this can happen

Saturday mornings are made for coffee and if you are wise in the ways of really making it a weekend, you take your coffee out walking with an old friend in a beautiful neighborhood. Or at least, this is what I did last Saturday. I met Sarah at a coffee place on the familiar corner of a wide, slow street. It’s called Good Neighbors, and is there anything more to say than that? 

We took our coffee to go, walking through the cool morning and talking as fast and enthusiastic as you can only do when you’re all caught up on news and move on to conversation. We talked about everything. The summer camp at which we became friends and still work for, which sort of latte each of us ordered, the freshness of the lilac hedges we walked past. Tattoos came up somehow, and in no logical sequence, tattoos led to my writing. Reluctant as I am to talk about my writing, everything seemed to tumble out in confidence of a supportive listener. The big dreams, the ones about this memoir and that book of essays, the questions about building an audience – maybe I’d held on to those secret thoughts for so long they spoke up of their own accord. I talked, laughed ruefully, wondered and dreamed a bit, and finally shrugged. 

“Who knows though. I’m not really sure what I’m doing.”

“Gianna,” Sarah turned without stopping and looked at me, face all lit up like spring, “this can happen.”

This can happen. 

I hung on those words for a minute, and she poured out enough ideas and strategies to build my dreams sky-high, iron-framed and concrete-founded. 

This can happen

It’s been five days of turning over every single suggestion she named and writing down question after question, marketing, hashtags, giveaways, monthly emails – and despite how logical and actionable every single thing has turned out to be, I still can’t believe the three words she said first. This can happen. 

It’s carried me all week now – all tired long week of parenting in a safer-at-home order, bruising my shins on the steps, wading through days of uninspired writing, closing my journal or my laptop or my mouth with a snap because I feel like sometimes I’ve run out of any words to say at all. But I remember that tiny sentence that opened a whole world of hope, and I think it to myself again: This can happen

Sometimes that’s all the seed of hope we need to keep a dream alive – one person who knows how to put shoes on a dream and make it start walking. Somebody stares at the sky with you, and sees your same dream, the one you thought was just a fleeting shape in the clouds, and calls it real. One person who can look you in the eye and say, “Yes. Here’s how.” 

I hadn’t planned on taking our conversation from the tattoos I want to the books I plan to write, but there we were, and there was magic in the unplanned sharing of dreams, because now those dreams have a confidence in them that isn’t just mine. They’re backed by somebody I trust – and sure, I’ll still have those days when I can’t see what value there is in any of my work, or I wonder why anybody would want to sign up for a future monthly email from me. But I have Sarah’s enthusiasm to fall back on too, now. I have somebody who cares about these things becoming real, somebody who won’t be shaken or disappointed when I write a bad sentence or a bad paragraph, or when nobody takes notice of an Instagram caption I crafted with heart and vulnerability. 

So darling, whatever that dream is, I want you to hear it from me: this can happen. You may not have all the details figured out and maybe I can’t tell you exactly how to train for the marathon or survive basic training or learn to lead-climb tricky rock walls, but don’t let that hold you back: this can happen. You can do this. You’re not alone. Find somebody to talk to, somebody who knows which step to take. But don’t forget that I’m here cheering for you. Your dream matters. Your goal can become a reality. Your ideas are important. 

Darling, this can happen. Remember it. Say it to yourself often. And if you know somebody who needs to hear it too – send them these words. Heck, say it to them yourself. This can happen. I’m not alone; you’re not alone; nobody is alone. Big things can happen when we begin to tip the balance from wondering to acting, to encouraging and hoping and planning. Let’s take time this week to be Sarahs – to pass out hope like coffee on a Saturday morning and remind each other the ways that big things can really, truly grow into being, one tangible, tiny step at a time.

letter no. 6 – start small, but start

Sometimes we do not move forward because we don’t know what to do next. And sometimes we don’t move forward because we know exactly what to do next, and we’re terrified. (I am raising my hand. It’s ok. You’re not alone. Don’t be terrified of the alone-ness too.)

I felt deeply called out when Helen Macdonald wrote in her book H is for Hawk that falconer and writer James White began to self-sabotage because he was afraid of his own success. I am terrified when I start to do well, to succeed. I think I am terrified of trying to go beyond that marker of success and failing utterly. It’s not a rare fear, you know? It’s not as if nobody has been afraid of failure before. Afraid of success before. I’m still not sure I understand this fear myself, but it’s very real and I’ve let it hold me back from moving in the right direction. 

I don’t have any profound things to say to you about this. I can’t conquer that fear for you. Most of the time I haven’t even conquered it myself. But I want us to take the next step anyway. What is that step? Break it down, love. Don’t tell me it’s getting published or writing a book or something. No, I want to hear the next step. Maybe that means finding one place to submit a story. Maybe it means finding out how much going back to school would cost or even just sending that same magazine another essay. Choose a step, and if it’s too big, break it down until it’s manageable. Don’t try to write your bestseller if you’ve only ever written essays. Maybe instead choose a time and place you’ll commit to writing each day. Don’t put down grad school if you’ve never taken a college class – start with learning what you’ll need, or signing up for History 101. 

I don’t want you to play small. That’s not what I’m telling you to do. Dream big, girl. Dream big and take time to lay on your back in the park making shapes out of the clouds while you let your mind roam over all the bright, beautiful possibilities there are for you. But don’t come home and think “Well if I want to graduate college with honors, then I’ve got to pick a great college and sign up for all the hardest classes right now, this afternoon, day-job be damned.” Let the dreams take their time in coming true while you work on the little steps that are within your grasp. I want you to dream big and play reasonable – there’s almost always a simple, reasonable step you can take right now. And when we come back next week I want us to have taken it. Yeah, both of us. I’ve got some small steps in mind already. I could submit this work to that site, or pick a theme and develop an outline for an essay I hope to submit. There are actions each of us can take. I’m looking at you hard right through this screen: are you with me? I’ll be back here next week. I’ll have taken a step in courage, without waiting for all the fear of success or fear of failure to stop me. Meet me here in seven days. Let’s do this, darling.

your story matters – letter no. 2

It’s going to be worth it. It matters. These are the things you need to hear today.

Writing is worth it. Choosing a place you will write consistently and a way you will measure writing consistently and then doing the actual writing – consistently: this is all worth your while. It matters in ways you won’t understand at first. It matters when it feels dull, uninspired, worthless. It matters when it feels alive, golden, real. It matters all the times in between. And I’m using writing because it’s what I know but let’s pull in your own dream real quick: gardening, running, further education, travel, buying a house – it’s worth it. Stay with me.  Translate this whole post in your mind as you read. Put in your goal whenever I talk about writing. These words are meant to be true for you, too.

I know what you want: you want to have done the work. You want the work behind you. You want to see the fruit of your labor. Girl, I want to see the fruit of your labor too. I believe it’s going to be beautiful. And I truly believe it will come. But I know how it won’t come and I know one of the ways that it will. It won’t come by wishing on a star, by taking long inspirational walks in the woods, by sitting outside long enough. It won’t come by reading good books and calling them “field work”. It won’t come by attending a conference and calling yourself a writer with a fainthearted name-it-and-claim-it attitude. 

It will come by writing. It will come by writing the days you believe you’re a writer and the ones you believe you’re not. It will come by writing on the days when you felt wildly inspired and also writing on the days when you were sure you’d have to go back and delete every word, unthink every idea that led to those words. (Yeah. It’ll come those days too. Don’t discount them – remember all the days that I told you matter? Those are in there too.) 

I’m only partly here to reprimand you. And we do need it, a little. All of us begin to think that if we put in the work partly, that should be good enough. (It’s not.) Or we begin to think that we can’t put in the work. (That’s false.) No, you need to put in the work completely. You have to be all in and you have to be in it for the process, the work, the long haul. You can’t be in it for the applause that will not come on a predictable timetable or in an expected fashion. And you can put in the work completely. Honey, maybe you’re working full time and trying to workout and keep up a social life and all that you see is the ways in which you can’t. Then start with five minutes, girl. Start with five minutes and do it day in and day out. Read Atomic Habits and figure out how you can make that tiny, atom-sized habit a real one that sticks. You can write a book five minutes at a time. I believe in you. If I can write while raising a toddler, house-hunting and getting ready to birth a second child into our family, then you can write during your day job, your crazy social hours, your wacky gym schedule. 

There’s more to what I’m saying though. The second thing I’m saying isn’t so much you can or you have to but it matters that you do. It does matter. Your book is beautiful, babe. The world needs what you carry, as Janessa Wait says. She’s right. You’re carrying the stories you need to write even if you don’t recognize them yet. That’s ok, darling. Sometimes it takes a while. I’m still in the process of recognizing some of my own stories. Stick with it. What you find will be worth it. 

People will need to hear the words that only you can say. Please write them. Please write them hour by hour, or minute by minute. Please write them as slow or as fast as they come. But write them. Remember the fire that burns in your stories: think of it like a campfire. Sometimes campfires are little – they burn in the back corner of a yard and people stop by it to roast a marshmallow or warm their hands in between the exciting night games. And sometimes campfires are huge old bonfires. They roar and crackle so hard people need to stand back and turn slowly so they don’t get too hot on one side.

Friend, your fire matters no matter how huge and bright it burns. Your story matters. Tell it. The house you want to buy can be a home where you welcome people, where you welcome yourself finally. That degree can be a means of inspiration for others, a means of joy for you. That perfect latte pour can be your pride and joy and make somebody’s day, all at once. Any creative or artistic endeavor is a thing of weight and glory, darling. Never forget this. It matters. Your work matters.

a long direction – letter no. 1

[I thought about calling this series “letters in the quiet” because I’ve been offline, writing the things I think I need most to hear: but it’s coming slowly home to me that maybe I’m not the only one who needs to hear some of these words and so now they’re letters to be shared. Don’t read this thinking I’ve reached all my goals. Really, I’m just a girl who needed this pep-talk too.]

It’s possible – just maybe possible – that what you needed to hear isn’t what you expected at all. You need to hear it right when you are waiting with expectation. Right when you are waiting for an expectation. You think there are rules to follow in this dream of yours. (and maybe there are, but there is a time for rules.) You think there is only one right way to get to the place you are going. (And maybe you are right about that too, but not the way you thought you were.)

I think the only way to keep going in a direction is to just keep going. And maybe that sounds stupid or simple or cut-and-dried, or maybe it even sounds like the rules you thought I was about to toss out the window. Well, like the hero of a movie always says when he gets caught with his pants down, I can explain

Of course there are rules: there is one big rule. Keep moving. If you want to be a writer, put your butt in a chair and write. If you want to be a runner, stop browsing Nike’s newest running shoes, lace up the ones you have and walk out the door. If you want to be a therapist, start by signing up for some classes. You can’t just talk to your own therapist forever about how you want to do this too, one day. But then your therapist, if they’re worth their salt, will tell you the same thing I’m telling you. It matters a hell of a lot more that you begin and keep going than that you have the same path to get there that everybody else does. 

A friend of mine wants to major in Psychology. A lot of people go to college knowing they want to major in Psychology, and a lot more go to college knowing they have to pick a major and they pick Psychology eventually. My friend started with cosmetology. She went to beauty school, which we have learned not to call it anymore, and has worked with her favorite and least-favorite clients in a salon in a city near where we grew up ever since. It doesn’t sound very glamorous because it isn’t. But tomorrow is her first day of classes at a new college and in a few years she’s going to have the exact same psychology degree as all the people who just graduated high school and haven’t had to hunt down their love of psychology through the hair-cut therapy sessions delivered compassionately to the soundtrack of a hair-buzzer and a scissors. Isn’t that worth something – that knowing? 

Hell, let’s just make it personal. I want to be a published author. And yeah, the only way to get there as I’ve been told again and again is to get my butt in the chair and write. I’m beginning to realize it doesn’t matter as much what I write as that I am writing. Can we agree on that for a second? Because sometimes I go around and around in my own mind, just trying to determine what I should be working on right now and instead of writing I think about writing and puzzle about writing and make writing complicated when it should be as simple as sitting down and getting out the words.

I’m a lot like everyone else trying to write. We all know the struggle: you worry about developing your own voice, but how are you ever going to do that if you don’t write? You worry about finding what it is you love to write but how are you ever gonna do that if you don’t write? You have to write. But who cares what you write? 

I think we are too lenient on ourselves because we are so hard on ourselves. I can explain that one too. You are hard on yourself for not choosing a direction. You don’t know what to work on so you worry about choosing a direction and because you’re so nit-picky about a direction you give yourself permission not to write until you have something figured out. But you’re not going to find success like that. Success comes at the end of consistent hard work. Greatness is out there and it will find people, but it will find those who’ve put in the years of behind-the-scenes training. Who’ve put their butts in chairs and written things nobody has ever or will ever read. 

The invisible work is the work that matters, do you hear me? The invisible work is where you’re going to be built. The invisible work is boring and unrewarding for a long time and everybody who’s somebody has had to deal with that. They’ve had to figure out what they love about this work so they can keep going when there isn’t a soul cheering them on, because for years and years there probably won’t be a soul cheering you on (except me, right here and right now) and you’ve got to be ok with that – you’ve got to get your butt in your chair and your fingers on your keyboard for different reasons than just the cheering. Trust me on this. 

So don’t self-sabotage. Don’t hold back and wait for a direction; don’t stop the habit just because you’ve finished one stage, don’t give up on a direction just because you didn’t start walking towards that degree the day after high school ended. It’s not how you get there that matters. It’s going in the same direction, day after day, until you arrive. I trust you babe: you can do that. And when you get there? That’s when the applause begins.

courage, dear heart

2018: I set my Nalgene and books on a table by the window, claiming my seat. The windows of Peak Place Coffeehouse look right across the valleyed city towards the mountain; view well suited to name.

“Iced coffee with cream, please.” I tip fifty cents, exchange my greetings with the barista; we know each other.

Something prompts me to record the moment. I hold my camera up, trying to capture the beautiful mountain logo next to my coffee. My usual coffee; my usual tip; my usual seat. I don’t often photograph what I’m eating or drinking, no matter how aesthetic, but the moment seemed stirred with significance. I remember.

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2015: I have worked at this new bank for two weeks; maybe my discomfort and weariness is foreshadowing as well as adjustment. Every moment of work is a tense one, it seems to me. I come in early for a meeting, and leave to get coffee nearby during the hour before my shift. The keyed up nerves from work encroach on my sleep. However early I begin my day, I am already tired from worry the night before. I photograph my coffee, feeling my anonymity in the city with every patron’s glance that does not turn my way.

I put the photograph on Instagram – is it the only place people know me now? – and caption it desperately “That morning. That weariness. So: Courage, Dear Heart.”

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2018: I sit with this creamy coffee and savor the stillness inside. There is no desperate murmuring of courage quotes, no clinging to hopeful phrases in the wish that they penetrate my skin. I am full of hope. Courage is my quiet constant anthem. I have come through, I marvel softly. I have come through those years to life and life abundant.

Coffee drunk for hope tastes of temporary sweetness, part-time courage. Coffee drunk in triumph plays the tang against the cream and all that is sweet is sweeter still in victory. Have I ever had such good coffee?

Have hope. Your breaking heart was meant to be whole and God writes stories that put the pieces back together. Maybe it will be these three years of trying before you remember who you are but don’t you give up, darling.

Don’t you ever give up.

embrace your dreams

“What do you want to do?” Grant asked. He meant for myself; did I want a job, a hobby, more education? We were walking slowly back from the park, me with the hole in my jeans, him carrying our tiny boy in the baby carrier. He asked me again sitting in the oversized blue chair in the corner of the living room, again in the kitchen when we did the dishes together and I wondered about what the fall would bring. He kept asking, sometimes months apart, because I kept not knowing. How long had it been since I knew what I wanted?

“No stretch marks, that would be nice,” I’d joke decrepitating. “To sleep through the night,” with a quiet sigh about waking up to nurse the wee one. “To not wrestle with my insecurity anymore.” “To have the space to think.” “A few hours by myself, no dirty diapers or wiping baby cereal off his chin.” I honestly didn’t know what to dream for, how to dream, what my dreams were. I only knew what they had been once, before I gave up on them and moved on.

We haven’t had that conversation for a few months now. Perhaps we haven’t had the time; Grant is working twelve and fourteen hour days lately since camp is up and running. There are counselors to be trained, schedules to deconflict. And I am happy. I watch the sun creep slowly up over the pines in the morning; I walk up the road to see Pikes Peak dozing in the noon sun; the alpenglow on Raven’s Craig casts the evening in gold before the night moves in like a whisper.

I have space; time. I can breathe again. The dreams are coming back.

“I want to [be] curious. I want to notice things. I want to be creative and resilient. I want to become better and better forever at what I love; parenting, writing, spending time in the outdoors, investing in relationships. I want to follow Jesus well. I want to think original thoughts. I want to work hard, and I want to know how to stop working completely and just play. I want to keep discovering the wildness and beauty God put in me. I also want to eat dinner.”

I wrote those words this afternoon, sipping too-bitter cocoa and staring at the aspens quaking in the gusty wind. I know what I want.

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I found this photograph a few hours later on Facebook, popping up in the memories that I looked at on a whim. I remember that photograph. The sun was beaming brilliant and the lilac blooms had given way to full-green waxy leaves. I settled onto the culvert rocks with no flowers to look at, determined to just put down my phone and be for a few minutes. And then this call snagged my attention; I started writing things on my little phone screen, thinking again of all the writing dreams that I had slowly given up on.

Two years ago was not much a time of dreaming. I was sliding into a hard season that would open with the uncontained joy of my wedding. But the seed of dreams was planted. Maybe it took all these two years to poke above the soil. Today feels softly significant for all the joy of this small realization. I know what I want.