The time I decided not to buy a mattress.

I will never be remembered as a person who could keep a budget.

And that’s okay, I think. At least I had a great weekend because of it.

At almost the last possible minute, I booked a flight to D.C. last weekend so I could be in town for my friend’s surprise engagement party. My attendance was a surprise for everyone—myself included. Even though I had known about the party for months, I hadn’t planned to be there.

It was too expensive to travel, I told myself, and I’m moving there in a few weeks anyway. I should save the money, I rationalized; I could buy a mattress (or part of one, at any rate) with that money!

IMG_7861

Annie and Ryan, arriving at the surprise engagement party he planned for her at the coffee shop where they met.

Yet last weekend crept closer and closer, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted needed to be there. And as I agonized over the rising ticket cost, I came to a valuable realization: I’d rather be known as the friend who was there—who lived generously and spontaneously enough to be present in friends’ lives—than the one who managed an impeccable bank account.

I resolved not to feel the way I feel looking back on high school after graduation, asking myself if achieving that near-perfect GPA was worth memories I never made with friends. I resolved not to feel the way I feel when I look back on college, wondering if I missed too many good experiences because insecurity and fear held me back. I resolved not to feel the way I feel when I look back on this year, realizing that a fog of depression kept me from investing myself here.

I bought the ticket, of course.

It pained me a bit. Okay: It actually pained me a lot when I saw that charge on my credit card statement. I had just charted out a new budget at the beginning of the week—and here I was, days later, flagrantly flaunting it. And in spite of all my positive self-talk about the importance of spontaneity and being present, the truth is that I desperately want to keep that budget and be able to say that I “have it all together,” even in unseen ways like finances.

But maybe that’s irrational, because life isn’t about saving the most money—even though it’s easy to trick myself into believing that. I’ve been blessed with a job that pays my bills and student loans with money to spare. Although saving money is an important priority, I don’t want to hoard that money for the sake of having it, the fleeting personal satisfaction of a few extra dollars in the bank. That just perverts the blessing.

Spending the money on a flight to D.C. (for myself, no less) doesn’t exactly qualify as “charity.” But if I had saved that money and come out $300 richer in the end, what would I have gained?
IMG_9904Certainly not the joy of seeing my sweet friend’s surprise and happiness.
Certainly not the joy of worshiping for an extra Sunday at the church I love.
Certainly not the joy of meeting one of my new roommates and seeing the house where I’ll be living in just three short weeks.
Certainly not the joy of waking up in my favorite city on my 23rd birthday.
Certainly not the joy of a birthday run to the Capitol.
And certainly not the peace of praying outside one of my favorite D.C. coffee shops that morning, thanking God that year 22, a very rough season in my life, finally seems to be ending.

I may not have a mattress yet, but I do have a measure of contentment that I didn’t have before my whirlwind weekend in D.C.

That said, there’s still a part of me (most of me, let’s be real) that is experiencing mild panic right now. I move in less than 3 weeks, and this weekend made it finally feel real—but it also made it feel so hard. After a great-but-untraditional birthday, stress crashed down on me yesterday. It’s stress caused by things both big and small, work and personal life, traveling home next week and packing to move, affording life in D.C. (that town be expeeeensive!) and just finishing well in Illinois. To be honest, I can’t think about it too much because that allows the truth to come flooding in: I am completely overwhelmed and not at all in control. That’s uncomfortable for me, because my list of tasks—both real and imagined—keeps growing and I am paralyzed by the thought of tackling it.

I need to update the mailing address for all of my magazine subscriptions and I don’t know where to start. I need to sleep more. I need to arrange a car rental for the drive to D.C. I need to eat less cake. I need to finish an impossible-to-finish story for work before the end of the week. I need to pack. I need to make this stress-induced tick in my right eye go away.

In other words, I need to cling more fiercely to joy, to not let it slip away so easily. And of course: I still need to buy a mattress.

These are some words (finally).

A few weeks ago, a source told me that many good writers are able to depict darkness; what distinguishes a great writer is his ability to capture light and draw readers toward it irresistibly. He was referring to C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, but the distinction stuck with me: Am I a good writer or a great one?

I’ve always known that I don’t write as beautifully or as profoundly about life when I’m actually living in it, a strange irony that I don’t quite understand. My best reflections are inspired spurts of emotions that just come out as words; I can’t recreate it on command. And while I’ve been able to write about how I struggle or what makes me sad or contemplative, I never quite have been able to capture the positive emotions in words when I feel them.

It’s especially frustrating because it makes me think of Instagram, the social-media/ photo-sharing app that lets me put filters on my mediocre pictures and call them ‘artsy.’ I’m no photographer, but I can add digital filters with the best of them. And in the same way, I want Instagram filters for my words so I can write my life more beautifully.

However, I have the sneaking suspicion that C.S. Lewis did not use any kind of Word-stagram filter when he wrote about joy.

I guess the good news (at least for me) is that my absence on my blog is not entirely due to an extended case of writer’s block. In some ways, it’s due to a lack of time—not busyness with work, but just using my time for other things I enjoy, such as biking or walking or reading or cooking. And let’s face it: It’s partially due to the fact that I’m just not good at blogging consistently without a deadline or an editor.

Yet, I also know that it’s because I’m happier now. That’s a good thing. Instead of trying to put my joy into words on this screen, I simply give up—and let myself live into it a little more instead. Even for a writer—maybe especially so—that’s okay, too.

(On that note: I realized today that I have only 10 weeks left in Illinois. Here’s to living into my final weeks here, in order to make up for all the time this winter when I wasn’t really here at all.)

My Popcorn Obsession (& Salted Dark Chocolate Popcorn Cookies)

I have written before about my obsession with food blogs, and many of my friends know that I’m often happiest in the kitchen, baking or cooking for people I love. Yet, I don’t think I have ever actually shared a recipe on my blog. I’m not sure why that’s been the case, but luckily there’s a first time for everything. Read on, cookie seekers/eaters.

IMG_9896

My ‘older sister’/bff/Mom, Deann, who instilled in me her love for a) feeding people and b) eating good food and c) eating a lot of it. I’ve taught her a thing or two in the kitchen.

Whenever my mom comes to visit—as she did two weeks ago—I always make it a point to indulge in the area’s touristy things. Like any good Chicagoan would, I showed her Millennium Park, the “Bean,” Lake Shore Drive, and Wrigley Field—all in the fuh-reezing cold, I’d add. But we also indulged in other ways, like one-slice-too-many of Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizza, expensive Intelligentsia coffee, and a bag of Garrett’s Chicago Mix popcorn.

Chicago Mix popcorn is half caramel corn, half cheese popcorn—and before you say, “That sounds weird,” back your-ignorant-self up, grab a bag, and let it blow your mind. I’ve been obsessed with stove-top popcorn as a snack for…like, years now, but for better or worse, that bag of Garrett’s popcorn changed my life. I want to meet Garrett and thank him for butter and caramel and powdered cheese that likely is full of preservatives and also the best thing I’ve eaten in a very long time.

So anyway, my mom came. And then popcorn!

But that’s actually where this story is headed. While my mom was here, we baked popcorn cookies, a recipe from Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen cookbook (which I purchased on impulse solely because I saw these cookies on the book jacket). If you’ve never been to Deb’s site, go now. Her recipes are genius, and her food photography is drool-worthy to boot.

Not surprisingly, Mom and I agreed that the cookies also were drool-worthy—chewy, buttery, crackly caramely—yet lacking one key ingredient: chocolate. And I say chocolate only because a Chicago-style/caramel-cheese cookie sounds bad, though I’m sure stranger kitchen feats have been attempted. Anyway, we each vowed to re-make them with chocolate.

936356_10201012622219151_580178761_nYou can imagine my delight, then, when I came across Joy the Baker’s riff on these cookies literally hours after I dropped my mom off at the airport. As far as cookie coincidences are concerned, I’m not saying this was cookie-baking fate. I’m just saying they were basically asked to be baked ASAP.

…so I did. And the recipe is good enough to share.

 

Note: I’ve never blogged a recipe before, but let me just say that I don’t know how anyone who writes instructions for baking can take themselves seriously. I want to share recipes more often, but I don’t know if I can do it if I have to write serious step-by-step instructions.

If you want the succinct, serious, and sans-snark recipe, visit Joy the Baker’s blog or buy Deb’s cookbook, which I recommend you do anyway. However, if you want to know how cookie baking really goes down in my kitchen, follow my destructions—I mean, instructions. The only procedural difference in my instructions is that I refrigerated my scooped cookies, which kept them from spreading out too much. I recommend you do that, too.

Salted Dark Chocolate Popcorn Cookies

adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Makes about 24 cookies (this depends on how much cookie dough you eat before baking, which is an estimate they never tell you)

Ingredients:

For the popcorn:

  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1/4 cup popcorn kernels (but you might as well make extra for snacking)
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon melted butter to coat popcorn (I omitted; only had one stick of butter)
  • enough salt to coat popcorn

For the good stuff—er, I mean, cookies:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) softened unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup pack light brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips, or chopped dark chocolate
  • coarse sea salt for sprinkling

Destructions (or, How to make a mess!—and also some cookies):

  1. To make the popcorn, add oil and kernels to the bottom of a large, lidded saucepan over medium-high heat. When you hear the kernels begin popping, shake pan gently to keep from burning. This should be obvious, but the popcorn is done when the popping stops. Pour it into a large bowl and toss with salt (and butter, if using) to coat. Eat some. Okay, eat a lot, which is why you made extra.
  2. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
  3. Mix the flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl and set aside. Clean up the flour you spilled on the counter.
  4. In your roommate’s stand mixer, cream the butter and sugars for several minutes, which is approximately as long as it will take you to line two baking sheets with parchment paper, wrestle with parchment to get it to lay flat, and eventually get so frustrated that you set the trays aside. You may have to scrape the sides of the bowl once or twice.
  5. Add the egg and vanilla, and beat until well combined. Turn down the mixer to keep it from flinging egg-butter-sugar mix everywhere. Clean up mess. (It really helps to clean up your messes as you go)
  6. With mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients gradually until combined.
  7. Fold the popcorn into the dough using a spatula. [So much popcorn. On this one, I defer to Deb, who says, “This will seem like a ridiculous instruction.”] You want the popcorn to break up a bit, so no need to be gentle. Fold in the dark chocolate.
  8. Using a cookie scoop (or a spoon), drop equally sized balls of dough onto the parchment-papered cookie sheets. Not optional: If you have space, refrigerate the scooped cookies for about 15 minutes; if you don’t have fridge space, refrigerate the dough before scooping. Optional: This step is especially convenient if you realize that you’ve accidentally preheated your oven to 375 instead of 350. In that case, turn off oven, open door for a while, and then turn on again to 350. 
  9. Sprinkle with sea salt before baking for 10 to 13 minutes. I baked mine for 11 minutes (rotating trays after 6 minutes) and they came out perfectly. Let the cookies finish cooking on the sheets for several minutes before removing to a cooling rack.
  10. Consume ALL THE COOKIES.

On unreportable sadness.

Over the past few months I developed this really charming habit where, for reasons I cannot always explain, I just start crying. Once, my mom texted me asking about the weather, and just thinking about snow prompted me to dissolve into tears at my desk. Or sometimes I’ll be really happy and then start crying because life is really big and I can’t handle that.

Last Sunday, while talking to a friend on the phone, I started crying but was carrying on this normal conversation about life while tears were just streaming down my face. I put up with it until I got so…burdened that I had to ask to call him back in a few minutes; when I hung up, I realized I had no legitimate explanation other than unreportable sadness.

As it turns out, ‘I have a case of unreportable sadness’ is not really a legitimate explanation in most situations, but that’s the way it is to be depressed.

“Depressed” is a strange-but-fitting word to describe a mental condition, because we use it to describe “a general state of unhappiness or despondency.” But depressed literally means pressed or pushed down upon. Depressed—figuratively, I guess—means bearing a weight you cannot explain.

It’s also hard to explain depression because it’s hard to rationalize and justify. Of course I could just do this or change that; it would be so simple!; an easy fix and I’ll be on my way. In my reasonable moments, yes.

Yet, unreportable sadness gets in the way most days—at least, it has been getting in the way for a very long time. I can’t say how long it’s been; I spent most of my winter evenings on the couch at home, wishing that I could do something to help myself and feeling like I couldn’t. I guess that’s the hardest thing to admit now, looking “back” (as if that stage has completely passed) on the winter: I trapped myself under the weight of my depression, using self-imposed isolation as both as the source of my pain and as my comfort.

But pain provides poor comfort, loneliness is no good friend, and unreportable sadness cannot beget joy. Joy is the opposite of depression, and the two do not co-habitate in one mind well, if at all.

I guess that’s the good news: My mind has been unreportably sad, but it is getting better. I’d like to write that I’ve taken X and Y steps to combat this hopelessness, to push it away for good. I’m not sure I’ve done that yet, because I still don’t see the end of the tunnel; I just believe there’s light there.

You see, people keep asking where I see myself five—or worse, ten—years from now, and I don’t have a good answer. I’m not sure what to say, and there’s an awkward pause until they ask, ‘Well, what are you hoping for?’ I want say I’m just hoping for spring, and that even spring is a lot to hope for most days.

But maybe the important point is that I do have hope again, where for months there has been none. I have named my sadness—reported it now—and begun to push it away. There’s much more to say here (and hopefully in a more elegant way), but I want to end with this for now: This week has been the first time I can remember feeling hope in months; this week I didn’t cry at all.

For now, these words—and the only Mumford song I like, if you’re wondering what that’s about—will do. To be continued, with more hope and good words.

Sometimes I Feel Like the Pope.

Working in the religion news business, I admittedly got caught up in pope-mania over the past 48 hours. I’m not even a Catholic, but the pomp and circumstance captured my attention. And then it got me thinking.

I watched a livestream video of Pope Francis making his first appearance up there on that balcony at the Vatican yesterday, waving to the crowd and looking so uncomfortable. He asked for prayer. Some of the articles I read latched onto that, calling it unusual that the pope—a newly elected pope!—would ask for prayer.

Well, hell! I thought, That’s a pretentious observation. After all, if I had just been elected pope unexpectedly, I’d ask for prayer, too. Because what a tremendous honor it would be! And what a terrifying burden. What an amazing responsibility! What a horrifying gift to be given unexpectedly.

Sometimes I feel that way. I feel like the pope. Even though I am not Catholic. Even though I am not male, which I’ve heard is a deal breaker for the job. I just think I can imagine how the pope must feel sometimes.

I read in an article that, during the papal conclave voting, nothing prevents a cardinal from voting for himself—except the sin of pride. It made me wonder if any cardinal actually does seek the papacy, aspiring to be the mouthpiece for the Lord to the Catholic Church. I assume most cardinals do not.

From what I’ve read, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio did not expect to be pope. He never surfaced as a front runner for the papacy this time around. He’d already had his day as a Vatican front runner when he reportedly finished second in the conclave voting in 2005, and he thought he was going to be too old by the time the next conclave convened.

Now, with a puff of white smoke, he’s Pope Francis. How…unexpected.

You can see what makes it so daunting: Maybe you knew your whole life that you wanted to be a priest. At any rate, you’ve spent your entire life as a priest; it’s the only thing you’ve ever done. Then you show up at the conclave to vote and suddenly there’s white smoke and they’re putting you up on the balcony in that little white hat and you’re the pope.

It changes everything.

So I wonder if popes ever wake up in the Vatican and miss their home country. I wonder if they ever think there was some cosmic error and God got confused, because they didn’t ask to be pope.

I wonder if a pope ever has to rationalize, This is not bad; it’s just not what I thought I’d be doing.
I wonder if he ever thinks, Lord, this is not what I wanted.
I wonder if he ever prays, God, this is not what I expected. 

If that’s the case, I think I know how the pope—who remains entirely human, and therefore entitled to human emotions and insecurities—must feel.

Because my life is not what I expected it would be, I think I tend to tell God that it isn’t what I wanted. I’ll say, this isn’t what I asked for. I’ll tell God (and anyone else) that “this” isn’t what I expected, that my life and my “post-college life plan” have diverged radically. I didn’t ask to come to the Midwest, to move away from home, to be on my own like this.

In those moments, God reminds me that I did ask him to use me for his purpose; in order to do that, he had to bring me to a place where I couldn’t take credit for what he’s doing in and through me. I did ask to be rescued; in order to do that, God had to bring me out to a place where I couldn’t save myself.

It’s a lesson in desiring God, to realize that, in fact, this is what I wanted, but it’s not what I thought it would be when I asked for it. Maybe the pope and I have this in common: Maybe we both asked to be used by God, and he said yes.

Words for my grandpa, his juice boxes, and his faith.

I had a dream about my grandpa the other night. I don’t remember the details, but I remember that I was in a living room somewhere when he showed up. I think I knew he wasn’t supposed to be there—like, ‘Heeeey, you died…’—but I also didn’t force him out. We talked, drank Juicy Juice together (not kidding), and then I got to give him a really long hug.

That hug woke me up. I knew that wasn’t real (even though I also know that drinking juice together couldn’t have been real; the grandkids never were allowed to drink the juice boxes   reserved for Grandpa, who was diabetic). Yet, the hug, the final goodbye I never got to have in person, was the best part of the best dream I’ve been able to remember in a long time.

The dream reminded me that I have yet to share the words I wrote about my grandpa for his memorial service. I traveled home in mid-February for his service, which was held at the retirement community where he lived in Oregon. Although my mom was convinced that the room we had reserved would be too big, people filled the space—so much so that about 15 of us, family members all, stood along the edges of the room to allow more people in. All of those people were there to remember Gene Shipley as a pastor, a father, a friend, a man of faith.

This is what I wrote.

I remember very peculiar things about grandpa, like the way I know the first time I had cinnamon-sugar on buttered toast was with him. And juice boxes—so many juice boxes.

But I also remember and admire Grandpa’s great faith, which I’m told was true of him all throughout his life. Although I only knew him for the last 22 years (obviously), I saw his faith in action in the way he loved. I saw and heard it whenever he sang.

Of course, I saw his flaws, too—especially in the hospital on various occasions throughout the past few years. Because he was ill, he often was grumpy, belligerent, or just too tired to be joyful. Because of these things—not in spite of them—I admire my grandfather. I see myself in him. At least, I see the self I want to be, because I, too, grow angry and tired with God.

And I pray that my response is as unfailingly faith-filled as Grandpa’s was.

Psalm 73 says

“Yet I am always with you; 
   you hold me by my right hand. 
24 You guide me with your counsel, 
   and afterward you will take me into glory. 
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? 
   And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, 
   but God is the strength of my heart 
   and my portion forever.

I know very few people for whom these words really ring true, but I believe my grandpa lived them. As I reflect on his final years, I realize how he embodied these words in particular: Earth has nothing I desire besides you.

Grandpa was ready to go to heaven. Perhaps many Christians would say they’d like to go to Heaven now and that they’d like to be with Jesus. But I think that, even if we believe that one day in God’s presence is better than thousands here on earth, many of us would pause if we truly were given that chance. I know I’d hesitate. My grandpa wouldn’t have hesitated.

Yet, God gave Grandpa the strength of heart (literally and spiritually, I guess) to live many years after he was ready to die. I find that both sad and comforting. Perhaps it is the true picture of what sustaining faith looks like, that we persist in desiring God, as Grandpa did, when our flesh and heart fail, when earth literally holds nothing for us.

It often feels like that when we grieve the loss of someone we love very much. But in grief, we experience not only the full range of human emotion but a wider range of God’s promises as well. He promises to be with us as we mourn, to hold us by our right hands, and to guide us by his counsel.

And afterward—after all of these things have passed—He will take us into glory, too.

Words that are good.

I haven’t written in a while, because it has been a very hard month. I have some words of my own to share, and I will post those soon. For now, I want to share some words that I didn’t write.

I have collected quotes over the years since high school, and I keep quotes from wherever I find them. Aided by a voracious appetite for reading and the good invention of the copy-&-paste function, I have accrued a rather extensive collection of words that are not my own. 

Here are some good words.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was the amazing editor, … and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” [The Bell Jar]

“Faith never knows where it is being led, but it loves and knows the one who is leading.” [Oswald Chambers]

“‘Well, why don’t you go to Mecca now?’ asked the boy.
‘Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. That’s what helps me face these days that are all the same … I’m afraid that if my dream is realized, I’ll have no reason to go on living. … I’ve already imagined the people who would be at my side, and those in front of me, and the conversations and prayers we would share. But I’m afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it.'” [The Alchemist]

“It’s not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are.” [Roy Disney]

“I suppose what I wanted back then is what every Christian wants, whether they understand themselves or not. What I wanted was God.” [Blue Like Jazz]

“It was frustrating how when people loved you they took an interest in you and sometimes worried about you and personally cared what you did with yourself. She wished that love were something you could flip on and off. You could turn it on when you felt good about yourself and worthy of it and generous enough to return it. You could flip it off when you needed to hide or self-destruct and had nothing at all to give.” [Sisterhood Everlasting]

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” [Mary Anne Radmacher]

“This is how it works. I love the people in my life, and I do for my friends whatever they need me to do for them, again and again, as many times as is necessary. For example, in your case, you always forget who you are and how much you’re loved. So what I do for you as your friend is remind you who you are and tell you how much I love you. And this isn’t any kind of burden for me, because I love who you are very much. Every time I remind you, I get to remember with you, which is my pleasure.” [James Lecesne]

“You and I are gonna be okay, you know that, right? We may not be as happy as you always dreamed we would be, but for the first time let’s just allow ourselves to be whatever it is we are and that will be better.” [Garden State]

“There is only one page left to write on. I will fill it with words of only one syllable. I love. I have loved. I will love.” [The Time Traveler’s Wife]

These are good words, because they have helped me remember that I can choose joy. I especially love the final quote. Taken from my favorite book, I’ve copied that quote by hand so many times, carried it with me, and posted it in places to remind myself of the supreme dynamic of my life: Love.