Not Abandoned

I will not leave you comfortless, Jesus says in John 14:18, in his last words to his disciples before his crucifixion. I will come to you

Another translation says orphaned, instead of comfortless. I think you could also read it as abandoned.

Over the last seven months, I’ve wrestled hard with isolation and loneliness. There’s a narrative of abandonment that runs through my head anytime a friend seems to forget me or leaves me behind, and last year, that happened twice, leaving me feeling hollow and expendable. I sunk deeper into darkness than I ever remember going, arguing with myself the whole way down. Help me was my one consistent prayer. My shame-filled eyes wouldn’t dare look up.

I reached a breaking point toward the beginning of this month. Sick of the gloom I was living in, I started developing a hatred for my own sinful patterns that put me there. 

It’s a hard truth to swallow that we are often the source of our own pain. Not that others never hurt us or are absolved of all responsibility. But our own evil hearts—my own evil heart—try to salve the wounds inflicted by others with ointments that can only cause infection. 

My loneliness, my isolation, my sense of abandonment, is painful and in some sense real. But how do I respond to that pain? Do I run to distractions, to temporary pleasures that only leave me feeling more alone? Or do I seek connection? Bring myself to people I can trust, communicate my needs honestly, and seek to be a giver, not just a taker, in relationships?

The idea—in fact, the promise—that Jesus himself will not leave me comfortless, orphaned, or abandoned enables me to rest. Take a breath, ask God to help my unbelief, and lean in to the terrifying possibility of new friendship, new depths of relationship, that though painful at times could lead to fuller healing of myself and a sharpening of God’s image in me.

What could this promise mean for us now, in the time of coronavirus?

First of all, welcome to that work-from-home life. I’ve been working from home since I started freelancing in 2017 (with a break last year during my internship). Working from home is hard and it can be lonely. The fact that this home life isn’t just for work, but for play and everything else in between, just makes it harder. 

What we’re living through is unprecedented and it remains to be seen exactly what it will be. We are living through history and it’s not glamorous. 

Coronavirus is raising a lot of worthwhile questions about: 

  • who we should value as a society (healthcare workers, teachers, grocery store staff)
  • what is crucial for survival (toilet paper, obviously)
  • what the heck corporate responsibility is (foreign idea for Americans)

and on the spiritual side, the age-old question of how a good God could allow horrible suffering.

I won’t attempt to answer that question here, but in the face of pain and confusion, I offer John 14:18:

I will not leave you comfortless [orphaned, abandoned]: I will come to you.

These are the words of Jesus before he goes to the cross, before the God of the universe embraces our suffering in his undeserved death. 

God is good and suffering is real, but God does not hold us or our pain at arm’s length. He’s not distant. He enters in, takes the weight of both our sin and our suffering upon himself. He’s come to us. And perhaps now he is closer than before.

2020: A Year of Intention

I didn’t set any goals last year. After previous years of massive, unrealistic lists, I stepped into 2019 with no goals other than to apply myself to what opportunities came my way.

The first eight months of 2019 found me juggling 25+ hours a week as an intern at 5280 Magazine, while maintaining my freelance business. Most days, I’d get up early and work on my laptop in bed before making breakfast and taking the bus downtown to 5280’s office, where I worked at least five hours each weekday. Then, I’d take the bus home and work some more, sometimes taking a break to go to the gym. More often than not, my eyes were still glued to my laptop at 10 p.m. 

What freelance work I couldn’t complete during the week I tackled on Saturdays, planting myself at the library while my friends skied or hiked or did who knows what else that the average person does on a day off.

I said yes to a lot of things, no to a few, and got much more than a healthy dose of blue light.

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During the month of March, I spent my limited spare time working on an application for a fellowship. I didn’t land the fellowship (or even interview for it), but I enjoyed working on the application and that process stirred a desire to pursue more independent projects. The question now is what idea to pursue.

When my internship ended on August 30, I was dazed and somewhat in shock. My experience at 5280 was overwhelmingly positive (and I wrote a lot, more than 30 articles over eight months). Though I was ready for a less jam-packed schedule, I wasn’t quite ready to return to the isolation of full-time freelancing.

That’s the hardest part of freelancing: Being alone. Almost all the time.

I’m an introvert and do well with a lot of time alone, but there is such a thing as too much. Since returning to my own desk on a full-time basis, I’ve tried to offset this by arranging in-person, daytime meetings—sometimes personal, sometimes professional—throughout the week. It’s helped, but I still miss that office culture. I’ve always loved working and part of the reason is because I love working with other people (which gets me thinking, maybe I should pursue a few collaborative projects this year).

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I returned to full-time freelancing with a few assignments for 5280 lined up and enough other work to keep me busy and, you know, clothed, housed, and fed. Now, as I look at a new year, I’m trying to decide what my new goals should be. 

Here’s what I have so far:

Writing Projects

Children’s books: I started realizing this summer that my imagination lights up around little furry animals and fairy tales the way other people’s imaginations light up for conspiracy theories. Maybe not the best parallel, but I’ve decided that this year, I’m going to lean into that imaginative, fun-loving side. I don’t need to be so serious all the time and neither does my writing.

Pitching & Rejections

I would like to land 1–3 feature pitches this year (5280.com doesn’t count because I’ve worked with them so much, but 5280‘s print magazine does, as does any other publication I haven’t worked with). I’m also trying to decide whether or not 50 rejections is a realistic goal based on the kind of stories that I want to be pitching, or if I should drop it down to 30 total rejections.

Freelance Business

  • I’m not at the point yet where I’m comfortable sharing my income goals (I live on pretty meager means because I’m cheap and never actually use my overpriced health insurance), but I would like to swap some of my less engaging ongoing work for more interesting, better paid work. If you’re in the market for a freelance editor or copywriter, let’s talk.
  • Connect with two new people each month, whether potential clients, media relations folks, or fellow freelancers or creatives.
  • Utilize the batching technique for ongoing content work in order to improve efficiency and make more time for creative projects. With this method, I would receive my assignments from content writing clients and schedule a few successive work sessions to complete the bulk of those assignments. This way, I’m not bouncing between projects and clients and having to reorganize my brain as often as I do now.

Reading

Thanks to GoodReads, this was the one area where I did set a specific goal in 2019. This year, I’m increasing my goal from 30 to 35 books (these are my favorite books from 2019) and aiming to read more classic literature, more women’s biographies (of course), and more diverse authors in general. Suggestions welcome.

Miscellaneous

  • Practice gratitude daily (a minimum of three points per day).
  • Add coffee and lunch/dinner date funds to my budget. This is necessary with how many meetings and get-togethers I’m planning to keep myself socially healthy.

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I have other goals in the physical, spiritual, and mental health categories, but I’m not sharing them here because my whole life doesn’t need to be online. Overall, I’m seeking balance and a fresh excitement for the work I have the privilege and time to do. Freelancing is hard, but I had a colleague recently remind me that I am succeeding: I’m making a living off of just editing and writing. That’s a big deal. And something to be thankful for.

2020 is going to be a year of intention. After setting no goals for 2019 and returning to full-time freelancing without any set goals, I’ve felt the need for specific targets and checkboxes to help guide my daily efforts. I want to live this year—both in and out of my apartment, er, office—on purpose. Let’s find out what happens when I do.

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Top Reads of 2019

As the year (and decade) draws to a close, I’m looking back with satisfaction at the books I’ve checked off my list or stumbled upon at the library or thrift store. I’m an incredibly picky reader, especially when it comes to fiction, and I’m selfish with my time. If a book isn’t interesting in the first chapter, I almost always scrap it. And if the writing style is annoying or plain weak, I leave the tome behind—unless the subject matter is interesting enough to make up for it.

This year, I predominantly read nonfiction, and the list below reflects that. These six books are my top reads from the year—and my top recommendations for your 2020 reading list.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming'The first book I read in 2019, Becoming was a Christmas gift from my grandmother. I didn’t grow up in an Obama-supporting household, so it was interesting to read about Michelle from her own perspective, as opposed to the interpretations of her by talking heads on the radio that I heard all through high school. The book is long but incredibly well-written so it flows quickly. Michelle writes about her childhood growing up in Chicago, her pursuit of higher education (she has two Ivy League degrees), her struggle to find a career that fit her values, and of course, her relationship with Barack and the experience of becoming First Lady.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

QuietQuiet has been on my list for several years, and I finally got my hands on a copy (thank you, Denver Public Library). Deeply researched and well structured, the book has the grounding of an academic treatise with the writing of a storyteller. Cain dives into introversion from a variety of angles, including high sensitivity that can be witnessed in infants who grow up to become introverts, the difficulty introverts may face in certain religious settings, and what it’s like to be an introvert in an intimate relationship with an extrovert. A lot of what she writes are things I’ve learned about myself over the years, so it was interesting to see research back up my own self-understanding.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

No ImportanceThis may be my favorite book from all year. A Woman of No Importance follows the journey of Virginia Hall, an American woman who served as a spy for Britain during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Hall partnered with nuns and prostitutes (among others) to undermine Nazi rule before the Allies ever landed in France, and when a double agent discovered her, she escaped on foot and her wooden leg over the mountains and out of France. Later, she returned on a new mission to recruit French resistance members, coordinate supply drops with Britain, and sabotage the Nazis.

Sonia Purnell is a masterful storyteller. She takes countless historical details and weaves a story that drives forward without ever slowing down.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes

GraceThis book should be required reading for pastors everywhere. An intimate, sensitive recounting of the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, where a white supremacist murdered African-American Christians at a Bible study, and its ensuing aftermath, Grace Will Lead Us Home introduces readers to the victims and their surviving loved ones. The book serves as a case study of a church failing to properly care for its people in the wake of a horrific tragedy that gained national attention. The narrative drives contemplation of the hard work of forgiveness, not sugarcoating the survivors’ thoughts or experiences.

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl: A Memoir by Jeannie Vanasco

TalkThings We Didn’t Talk About… is not a fun or entertaining read. Fourteen years after she was sexually assaulted by a close friend, Jeannie Vanasco reached out to the assailant to try to understand what happened that night from his perspective. Her memoir shares the resulting conversations, while also delving into questions like why supposedly good people do terrible things, what forgiveness means and entails, and if it’s possible to move on from horrific acts—whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator. I read this book in just a few days but was (and continue to be) challenged by the questions and thoughts Vanasco raises on its pages.

On Forgiveness and Revenge: Lessons from an Iranian Prison by Ramin Jahanbegloo

ForgivenessIt looks like the theme of this year’s reading was forgiveness, a value that is necessary to practice if you want to live in this world free of bitterness and resentment. This little book is less about Jahanbegloo’s prison stay in Iran, and more about the thoughts and reflections his experience produced. He draws from the works of philosophers the world over to present a case for the value and necessity of forgiveness, explaining how forgiveness does not ignore or excuse wrongs, but refuses to let wrongs have the final say.

One of many quotes I wrote down:

“Forgiveness…is a commitment to memory and truth. It is a project of reconciliation through moral repair. It is the promise of a new beginning without forgetfulness. Finally, forgiveness is the recognition of our ‘shared fallibility.'”

I’m aiming to read more classic literature and women’s biographies in 2020. Have a suggestion? Leave a comment.

Book Review: An Important Book with a Horrible Name about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence by Alex Berenson

Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and ViolenceTell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence by Alex Berenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Should psychiatrists speak out about what they were seeing to discourage cannabis use, I asked? Simpson said that in Colorado, psychiatrists had tried and failed. ‘We’ve put it out there, and the community is not receptive.’ At this point, his job as a physician was to try to deal with the wreckage, ‘treat what comes in the door.’

“What did he think would happen in five years, I asked? What would the Denver Health emergency room be like, especially if cannabis continued to grow in popularity?

“Simpson had a three-word answer: ‘It’ll be busier.'” (page 139)

This passage comes a little more than halfway through the narrative of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, a poorly named book that should nonetheless be required reading for lawmakers considering full legalization of recreational marijuana and parents who think their kids smoking weed is no big deal. The book makes its case primarily with data and studies from around the world that evidence a tie between marijuana use and psychosis, and between psychosis and nightmarish violence. The author, a former New York Times reporter, doesn’t avoid stepping on toes or burning sacred cows, and that’s because he’s convinced of the connection between marijuana, psychosis, and violence. The evidence he presents is both convincing and alarming.

“Based on his data and later findings, Andreasson says he believes that cannabis is responsible for between 10 percent and 15 percent of schizophrenia cases. Few people develop schizophrenia solely because of smoking, he thinks. But many who would not have become sick do so because marijuana pushes their vulnerable brains over the edge.

“‘Without cannabis, few people would develop the disorder,’ he says.” (page 56)

Before going any further, it’s important to understand where Alex Berenson is coming from in writing this book. In the introduction, he tells us how he has always held a more liberal stance on marijuana, didn’t think of it as a dangerous substance—if you want to use it, go ahead. But then he had a conversation with his wife, a psychiatrist, about a frightening case of violence and she commented on the fact that the perpetrator was “of course” high and had been smoking pot for much of his life. This comment caught Berenson off-guard, and the subsequent conversation led him to start digging into the scholarship around marijuana use and mental health. He didn’t set out to write a book. What he found in the process of research convinced him to write a book.

It turns out that the connection between marijuana use (especially if started young or done frequently over years) and psychosis has been well-documented—to the point that ethical standards prevent researchers from testing the effects of cannabis on people with a history of psychotic disorders because of “the known link between the drug and psychosis” (page 171).

There is a lot of information in this book. Berenson goes through study after study, many of them from Europe. He points out the work that has been done in the UK, where marijuana is hardly used compared to in the US and Canada. He touches on the chemical and brain science aspects, the distinction between CBD (non-psychoactive) and THC (what gets you high), and explains the problem with the term “medical marijuana”. He points out that the concentration of THC in today’s marijuana is much higher than it was in the 60s or 70s, and that through other cannabis products like edibles, users are often consuming straight THC, so they’re getting even higher doses of the chemical than they would from smoking it.

Most of the book is data reporting and science, but in the last few chapters, he focuses primarily on examples of horrifying violence carried out by people in some state of psychosis who either had a history of near constant marijuana use or had just ingested more THC than they ever had before. He waits until the end of the book to tell those stories, because he knows the typical response would be something like, “That’s a freak case. That’s not typical.” Berenson is convinced if marijuana use continues to increase, this sort of violence will become typical.

Whether or not he’s entirely right, I think he’s onto something. I’ve always had philosophical and theological problems with getting high (1 Corinthians 6:19–20), and with my base-level understanding of brain science, I’ve also thought: if something gets you high, that’s probably because a chemical is getting past the blood-brain barrier that isn’t supposed to, so you’re probably doing damage to your brain.

I read about half of this book on my daily commute through Denver, on a bus where the stench of weed is almost constant and it’s common to encounter people who couldn’t exactly be described as lucid. I know at least two people personally who have had psychotic breaks while using, though none to the extremes described in this book (thank God). A lot of what Berenson wrote rings true and makes logical sense.

I gave the book five stars because I really do think it should be required reading—maybe for everyone. It’s a necessary check against the “marijuana is harmless” message that we hear all the time. But this book really, really, really needs a bibliography and the title is terrible. If they republish it under a new name (which they should), they need to go with something like “Seeing Through the Smoke.”

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Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neuroscience, the psychology of social conditioning, cultural paradigms, groupthink, the makings of successful businesspeople and leaders—all of these things come together in Susan Cain’s ultra-deep dive into introversion. Cain digs into studies, conducts her own on-the-ground research, and delves into her own experience as a consultant and, wait for it, introvert to expose what might be/probably is happening inside introverts’ brains in those contexts where they seem withdrawn and the others where they seem on fire.

As an introvert, I found this book both fascinating and confirming. Cain’s discussion of high-reactivity, elevated sensitivity, and sensory overload matched up with my own experience. A lot of the observations she shares in terms of balancing commitments with your available social energy are things I’ve learned on my own, particularly over the last few years.

Although the title may lead you to think this book is a constant slam on extroversion, it’s not. Cain points out the ways that modern Western society elevates extroversion and the blind spots that come with it (just because someone is the loudest person in the room—and thus, has everyone’s ear—doesn’t mean they have the best ideas), and she shows how making room for quiet people to contribute in a way that suits their temperament is beneficial for all. She also delves into how introverts can pass for extroverts and how sometimes that’s necessary, whether to get ideas into the world or accomplish a particular goal.

Quiet is a medium-length book as nonfiction goes and it’s rich with information, but it’s not dense and boring. Cain’s writing pairs a wealth of anecdotes with insightful information that frequently sparked my neural lightbulbs. And she writes to the everyday reader. Anyone who’s an introvert or extrovert or ambivert (i.e., everyone) and wants to better understand how they operate in the world—and how others of different temperaments operate—should pick up a copy.

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Book Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far FieldThe Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Quietly devastating. That’s how I would sum up The Far Field. Vijay’s prose isn’t flowery or ornate. It tells the story simply, going back and forth in time as we follow the main character, as a child always close by her mother who doesn’t fit in the world she occupies and as a young woman after her mother’s suicide, trying and failing to find her own place in the world. She leaves home on a search for a man who used to tell stories to her and her mother, and the closer she gets to finding him, the more complex, ugly, she finds the world to be.

How do you know who you can trust? How do you know whose words you can believe? What is the actual truth and who has the power to decide whether the truth is declared as such or covered up with a stench of lies?

When you leave home and have a life-changing journey, can you ever fully share it with those you left behind? Why do people willfully leave everything they know?

The Far Field doesn’t blatantly ask these questions, but it pokes at them through the actions and observations of its characters. It’s not a fast-moving novel; it’s not plot-driven, but it flows steadily and just when you start to feel like nothing is happening, the story takes a jarring turn.

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Book Review: A Woman’s Place by Katelyn Beaty

A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the WorldA Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World by Katelyn Beaty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t want to feel like a burden. Try to imagine a man saying this—especially about his career—and it’s almost humorous. Try to imagine a woman saying it, and it seems like a mantra of femininity (page 215).

If you’re a working Christian woman, you’ve probably felt the tension. I know I have. There’s a sense in many Christian circles that for women, work is just a temporary thing you do until you get married and start having babies. Last fall, in a mostly good conversation with my older brother, he challenged my super-single self by telling me that being a wife was a calling, so if I had a strong sense of calling in another arena, that might be an obstacle to having a relationship. While I know his intentions were good in telling me that, the underlying assumption of his statement—that being a career-oriented woman is inherently incompatible with being in a marital relationship—is a symptom of a cultural paradigm that devalues the work of women out in the world and limits women to work within the home and family.

Enter Katelyn Beaty’s A Woman’s Place. This book has been on my list since it came out in 2016. I follow Beaty on Twitter and I found the book’s premise compelling. The premise: That God calls all women to work in some way and that work is a way of embodying the image of God.

A Woman’s Place tackles the cultural and historical factors that influence how we in the church see women and work in today’s western society. Key to her discussion are the Industrial Revolution, which separated work from the home (previously, men and women performed their trades out of their houses), and various philosophers and theologians who’ve reinforced the idea that women are somehow less than men. She also makes the point that the ability for a woman to not work for pay and instead just stay at home, keep house, and raise children is dependent on a certain amount of socioeconomic privilege. If you’re poor, you do what you have to do to survive; poor women have always worked.

At the same time that she elevates and supports the work of women outside the home, Beaty also affirms the work of wives and mothers within the home. Work is not just what we do to make a living. “Work happens whenever we interact with the created world, laboring to make it fruitful and beneficial to ourselves and others,” Beaty writes on page 89.

I love to work. I always have. Since my first summer job as a teenager, I’ve enjoyed going to a workplace (or my computer) to accomplish specific tasks. I’m the rare person who doesn’t light up about the weekend and dread Mondays. I look forward to getting back to the office or wherever it is I’m working. Ambition could easily be my middle name, and it has nothing to do with the paycheck. It’s the sense of purpose and the ability to look back at a job well done and say, “I did that.”

Because I enjoy working, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Christian in the workplace, though not necessarily what it means as a woman—that question comes more into play within the context of the church (Beaty touches on this phenomenon). Beaty’s book wasn’t groundbreaking for me, but it put many of my thoughts into words while highlighting a lot of different people, groups, and initiatives that have done or are doing good work in the arena of faith and work for women Christians.

If you’re a working Christian woman, I highly recommend that you read this book. If you’re a Christian man who wants to better understand your own call in the workplace or the different obstacles that working Christian women face in the church, you should read this book. If you’re a church leader who wants to better serve women, you need to read this book.

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