How to Waste Your Life and Call it Beautiful

football throw pillows

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

 

When the baby of our family was born over nine years ago, I had a seven-year-old and a four-year-old.

With seven plus years of motherhood under my belt, I’d learned a few lessons about letting go, chilling out, and realizing that it’s all going to be okay. In light of this hard-won Zen version of myself, I decided to enjoy my third baby like nobody’s business.

I would not fret. I would not pursue unnecessary work or projects. I would bask in this last brief season of babyhood and love on my darling boy whose very name means “mercy.”

Mercy. That’s what he meant to my husband and me.

For a very long season, I assumed that I wouldn’t have another baby. My marriage had almost ended. I was working full-time. Life was terribly messy.

And then, it wasn’t.

God breathed compassion into our story. Our third child represented the underserved gift of new life for our family and I resolved to enjoy his babyhood in a way that my angsty, younger-mom self wasn’t able to do with my other children.

Today he is a curly-headed, third-grade boy with a perfect sprinkle of freckles across his nose. He’s much too big for me to carry and he talks like a teenager, compliments of his older brother and sister.

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I’m sure his babyhood seemed like a long stretch of time when we were in it — short nights, ear infections, teething, smeared pureed food in his hair. I can barely remember those episodes now. What I do remember is that I received that short season of my life as a gift.

I devoted myself to adoring him.

Much of my life’s work up to that point seemed irrelevant. My education, my career, all the books I’d read, the ambition I’d cultivated — I didn’t technically need any of those things to be an adoring mother.

Sometimes I wondered if I’d wasted the gifts I’d so earnestly stored up.

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I’ve been many different moms over the last sixteen years. Grad school mom, part-time working mom, full-time working mom, homeschool mom, stay-at-home mom, work-from-home mom, single mom.

I don’t feel like I’ve ever gotten it quite right.

As I look back across my story as a mother, the one chapter that feels most “right” to me is the one I just told you about — that one to two year season when I cherished my last baby with lavish intention. I did not call it wasteful. I called it beautiful.

Lest you think I’m someone who believes motherhood is my highest calling and the one thing I was put on this earth to do — I assure you, I am not that person. Though I’ve always longed to be a mother and I was over the moon about each one of my babies, reconciling family with personal ambition has been one of the greatest struggles and missions of my life.

Since I was ten years old, I wanted to attend law school right after college. I majored in the right things. I took the LSAT. But at the age of 22, I arrived at a painful conclusion — a career in law didn’t seem very compatible with raising a family. Not for me, anyway. And just like that, I veered from what I’d always wanted to do. It’s hardly a tragic story. Instead of law, I pursued and enjoyed college teaching.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Sometimes I’m still sad I didn’t go to law school. That doesn’t mean I regret not going. It simply means that my heart continues to beat strongly for the kind of work I would have loved.

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Over the holidays I was at a retirement party for one of my husband’s colleagues. I had the loveliest time chatting with an acquaintance of ours who’s been a happily-practicing attorney for many years. I asked question after question about his work — why he loves it, if he’s glad he went into law, etc. I told him that I’d always dreamed of being a trial lawyer. He told me I should still think about it, that it’s not too late.

The whole way home and for weeks afterward, I did think about it. I’m still surprised at the way that longing can show up unannounced and just linger for a while.

But the reality is this — I have chosen other things.

Though I have worked and still currently work, I have chosen family over full-time work and my own aspirations — even though family life hasn’t {and still doesn’t} come naturally, even though motherhood doesn’t pay well, even though it sometimes feels like a waste of intellect and resources, even though others may say it’s the less than sensible choice.

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Recently I came across a story about another woman who made a less than sensible choice, a woman who “wasted” the resources she’d earnestly stored up, a woman who devoted herself to adoring someone in a way that confounded the more knowledgeable people around her.

The setting is a dinner party. And after the dinner was over, this woman took a pound of perfumed oil and anointed the honored guest, going so far as to let down her hair and wipe the man’s feet with it.

That honored guest was Jesus. The woman’s name was Mary. The imported oil in an alabaster jar was worth a year’s wages.

Can you imagine the awkwardness? An awkwardness that was quickly followed by scoff, scorn, and even contempt. Sure, it was an expression of love and honor but did it have to be so wasteful?

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Other guests made the point that the perfume could have been sold and given to the poor.

My own knee jerk reaction was that it could have been rationed out more sensibly. Surely Mary could have saved it in order to provide for herself and for others.

But Jesus didn’t say any of these things. Instead he asked the others to leave her alone and he called her offering “beautiful.”

Whether Mary realized it then or not, Jesus would die in a matter of days and this was her one opportunity to honor him with scandalous devotion.

As she was pouring out the perfume and wiping his feet with her hair, she was actually anointing her beloved Jesus for his burial.

My throat caught as I read this commentary on the story:

God’s people are expected to remember the poor … But Jesus came only once in history to die for his people. Only on this occasion would there be this opportunity to honor Him as He should be honored. 

This moment was not about the poor, it was not about Mary’s rights, and it was not about human sensibility. It was bigger than what anyone could see. Mary’s sacrifice and devotion was part of God’s purpose for her life, for Jesus’ life, and for the redemption and renewal of the world.

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receive my life bracelet

Though I’ve given up on law school, I still long to pursue full-time work that overflows from the core of who I am. And maybe one day I will.

But my real life in this season of teenagers and sports and three different schools and community and work — well, it looks like delivering left-behind lunches, supervising math homework, avoiding the laundry, lamenting the dailyness of dinner, refereeing, running a taxi service, cheering from the sidelines, teaching life lessons while driving my minivan, and giving up on any semblance of work-life balance.

At my worst or even at my average, I can begrudge all of this because a.) it’s mundane and repetitive, and b.) it can feel like a misspent life.

I really did not want to write that last sentence because it sounds awful. But it’s where my human heart can land on any given day.

And that’s why, when I read the story of Mary and Jesus and the perfume, I came a little undone on the inside. Truth and beauty lodged themselves within my spirit and I’ve walked a little askew ever since.

While I may not have Jesus in the flesh at my dinner table tonight, He is always my companion. And He tells us that when we provide for the physical needs of those who depend on our care, we’re also demonstrating love and devotion to him.

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This isn’t a post about career vs. family. It’s not even a post about motherhood. Not really. It’s about receiving our right-now lives as a gift. And that looks different for each of us.

I’m learning that in each season, I have to prioritize the roles that only I can fill. Only I can be my husband’s wife and my kids’ mom. There are other things God also calls me to do right now but I always return to this question:

Who needs me more right now? {For someone who doesn’t love to be needed, answering this question is more discipline than it is default.}

Sometimes only you can be the one to earn a paycheck or contribute to your family’s livelihood. Only you can be the one to take care of an aging parent or an adult sibling. Only you can be the one to help your grown child through a long season of crisis. Only you can be the one to love a difficult student in your classroom or a neighbor who has no one else.

I write from the intersection of my own season and circumstances but this story could be told a million different ways.

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What sacred devotion have you been given for this season? Who needs to receive what’s in your alabaster jar?

Only you and your people can answer this question.

It’s easy to worship at the altar of public opinion or even at the altar of sensibility without realizing that you’ve been taken captive. Modern narratives can be sneaky like that. I’m absolutely guilty of imbibing what sounds good instead of drinking from Truth.

I’m also guilty of looking at what others are doing and then feeling like a failure by comparison. In feeling left behind, I sprint to catch up — only to find that I’ve left my own people behind in the process.

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Straying from devotion probably comes naturally for most of us. For me, the key is coming back to the presence of Jesus and surrendering to the call of right now.

Today. These people. This season. This work. This devotion.

When we’re running hard toward our hoped-for life, we miss the sacred gifts of the right-now life.

Mary only had Jesus for a brief moment and she did the scandalous instead of the sensible. By everyone’s standards, she “wasted her gift’s purpose.”

Do you know what Jesus said in that moment?

Why are you giving this woman a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives, but not me. When she poured this perfume on my body, what she really did was anoint me for burial. You can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she has just done is going to be remembered and admired.  – Matthew 26:10-13 {The Message}

I don’t know what your life looks like today but I can tell you this. Jesus says your daily offerings are important even though they might seem wasteful by others’ standards.

I’ve lost many years’ wages. I’ve “wasted” years of education. But I only have this one window of opportunity to love my people well right now {while maintaining a semblance of my own sanity.} I’m learning that the teenage years require an availability and energy level that surpass the little years. I’m sorry if you don’t have teenagers yet and that sentence just ruined your day.

Like Mary, we have a brief window to overflow with the specific kind of devotion that each season requires. It probably doesn’t look like anointing someone with expensive perfume and suffering public humiliation in the process. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t costly. Service is costly. Forgoing your own desires in order to equip and love another person is always costly.

Maybe other people won’t get it. There will be days when even you don’t get it. Will you believe Jesus over public opinion and even over your own opinion? He says your right-now devotion is beautiful, that it’s a proclamation of the Gospel, that it’s a unique and sacred part of God’s purpose for you, for those you love, and for the world.

{And then will you turn around and repeat this truth back to me? Every day, I seem to forget all over again.}

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Earlier this week I was hustling out of the grocery store with bags of food that have since been devoured. The strangest awareness washed over me right there in the parking lot.

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I get to do this. I get to do all of this. And it’s bringing me joy — not all the time, but at least for today. Dear God, only you could work this sort of miracle within my stubborn heart. Thank you. And keep doing it. 

One day I won’t be needed in this way but now is not that time.

I want to receive this fleeting season as a gift in the same way that I received the long ago baby season as a gift.

I want to look back on this one, merciful opportunity and call it beautiful.

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You may also enjoy:

How a 92-year-old Woman Taught Me the Real Value of my Right-Now Work

How to Pursue Your Hoped-for in the Midst of Your Right-Now Life: A Series


 

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Why Taking the Time to Listen May be the Most Fruitful Way to Begin a New Year

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It’s the beginning of January, the season for all things self-improvement.

I spent the first Monday of the New Year not going to my exercise class and staying in my pajamas to bask in the quiet and solitude of an empty house. I set aside my work tasks, lit a candle at my desk, spent a bit of time with the words of Jesus, grabbed my journal, pen, and book and settled into the leather recliner beside my desk.

Enveloped by the quiet of my home and the stillness of January, I tried to remember the last time I’d afforded myself such luxury. I couldn’t remember.

Sometimes we don’t realize how hungry we are until we actually sit down at the table to eat. That’s how I felt, like a starving girl who’s waited too long for nourishment.

The demands of the fall semester depleted me more than I realized. When the holidays rolled around, a glad spirit was nowhere to be found. My soul, battered by the waves of stress, emotional turmoil, family busy-ness, and mind-numbing distraction, washed up on the shore of December and lay there in an exhausted, burned-out heap.

We didn’t travel over Christmas so it should have felt easier. I kept waiting for a grand infusion of holiday spirit.

Nothing.

It’s so easy to forget who we truly are at our core and therefore what we really need. In recent months I’ve chosen distraction over reflection. I’ve numbed so that I wouldn’t have to feel. I’ve used busy-ness and legitimate responsibility as excuses for not pursuing the life-giving disciplines of solitude and writing.

When we sit in stillness, we’re forced to reckon with that which comes to the surface. I had pain I didn’t want to stare in the face. So I’d stop by Goodwill. Or scroll through Instagram. I’d become increasingly impulsive and less intentional. And while that feels good and sometimes even momentarily life-giving, I suffered from low-grade frustration, shame, and resentment.

This is not how I want my life to look. 

We can say that about all sorts of things over which we have no control — illness, tragedy, job loss. But mine was a self-induced disappointment. It’s easier to have compassion toward ourselves when we’re victims of external forces; it’s harder to climb out of a pit that we’ve made for ourselves and settled into.

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In the past, I’d have bootstrapped my way into short-term self-improvement. Books! Lists! Goals!

But I’m tired. And I’ve tried all of that. I know the answers and there’s nothing trendy or sexy about any of it.

Today means forgoing the gym and wearing yesterday’s mascara. It means acknowledging my weariness and my lack. It means looking at my mistakes across the recent months, feeling the pain I’ve tried to numb, taking inventory of my real self and my real life and just listening for a bit.

Honestly, I prefer actionable steps and instant success, obvious answers and best practices.

But those are not the ways of the soul.

I’m rereading Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer and I love what he says about how our soul responds to force:

The soul is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.

 

I spent the first weekday of January “sitting at the base of a tree,” so to speak. And the truth of who I am began to emerge with more clarity and familiarity than I expected, especially since we’ve been a bit estranged for a while.

With Parker’s language, I spent some time asking myself honest questions about the “truths I embody” and the “values I represent.” I reflected on what my right-now life is telling me {the good, the bad, the ugly} and how that may intersect with the gifts I too often compartmentalize.

I took the time to listen to my life — repenting of the ways I’d misspent my time and effort and acknowledging the life-giving practices I’d neglected.

And for the first time in many, many weeks, the spark of hope began to warm me from within, shining its light into my rhythms, my roles, my work, and my creativity.

I look forward to sharing some hope-filled ideas with you in the coming year. Too often we believe that our right-now roles and routines crowd out the life-giving pursuits that make our hearts sing. But I believe there’s always space for our gifts to walk around in unlikely seasons of life instead of sitting in a box until life issues a more timely invitation.

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If this sounds like the encouragement you need, I invite you to join the conversation so you won’t miss a thing. Simply enter your e-mail address in the box at the end of this post and you’re all set.

In the meantime, give your weary mind and soul the gift of solitude. Schedule it if you have to. Hide in your closet while your kids watch a show or give yourself some space during nap time. Spend your lunch break in a quiet place without your phone. Resist the urge to immediately make lists and default to actionable responses.

Listen to your life.

God speaks to us through his Word and through creation, in prayer and in silence. But He also directs us through the unique ways He’s wired us to think, work, create, lead, and serve in the world. When we don’t acknowledge the nuances of who we are, we can overlook what we might offer to those around us.

If you feel like it, take some time to journal the thoughts and emotions that come to the surface. It may feel awkward at first. And you may be surprised by what shows up.

Here are some simple questions that may help to guide your listening:

  • What has caused undue weariness?
  • How have you numbed, avoided, and distracted?
  • How have you tried to live a life that’s not yours?
  • What parts of yourself have you kept hidden? Why?
  • What truths, values, and longings are at the heart of your identity?
  • In what ways do you want to live more authentically in the new year?

 

It takes courage to sit with who you really are. And it takes trust to receive your own life. In this new year, I pray that God will give you both.

May your brave listening give way to hope and renewal in 2017. I’m so glad to have you here.

 

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Resources you may find helpful:

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In a way this feels counterintuitive. After a post in which I’ve encouraged listening instead of action, I’m now giving you a list of sorts.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes certain books and practices become a helpful guide, giving me language and tools to excavate that which I often cover up with busy-ness, distraction, and the chaos of my own overthinking brain.

I’m picky about how a certain book or post makes me feel at the end. Do I feel guilty or inspired? Condemned or encouraged? All of these spoke truth and served as a helpful guide in ways that set me free and never felt preachy. Amen.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here you go:

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer

A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live by Emily P. Freeman

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work by Kathleen Norris

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

“What’s on Your DON’T List?” {Free Hope*Writers Podcast}

This podcast is so freeing and helpful, even if you’re not a writer. I believe it’s fruitful for everyone to make a list of what you’re not going to do.

3 Gentle Ways to Review Your Life in the New Year, a blog post by Emily P. Freeman

The Book of John

This just happens to be what I’m studying this year. The beauty of God’s Word is that it’s alive and active. It speaks to my current questions and hardships. If often influences what I write. I’ve been amazed at the ways in which the words of John have helped me to live in the tension between my hopes and my reality, revitalizing the unseen, sacred work of my right-now life.

How to Pursue Your Hoped-For Work in the Midst of You

r Right-Now Life, a series

About a year ago, I began a post that turned into an 8-part series that explores how we can live responsibly in the right-now while not letting go of the hoped-for.


*Some affiliate links used. Thanks for your kind support of this little corner of the internet!

How I Became an Accidental Optimist

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“You might be dangerously close to actually becoming an optimist.”

That’s what one of my friends told me recently. She’d received disheartening news about a project and we were trying to stay positive, attempting to see next steps through eyes of hope, wondering how we might repurpose what she had.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that statement. Me? Becoming an optimist?

I’m old enough to know by now that change doesn’t happen overnight, that our personalities and quirks are more entrenched than we’d like them to be. But I think my friend might be right, even if those closest to me are still skeptical.

I’m beginning to see the world through possibility-colored glasses.

I make myself sound so Disney. Don’t be fooled. I still worry and entertain fatalistic thoughts. I fuss at the people in my house and roll my eyes. But the tide within me is turning. I’m more determined than ever to look beyond how a situation appears and imagine potential in its place. Ever since my friend made that statement, I’ve wondered what’s brought about the change. Life hasn’t gotten any easier; the climb has actually felt steeper this last year as I’ve struggled with grief, exhaustion, confusion, and chronic setbacks.

Why the optimism?

Because I’ve been practicing without even knowing it. 

Way back in the dark ages of blogging, an overwhelmed homeschool mom with three young children had said goodbye to a career she loved to focus full-time on raising and teaching her children. She was grateful to no longer be spinning so many plates but she did miss the intellectual stimulation and tangible productivity her work provided. She started a blog. What began as random posts slowly became coherent-ish pieces, everyday stories through which she was learning about failure and grace and everyday gifts she’d been too busy to appreciate.

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Writing, whether in my journal or on the blog, became a way for me to process the complexities and frustrations of life. As I did, a serendipitous thing often happened: I found clarity and resolution, rest for my soul, perspective that I didn’t have when I began. It wasn’t always that tidy but the point is, writing helped me. Sometimes I shared what I’d written and it helped others feel less alone in their crazy and more hopeful about their mess.

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Sunday I talked with a friend who told me that her daughter always needed to write in a journal before she turned out the light. She struggled to fall asleep if she hadn’t poured out her thoughts and emotions first.

My youngest child has a spiral notebook. He writes about all the reasons why Nike is awesome. Pages y’all, about shoes and socks and shorts and why he loves them. Apparently Nike swag is the overflow of his eight-year-old heart. I’m not going to stop him; this too is self-expression as he professes undying love and devotion to Elite socks and the latest Lebrons.

writing boy

My younger brother, someone who hated writing during his growing-up years, recently re-launched his blog. Writing showed up as a form of therapy for him as an adult. When he writes, his honest but hopeful words meet others in their own places of doubt and depression.

We’re not all wired to write. But I do think that spilling our words is more therapeutic than many people realize, inviting us to access the deep places or even just the superficial chaos, pouring it out and feeling the exhale that results. Therapists often advise those who can’t sleep to keep a pen and journal beside the bed, writing down the anxious thoughts and to-do list tasks that keep us from rest.

In countless ways, writing can provide a guest house for the occupants that overcrowd your inner world. The occupants are still around but they’re not right there, smothering you with their heavy presence. 

And when our inner world isn’t so clouded and crowded with all the things, we can finally see with eyes of hope.

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I share my life with readers, those I know and those I don’t, because words are both my worship and my offering. As every writer eventually learns, we are first and foremost to write what we know. My life is what I know. The stories with which I am most intimately acquainted are my own. But I’m learning that we have so much more in common than not, that in telling you my story — both the epic and the everyday chapters — I speak into your story too, providing a place for you to pull up a chair around the table we all share.

 

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Words continue to help me name an unspoken thing and lead me along an unexpected route to possibility. I can’t explain it. But every time I’m crowded and clouded on the inside, I try to write through the overwhelm in order to see what comes out on the other side. Something always does. I never know how those posts will end up. Ever. It’s always a surprise and it always points toward hope, even though I’m “not an optimist.” It feels like a miracle every time.

After all these years, I’m just now fully realizing that the practice of writing has also been the practice of possibility. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it does bring change. Over the years, writing has slowly begun to etch new grooves in my thought patterns, to kick the dirt over the well-worn path of pessimism and to instead forge a new path of possibility.

Writing has been my faithful companion, a friend with layers of resourcefulness that I’m only now beginning to appreciate. She has been both a gentle guide and an exhausting coach, at times soothing me with her easy rhythms and at other times pushing me to dig deeper, to write even though it hurt, to persevere through all the self-doubt.

I trusted that she knew the way home, even if I didn’t, that she would excavate the truth and beauty I couldn’t get to without her. And somewhere along the way, my despairing self began to change, began to relentlessly hope, began to speak words of undying Possibility into my own narrative and also into the narratives of others.

I’ve become an Accidental Optimist. And I have writing to thank.

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If you’ve been around here the last week or so, you’ve heard me share about Hope*Writers, my favorite resource for writers.

This jam-packed site is full of everything from how to write a blog post or a book proposal to tech helps and writer interviews. There’s also a private Facebook group where you can connect with other writers just like you. #ihearthopewriters

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Hope*Writers is for anyone who writes, who wants to write, or who might be curious about writing. And this week, you can be part of their FREE Hope*Writers Summit, an event that gives you access to 12 video interviews with authors / writers / editors at various stages of the journey.

13177520_10154393267153974_6219948258442135292_n One of those 12 interviews is mine, a writer who’s been blogging for years, juggles writing with a paid job and a family, and hopes to write actual books one day. It’s an honor to be included in this mix of writers who I love and respect. I have gleaned so much insight and encouragement from their interviews.

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I sit down with one of my favorite authors, Emily Freeman, and we dish about everything from unfinished books proposals to “stewarding your story,” something I’ve learned to do as I’ve written my way through messy chapters of my own life. You’ll learn why I write on my blog and in a journal. You’ll also learn why my husband is my best editor, even though he’s not a writer.

Curious? CLICK HERE to learn more and join me this week for the summit. The first day was yesterday but it’s not too late to get in on the fun. Join us!

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I’m all about helping you recapture the possibility of your right-now life.

If that sounds like something you need, sign up in the box below to receive fresh hope and possibility delivered to your inbox a couple of times a week.

 

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