Giving up on the quest to be extraordinary: And how it will change your life

My dad was an ordinary man.

He rose at dawn to go work at an ordinary job, tossing his lunch pail in the back of a maybe less-than-ordinary pick-up truck that lacked a solid floor on the passenger side. 

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He was quiet and attentive to conversations already begun–and he could pass through a room quickly without gaining much notice. He had a daily routine of reading the paper at half past six and watching every Seahawks game in his chair–it was only interrupted by play time with us kids–an ordinary hobby for many dads.

When I was a child I remember feeling sorry for my Dad. He mentioned he used to want to be a doctor before he decided it wasn’t for him. And in his youth he didn’t make much of a stir in his hometown newspaper or in sports–he just spent afternoons at the river’s edge with a fishing line and a can of worms. Ordinary things, really. 

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But me? I didn’t want ordinary. Not at all! I wanted to be extraordinary. I paraded around in dancing dresses, hosted backyard carnivals in the summer, auditioned for every school play, and dreamt of the day I’d see my name on a hardback book. I wanted to leave a positive legacy behind. I wanted to be ANYTHING but ordinary. And I loved my Dad so much–I used to cry that he could never be an important doctor.

And that mindset followed me well into my life. It wasn’t a mindset of pride or self-love. It was the desire to change lives and be known for something good–something special. But that desire, I’ve come to learn, is the desire of so many others who leave nothing behind except for a granite stone, piles of money, and bylines that quickly get shoved into archives. The desire to be great, if that desire is a sole purpose, will completely cloud over what really makes you someone to remember. But the desire to just live life fully and completely with love for people being your main purpose–THAT desire and THAT quest can change your life forever.

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As for my father with his “ordinary” life–I’ve come to understand the beauty of such ordinary things now, and the importance.

Since his passing, I’ve began to take notice of things he left behind. Ordinary things. Sifting through his things after his passing, I noticed old notebooks filled with notes from church sermons and past General Conferences–notes that he took to heart and lived. Notes he never shared.

My mother found stacks of receipts from his monthly tithing slips–tithing that she never knew he paid when she stopped going to church for a short time and he would sit alone in the pew every sunday.

Friends–from the job that everyone said he was “stuck in” for years and years–have filtered through the front door and across our social media pages, telling stories of a man with quiet faith, great love for those around him, and kindness. Always kindness. Even my father’s insurance agent from five years back called with tears in his voice, just to tell us that he’ll always remember Dad and the way he was so patient.

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Ordinary watches and worn-out wallets–thin from years of use–are now our flecks of gold. Yellowed photographs of summers at the river and tanned arms against a lawnmower are now precious heirlooms.

The ordinary, simple things that I once thought were like “every other dad”. But now, to me, are extraordinary. And he never tried to be.

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I think it’s easy, since we live in a world dedicated to proving how “special” we are or how “unique” we are, to measure ourselves at the end of the day by how many awards line our desk or how many nods of approval we get for special projects at work. But putting all of our efforts into that kind of journey distracts from the truly extraordinary. We shouldn’t give up on success within the world and careers we hold, of course–but we should also remember where true success lies.

Like being the mom that finger paints with her toddlers and doesn’t care that some hair dipped into the blue. Like being the friend that sits at the lunch table with the bullied kid in complete silence, just offering a presence. Like being the dad that works a 9 to 5 at a completely ordinary office and always makes sure to make every single ballet performance. Like being the artist that paints, that writes, that sings, that creates–just to make life more relatable, or more beautiful, for at least one person.

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How beautiful the world is when we count the little moments that make up our memories, our goodness, our friendships, our faith. How beautiful it is to leave behind something much greater than anything tangible, even while losing ourselves in ordinary tasks.

How beautiful that is. And how extraordinary. 

God will give you more than you can handle: I guarantee it.

There’s a certain phrase I’ve come to really dislike.

All my life, I’ve heard this phrase whenever I go through a rough patch. *And by rough patch, I mean a prickly, gnarly patch that leaves me bleeding to near death*. You’re probably familiar with those kinds of “patches”.

“God will never give you more than you can handle” is the phrase I’m referring to.

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And it’s a sweet sentiment, really. The people who say it are speaking from caring and concerned hearts.

BUT–it isn’t true.

I know that sounds harsh, but I promise I haven’t suddenly lost my mind or have become an angry-with-God bitter woman who hates the world. Actually, when I realized the simple fact that God can–and will–give us more than we can possibly bear, it got easier.

And it all started to make more sense.

I’ve often trudged through trials that overwhelm me. Ever since my childhood there have been trials that have made me “grow up” pretty fast. But granted, I know for a fact you’ve had your own fair share too, because that’s the reality of life. But this last trial is the one that shook me to my core and had me searching like a mad woman for answers as to why it was happening–and how I could possibly even survive it.

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I lost my Dad to cancer last month–if you’re a follower of mine, this is old news. But–it was absolutely horrific.

Every day leading up to his death was like walking through every level of hell–slowly– for lack of a better term. There’s no other way to describe it. The images…the sounds…the sleepless nights…the cries for God while we look on, helpless…the torment of rubbing morphine in his cheeks, praying it’ll absorb–but to no avail. The horrible, wrenching pain that came with lifting him up, laying him back down, lifting him up, laying him back down…because he became so restless and cried out for “home” every few minutes. And all along, in the back of my mind, I reminded myself that millions of people go through this, and have already gone through this, very thing. And it is simply unbearable. If you disagree–it’s because you haven’t been there.

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This trial was so consuming that I hate to even put it in the past tense–sometimes it still consumes me. Yesterday, at my Dad’s memorial service, it consumed me all over again.

I’ve suffered from nightmares where I relived the memory over and over mercilessly–I sometimes see his face on strangers that pass and worry that I’m going crazy. I cry over sad songs in the car and torture myself with stacks of pictures and yellowed photo albums. It’s beyond just missing him. And even with a firm testimony of the gospel and with peace that he is exactly where the Lord prepared him for, it is still too much for me to handle at times. It steals my breath–and it can steal my joy.

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So, the other day, I turned to the scriptures. I needed help.

I wanted to know where that phrase was that people kept repeating to me in church and at work and over the phone. Why did the Lord “trust me so much”?! Why did He think I could handle these kinds of trials?

And then I realized: I couldn’t find that quote because it isn’t there.

It never mentions anywhere in the scriptures that the Lord won’t give you more than you can handle. Yes, in 1 Corinthians 10:13 it speaks of Him giving us an escape from temptations so that it’s not too much to bear. But when it comes to pain, trials, heartache, and burdens– not once does it say it won’t be more than we can bear. Instead, it beautifully says this instead:

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11: 28-30)

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The words struck my heart, as you can imagine. Christ is speaking to those of us who are carrying burdens much too heavy for our own shoulders. And in that one verse he simply states the reason why we are given more than we can handle: It’s so we can come to him. It’s so we can trust him enough to hand over our heavy, crippling burdens and let him carry the load.

You might be heavy laden right now like I was before reading and re-reading and re-reading once again this scripture that has never stuck out to me as much as it has lately.

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You might be shrunken with sadness or drowning in debt. You might be overwhelmingly angry at someone at church or aching under the pressures of raising children or maybe the inability to have them. You might be dealing with a terminal disease and you still have young children. And chances are–you might need your Redeemer to find you on the path and take up that heavy cross you’re dragging. Besides, even he tells us that he’s more equipped to carry it, so why not hand it over?

I’ve come to learn–slowly but surely–why I need Him.

I suppose it’s because of pride that I always thought I could just do things on my own. I’m strong, I’d say. I’m a tough cookie. I can help others through their tribulations while carrying mine all by myself. Well…wasn’t I wrong.

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I didn’t really know what needing him meant until I had no other choice. I didn’t know what it meant until I wrapped my arms around my middle so I wouldn’t fall apart–or the time I choked on tears and yelled toward Heaven. Or the times when I was utterly alone, and the silence was too much to bear. Those are the times that taught me he’s not just a want or a convenient symbol of love or a reason to do good deeds.

No, he’s the very air we breathe.

And he’s the only one who can make it bearable when life is simply anything but.

The day I walked you home: A letter to my Dad

Writing, to me, is synonymous with healing.

I suppose that’s why I’m here–writing–just a day after you took your last breath, Dad.

People are telling me to go lay down. Or rest. Or watch a movie. But all I want to do is write about what it was like for me. For all of us, really. As my fingers tap the keys my eyes flicker to the bracelet I have on my wrist. It’s the one you wore ever since your diagnosis last November. “No one fights alone” it says. And my spirit can’t help but agree. No one fights alone. Or loves alone. Or struggles alone. Or dies alone.

We’re all walking each other home.

It was Thursday night when I got the call that I should come. “Dad doesn’t have much time,” my teary sister said. And I knew it in my heart, even before the call came in.

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But it took three days of sleeplessness, tears dripping from sore eyes, holding you up as you walked around in confusion, sponging water onto your lips, and prayers by your bedside before you took that last breath. And I realized–as soon as your labored breathing went silent and your Savior greeted you somewhere near the top of the Christmas tree, a spot I looked toward as soon as your blue eyes did, hoping I’d find him there too–that the walk is always worth it. Leaning near your still face and kissing your forehead, that’s what I said too. “It’s worth it”. Even though I want you to know my heart wasn’t feeling it, Dad. My heart screamed “Come back!” instead. Because I didn’t see Jesus near the top of the Christmas tree. My faith just had to rely on the fact he was there.

Now, digesting the memories–memories that haunt me in my dreams and awaken me from sleep with tears and a racing heart–I want you to know why I was honored to walk you home.

The walk home started on November of 1989…when I was born.

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I’d like to think we chose to walk together–that before we even came to earth we knew we’d be walking in unison along with some very special others–taking on the challenge, and the joys, of mortality.

During the walk home you taught me many things. You taught me how to play. And in turn, I think I taught you patience 😉

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The walk home entailed some discomforts–some trials that required me to cry in your arms or vent to you–or get so mad at you that I slammed my bedroom door. I tried to say sorry about that later on–you didn’t let me though.

During the walk home you showed me how to walk on my own at times and forge a new trail when others get to their own trail’s end. You showed me how to change oil. How to respect my body. How to be a good friend. How to listen more than I talk *although I still have problems with that*. How to put family first.

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During the walk, sometimes it rained. You showed me how to play in it.

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During the walk–you showed me to dance always *Even if you’re not very good at it* And to “Sing louder!” as you’d always say when you caught me humming to myself.

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There were a few times on the journey I didn’t feel I was good enough. But you pushed me to bring home the A’s. To aim high. To be everything I want to be simply by living as if I’m already there. Oh–and I love that you always bragged about every single goal we met. You loved when I’d write and you’d read my blog. You hung my first poem on your cubicle wall at work and kept it there ’til you died.

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During the walk you taught me what kind of man I should choose–simply by being that kind of man. And in turn you finally got the son you always wanted to have one day.

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You loved my mom–even when lighting struck and rain hit and rocks in the trail made you two stumble. And that’s the greatest gift to give to a daughter.

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During the walk you encouraged my sister’s restless, wandering heart. You taught her faith and courage–you nourished the light in her eyes into something much greater in her heart. She said it was all because of you, Dad.

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During the walk home you taught me not to fear the trailhead coming up–the part of the walk home that splits the trail in two. The part where we would separate for a time. You told me it would come–and it was okay. Because you knew that if we kept walking, the two trails would join as one again.

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During the end of the walk home I had to carry you. I held you like you held me when the dark scared me and I couldn’t sleep. I rubbed your back the way you’d rub mine when I’d sit on the floor in front on you or lay in your lap. I was strong simply because–well, so were you.

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I’m sad, Dad. I miss you so bad that sometimes I can’t breathe. And when I do, it hurts my lungs. I miss you so bad that sometimes I hear your voice and jump to a start in the middle of the night. I miss you so much that I get angry that we already came to the fork in the road–sometimes I get mad at God. Sometimes I get mad at myself that I didn’t hold you a second longer the last time you hugged me.

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But then I remember, like I remember now. No one walks alone.

No, even though we came to that place in the walk where the trail splits in two–I still feel you guiding my feet. I still feel the same Savior that took you home and held me at the same time. I’m not alone.

I’m honored I was one of the people to share the walk with you, Dad.

You’re my hero.

And you will be until our trails meet up again somewhere on the horizon–and I’ll meet you there at home.

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Where are you, Christmas?: My search to find it this year

Christmas music started playing on the radio right before Thanksgiving.

And I was probably the first one to turn it on.

I’ve always loved Christmas–every single thing about it. But especially the music.

But this year, the music is different. It’s haunting, actually. Every song carries with it a particular memory, and it isn’t exactly pleasant to hear. From the Chipmunks’ rendition of “Christmas, Don’t be late” to “Jingle Bell Rock” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”, I have flashes of memories that now poke at my heart in a painful kind of way. It’s easy to cry this season–a lot. And it’s because this Christmas is so…different now.

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Hospice gave us the heads up that my Dad has only days left now and making it until Christmas is out of the question. So now, the only song that seems vaguely relatable is this one: Where are you Christmas?

“Where are you, Christmas? Why can’t I find you? Why have you gone away? Where is the laughter you used to bring me? Why can’t I hear music play? My world is changing, I’m re-arranging. Does that mean Christmas changes too?”

I found myself in a puddle of tears the other night when this song came over the radio. Just like the song says, my world is changing… and I often feel like a zombie passing through this merry season blanketed with twinkle lights and pine trees and busy shoppers.

But you see, I know I’m not the only one. I guess that’s why I felt like writing this. I know there are others this Christmas who are having their first–or maybe second or third–grown-up Christmas. Maybe they’re alone at night, missing a soldier. Maybe they’re aching over a heartbreak. Maybe they’re missing a child or refusing to put lights up after a nasty divorce. Maybe Christmas this year isn’t so merry.

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And because I’m one of these people, I’ve been on a personal mission of sorts to find the Christmas I’ve always known. The one that gives me swirls of colorful memory every time I see a Santa or a nativity set or houses clothed in sparkling color. The one that had music fill our house growing up and the one that had me in my dad’s arms dancing to Jingle Bell Rock. The one that had my dad on the roof hanging lights and cursing under his breath when his nail gun didn’t work. The one that brought snow. And family. And turkey with cranberry sauce. And stockings. And memories of not being able to fall asleep because of my imagination creating footsteps on the roof.

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I’ve missed that Christmas.

So I prayed. A lot. Where is Christmas, God? Where is it? And nothing came to me, really. Nothing except a small thought that I should buy decorations and take them to my parents’ house. So I did just that. Couldn’t hurt.

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I spent last Saturday hanging lights, setting up the old ceramic nativity set, stringing garland, and dancing around to Christmas music as my dad watched from his bed, in and out of sleep, captivated at times by the rotating Christmas tree that I set up by his bed. He used to be the one to do it. But now, it’s my turn to create. And a little bit of Christmas started to show itself. Slowly, but surely.

After that, I watched as my husband’s side of the family poured in from hours away, visiting dad, who they’d only met a handful of times, speaking softly and filling the home with quiet laughter.

And there it was. I felt a brush of Christmas again.

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And of course–family from my side has come almost every day.

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Then we all watched my dad’s favorite Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Even though he slept through most of it, we laughed at all the same parts and cried at all the same lines.

Then friends from church took my sister to pick out a Christmas tree. And some came to share scriptures and holiday messages and offer warm hugs.

And little by little, although it’s not the same (and may not ever be) I feel like I’m finding Christmas simply by realizing that I create the season for myself. WE are the spirit of Christmas. And as we change, so will Christmas. But it’s magic–it’s spirit of love and remembrance for all we have–never will if we keep it alive.

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We choose to hang the lights. We make the choice to turn up the music and let snowflakes touch our tongues. We choose to remember, even while saying goodbye to a loved one who made Christmas wonderful for us our entire life, that because of Christmas day, we’ll never be apart.

Whether you’re missing a Christmas season gone by when Santa was real and reindeer could fly and mom and dad cut out gingerbread men with you with unwrinkled hands–or missing a Christmas season where your heart didn’t ache like it does now–it’s easy to question where Christmas went. It’s easy to give up on that special feeling that every child knows.

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I guess that’s just part of life–it’s just part of the lesson that comes on your first grown-up Christmas when you realize Christmas doesn’t just fall into your lap and bring joy and peace and instant excitement. Christmas instead, is the opportunity to create it, simply by remembering the one who gave it all up for us.

There it is, I feel myself thinking every once in a while while seeing Dad smile at the lights I hung or closing my teary eyes on a memory of opening a doll I’d asked for all year and watching Dad grin with his full head of hair and youthful eyes.

There it is, I feel myself thinking now when family surrounds us, offering love and standing as a testament as to why that special baby once laid in a manger under a star-filled sky.

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There it is, I feel myself thinking when we place the same star my dad used to always place on top of the tree on top of a picture of the Savior instead this year.

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There you are, Christmas.