I’m not at SunTrust Park tonight.

It’s 8:15 p.m. on Friday, April 14, 2017. For months, I’d been planning on being on my feet at this moment, foam tomahawk in hand, at a brand-new ballpark in Cobb County, Georgia, for the home opener of this season of Atlanta Braves baseball. Instead, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, trying to grade essay proposals. The Braves game is on the radio, but I can barely hear the commentary because the Braves are up 2-0 in the first inning, and the crowd is so loud that Jim Powell’s voice disappears.

I’m frustrated.

I tried on multiple occasions to buy tickets for today’s game, but the Braves sold so many ticket packages early that few people were able to buy single-game tickets when they went on sale to the public. I didn’t want to empty out my savings account to buy tickets from third-party sellers, and when the Braves released individual standing-room-only tickets earlier this week, I didn’t buy one because I know myself well enough to know that I didn’t want to go to the game alone. The new ballpark is exciting, but it isn’t familiar, and between traffic and wondering if I would get lost and not having a place to park and being surrounded by people I don’t know, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been fearful instead of excited.

I should have bought the ticket anyway. I didn’t. And now, like so many other times, I regret not taking a chance.

I’ve got excuses. It’s two weeks before the end of the semester, and the grading has piled up. My parents need to see me. Atlanta traffic is the worst.

There will be other games. There will be more Opening Days. But I think I’ll always regret not trying harder to go to this game.

I’ve been thinking too much about regrets lately, about taking chances (or not) when I can (or should). Two months ago, my father was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. He’s gone through two rounds of chemo so far. He hasn’t been too sick, but he’s been tired and weak. We won’t know for a little longer whether the chemo is working. But life has changed for all of us.

Two months ago, life felt like it was ending. It was hard to breathe some days. I set alarms for two hours before I needed to get out of bed because I knew it would take that long to convince myself to actually move. I broke down in front of students, in restaurants with friends, and especially in the middle of the night when nothing could penetrate the grief. I still do, actually.

But I kept counting down to baseball. Spring training games started two weeks after my father’s diagnosis. I occupied myself with arguing about who the Braves would put in their bullpen to start the season and guessing which minor league teams the top prospects would be assigned to and creating a spreadsheet for the players I would draft for my fantasy league.

At this point in my life, I’ve recognized the impermanence of things. Roommates and addresses change, sometimes more often than I would choose. Best friends move across the country or drift away, despite still living in close proximity. My favorite students graduate or transfer, and suddenly, the people who were so important to me for months are just gone.

The people I love the most are gone. Might be gone. Will be gone. Eventually, sooner or later.

No matter how you conjugate it, the loss is the same. Life is hard. Really hard. Even unbearable at times. So when you find something that gives you a real, true sense of fulfillment, you have to hold on.

The reality that I will one day, far sooner than I am ready, even if it is years from now, lose my father has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. But it has brought a sense of clarity about, as clichéd as it sounds, what is really important:

God is true and real and loving even when my heart is broken and the grief is overwhelming.

I will never regret spending time with my family instead of grading essays.

The people who matter the most are the ones who will be solid, faithful presences even when they don’t know what to say or how to help.

Baseball is the greatest, weirdest, most exhausting, most romantic sport in the world.

Some days, the stress of life is so much that my prayers are reduced to “Jesus, please just help.” Some days, I cry uncontrollably on the phone with my mom, who is stronger and braver than I can ever hope to be. Some days, I find solace in a good cup of coffee and a stellar defensive play by the Braves’ centerfielder. Some days, nothing seems to matter because the papers still need to be graded, and my father still has cancer, and the Braves’ bullpen loses yet another game.

But God’s mercies are made new every morning. And joy comes in the morning. And new batting order and opponents and games happen EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

That is the best thing about baseball. For eight months out of the year, I have something to follow, something to invest in, something new and exciting and unexpected to hope for. The Braves might have a losing record, but players still hit home runs and make exciting sliding grabs in the outfield and make impossible 4-6-3 double plays look like poetry come to life.

The last thing I wrote about baseball was about hope and the Chicago Cubs, and when I wrote that in November, I had no idea what was coming. But I do now. And in a few weeks, when the semester is over, I’m moving home for the summer, to spend time with my dad, to help out my family as much as I can, to try to find hope and to make the time last as long as it can.

But my dad made me promise that, if I came home for the summer, I would still go to as many baseball games as I can. And that’s a deal I willingly made.

SunTrust Park, I’ll be there as soon as I can.

There’s Always Next Year

I’m not very good at hope.

I’m a worst-case-scenario kind of girl. (I can tell you 100 ways I’ve imagined getting a flat tire. I don’t need WebMD to tell me how the mysterious pain will kill me. I can sabotage a relationship before I even say hello.)

I have a hard time imagining life as ever being different than it is at this exact moment.

I haven’t always been this way. And I’m not this way every moment of every day. But the past 9 years have been hard. The daily wear-and-tear of living with diabetes and the loss of too many beloved family members and a volatile political climate and the sinking realization that a career in higher education is a difficult one to sustain…

Baseball has been teaching me to hope again.

I fell in love with baseball when I was 11 years old, but when I went to college, I found that it was difficult to keep up with the game. None of my friends cared about the sport, and it’s hard to devote that much time and energy when you’re the only person in your life who cares. (Plus, you know, I had to do all that reading…)

When I started following the game again, when I decided that I missed the game enough to figure out a way to fit it back into my life, my beloved Atlanta Braves were no longer the same team. Chipper Jones had retired, Bobby Cox wasn’t the manager, and the Braves weren’t even a .500 team anymore.

The Braves have been bad. Almost unwatchable at times (although the last half of this year was an incredible turnaround). My friend John suggested I start paying attention to prospects, and I started paying attention to what else was going on around the league, too. And I celebrated every single time the Braves did something good.

The 2016 baseball season could have been a nail in the proverbial coffin, a season that could have had me believing that enough was enough. At one point early on, the Braves were on track to lose 134 games…out of 162. But before the season even began, I  vowed to make it a summer devoted to baseball. And I have six months of incredible memories:

  • Three opening games in 10 days: MLB Opening Day in Atlanta, minor league opening day in Greenville, and the home opener of the inaugural season of the Fireflies in Columbia.
  • Absolutely incredible pitching: I saw Max Scherzer (this year’s NL Cy Young winner!), David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Jacob deGrom, Bartolo Colon (now a Brave!), and Justin Verlander (runner-up for the AL Cy Young) all pitch at Turner Field. And for the Braves, I saw Julio Teheran pitch four times this season!
  • I saw Freddie Freeman and Bryce Harper and Adonis Garcia and Daniel Murphy all hit their first home runs of the year on Opening Day. In September, I saw a Matt Kemp home run fly above my head, out of reach because he’d hit it so hard there was never any doubt. That same game, I watched the Braves beat the Mets in the 10th inning, my first time present for a walk-off win. There was incredible joy that night.
  • Between Greenville and Columbia, I managed to see the Rome Braves (and tons of future Braves) five times. I can’t WAIT for these guys to be playing at the major league level.
  • I started the season at Turner Field, and I ended it there, too. There were a lot of tears that day. Turner Field, as we know it, doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sure I’ll eventually grow to love SunTrust Park, but I probably won’t love it for awhile, and Turner Field will always be immensely special because it was my first ballpark, home of the first team I ever loved.

After the Braves’ season ended, I set my hopes on the Chicago Cubs. I spent a lot of late nights, coffee cup in hand, papers spread out on my lap, grading and watching baseball and crossing my fingers and praying for a miracle. I almost lost the faith a few times. But around 1:00 a.m., on a Thursday morning a few weeks ago, I cried my eyes out as decades and decades of waiting from the true, faithful fans were rewarded. I love the game so much that I wanted, desperately, for their faith to come to completion.

All this to say, baseball brings me hope. But if I had stayed the same fan I was when I was younger, that probably wouldn’t be the case. If I focused on win-loss records, on division titles, on home runs and batting averages, on All-Star appearances, I wouldn’t find much to bring me hope. The Braves just don’t have those things in spades, not now, not yet.

But changing the way I follow the game has made me more hopeful. I’ve started to understand that the future is not yet here, but I see glimpses of it: in a young, Gold Glove-winning centerfielder; in a hometown shortstop with really great hair; in low-A minor leaguers who can get lots of strikeouts; even in a ballpark that’s still under construction.

Not that long ago, baseball brought me great anguish. I despaired at a losing record, at the trades of so many of my favorite players to far-away teams. Baseball hasn’t really changed all that much. But the way I follow the game has, and that’s made the difference.

If the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series, then the Braves can be good again. And I can find hope again, both in the game I love and in the rest of my life. After all, there’s always next year (and next month, and next week, and tomorrow).

Spring training starts in just 96 days. I’m already ready.

In Search of Joy and Truth

2015-06-09 19.36.02There’s a photograph in a silver frame on my desk at home: one that I took at Turner Field on June 9, the last night I spent in my 20s. I snapped the photo, intending to send it to my little brother, to show him I was wearing the awesome customized jersey he’d given me as a birthday gift. But I never sent the photo, and I never posted it on any of my social media profiles. I later stood at the photo kiosk in Target, debating whether to print it out, before deciding that I would. Then I bought a frame and debated again whether to choose this photo or another one.

When I look at the photo, I notice a few things first: my eyes have bags underneath them…all the time now. A sign that my 30th birthday was the next day? My Atlanta Braves necklace is flipped inside out. The grin on my face is wide and silly, and my expression is goofy and weird. I wonder why I can’t have a normal face.

I see the flaws first.

But then I ignore that and start to pay attention to all the reasons why I chose to frame this photo:

Everything I’m wearing: a Braves t-shirt underneath a bold, red Braves jersey. A Braves ballcap on my head. Braves necklace and earrings. When I love something, I go ALL IN. That’s one of my favorite things about myself. Despite the fact that the Braves are nearing the end of the worst season in franchise history, I’m still supremely proud that I’ve chosen to be a Braves fan.

Next, I notice my best friend, leaning over with a goofy grin on her face that is equally as silly as my own. Several rows behind us are other fans, most looking bored. My gracious, was I excited to be there that night, and I didn’t really care who knew. It was the last night in my 20s, and I was in my favorite place in the world with a few of my favorite people. And we had great seats in the second level behind home plate! It’s easy to look at the grin on my face and think how silly I look until I remember how deliriously happy I was in that moment. And then I wish that I could have that goofy grin on my face all the time.

***

I had a bad afternoon a few days ago. I called my mom and woke her up during her Sunday afternoon nap, and then I sobbed on the phone. I don’t know what happened that day specifically, or if it was just a culmination of days of feeling worthless and ugly. I cried about being a bridesmaid in my brother’s wedding. I cried about being 30 and single. I cried about things I’m not even sure I can put into words.

Social media makes being a female hard. It probably just makes being a person hard, but I only know what it’s like from the female perspective. Almost daily, I see ultrasound pics or engagement photos. And when I post images of baseball diamonds or references to books I’m reading or articles on the Syrian refugee crisis, I feel like just another voice lost in mass of people who are living ordinary lives with nothing to celebrate, with nothing worth saying. And even while I recognize the fallacy in that thought, I have a hard time stopping it. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are—or should be—tools to let us celebrate and rejoice alongside those people. Instead, I let social media add to the pressure of never being good enough, pretty enough, smart enough. I lie awake at night and wonder why I haven’t gotten to achieve those milestones that other people have.

I minimize the value of what I have achieved when I make these comparisons.

I’m reading a book right now called The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. I just finished a novel called Dietland, by far one of the most radical feminist texts I’ve ever read. And on my desk is Jesus Feminist, which I’m excited to read as well. And all these theories, these ideas about beauty and femininity and spirituality, are in the forefront of my mind. I think about the fact that every woman I know has been gifted with a unique beauty and style. I think about the fact that a person’s body doesn’t exist solely for the pleasure of others, and that we aren’t given the right of judging another person’s physical appearance just because we’re displeased. I think about the fact that Jesus clearly cherished and valued the women in his life, and that I’m blessed to be part of that holy tradition.

This topic of beauty keeps coming up, not just in the books I read. It comes up in really edifying conversations with my book club, a group of strong, beautiful, faithful, intelligent women who never back down from the hard issues. It comes up when I’m teaching a class on argument, and I want my students to start thinking about perception, and I encourage them to reconsider the way they look at the people around them.

And then I cry on the phone about a dress and makeup and hair and all the things that I feel like I just can’t ever freaking do RIGHT. Because, somewhere along the way, the way I’m going to LOOK on the day of the wedding became a stumbling block to being able to celebrate with my little brother, my favorite person in the world, and the wonderful woman who is going to be my sister-in-law. And because, for so long, I’ve been given subtle hints from people—from men I’ve wanted to date, from strangers in coffee shops who check out my friends and ignore me, from conversations I’ve overheard in public spaces—subtle hints that I’m too short, too fat, not pretty. I’ve been afraid to cut my hair for fear that I’ll lose the only attractive quality I have—or at least the only one people seem to compliment.

And there seems to be that unspoken connection, the connection that we can SAY isn’t true but that we somehow BELIEVE anyway: beautiful women get what they want. And the rest of us just have to put up with the leftovers.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who legitimately believed she was beautiful—or, if she does, she hasn’t gotten to that point without wrestling through all this garbage first.  And that makes this pain somehow worse. I want to stop feeling this way. I want to feel valued and cherished, and I want to be able to extend that to the other women in my life. I want to be able to have conversations without feeling like I’m judged for my appearance and found sorely lacking. And I want this, too, for every other woman in my life.

Maybe it happens in baby steps? I don’t know. But I put the framed picture from June 9 in a place that I see it every day, to remind myself that finding joy is far greater than finding flaws. And even when I sit in front of that photo and sob on the phone to my mom, I’ll look to the photo to remind me that maybe true beauty is something different than anything we’ve ever really seen. I really hope that’s true.

Folding Chairs

I was born Southern Baptist, and by the time I finished preschool, I had claimed my rightful inheritance on the family pew: third row, right side of the sanctuary. Dark, shiny hardwood with dark green, velvet cushions (which, of course, matched the carpet and even the choir robes). It was to this pew that I returned on a January evening in 1993, after my baptism. It was in this pew that I first felt a call to missions. It was this pew that I left behind as a teenager when my parents, brother, and I moved our memberships to another church (claiming, once more, the third pew, right side, with the [slightly lighter] green cushions). And it was to this pew (since reupholstered in a more pleasing blue) to which I have only returned once, at the age of 25, to bury my grandmother.

On Sunday night, I walked into a different sanctuary, in a different city. I sat on the next-to-last row, in the center section, in a slightly battered metal folding chair that was neither brown, nor tan, nor gray, but some amalgamation of every neutral color in the spectrum. This sanctuary claims no uniformity. The dark wood floor is the only constant, sloping downwards towards a stage vacant of pulpit and upholstered chairs. Two slightly uneven aisles are formed between three sections of chairs that are placed there at the beginning of each service and removed shortly thereafter. The folding chair in which I sat is one of several varieties, including brown folding chairs with ripped cushions; hard, white plastic folding chairs; and the newest, straight-backed chairs with woven seats. Those are placed at the front of the sections, nearest the stage, but I have yet to venture far enough into the sanctuary to try them out. I rather like the simplicity of the metal folding chairs. No fluff, no frills; purely functional.

The floor is my favorite part of the sanctuary. At one point, pews did occupy the room. The outlines still exist where they were screwed into the floor. The marks are lighter colored than the rest of the wood and stand as a beautiful reminder of the evolution of the Church in my city. At one point, I’m almost certain that green velvet cushions sat perched atop the old wooden pews. After all, the peeling paint around the molding is green; the cushions had to match.

This gathering began a little over six years ago, and I joined about 8 months in, although I didn’t realize it at the time. There were so few of us at the time that we met in a much smaller room on the second floor of the next building. Once the congregation grew, and the funds increased, we moved into the sanctuary. The chairs moved from one building to the next.

I don’t remember the first chair I sat in when I attended radius for the first time, but I’m sure that it was one of the same folding chairs we’re still using. In my five and a half years, those chairs have been occupied by a vast array of people, some of whom still remain, others of whom have drifted away. I, myself, have gone for weeks or months without sitting in one of the seats, only to return once more.

In one of these chairs I sat the night in 2010 that I knew my grandmother was dying, which was also the same night that I sat while others prayed for my upcoming trip to Haiti; that night, I had already begun mourning my inevitable loss, but I also looked forward, albeit with a bit of trepidation, to an adventure to which God was calling me. In one of these chairs I sat late into a Sunday evening, talking with a friend who had become very close about life and our pasts and how God would redeem us. In one of these chairs I sat the night one of my friends told me she had nowhere to live, and my roommate and I told her to pack her stuff and come home with us.

Last night, I thought about the chairs, about the people who have occupied them with me and those who will in the future. The person who first invited me to this gathering of believers was someone I once loved. He occupied a seat beside me for a few months before he left, never to return. I doubt he will ever occupy a seat next to me again. But those few months were enough time to become fully entrenched in the body, to meet others who, over the years, would take his vacant seat. Friends who became roommates. Friends who grew closer. Friends who stayed but also strayed away, just as the first one had. Others that I loved, or wanted to love. And others that I chose to love.

Last night, I sat surrounded by my small group, my family, the men and women I joined with, who search with me and beside me for the Kingdom of God. And therein is the uniformity that the chairs, on the surface, lack. God has brought us all together, no matter who sits beside me. When the one I loved sat beside me, God was there. When that man left, God was still there. When others moved into the seat next to me, and then moved on, God was always there, covering me with His grace and love and leading me to His Truth. And for almost three years now, the ones who have been beside me have been the ones I’ve chosen to journey with. I will disappoint them at times. I’ll let them down. But God will be there through it all. And whether our church buys new chairs, or whether I leave this gathering for another group of believers, or another city, God will always be there. Pew. Folding chair. Bean bag. Blanket on the floor. The vessel never matters.

His Kingdom and His Church will endure.

His Love is Light, and His Gospel is Peace

Today is November 15. The temperature has been chilly, with biting winds throughout most of the week. One radio station in town has already begun playing Christmas music non-stop. All the stores are hawking Christmas decorations and perfect gifts and useless boxes of crackers and cookies that no one wants to eat.

Christmas is bittersweet. Like most children, I relished the holiday. I sang Christmas carols loudly and off-key. I baked a plethora of goodies with my grandmother, pressing the fork to make perfect cross-hatches on the cheese straws and measuring the pecans for dozens of pies. I made sure my grandmother and mother did not decorate their trees on the same days so that I could helps with both. I insisted we drive around to all the best houses to see Christmas light displays.

Christmas lost the magic for me as an adult. Again, I’m sure that’s not an uncommon occurrence. My beloved Mama Kat passed away just before Christmas three years ago; more than anything, Christmas since then has represented fleeting memories and the knowledge that life must inevitably progress without those we love. Her birthday is November 19, just a few days from now, which will then lead into Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday. This season contains far too many reminders.

It’s also the most difficult time of the year to be single. So many parties and family gatherings to attend alone. And the close of a year and the start of a new, wondering when hopes and dreams will come to fruition.

I’ve already begun ripping off the metaphorical bandages. I’ve begun planning my Christmas gift-giving. I’m listening to my favorite Christmas music on my iPod. I’m occasionally fighting back tears in home decor stores because Bing Crosby starts playing over the speakers, and boy, did my grandmother love White Christmas.

I’m also reminding myself to look for hope in unexpected places. To find glimpses of the Kingdom in a fallen world. To celebrate the knowledge that our world is full of brokenness and pain, but that our hope is in Someone greater. Christmas, after all, is the intersection of brokenness and redemption, when heaven and earth collided, when the Word was made flesh to dwell among us. I miss my grandmother while acknowledging that she and I will worship together again one day. I feel flashes of loneliness with the assurance that God is protecting my heart for a future purpose that I can’t yet comprehend. I will celebrate with the people I love, knowing that the way I love my family and friends is a reflection of a Love far greater than what I am capable of.

Maybe I’m ready for Christmas after all.

Wake Me Up

Two of the last three mornings I’ve woken up, shaking the remnants of dreams out of my consciousness. Fortunately, while these dreams have been vivid and their effects lingering, they haven’t been visceral, haunting dreams. Just reflective.

Dream #1: I was alone in San Francisco, having flown there for a vacation trip. I was exploring an art museum near the wharf (or at least my mind’s version of the wharf), and most of the dream took place in the museum bookshop. A really nice woman working in the shop watched me wander around the shop, picking up and setting down books, postcards, and figurines. She finally called me to the counter and pulled a book out. She said, “You’ve been to Boston, right?” I said yes. (In the dream, this didn’t seem strange, but this was the first conversation we’d had; how did she know my love for Boston?) She said, “You’ll find this book interesting, then. It’s about the literary connections between California writers and Boston writers.” I turned the book over, noting that the price was only $6.95. (Seriously?!? A scholarly book for $7? This was definitely a dream!) She then said, “This will be useful when you return to Boston.” After a longer conversation, I bought the book and some postcards, then left the museum, wrapping my scarf tighter around my neck and setting off to explore windy San Francisco.

I woke up, wrapped in my fluffy comforter in my room in South Carolina, happy that it was a Saturday morning but disappointed that I wasn’t exploring alone, confidently, in California, too. I even looked up flights to San Francisco, which means that TripAdvisor is going to be emailing me travel deals on flights to SF for the rest of my life now.

Dream #2: I went to North Carolina to a tattoo/piercing place. I arrived there to discover that, unbeknownst to me, one of my students worked there. (This place employed a lot of people–my student was an assistant of some sort and was absent for most of the dream.) The place was housed in an old farmhouse, and I seemed to be the only patron (or else they were all hidden in other rooms in the house). I walked in and talked to the woman at the front, who asked what I was there for. I spent a long time discussing tattoos and piercings with her. I decided I would get a second hole in my ear, then decided against that. I considered piercing the cartilage at the top of my ear, but I knew that hurt, and I didn’t think I would even like having that done, so I decided against that, too. Finally, I settled on what I knew I’d come for anyway: a tattoo. I knew the exact tattoo I wanted: lyrics from the Gaslight Anthem’s song “Handwritten” (about writing: “It travels from heart to limb to pen”) with an image of a pen and drops of ink. When I described the tattoo to the tattoo artist, she even knew I would want the drops of ink. She handed me a book to pick out a font (is that even a thing?), but I spent so much time trying to decide that we ran out of time. (Apparently, she only tattoos people in the yard of the house, and the sun was setting. Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about, either.) I said that I would come back now that I’d decided what I want; I said goodbye to my student and left. I think both the tattoo artist and I knew that I wouldn’t be back. Then, I woke up with a terrible headache.

Ultimately, I think both of these dreams are about figuring out what my actual, waking dreams are. This is a natural result of achievement, right? For those of you who don’t know, I recently got a job promotion. Starting November 1, I’ll be full-time faculty at North Greenville. I’ll no longer try to balance a full-time staff position in the library and writing center with teaching classes as an adjunct. My last day in the library is Oct. 31, and I’m very excited to be moving finally into a position I’ve hoped to have for almost five years.

I’m 28 years old. I’m young. Too young, it almost seems, to be in my fifth year of teaching college writing and to have been hired as a full-time English instructor. But this is my dream: to teach students how to write and how to love literature. Yes, it’s at a small university, and yes, I’ll never be wealthy. But after a semester last spring of wondering if I’d made the right career choice and even of considering leaving my career, this semester has been a beautiful confirmation of why I love my job and why I love being at NGU. I have amazing students right now, and I’m finally going to be able to focus solely on them.

The rest of my life, however, is in a space of wondering what my other actual, waking dreams are. I’ve known for years that I place too much of my identity into being either a student or teacher (depending on what season of my life I was in at the time). Weekends, summers, and vacations often seem like a pause from “real life.” Even when I traveled to Savannah last weekend to present at a conference, I worried about my students and kept in contact with them through email and Twitter as they took tests and submitted essays, even in my absence. Life away from my work seems weird and unnatural.

But aside from my career and my students, what do I want? In looking at the first dream, it seems obvious: I want to travel. Duh. I know that. Everyone knows that. In the first dream, I was alone, exploring a strange city, unafraid. I want that. I don’t always have the financial ability to do that, but that’s a goal worth achieving, right? It’s definitely manageable, too. If I save up, search for inexpensive flights and hotel deals, I, too, can visit San Francisco. I could even write that book (as my friend Kevin suggested)! After all, writing a travel guide is on my List of Things To Do Before I Die.

You know what else is on my List? Getting a tattoo. The tattoo I described in the dream is the one that’s been on my mind for the last six months. In March, I saw The Gaslight Anthem live, and when they sang “Handwritten,” I remember thinking, I should have that line tattooed on my wrist. I love it so much, and it seems to encompass all that I love about writing and music. So why haven’t I gotten a tattoo yet? Fear, definitely. Fear of judgment from people who disapprove of tattoos. Fear that I, too, will regret my choice years down the road.

In the second dream, there was a dream within reach, and I walked away from it because of fear and indecision. In the first dream, my dream was happening, but it’s unattainable right now. In real life, I’ve achieved one of my dreams. Now might be a good time to rest in that fact and remind myself that dreams don’t happen in my own timing (otherwise, I would have been a full-time instructor two years ago). I need not despair that I haven’t visited San Francisco or gotten a tattoo yet. I need not despair that I haven’t figured out how to introduce myself to that very attractive guy I’ve been eyeing. I need not despair that I haven’t figured out where and when I’m going to get my Ph.D.

I do, however, need to recognize that these are all dreams that I have and that fear and indecision might, in the future, keep me from achieving them. It’s also telling that I was alone in both dreams: I want independence (traveling alone in SF), but I need accountability to follow through with some things (getting the tattoo). Facing my fears and dreams on my own is not going to work.

Knowing this, and knowing the dreams I’d like to follow through on, what happens next? Maybe it’s time to start figuring that out.

Writing: A Love Story

I’ve been catching up on old episodes of the Nerdist podcast, and I listened to an episode from May with Michael Fitzpatrick from the band Fitz and the Tantrums. I bought their album More Than Just a Dream earlier this summer, and it’s so great that I’m a little sad that I didn’t discover them earlier.

Fitz was talking to host Chris Hardwick about his long career in music. The band Fitz and the Tantrums has only been around a few years, but Fitz himself is in his early 40s and has been in the music industry for so many years. He talked about what it was like to finally be recognized for his music and how hard he and his band have had to work. He also talked about finding his voice. He’s been a singer and played instruments and been trained in so many styles of music that he wondered what his authentic voice was. When he moves between genres of music, how does he know what’s really his own voice? It seems like he’s finally figured that out with this current band, but it’s also interesting to note that all of those different styles and influences actually formed the voice that he’d been looking for the whole time.

His comments also reminded me of Glenn Miller. In the biopic The Glenn Miller Story (which I watched many times as a kid), Glenn Miller (played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart) plays in a lot of bands that he eventually leaves because they don’t have the right “sound.” He walks out of a performance of “Moonlight Serenade” because he didn’t like the way the singer interpreted his music. When he finally finds the right musicians, he finds the right “sound,” and he makes the music he’s always dreamed of. But once more, it took all the experience of the “wrong” sound or the “wrong” voice to get him to the right one.

These past two days, I’ve met four classes full of students that I’ll be teaching this semester. Seventy-five students that I hope to steer towards being better writers and towards finding their own voices. I’m realizing that it might take a lot of “wrong” voices to get them there. How do I, as a writing instructor, dedicated to my craft and to the rules of my craft, encourage them, lead them without stifling their voices? How do I find a balance in correcting, teaching, encouraging? I’m going to have to teach them how to do the same thing that Fitz and Glenn Miller did: search for authenticity while learning from those who have gone before; take risks to learn about themselves while understanding they might crash and burn.

I’ve been thinking about my own writing process. Writing my thesis was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, one of my proudest accomplishments to this day. It didn’t happen overnight, though. It took a lot of reading, researching, learning, scratching out, starting over, across many years of scholarship, to get to that level of writing. I read articles and critiques in an effort to sound more scholarly. I imitated, but I also became what I studied. By learning from others’ writing, I figured out how to become my own writer. I figured out how to love the research and the analysis and the thinking. And, hopefully, I learned how to teach some of that to other people, too.

This is the joy and the burden of teaching writing. Writing is forever a search for authenticity, a search for identity, a search for meaning. Writing is difficult and time-consuming and back-breaking. Writing is frustrating and demanding. But writing is also empowering and coercive. Writing demands reflection and empathy, a knowledge of self and others and the universe, a quest for truth and life and answers. Voice and craft can exist side-by-side without contradiction. This is the lesson that I ultimately want my students to learn.