my little dreams encompassed.

 

For when the narrative gets rocky, I can point back to the beauty and point forward because I know it will come.

 

Running (Series): ‘This is it’

      As JZ and I pulled into the parking lot with our hotel coffee for the StoryLine Conference, following many attempts to hide my complaints about the cold, I felt my insides freeze from the wavering certainty that this conference was a good idea. Had I really taken two days off work to fly to Chicago? Had I really believed these two days could change me? Do I really believe God is going to whisper inspiration in the midst of my Great Inspirational Drought?

JZ, the husband that he is, pushed up his glasses and gave his, ‘Boo, I love you and I wish you would stop having this feeling’ smile as he grabbed my hand at my request to pray. Sitting in the auditorium with our laminated name tags and freshly printed material neatly placed in binders, a woman got on stage to welcome us. As she began to pray, something in my soul moved. The drought was feeling a sprinkle of rain, a mist was finally settling in. I heard a girl behind me sniffling in solidarity, so the silliness I felt for a few moments left me. No speaker had taken the stage, but God’s spirit was already assuring me He had been hearing my cries over the past year. I’ve recognized a conflict I was living; I wasn’t chasing after my heart’s passion. It was heartbreaking. I had never admitted that to myself, mostly because I never felt like I needed to. My teaching career the last 4 years has brought wonderful highs and unbelievable lows. Teaching is this career that people respect, mostly because they can’t believe anyone would do it, but it’s respectable. It’s safe. I had convinced myself that my dreams would become nightmares, primarily due to their lack of security-so I forgo them. I conceded, ‘this is it’. Teaching appeared to be a dream that was easy to keep, so I just kept it.

‘This is it’: What a terrible phrase. I don’t know about you, but I have allowed that melancholy motto become a theme in my life’s story for far too long. The creative spirit that allowed me to write plays, direct musicals and mentor students has been caged by new realities and expectations. So, “This is it” is the song I run to when I feel the race has become a race I don’t recognize anymore. But then, God decided to let me confront fears I had buried and force me to define what I really dream about. I felt like Jonah, afraid of what was called of him, swallowed by a beast. In the dark belly of my fears, God is forcing me to label them and be honest about where my heart lies.

When we don’t know where we’re running, the exhaustion starts to seem pointless.

So what is the point? I have allowed some of my dreams to become apathetic nightmares, they taunt me when I’m awake and I keep running hoping that I’ll leave the inevitable disappointment behind me.

“What am I doing?”  How many times have you asked that question?

“Why am I still running?”

I wish I could tell you that I figured it all out at this conference, or that they hypnotized us into believing we are successful humans. No pills, no steps to follow, none of it. You know what I was given? A reminder that Jesus has been answering my cries since my father stepped into my room to start our 15 year conversation. God whispered comfort as each speaker got up to confess vulnerability in their journey, and empowerment as they concluded with God allowing their aspirations to come to fruition. I felt like I had kindred spirits, creative types wanting to know God fights for the artistic. I needed to hear validation: “Keep running AZ! Your dreams and your story matter!”

And you know what, friend? Yours matters. Who are we to look at our life and say, ‘this is it’? God doesn’t just give us one invitation, he continuously gives us invitations into meaningful lives (Glennon Melton).

Before this conference, my heart flowed out in car rides to work in the morning. My prayers turned into pauses to marvel at the Texas sunrises; little gifts to remind me the Creator didn’t leave the creatives. Each morning became a painting spread like watercolors filling me with a sense of hope. I have been driving the same highway for a year, and for most that time, it never dawned on me how the sky lights up in glorious praise. God has been showing me beauty in the midst of my conflict; He has been offering hope despite my hopelessness. Those prayers of desire flowed into small steps of courage. Last month I auditioned for a play for the first time in 4 years, and by the grace of God, I have signed a contract that officially makes me a (semi) professional actress. I recently started a ‘Running’ series here on the blog, and I am learning to dream with my husband about our future. You know what I dreamed of having before JZ came around? A husband. God answered my cries after months of intense prayer, and this weekend I got to dream, laugh and pray with a husband who exceeds what my little human brain could imagine.

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Jesus is so much bigger than ‘this is it’, our nightmares and even our dreams. So, shouldn’t we keep running towards those crazy, outlandish desires that have seized our hearts? And as we run, we have to remember the good moments on the way there. Notice the scenery, smile and wave.

Things I’ve decided to keep running for:

1. Writing to inspire, heal, and connect people. Hey! You’re here reading, so that’s a good sign!

2. Keep performing. Paid or not, community theatre with sequined costumes or upscale set – doesn’t matter. Just keep doing it.

3. Pursuing my marriage with vigor and preparing for the eventual days of motherhood.

4. Keep connecting. Wanna grab coffee sometime?

God never deserts the dreamer. He doesn’t. I don’t believe for a second I was left, and neither should you. Even when you don’t know the directions, you have GOT to keep running. There will be times you are going to be discouraged and will feel purposeless, but keep running towards the Creator. We have stories to tell, relationships to make and dreams to chase. And above all, we have a God who runs ahead of us to make a path.

Running with my Dad.

There have been many moments in my life where I felt like packing a bag, picking out a RV and hitting the road. I have fantasized about being some cultured photographer or world re-known writer who doesn’t have an official schedule and can frolic around with JZ and our potentially flannel and denim-attired children. Mountains, beaches, cities – who cares!? We go, we revel in the freedom and flannel, and we move. From sea to shining sea.

I’ve also fantasized about being a housewife, my job revolving around my family. I would have a routine: wake the kids (sans the flannel), pack them lunches filled with a balance of greens and fiber, and drop them off on my way to the gym. I would be freaking cut – total trophy wife. Farmer’s markets, yoga and a dinner from my garden to round out my day. Did I mention how cut I would be?

I have found myself giving interviews with Ellen about my latest Sundance Festival movie in my bathroom mirror when JZ is still at work. I talk for 30 minutes straight to imaginary people in my car, finding new solutions for scenes in imaginary conversations about some pilot I wrote for AMC. I’ve accepted Oscars, Tony’s and Emmy’s. I have been a NY Best Seller. I am astonishing. Did I mention I have been extremely attractive? I would obviously never admit that, because I am that humble.

I’m sure by now you know this isn’t my life. As ridiculous as it sounds, I sometimes get to the brink of anger realizing none of those will ever be a choice for me. These are real examples of real people who are really called to being world travelers, housewives and full time entertainers. They all have their stresses and strains, but my fantastical ideas idolize these lifestyles into some glorious relief from what I’m feeling.

I feel tired, defeated and overall purposeless.

I realize how unfair that is. I realize I have not crawled through the ditches of those women’s lives and fought through whatever war they’re fighting. I haven’t, and yet my heart sometimes just…yearns. When my day-to-day seems to be crumbling, full of tyrannical leaders whose agendas crush my dreams of changing the world and diminish my whimsy, I become deflated.

I fantasize.

In the moments of full-fledged vulnerability, in between prayers of earnest, “What do you want from me and for me?” He sends me back the place that has always made sense.

Conversations with my Dad.

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Tom Olejniczak is Mr. Congeniality. The sash and crown is replaced by a polo and cargo shorts, but nonetheless, Tom gives Sandra Bullock a run for her money. He pokes fun at his faults, all the while making you belly laugh from his ninja impersonations. Tom defeats every stereotype that a truck driver is placed into. He is the ultimate morning person, rotates his underwear so it stays ‘fresh’ and loves fiercely. He sees the beauty in a sunset on a road he has driven for 22 years, and he chooses joy on the regular. This is the man who gave his first daughter’s hand away (ahem, me) over a Green Chile Double at Whataburger with the phrase, “Jon, that is funky fresh cool with me” after sweet JZ poured his heart out. His work schedule would make a normal person bitter, 4 hours of sleep here and 5 hours there. Over 400 miles of driving in a day and he still makes it to his daughter’s softball game that night.

From a young age my father fascinated me. He could do everything, and I wanted to do everything with him. He was this strong, unbreakable man. I would follow him around our first, small apartment like a puppy, panting and excited to go on adventures to the welcoming, woodland scent of Home Depot in my yellow jellies.

Have I mentioned jellies are the worst and best shoes? You get a rock in them and you’re done, not to mention a nail in the garage as your dad builds you dresser drawers.

When I was in the 5th grade, my Dad reached out of his comfort zone and began a conversation that has stretched 25 years. My Dad decided he wouldn’t just know me as Ashlee, the firstborn child. My Dad decided to know my heart and pursue it.
At the time, I was really into sunflowers and Mariah Carey. I was attempting some math word problem (which still gives me full-fledged anxiety to this day) and jammin’ out to “Always Be My Baby” when my Dad’s weight made my twin bed squeak with anticipation.

“Ash, stop doing that for a second (pregnant pause. Was I in trouble?) So, how’s it going?”

It was that simple. He didn’t stop with my niceties of “Fine” and “Eh, it’s okay I guess”. Over the years these beautiful, unadulterated moments became hours upon hours of talking. He kept asking question after question, scaffolding each line with another layer of guiding leadership. My Dad was the one to give me several ‘sex’ talks, friend talks, identity talks. He never stopped pointing me back to my worth as a child of God, and he never stopped pushing me to be a ferociously opinionated fighter for good. He never allowed me to be apologetic for caring too much, nor pity what I didn’t have. When boys entered the scene, he was unafraid to let me fall – but was never too far to catch me.

My Dad has been running by my side for 25 years.

Today, in the midst of mid-20’s adult struggle, I found myself sitting in the chair by his desk. It was seemingly unintentional, but intrinsically my heart knew what I needed. The little girl knew she needed her Daddy to speak some truth into her life. Before I could ever open my mouth, he knew. He spoke to the depths of who I was, awakening a truth I had buried under my despair. Once again, he refused to let me give into defeat, and he would not allow me to believe I had to change who I am. He pointed to our Creator, pushing me to press into the chest of Jesus. My earthly Father turned me back to my Heavenly Father, standing with me hand in hand in the throne room of Christ.

Like a motif in a book, I’ve discovered my Dad by my side in the race of life. He may be tired and worn, but his encouragement has never faltered. So, I keep running.

All those fantasies I fall into are all pieces of who I am. I am curious, creative and nurturing. Those fantasies are playing out the different compartments of my heart. You want to know the truth about something? The truth is my life reflects all aspects of who God has created me to be. That those fantasies are escapes in the moments the going gets tough. My human nature consumes me, and I forget who I was created and raised to be. The truth is my calling is to continue using all aspects of who I am to spread the Gospel of Jesus and never be apologetic for it.

Over the years, my Dad has created a family motto that has permeated our lifestyle.

“Be proud. Be strong”.

It started when I was in 6th grade. It was the first day of middle school and I was trying not to vomit from nerves, and my dad sort of blurted out, “Be proud, be strong Ash!”.

The aphorism has taken on new meanings for all 4 of us kids, but one truth always remains the same. You have got to be proud of who you are, and stay strong when who you are is challenged.

I understand some of you reading this can’t relate on the playing field labeled, “Daddy”. I recognize that pain, and I am not ignoring it. But, what I have learned with Tom Olejniczak is that no matter what you don’t have, you will always have a God who runs with you and for you. Without knowing it, my Dad modeled a relationship that reaches into the depths of humanity: Christ’s love for His church. Over and over again, Jesus speaks truth about who I am, and keeps pushing me to run. Vulnerability is not weakness, but a tool.

The saying, “Be Proud. Be Strong” isn’t for my clan to keep; it’s for you. It’s spiritual. It speaks to your soul and shakes the dust off your insecurities, allowing God to whisper courage into your being. The words that get stuck in our throats from not knowing what to say are still heard in our silence by a God who listens despite the lack of sound.

As I got up from that old chair to end the pep talk today, I was fumbling with what to say to my Dad. I never know how to end the conversation, mostly because I know it will eventually continue somewhere down the road. Also, I never know how to make it clear to him what this 25 year conversation has impressed upon me. So, I just nodded and followed up with a smile. He laughed, squeezed me tight and kissed my forehead.

Old truths rang a little clearer:
You are worth running with. So stay proud, and stay strong.

When the phrase, “I can’t even” is actually applicable to your life.

About an hour ago: I begrudgingly put on one of the many grungy running shorts I own, followed by the sigh as I looked at my clock. I began to go through the list of things I should do with the remaining sun light outside.

I should go run.

I should go grocery shopping.

I should walk the dog.

I should get off the couch.

I should work some more on …work. ( I had already been slugging through a syllabus for a few hours).

I should probably stop watching Parks and Recreation. (Let’s be honest, that show is hilarious and I can’t stop.)18d652e6af3c2c8ae5d2c0617451fb0f

So, I continue to to strap on sports bra(s) to tackle the Battle of The Bulge that seemed to be encroaching. My body felt pumped with lead. Each step around my apartment was filled with bitterness, like my feet were defiant to the list my brain was continuously writing. With JZ out being an awesome citizen, I realized in my bitterness that sweet JZ’s first love, Lucy, needed a walk around the block to do her business. My feet dragged towards the leash. At least one of the items on my mind list would be scratched off. Lucy and I hit the pavement, and as she raised her back to prepare herself for relief, I just stood there seeping in the audible silence as my mind raced through my list, and how lazy I had convinced myself I was.

Brain: “AZ, you could go on a run, drive to the grocery store right after, cook that vegetarian Pinterest meal you just found, do some laundry and then get ready to go out tonight in no time.”

Me: “Uh, I don’t know. I just…”

Brain: “You just what? Stop being so damn lazy. Get it together.”

Me: “Lazy? Geez, you don’t have to be so harsh.”

Brain: ” It’s not that hard. You have a list-”

Me: “I just-”

Then the phrase that has infiltrated the culturally Caucasian community entered my brain,

I can’t even“.

Yup, it really did.

A little stunned, I decided to run with it. Not literally, because remember I had lead legs at the time, but figuratively I was really fast.

“Fine, figurative legs, where do you want to go? What do you need to do?”

I needed to get out of my nest of lists, which is my apartment. I needed a re-boot. I needed to process. I needed to write about things that has nothing to do with American Literature.

In the words of my good friends from the Park and Rec department:

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I just needed a little, “Treat Yo Self!” time. After Lucy finished her business, I decided to listen to what my body was saying. I grabbed my laptop and headed to my favorite coffee shop, Antidote. “Clothes. Fragrances. Massages.” and “mimosas” turned into a tall, soy, dirty chai latte ; the 90’s pop Pandora station and writing about my musings here on the blog. All of these things may as well have been expensive luxuries, because I feel like a brand new woman. Yes, I’m still in my work out clothes, and yes “Men In Black” and “Bitch” have already played on this marvelous radio station (both beautiful melodies from my adolescence). I feel like I just won money, or more realistically, a fresh start to my evening.

I wanted to initially feel guilty for my, “I can’t even” thought. Partly because, it’s utterly ridiculous, but also because it made me feel lazy. I felt like I accidentally admitted I wasn’t a “go getter” like maybe I had set out to be. How dare I listen to what my body was telling me! How dare I admit “I just want to do this”!

While I enjoy Dave Matthews telling me to “crash” into him in the background in my headphones, I recognize a few reasons why slight shame had captured me.

My little suburb town I grew up in is known as “the Bubble”. It’s safe and secure, full of families prepping children to be successful adults. You join an activity at the age of 5 with the hopes of “whatever-activity” stardom by the age of 8, to eventually be on the Varsity version of “whatever-activity” in high school. You get all the volunteer hours, club hours, and office positions to get that college admission letter you’ve been gunning for since 12. You work your summer job in between the online classes your parents signed you up for, and GPA grub your way through high school. You’re supposed to go to a University, graduate in 4 years, get a job, get married, have kids and then retire by 65. Then die.

(Side note: I actually had a fabulous childhood.)

Deviating away from the plan is not advised, because how will you become successful? How will you become worthy of whatever you’re trying to become worthy of?

“The Plan” is exhausting. The guilt in our “I can’t even” thoughts as adults stems from what we’ve been wired to believe: the plan rules all, and stepping away from it means you’re a failure.

Now, my explanation of “The Plan” is a little exaggerated, but you get the point. I don’t know what “plan” you grew up with, but I think there comes a time when you say, “screw it, I’m gunna do what I’m feeling”.

Is it so wrong to listen to our bodies, and ‘treat’ ourselves to just some good ‘ol fashioned rest? Today was a healthy deviation from my ‘plan’. Key word is ‘healthy’. Nothing was immediately due, I wasn’t ignoring that couldn’t be ignored. I had the money to grab a coffee, and the time (once I convinced myself) to freaking rest.

And y’all, it feels so good. Ron-Swanson-Gif

50 Shades of Girl Porn: A ‘why’ to why maybe we shouldn’t.

Usually at 8 am I don’t expect The Today Show to dismiss the children in the room due to ‘sexual content’. It’s still time for breakfast and pajamas, why are you asking them to leave? Well, earlier this week the crew decided to go onto the set of the new book-to-movie sensation, 50 Shades of Grey. They go through different scenes where the main character (Anastasia Steele) begins as a shy college student and interviews a young entrepreneur, Christian Grey (Really? Steele and Grey?). After watching the trailer, you see the girl transform from a humdrum girl, who sees nothing too exciting about herself, into a girl of sexual prowess. Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms. Still in my robe, between sips I was fascinated by the explicit sex scenes explored on morning television. Whips, blind folds, and dungeon-esque bedrooms are admired with delight, with other anchors exclaiming, “you go girl!” to the flood of tweets sent in by viewers confessing their ‘blushing love’ of this story. 

If this is just on morning television, what is in the real book? The real movie? It’s 8 am, and I’m blushing. Women are publicly celebrating this highly sexual series, praising a story that clearly details the frequent sexual encounters these characters have. I had to ask the question: “Why?” Why is our society celebrating this? This sounds a whole lot like a word cautiously uttered in public: porn.

Porn is basically sexual junk food. When a person is looking at porn, their brain thinks they’re seeing a potential mating opportunity, and pumps the brain full of dopamine. And unlike healthy sexual relationships that build up over time with an actual person, porn offers an endless stream of hyper-sexual images that flood the brain with high levels of dopamine every time the user clicks to a new image.” (http://www.fightthenewdrug.com)

Uh oh, I said the ‘P’ word. Spoken in public, the word can bring a chuckle, a rush of blood to our cheeks, or a shrug. The word is hardly foreign. In fact, it’s a word that rolls off 12-year-old boys’ tongues when they’re alone with friends, or it’s a word that is just as easily typed by men and women into their laptops. It’s a word that captures attention. It’s a word that holds deep shame for some and apathetic numbness to others.

Merriam Webster definition: movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement.

Enter 50 Shades of Grey by E L James.

If you have read it or were considering it: I would encourage you to re-look at this story. The premise is a young college girl who finds empowerment in being controlled by an older man who, according to the author, “struggles with demons” from his past. Domination that he has to control? Domination she desires? A rich, powerful man ‘enlightens’ a young girl through erotic, dominating sex? This book, which E L James deems, “Provocative Romance”, is really just a classier word for readable porn. It’s a form of communication describing sex in order to arouse sexual excitement and compulsive intrigue. Where do I get the word ‘compulsive’? It’s the only sensible word resulting from our dopamine levels rising every time we imagine James’ sexual images that tell us “you need this” over and over, page after page. Compulsivity stemming from encounters that aren’t real, but our bodies feel tricked from a real experience so we go back to get to the feeling, and the ‘experience’. We need more Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.

Ladies, can we be honest about something? While women don’t tend to engage in traditional pornography (or at least talk about it out loud), there has been a public free pass with material such as James’ series. We can share it with our friends, read it in front our kids. Somehow these books and movies become a way for us to feel justified. The words “empowered” and “enlightened” slip into conversations between girlfriends. 8 am morning shows begin to praise the material, inviting everyone else to celebrate with them. It’s public, so let’s celebrate! We have the right to publicly express love of this fictitious relationship, and more truthfully their sex life. The book is centered on the new, erotic sex life that Anastasia binds and gags herself too. We are collectively reading explicit details of a sexual relationship. If we need a Grey area between our ‘yes’ and ‘no’ choices, I think we are swimming in it.

Women, if we don’t want our sons, brothers, boyfriends, or husbands watching porn, why do we get a free pass to indulge in sexually explicit material?

Where is the solidarity?

It’s nowhere to be found. Instead, we found a loop hole: “Girl Porn“. What is this term? I promise you’re familiar; we all have been probably longer than we know. GP takes what pornography offers, but places a relationship of the romantic type in the midst of it. If we’re being honest (and I’m all about honesty), I could name a few television programs, magazine, and books that I too have indulged in that compulsively lured me into the Girl Porn candy shop. Total ‘junk food’. They didn’t seem that way at first, but I ignored the images and justified getting through them because of “the story”. Isn’t that what happens? Everyone is reading, watching, and talking about it, and we allow our curiosity to direct us to the channel/website/ebook/store and try it out. Eventually we find ourself compulsively going back to the thing, maybe because of the story, but maybe, if we’re honest: it’s about the sex. Not necessarily at first, but our curiosity for ‘the story’ allows us to justify eating the GP candy. We walk in, buy the sugary, sticky product without ever asking, “should we?”

Ladies: Saying you don’t watch pornography doesn’t mean you aren’t indulging it.

In that same breath, I would look to the males in the room and ask why they watch or read material that is masked by war genre, but chock-full of raunchy, hardcore pornographic scenes. Saying you don’t watch pornography doesn’t mean you aren’t watching it.

You may be asking yourself, “Is this your only point? That it’s porn?” Remember, it’s Girl Porn: explicit sex scenes hidden behind the sickly sweet underbelly of relationship candy. And no, it’s not just about sex: this is a relational issue.

If this relationship was real, and you encountered it, would you support it?

Imagine yourself at a coffee shop, enjoying your regular and in walks a friend of yours. She has never really been too convinced of her potential, which you know. You’ve prayed for her to find some identity in goodness she already obtains. She doesn’t speak highly of herself, like most of us sometimes struggle with, but you hope for inner strength for your friend. Between sips of coffee you learn of a new relationship in her life. Naturally, you’re intrigued. I mean, come on! New relationship? Obviously, you want details. She gives you a peek into this secret you didn’t except: a relationship with a man that slightly alarms you. It seems off-kilter the way she talks about him – disconnected and yet obsessive. She talks of a violence in the bedroom, she admits to the dominance he holds over her sexually and in her daily routine. Your friend gushes of his accomplishments, how she feels to be his, and you see this shift in her composure. Talking about herself has ceased, but him? Her world seems to be spinning around this powerful man who clearly holds control in almost every aspect of her life. You look at her face to find any clue to piece this puzzle together. Would you call her ’empowered’? Would you encourage her to continue doing what she’s doing, not asking her the hard questions like, “Are you sure you’re okay with this? Do you feel safe? Does he love you? Do you have any desire to love him? Where is this relationship going?” Would you be worried about her? After sitting with her, a friend you have deep connections with, would you truly walk away from that conversation feeling totally at peace with what you just heard?

Is this inner strength, joy or security? I would argue, no. Because as ‘independent’ as she may seem in her sexual endeavors, where is her security and self-worth? In whatever this man does, or says it is. You saw the shift in the coffee shop.

We should be alarmed by the celebration following this material not just because of sex, but because of the control. This relationship celebrates the ‘enlightenment’ of submission, lack of control and a woman’s inequality in a sexual encounter with a man. Does the character consent? Absolutely. Is that alarming? Definitely. It’s obsessive and entangled. If a character doesn’t see a clear, definitive boundary between herself and this man, how is the audience supposed to see one?

What jolts me is teenage girls reading this material. Maybe not all, but enough. Teenagers with hormones leaping and bounding into corners they are not ready to go and into a fight they aren’t ready to fight. Believe it or not, they are thinking and envisioning the same sexually explicit material that you as an adult woman or man would be envisioning from James’ story. Yes, it is just a book. But, are we really ignorant enough to believe that it doesn’t affect them? That it doesn’t affect us? That they don’t begin to develop a fantasized version of how sex should be (especially outside the context of a safe relationship) or where their WORTH should be? The blurred line between consent and violence gets increasingly smudged. When girls are fantasizing about being ‘desired’ on someone else’s terms, they have already justified the violent and destructive relationship that inspired it. Who’s to say they won’t justify one of their own? Who’s to tell a young man, “that’s not what women want,” when America is shrieking in delight over a book founded on the cornerstone of a dysfunctional, aggressive relationship? When a culture supports and perpetuates work that reflect this kinds of relationship, how can we not expect it to become the norm? It sounds like it perpetuates young girls and older women to begin envisioning themselves as someone’s plaything. It sounds, dare I say, oppressive. It sounds dangerous, and that’s not fair.

It’s not fair to their future relationships, marriages or self-esteem. It’s not fair to look to our sons and shame them for pornography but not set a boundary for ourselves or daughters. Again, where is the solidarity? Girl Porn doesn’t just excuse explicitly pornographic scenes, it glorifies unhealthy relationships in the public eye.

Being sensual or sexual is not the crime. The crime is how our society decides to exploit it. This is not about sex in art, media and literature. It’s not about how ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ sex is, or that you will go to hell if you have it outside the context of marriage. This is about the line. When does our media, art and literature become pornographic?If we don’t have a definitive way of discerning when art forms cross over into pornography, how are we going to discuss what to say ‘no’ to?

I’m pleading with you to begin with this story. Why? Because what good is it doing for you, me, our daughters or sons? What good is it for this fictitious relationship to be celebrated, let alone other fictitious ones like it? Is this to shame real-life people who maybe live the stories? Absolutely not. This is about options, for our art and for our society. What’s one option? Don’t let your curiosity win. Curiosity can be a valuable asset, but it also can destroy what we need to protect. (Not to mention, it kills cats.) In other words, you don’t have to read or watch it to have an opinion. As a lover of the arts, I understand the ‘give it a chance’ motto. But honestly, it’s not true. If you know what it’s about and it’s not adding up as something you want to keep in your schema, then don’t. No one is making you, you are free to disagree and not partake. You have the power to look at a piece of literature or art and make the decision if it is good for you. By actively analyzing what’s celebrated in culture, you are taking part in the kind of world you want for the future. Your decisions can say, “I want this to be different”. We have an opportunity to truly analyze all sides of what stands on the platform of “art and literature” and decide what it really means for us. We have a choice to say, “no”. We have the power to change what stories are told about us, what will influence our sons and daughters, and what future relationships and marriages can be.

If you are considering to see the movie:

Ask yourself, ‘why?’

What is your motivation for seeing it?

What will it do for you?

What will it do for your relationships?

Will these images be healthy to consume?

I’m constantly asking myself these questions. I’m still learning to discern what is Girl Porn and how it shows up in other art forms. It’s difficult, and it’s sometimes a groaning process: but I promise it’s worth it.   So really, ask yourself. Where is the Girl Porn in your life?

Wishful Thinking is Dangerous

When I was about 9 years old, I had this incredible closet. No, it wasn’t a secret passage into Narnia or a revolving personal shopper a la ‘Clueless’. What made it incredible was the sliding mirror doors that expanded the length of a good sized wall. Those mirrors became a reflection of an AZ show: choreography to Britney Spears, acceptance speeches, Mariah Carey vocal training; I could transform! I could be anything I wanted, and I was. There was no fear in front of the mirrors, I saw who I was and the possibilities stretched into the mirror to boundaries I couldn’t see. I saw my dreams prancing around on skinny tan legs and rolled up jean shorts, the same rotation of T-Shirts and habitual need to push my glasses off the bridge of my nose. I was incredible, I was a star…I was also spied on.

Yup. There was a little blond creature that would stand by my bedroom door waiting for the little golden nuggets to witness: ” 5-6-7-8″ and “I’m so thankful for this award! “.

My mother had a knack for eavesdropping and snooping, which was always soon given away by her giggles she attempted to swallow behind the video camera she had poked through the crack in my door. Naturally, as any 9 year old would do, I stomped my feet in embarrassment and groaned out a long “Moooooooooooooom”. These were my dreams! They were private! Then questions would sneak into my psyche: What if I wasn’t good at them? What if they couldn’t happen? What if she and the rest of the world, thought they were stupid?

Luckily, my mother saw something beyond my embarrassment: she put me in dance classes. She encouraged the shy, never-been-on-stage, quiet Tom-Boy 9 year old into a dance class. It was rough at first, but eventually my edges were softened to the beauty of ballet, and a passion for Hip-Hop (this is an entirely different story that needs to be shared). I did the Talent Show in 5th grade, I started sharing my stories that I had been scribbling for years. I was honest about my love of words and art, eventually joining Choir and stepping out for solos. In 11th grade I tried out for a musical on a whim and got a lead role; eventually majoring in Theatre Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.

No, I’m not a recording artist. No, I’m not on Broadway. No, I’m not a bestselling author.

Somewhere along the way, I started making decisions about those dreams. Some of those decisions were based on reality, based on what my current life needs were. And then, I found the little girl who had dreamed in vibrancy chose to dream in safety. I had gotten scared: What if I wasn’t good at these dreams? What if they couldn’t happen? What if the rest of the world thought they were stupid? Despite encouragement, I stepped out into a profession I knew would be secure- I knew I would be fine. The little girl with the incredible closet was just that: a girl with a closet. The dreams that had been reflected back were fantasies, right? They couldn’t happen, right?

I had stopped believing that I could dream big, and I had stopped believing I deserved those dreams to come true.

Before I move on, let me affirm a few truths: I do feel incredibly blessed. I have gotten to write my own productions, and watch them on stage. I feel honored by the relationships I have made while teaching. I love my community of friends and family. I probably wouldn’t have married such a knock-out dude like JZ if my choices had been different. I know God has placed me in places on purpose and allowed growth in all of them.

Despite the Lord’s constancy with His provision and dreams for me, I was/am completely inconsistent. My faith in Who created me, and who I was created to be had wained. Those dreams turned to wishful thinking: daydreams that form in my idle time. I found myself carrying these wishful thoughts around like tiny baggage labeled, “what if?”.

Why is it dangerous? Because I was doing nothing about it. Nothing. Obsessing about something you aren’t changing just makes you stagnant. Pretending like everything is “totally fine” isn’t really that great either because, let’s be honest you probably want to cry a little 3 out of the 10 times you say that. I cried a lot this last year, feelings of inadequacy can do that to you. I would become paralyzed randomly with the fear of “missing it” , and the struggle to feel completely in my skin. Through lots of prayer and counsel from JZ, here’s what I’ve decided about this Wishful Thinking.

1. What I’m doing and where I am RIGHT NOW is purposeful: don’t you dare pretend like it’s not. Be excellent. Try to be the best damn whatever-you’re-doing unapologetically.

2. Don’t ignore the 9 year old dancing in the mirror. She’s fabulous, and you should honor her.

3. Dreams change, and that’s okay! We aren’t all going to become mermaids, ride unicorns over a rainbow or become ninjas. But STOP being embarrassed by what you dream about! It’s exhausting. The world needs dreams in order to change and become a better and more vibrant place.

What about your wishful thinking can you change ? Hey, you’re reading one of mine right now! The 9 year old who used to dance in front of the incredible closet, also used to read incessantly behind it. I would stay up hours past my bedtime wrapped in a story, or writing my own. God put a dream on my heart to use words: to change, to heal, to encourage, to bring laughter or just plain entertain. So here I am, trying to change something I daydream about into something of reality.

I ask all of you, what have you been dangerously daydreaming about? I encourage you, as I hope you would encourage me, to dangerously chase after it.