What Do You Need?

need

Three years ago I quit my job, moved out of my apartment and sold all of my things to go on a year-long road trip with my friend Sharaya. Inspired by the story of the Rich Young Ruler from the Gospels, we decided to see what would happen if we gave up everything to chase what we believed God had called us to do. Would He provide for us? We wondered.

This is the story of the first time we accepted a dinner invitation from strangers.

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The dinner with Sean and Eva started off as any event with perfect strangers might: awkwardly. But once Eva had offered us drinks and we were all planted comfortably on the living room couches, the conversation started flowing. It wasn’t long before we felt like old friends.

“So let me get this straight,” Sean said. “You girls just decided that you didn’t want full-time jobs anymore, so you quit to go on this road trip?”

He laughed. We were grinning.

“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty much.”

We tried to explain from the beginning. We talked about how discouraged we were feeling before our trip—like we were living someone else’s expectations for our lives instead of doing what we were made to do. We talked about the restlessness we felt, and about realizing the only reason we hadn’t pursued the dreams we had for our lives was because, somewhere along the way, we picked up the lie that it wasn’t possible for them to happen.

We felt like we were letting stuff get in the way.

“I felt like my life was just sort of happening to me,” I explained. “Like I was just sitting back and watching it pass by. I wanted to do something, anything, whatever it took to start living again, and stop spectating.”

“It’s like a jump start,” Sharaya said.

We shared openly, and Sean and Eva listened intently as we enjoyed thai spring rolls for an appetizer, some kind of curry dish for dinner, and coconut ice cream with sliced bananas for dessert.

“What do you guys need?” Eva asked, standing up to clear dessert plates.

“Nothing,” Sharaya said, putting her hand on her stomach.

“I’m perfectly content,” I agreed.

“I don’t just mean now,” Eva said. “I mean in general. What do you need? For the next six months of travel? What can we do for you? How can we help you?”

I thought about it, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Sharaya mentioned something about referrals for venues where we could book shows, and Sean said he knew a guy in Utah—Peter something—who he would connect us with. But me? I couldn’t think of anything.

In fact, I pictured our car parked out on the street, filled to the brim with everything from clothes to food to windshield wiper fluid, and I wondered what we would run out of in the next six months. I pondered what we would wish we had two weeks from now, or two months from now, or by the time we rounded the corner toward home.

It occurred to me that this is part of the difficulty of packing light.

You have to plan for something you can’t possibly understand yet. You have to know what cold feels like before you understand your need for a jacket.

If you’ve never felt hungry, you don’t understand your need for food. A person who knows nothing about London wouldn’t consider that rain boots might be helpful, and a traveler who has never been to Costa Rica in the winter wouldn’t know that, wherever you’re going in the city, you should take an umbrella with you in the afternoon. You have to feel a need before you can know it—and plan accordingly.

As for us, we hadn’t felt many needs yet. We hadn’t allowed ourselves to. We’d provided everything we needed for ourselves, and then some. We hadn’t felt hungry, wet, cold, tired, or panicked—yet. That would come later. So right then, we didn’t know what we needed.

This is the irony with needs. We all have them, but we generally don’t discover them until we go without for a while. We discover what we need when we live without things. This is part of the value of traveling and packing light as we travel.

Sometimes it’s good for us to need things and not have them.

Other times it’s good to have people like Sean and Eva who know what it feels like to need something, and who are willing to meet our need. To me, that’s the most tangible picture of compassion and grace—people sharing resources, even when they don’t know us, even if they’re not totally sure what our journey is about.

It’s not an obligation. It comes without expectations.

We have a need, and they give out of their abundance.

The more I think back about Sean and Eva, and the more I let my memory pass over all the places we visited, I can’t help but think: If we weren’t willing to let go of things we needed, we never would have gone on a trip. But if people weren’t willing to see our need and meet it, we never would have made it back home.

What do you need? What could you give up to discover what you really need?

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For more of our story, you can grab a copy of my book Packing Light, which is available for the first time this week wherever books are sold.

Photo Credit: anna donlan , Creative Commons

Less Is More During The Holidays

Traditions are really important in my family.

We always went to pick out our Christmas tree at a nearby farm, which are all over the place in Oregon. Rain or shine (usually rain) we would tromp around in our mud boots until all five of us could agree on the “perfect” tree (no small feat, I assure you) and then my dad would lay on his back and saw the thing down with the cheap, flimsy saw they give you.

After that we would go eat hamburgers and french fries at the hole-in-the wall burger joint down the street.

For as long as I can remember, we visited Santa Clause at Meyer & Frank somewhere around the 15th of December. We’d eat dinner near Pioneer Place in Portland, Oregon and then wrangle the troops to go sit on Santa’s lap and get our picture taken.

Sometimes we would wait in line for hours. That’s how important this tradition was.

When we were little, my brother and sister and I enjoyed riding on the little toy train that circled a room that looked like it had thrown up Christmas decorations.

We would ride around and around and around while my parents stood in line holding our places.

The older we got, the less appealing that miniature train became, so we would just wait in line too. It was never clear to any of us when the tradition was supposed to end (how old is too old to visit Santa?) so despite some resistance from certain parties which shall remain unnamed, we just kept at it.

Up until last year (my brother, 31, my sister, 24, and me, 29) have a Christmas picture with Santa.

Needless to say, Santa’s lap is getting a little full.

So you can imagine the surprise I felt two Christmases ago when my mom suggested, out of nowhere, that we change our tradition for Christmas morning. What if instead of our usual Christmas pajamas, performance of The Christmas Story, hot cocoa, cinnamon rolls, and happy unwrapping —

What if we packed lunches, and took them around the city?

What if we handed out food to people who didn’t otherwise have anything to eat?

My mom, usually the upholder of tradition (or the tradition hall-monitor, however you like to put it) gets all the credit for this great idea. So on Christmas eve, instead of making our last minute shopping runs to complete our gift lists, we went to the grocery store instead. We bought bread, lunch meat, fruit, little bags of carrots, bags of chips, bottles of juice, bottles of water, and peanut butter and jelly.

Instead of distributing the “Christmas Eve gifts” (which are always Pajamas), we made sandwiches.

We cleared off the every kitchen surface we could find and laid out bread like blankets across the table, island, the counters. We made every combination of sandwich we could think of. We put them in brown paper bags, and labeled them.

Then we stuffed our fridge.

We woke up the next morning without Christmas pajamas, and without cinnamon rolls, but with an antipation I hadn’t felt in long time on Christmas, or maybe ever. There was also hot chocolate, thanks to my mom, who decided to make a huge batch of it and put it in a thermos to give away with the lunches.

We packed coolers until nothing else would fit, packed the trunk of our car, and then just started driving.

The next few hours weren’t revolutionary. We didn’t accomplish world peace or end world hunger. We just looked people in the eyes, and asked if they wanted a sandwich.

It was so simple.

Sometimes less is more around the holidays.

We didn’t have any elaborate gifts to offer them, although after a few hours I wished I had a coat, or a blanket, or a dry place I could offer to let them sleep that night.

But instead we just offered them a little part of our Christmas tradition. A cup of hot chocolate. A conversation.

We looked them in the eyes and told them they weren’t alone on Christmas.

We laughed a lot that morning, maybe more than any other Christmas we’ve had. We laughed at my mom, who was the master at convincing people to try her hot chocolate, even if they initially said they didn’t want it (the sign of a good mom) and at my sister and I, who were doing our best to keep the “don’t-you-dare-take-my-picture” tradition alive for Christmas morning.

For such a young tradition, I think this is one of my favorite Christmas memories.

Traditions are so wonderful at the holidays. They make us feel all warm inside, and nostalgic, and at home. But sometimes, just like with anything, our traditions can get in the way.

Sometimes we have to let go of our traditions to experience true joy in the Christmas season.

Are you Packing Light this holiday? How have you experienced that less is more?

[photo: paparutzi, Creative Commons]

Should You Lower Your Expectations in Dating?

When I was dating I would get all kinds of advice. Some people would tell me I should look for a guy who reads his Bible everyday, others would say I should find one who did the dishes. Some would say I should find one who treated his mom with respect. “How he treats his mom is how he’ll treat you,” they would say.

Some suggested I find a guy who played the guitar. At a Christian college, your boyfriend is nothing if he doesn’t play the guitar. And others said I should look for one who wrote poetry. “You want a guy who is sensitive enough to be in tune with his feelings.”

By the time I was in my late twenties, my list was long.

And growing.

At that point the advice seemed to take a turn. It was as if people were starting to get worried (even more worried than I was on some occasions). Instead of saying, “You should find a guy who…” they would say, “Maybe your expectations are too high.” You could almost hear the undertone: After all, you’re getting close to thirty and you still haven’t found anyone…

I wrestled around with tension for a long time, keeping my “list” for awhile, and then getting rid of it, and then starting it again after (honestly) I saw my own lack of expectations blow up in my face.

The difficulty with having expectations is that they’re often disappointed, aren’t they?

This is the tension we find in so many areas of life. We think something is going to be one way — that our spouse is going to be tall, blonde and a surfer, or that Christmas is going to be calm and magical, or that our new job or new church is finally going to be the perfect fit — and then, when it’s not, we’re sad.

Is that what we’re trying to avoid by having no expectations?

Do we think we can evade all disappointment?

You can forfeit expectations to avoid disappointment, and it will probably work, for awhile. I’ve done this in dating, and in other areas of life (my job, my living arrangements, church, etc) and it was as effective as any coping mechanism.

But disappointment always seemed to creep up on me, after awhile, when I was least expecting it. I would be in a relationship, or at a church, or working a job and realize, out of nowhere, I was really unhappy.

I hadn’t really given up my expectations. I’d just been hiding them.

When we start to hide our expectations, or pretend we don’t have them, we have to disengage (even if it is in some small way) from what is going on around us. We have to disengage from ourselves, from what is really at the core of our hearts. I did this for awhile in dating, and in other areas of life, and it didn’t help me avoid disappointment. It just deadened me to it.

Disappointment is inevitable.

Besides we need our expectations. They act like a compass for us (Proverbs 4:23). Vision works to create reality. The way you see the world doesn’t control the world, but it does impact your experience of it. If you have strong vision for something, you play an integral role in bringing that expectation into reality. You make the vision come to life.

Your expectations matter. So do mine.

If you were to take a look at my mile-long list of “expectations” for a husband from so long ago, and then meet my husband now, you would laugh (at me, not at him). He is average height, doesn’t play the guitar, and hates poetry. He also hates hiking and country music. The good news is I can look back and laugh at myself, too.

I don’t wish I had lower expectations.

I just wish I had more general expectations, and fewer specific ones.

I prayed for a really good love story, and you know what? I think that’s why I met my husband on a website we both read from our separate apartments, thousands of miles apart. He was in Minneapolis, I was in Portland, and yet our cyber-paths crossed. I don’t think it was by chance. I think it was because both of us were open to the possibility that our love story might not look like everyone else’s.

Our expectations worked to shape our reality. And it’s a really good reality.

People say you shouldn’t have too high of expectations because you’ll just be disappointed, but I don’t think that’s true. Packing Light doesn’t mean giving up expectations all together. It means evaluating our expectations carefully, choosing which ones to keep, and which ones to leave behind. After all, they are pointing us in a direction…

Where are your expectations leading you?

[photo: William Christiansen, Creative Commons]

Unpacking Bitterness

She took the stage with the quiet confidence of a woman who had a message. Her hair was perfectly in place and  her clothes flowed beautifully over her body. “Today I want to talk to you about the danger of bitterness,” she said.

Here we go, I thought. Another sermon about un-forgiveness.

I tried to listen, but I couldn’t do it. I’d heard this all before. Growing up in church I’d listened to at least a hundred sermons or mini-sermons about “turning the other cheek” and loving our enemies. I understood forgiveness. I knew how it worked.

It was just that, with everything I knew, I wasn’t willing to do it.

I know it probably makes me sound cold-hearted, or at least like a bad Christian, but hear me out. I was sexually abused as a little girl, which means: At the young age of four years old I learned what it means to be betrayed by someone I trusted. Not just once, but over and over and over again.

So sitting there in church that day, and every other time I heard teachings about forgiveness, I half-listened. I knew that holding onto hurt and anger was hurting me more than it was anyone else.

But that was fine with me. Forgiveness wasn’t worth it.

“I’m not mad at the person who abused me.”

That’s what I would have told you if you asked me that day. You may not have believed me, but I wouldn’t have been lying. Many times I would try to muster up some pointed anger toward one particular person, but I never could find it.

Maybe it will come bubbling up later, I thought, the deeper I burrow into the layers of hurt, the more I unwrap the numbness I’ve felt for so many years. More time would pass, but I still wouldn’t feel angry at my abuser.

Don’t get me wrong. I was angry. I just wasn’t angry at what happened in the past.

I was angry about now. Present tense.

I was angry at the way I always let other people talk me into thinking things I didn’t want to think, and feeling things I didn’t want to feel. I was angry at the way I seemed to lose  myself so quickly in relationships. I was angry at how lonely I felt — angry people are very lonely.

I was angry that anger was the only tool I had to protect myself.

The anger I felt wasn’t violent. In fact, it was mostly quiet and subdued, like most messages I’d heard about forgiveness were — just two-dimensional paper men and women you put up on a felt board. That was me, my life and my relationships. Just stick figures, asleep to the realities of living.

Every once and awhile someone would come close and learn the truth of my rage. They would wake it up — that deadness inside of me, and without meaning to or even knowing it, they would become the enemy. One taste of that is all it took, and they would turn around and go away.

That’s why I couldn’t forgive.

Not because I wasn’t willing to let another person “off the hook.” I knew better than that. This wasn’t about other people, and I didn’t have any control over who was on the “hook” and who wasn’t. Anger wasn’t punishment. It was insulation. Without anger, I was exposed. Without anger, people got too close. Without anger, people took advantage.

I couldn’t do it again.

I couldn’t suffer another casualty like the first.

Turning the other cheek seemed like the most cruel joke.

The other day I was watching a documentary about Martin Luther King and I remembered, for the first time since elementary school, that during the Civil Rights Movement King suffered violent attacks against himself, his home, and his family. I wondered as I watched if there were ever times during the whole thing where he thought about saying, “You know, this isn’t safe anymore. This message is important, but I’m going to keep quiet. For the sake of my safety.”

Even worse — I wonder if I would have blamed him.

Sure, now in retrospect, I see the radical way his words have shaped culture in our country. I see the freedom he has brought to homes, friendships, neighborhoods and public education. From where I sit now it is easy for me to look and say “it was worth it” to the sacrifices he made.

But what if I didn’t know what the future held? Would I have agreed that non-violence was the best way to respond to those who threatened his personal safety? Would I have done what King did? Or would I have protected myself — by fighting back, or by going away?

King looked at those who threatened him and said: This is a fight worth fighting, peacefully. Even if I die.

He wasn’t going to protect himself.

The fight I’m fighting is different than that of Martin Luther King Junior. I don’t mean to suggest they’re the same. But they do have similarities, if I’m willing to notice them. They both have the potential to change the reality in which I’m living, and the reality of generations after me. They both require a quiet resolve, a commitment to speak up, to act differently than I have before.

They both require me to abandon my strategies of self-protection.

I wonder if this is how it always is with the important battles in life. I wonder if “safety” is an illusion, and if most things worth doing are risky. I wonder what I would  accomplish if safety wasn’t my primary objective.

I’m still sorting, still shaking this all out like piles of laundry, looking for that missing sock that may or may not have been lost in the dryer. I’m still working on it. That’s okay. Maybe you’re still sorting, too, still shaking out a pile of unfair things that have happened to you.

If that’s the case, will you share? Has something bad happened to you? Have you forgiven? Why or why not?

[photo: Future Impaired, Creative Commons]

Get Into The Party

Whenever I go to a party, I have a strategy.

I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.

I’m not a huge people person, and big crowds stress me out, so whenever I go to an event where there’s a room full of people I don’t know, I choose a spot against the wall that’s fairly inconspicuous, point my back toward it, and stand about a foot away from the wall itself. Oh, and so my hands are full — so it looks like I’m doing something other than standing there by myself looking like an idiot — I always get something to eat or drink first and keep it there with me, right at about chest height.

If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that I keep the same cup of coffee or plate of crackers for the entire length of the party. It might look like I’m consuming it, but really I’m really just lifting it to my mouth every couple of minutes for dramatic effect.

The key is to make the food or drink last as many hours as possible.

The beautiful thing about this place at a party is you get to keep tabs on everybody. You get to watch the token single dude make a fool of himself with every pretty girl in the room, introducing himself and recycling his same cheesy jokes over and over again. You get to watch the “important” people in the room try to downplay their importance, and everyone else try to prove how “important” they are.

You can make fun of people (secretly, of course, in your head) for telling a joke that tanks, or for sticking out their hand to shake, while the other person goes in for a hug — or the most tragic — mistaking a “high five” gesture for a hug request.

That’s the worst.

The other benefit, I’ll admit, is that no one can approach you from behind, so you’re never shocked by anything. If someone wants to talk to you, they can approach you from a the front, like a civilized party-goer. I’m not sure why that’s such a big deal to me. I think there must be one too many tragic “cover-your-eyes-from-behind” experiences buried in my high school psyche.

From my spot on the wall I can watch the whole party unfold.

I can keep track of who is friends with who, who appears to be nice, and who appears to be no fun at all.

If someone wants to talk to me, they know where to find me. After all, I don’t change positions for the entire party. I’m really not that hard to track down. And when they do come to talk to me, I’ll be there ready, with my food prop in place and my tone of voice prepared to meet them enthusiastically (if they’re “that” type) or intellectually (because I overheard them talking about the Pleistocene era, and I googled it so I could know what it was) or with the obvious reveal of my left ring finger. Sorry buddy, taken.

It’s really wonderfully safe this way, and I never could have imagined a better way to do it. In fact I was rather proud of my party-going secret. I thought maybe one day I could patent it or something.

Until I met my husband. Then I watched him at a party and thought…

For too long, I’ve been a spectator in my own life.

I meant well, scooting around the perimeter of parties and people and relationships and circumstances, back to the wall, trying to make sure nothing jumped out at me in surprise. I was careful, I thought. Conscientious, I told myself. Safe.

I congratulated myself for my maturity.

The thing I didn’t realize was that, when you live your life and your parties this way, you have very little control over what happens to you. It might seem like you have control. You might feel like you have more control than you would if you just permeated the party, got in the mess, right in there high-fiving and hugging and telling bad jokes like everyone else.

But when you live your life like this, you’re powerless. Your back is to a wall. Literally.

You’ve surrendered control to everyone else in the room.

I always hear people (women especially) talk about how they have control issues and need to learn they don’t have control over everything, and I get what they mean. I’m like that too. Sometimes I try to control things I don’t have control over, and it’s a really unattractive trait. But what if I don’t need to learn to give up more control? What if that’s not the answer?

What if what I need to learn is that I do have control?

What if I need to get in the party?

I think gaining control over the right things will help me abandon the notion that I have control over everything. I won’t have to talk myself out of being controlling, I’ll just snap out of it, when I realize I’m just as silly and screwed up as everyone else around me — when I’m the one telling a joke at the wrong time, or spilling my drink all over myself when someone tried to hug me from behind. Maybe, if I took control of my own life and actions, I wouldn’t be so prone to control other people.

What I need to do is get my back off the wall and jump into the party.

People who are engaged in their own lives don’t have time to judge other people. It isn’t a morality thing. It’s just they’re busy. They’ve got their own insecurities to manage, their own decisions to make, their own regrets to handle.

We’ve all got our own baggage.

Are you managing yours, or someone else’s? Do you need to get in the party?

[photo: DardenMBA, Creative Commons]