After the Storm: an essay

April 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

I shared this essay on all of the usual social media sites when it was published several weeks ago, but in case you missed it (and if you’re interested!), my essay After the Storm appeared in the fifth issue of the lovely Cordella Magazine, an online literary magazine that features the work of women artists and writers across the world.

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The piece is a somber reflection on the aftermath of the tornadoes that hit North Texas over Christmas.

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It started with some meditations I jotted down after helping some friends who’d survived the tornadoes clean up their house, and through the editorial advice of a friend, became the essay it is.

We say a prayer of thanksgiving for safety, and I am glad to whisper it. I have known safety in moments of danger, and it is something to be thankful for.

For any interested readers, you can find the essay here.

Pine trees and cold water

March 22, 2016 § 11 Comments

“And you’re by yourself?”

I look at the park ranger.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m by myself.”

This is the third time she’s asked in, oh, five minutes. I see her raise her eyebrows, shake her head.

“It’s going to be a cold night,” she says.

“I know,” I say.

She hands me a parking pass. Is it incredulity I see on her face? Or am I simply projecting my own self doubt? Do I really believe I can make it a night alone in the woods?

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I foresee all the ways this night could go wrong. I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King: The convict watched as the girl unzipped her tent, all the while sharpening his blade against a rough stone. And I’ve read those news stories (actually, I’ve written a few): Police and community volunteers continue searching the woods for the girl who went missing last night. They discovered her campsite, but no remains…

How the hell am I going to make it through a night alone in the woods with thoughts like these?

But the parking pass is in my hand and the ranger has turned back to her computer. She doesn’t look so worried, so skeptical anymore. She just looks bored. So, I pocket the pass and head outside to the car.

*

The idea for a solo camping trip began last fall, when I went camping out west with one of my dearest friends. I love camping and, introvert that I am, I enjoy being alone. A solo camping trip sounded like a great combo. But I didn’t have anything planned until last week. That’s when I realized I needed to get out of the city, needed to breathe the crisp woody air, needed to watch the sun sparkle over cold water.

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It was a need for beauty.

It was a need for solitude.

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Over the last two years, I’ve looked at my life and seen a lot of metaphorical death. I moved to Dallas for the dream of a job that didn’t happen the way I hoped. I watched a relationship crumble from the inside, realizing too late how desperately I wanted it to work. I grieved over the lost community and natural beauty I left behind in Southern California.

One of my friends once told me that solitary retreats allow space for thoughts hidden deep within us to sprout, to bubble forth, to surprise and overwhelm us. I have found this to be true. I’ve set aside long weekends for silent retreats before, and have found myself weeping uncontrollably one minute and overwhelmed by a sense of peace the next. This is what I went looking for on my solo camping trip. Perhaps a lot to ask of a 24-hour excursion, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never receive — or something like that.

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The park ranger gives me a site by the lake, a lovely spot to read and think and otherwise do absolutely nothing. It is a late Sunday afternoon, and I’m the only one in a campground of over a hundred sites.

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That afternoon, I’m only scared once.

A hiker decides to use a nearby picnic table for his post-hike snack. It shocks me to look over after setting up my tent and find him sitting so close. There’s nothing Stephen-Kingy about him, though.

But then again, there usually isn’t until it’s dark…

*

After a dinner of cold sandwich halves, sweet blueberries, and an avocado eaten with a plastic spoon, I go for a walk. The sun has begun to set, and my side of the lake is already deep in shadow. But when I turn a corner my breath catches in my throat, my heart leaps into my mouth.

The light! It’s everywhere! Golden light. Dazzling, resplendent sunlight shattering thin green leaves, throwing golden warmth over everything; over tree bark, over scraggly brush, over pools of water, over my wan skin. The world is shot through with glory, and I’m standing in the middle of a sunbeam.

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I cross a wooden bridge, the planks split open by the sun. As I walk, tiny birds rush out ahead of me, flying seemingly from nowhere. A squirrel hunts for nuts in the hardened mud below the bridge, his normally dull fur turned luminous by the falling light.

I could stay here forever, transfixed by nothing more than the flickering shadows dancing across a single slice of sunlit bark. I do stay here for a long time, watching, listening, hidden away in an illuminated wood.

But eventually, the sun sets. Eventually, I walk back to my side of the lake, where the woods are chilled and growing darker.

The park ranger is right: it’s a cold night. Luckily, I brought a trusty below-zero sleeping bag. It’s like a heater, keeping me toasty as the temperature drops.

And who would believe it: I fall asleep. I curl up with the sleeping bag snug around my head, I read for a little while, and then am fast asleep. Not once do I consider the imagined and real horrors outside my sheer shelter. I don’t wake until morning, when hundreds of birds outside my tent explode into song.

*

Here’s something I didn’t know: birds chirp loudest just before sunrise.

Which means, when I unzip my tent, I step outside to a frigid morning — a “cold-as-a-bullfrog morning”, as my grandmother might say — fog rolling in shivery sheets off the quiet water and the first lavender light smearing the sky.

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This Texas beauty is subtle. It’s the kind of beauty that sneaks up on you, catching you by surprise.

It’s unzipping a tent in the morning to find a world awash in creamy blues.

It’s watching a flock of ducks stream noiselessly across glassy water.

It’s staring absently at a log only to realize it’s actually a knobby turtle.

This is the gift I receive in the morning. This is the gift of facing my fear.

And this is what I’m learning: I’m learning to peer closer, to realize the fecundity of life right before me, to live with eyes open wide. I’m learning to face the fear of sleeping alone in a wooded forest, fully expecting to wake up astonished, and ever more alive.

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For any interested campers, I stayed at Tyler State Park, a lovely spot with pine trees and a small lake just an hour and a half from Dallas.

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Vignettes on love {3}

February 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

“See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”


You promise to build us a highway over and through the mountains. You promise to feed us, to quench our thirst, to let us see. You promise that you are near, that our names are inked in dark blue and black scrawls on your wide hands, that the love of a mother for a baby might, improbably, fail, but yours will never for you are love itself and cannot not be what you are. When it appears you are far, let us know you are close so we do not grow bitter. Show us a sign so the mountains of our hearts and the earth of our bodies might shout, might sing. Remind us: our walls are your walls, and like a ghost you walk through them, carrying us along.

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Advent: week three

December 14, 2015 § 3 Comments

It hardly feels like Christmastime here in Dallas. I’m sitting outside under the leafy oak tree, sunlight dappling the green lawn, birds chirping in the limbs overhead. Earlier, I jogged around the block, enjoying the 70 degree weather in my T-shirt and running shorts.

Though it’s hardly Christmas-like, I am glad for the warmth. There is something sweet in weather like this, something that makes me rather nostalgic for summers in high school, for the excitement of driving down a rarely trodden dirt road, for the pleasure of climbing a hefty low-limbed tree.

This weather is making me feel good, making me feel something rather like joy, something rather like hope.

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And of course, hope is at the heart of Advent.

But hope isn’t always so easy to come by, and the thing we have hope in during Advent (namely, that the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby) often seems silly at best and downright mad at worst.

This weather, though, it’s making me look at hope through new eyes. It’s making me pause and wonder, what if?

*

What if the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby?

And what if He did that so that He could grow up and die?

And what if, in dying, He turned back the clocks, unfolded the sheets of time, threw back the stars in their galaxies?

What if He’s doing that in us now, clawing away our crusty exteriors, breathing fresh air into the dark holes of our being, filling us up with honey and wine?

What if we stepped back from our expectations of what the world is and will be and always has been, and thought, maybe God came to Earth as a little baby?

What if we dared to hope, dared to look around for God, dared to see Him, if just for one brief instant, here in the sunshine of a balmy winter’s day, here, on Earth?

Friday meditation

October 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

I will fold your heart gently in a white paper packet. I will crimp the edges to tuck you in. Like a child in bed, you’ll be safe, surrounded, encircled in smoothness, protected within.

With soft white sheets I will surround you, so fragile, in the palm of my hand. You’re my tiny walnut, my baby apple seed, my uncrackable lady, my Me more than Me.

I’ll open the cage of your heart oh so gently. I’ll hold your caked blood in the center of my hand. I’ll kiss it away sweetly, new warmth to be given. I’ll heal, I’ll straighten, every wrinkle within.

I’ll twine you up, like spun cotton candy. I’ll blow you away, like grass in the wind. I’ll fold you up in a white paper packet, set you inside, where no thing can get in.

Resolution ramblings

September 30, 2015 § 5 Comments

After taking the summer off and volunteering in South Sudan last August, I resolved to write a new blog post every week, a resolution I hoped would renew my love for writing and ingrain the discipline in me. A friend encouraged me to do it, and so far, it’s worked out pretty well.

I have loved writing a new post every week, finding myself overflowing with thoughts I want to share, overjoyed when I receive a kind note from someone who connected with something I wrote.

But this week, I find myself staring at a blank page with no idea what to say.

Oh, I have lots of thoughts, that’s for sure. A dear friend told me lately, “I say this from the deepest part of my heart, Lizzie, but sometimes, you’re your own worst enemy.  You tend to overthink things and drive yourself crazy.” This is absolutely true. I fixate on some thing and cannot let it go until I’ve wound myself into a ball of nerves.

I have done this lately. I find myself feeling like a rubber band stretched taught, about to snap. I find myself feeling like a cactus — get too close, and you might get pricked.

But these thoughts and emotions hardly boil down into a coherent blog post.

Which is why this week’s post feels like a bit of a copout, and maybe it is.

Or maybe it isn’t.

Maybe you feel this way at times, too. Maybe you know what it’s like to need to stick to a resolution even when the resolution feels hard and empty. Maybe you know what it’s like to feel as though you’re made of sharp silver needles sticking your insides. Maybe you do. Or maybe I’m just going through a neurotic phase.

Either way, I’ll post a few pictures to make up for this rambling post. From my recent trip to Southern California:IMG_5962

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Looking for home

September 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

For the last two months, I’ve lived, more or less, out of a suitcase.

I spent several weeks working with a nonprofit in South Sudan. I vacationed in North Carolina with a friend. Now I’m in Los Angeles, visiting my brother who’s on fall break from film school.

Living out of a suitcase is not a bad way to live. In fact, most of the time, I rather like it. I feel inspired and energized when I travel; I feel restless when I don’t.

But all of this packing and unpacking, taking off and landing, driving and stopping to fill the tank with gas, all of this leaving and returning and leaving again, all of it makes me rather desirous of home.

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I grew up in a military family, with a father in the Navy and a mother in the Air Force, so moving is second nature to me and home is a relative term. Growing up, I moved every year or two of my life until I turned 13. Even after living in Fort Worth all through high school, I attended college in Michigan, traveled during the summers, and have lived in three states in the two years since graduation.

My mom likes to tell this anecdote that explains how integral moving was (and still is) to my life:

When we settled in Fort Worth, I began attending a new school. At the start of the semester, the teachers gathered all of the eighth graders into the gymnasium to play a game that was supposed to help everyone get to know each other.

They passed out several rolls of toilet paper and instructed each student to tear off as many sheets as he or she liked. Some of us took one or two squares, several took half a dozen, a couple unrolled great swaths of white paper. When it came my turn, I unrolled a long strip, probably ten sheets long, and handed the roll to my neighbor.

Then, the teachers explained the game: we were to go around the room sharing one fact about ourselves per square of toilet paper. There I was with this long strip of paper, wracking my mind for interesting but not too weird facts about myself, wishing I’d been less ambitious and only taken one sheet like the girl sitting beside me.

I tend to freeze up in moments like this, and I was freezing up then when it hit me: there was something I had done at least ten times. Move.

After the girl beside me stated her single fact, I began tearing off square after square, listing place after place where I’d lived: Virginia, Washington, Germany, California, Boston, Washington, D.C., Virginia again…

The teachers thought it was funny. Several of the students’ eyes grew big. I felt slightly embarrassed for marking myself as different from my Texan peers, peers I was supposed to befriend, and was relieved when my last square of toilet paper somersaulted gracefully to the floor.

After attending that high school for two years, making some friends, going to the Valentine’s dance, acting in a Jane Austen play, I began to feel restless. I loved Fort Worth. I loved the sprawling grassland with its scraggly mesquite trees, I loved the pool in the hot Texas summer, I loved our neighbor’s horses, I loved skipping Friday night football games to hang out with my friends instead, but we’d been there for so long.

Wasn’t it time to move again?

*

Since graduating from college, every place I’ve moved I’ve wanted to make my home.

When I moved to Washington, D.C. for a journalism internship, I wondered: could this be my home? I loved the history, the ornate buildings, the excitement of the metro, the museums on the National Mall, the tree-filled parks, my little room in the house with the dark green trim.

Yes, I thought, this could be my home.

When I moved to Santa Barbara to write for the city newspaper, I wondered: could this be my home? I loved the adobe red-roof buildings, the sparkling blue ocean, the palm trees, the craggy mountains, the dolphins swimming offshore.

Yes, I thought, this could be my home.

Now I live in Dallas, and sometimes I wonder: is this city my home?

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When I first moved to Dallas, I did not think it could ever be my home. Everywhere I looked I did not see Dallas. Instead, I saw what Dallas was not.

Dallas was not palm trees or ocean waves or coffee shops near the beach. Dallas was not hiking trails or wild bluffs or purple-tinged mountains. Dallas was not sunsets or seagulls or wineries in the hills.

Dallas was not California. Dallas could never be home.

*

But I’ve lived in Dallas for over a year now and in many ways, it is my home.

It is my home because it is the address I use when buying books from Amazon or signing up for a library card. It is my home because my grandmother lives there and (when I’m not living out of a suitcase) I live in her house. It is my home because I have friends in Dallas whom I love.

Despite all of this, I am still restless, I am still unsettled, I am still desirous of a more permanent home.

*

 When I feel this way, I sometimes think of Parmenides, the Greek philosopher who was so disturbed by the constant flux in this world that he conjured the idea that while everything appears to be changing what exists is actually one unchangeable entity, what his successors have dubbed the Parmenidean One.

I think about the Parmenidean One because I think I get why that’s so appealing. How nice to think that all of this flux, this moving, this change, this restlessness is just an illusion, that what actually exists is something firm, something solid, something to rest upon. I think it’s that solidity, that firmness that we so desire when we think about home. That’s what home is. It’s the place that’s comfortable and safe, where one is provided for and loved and knows who he or she is.

*

Through all of this moving and living out of suitcases, I think I’ve learned a few things about home.

One is that age-old cliché: home is where your heart is. This is true. Dallas is not my home because most of the things I own happen to be there. It is my home because so many people I love live there. Another city could easily be my home. Any place I go can feel like home for a week or a day, if there are people I love with me there.

Some places feel more like home than others, no matter how many people you love live or don’t live there. I am in California this week, visiting my brother, and I am remembering how much I love this place. The sun shining here makes it easier for me to stave off my proclivity toward moodiness. The easy, laid-back culture makes it easier for me to keep myself from spiraling into my usual self-perfecting anxiety. I always feel more at ease in Southern California, more comfortable, more myself, more at home.

Nevertheless, I am still restless, and I know this is a restlessness that cannot be cured. It is the deep desire, the insatiable hunger, the needy neediness of the soul for the real home, the true place where we are fulfilled. It’s a restlessness I will always feel, and so will you, no matter where you call your home. It’s a good restlessness because it moves us not to feel satisfied with what is here, but points us onward toward a more perfect and permanent place beyond.

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*Photos from my recent trip to Los Angeles.

Reflections on South Sudan (II)

August 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

Last week, a friend of mine invited me over for tea, wanting to hear all about my recent trip to South Sudan with Seed Effect.

I expected her to ask me what it was like in South Sudan, what kind of work we did, whether we had running water (which, we did, on occasion). I did not expect her to pause between bites of scone, look me in the eyes, and say, “So, what insights did you have on this trip?”

Usually, I bristle away from any suggestion that I volunteered in a third world country for myself.

“It’s about the people we serve!” I want to say, “It’s not about me!”

The truth is, more often than not, the people we serve actually serve us instead. And I did have a great insight during my trip to South Sudan, though I only realized it when my friend asked, providing me with the space to think and answer.

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After tossing back two cups of tea and four adorable cucumber sandwiches, this is what I said:

For most of my life, I’ve wanted to be a writer, and nothing else. I began writing stories when I was about eight years old as a way to pass the time during my brother’s piano lessons, and I’ve been writing stories ever since.

As I got older, I stopped wanting to be any old writer. I wanted to be a Capital W. Writer. A writer who wrote for famous publications. A writer whose books appeared on The New York Times bestseller list. I loved writing, that was true, but even more than writing, I loved the idea of being a writer, and I only wanted to write if it meant I was the best.

When I graduated college, I began working toward that goal. I got a job writing for a small newspaper, and immediately began looking for a better job at a more prestigious publication. I got a fellowship at a big newspaper, and immediately began making plans to leave and publish my soon-to-be-bestselling novel.

If only people could see what a great writer I am, I thought. If only my book were published.

Then I would be happy. Then I would be fulfilled.

Of course, this writing for the sake of publication and praise, this requiring my work to make me happy, to save me from despair, it’s the quickest way to kill any joy and creativity in it.

As Anne Lamott writes wonderfully in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people [we writers, that is] want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get where you want to be that way.”

She’s quite right. Writing for the point of publication, which, at its root, is writing for the point of praise (which, at its root, is writing out of a deep desire to be loved), will never satisfy anyone, no matter how great a writer he or she may be.

I have known this for some time, I probably could have articulated it to you, but I didn’t believe it, not really, until I traveled to South Sudan.

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In South Sudan, I had the opportunity to interview dozens of South Sudanese. Their stories are incredible. They are stories of violence, sickness, and poverty; they are stories of generosity, healing, and faith. Listening to them speak, watching their lips move and their hands gesture, I lost myself. I wanted to capture each and every word they spoke, not for myself, not for my byline, but for them, because their stories moved me, because they were stories that needed to be heard.

And, as I began to let go of myself and listen, I began to rekindle a joy for powerful stories and writing them down, not publishing them, but writing them and sharing them with whoever might listen.

I began to understand, really understand, why so many people say joy doesn’t come from achievement. No matter how much we achieve, none of it will fulfill us in the way we want to be fulfilled. I began to think, yes, I love writing, yes, I am a writer, but writing isn’t a strong enough vessel to contain all of my hopes and fears and shortcomings; it will crack under the pressure of all that weight.

Real fulfillment is found in God, or, as I like to think of God, the deep mysterious being which is never-ending love.

Once we have learned this, we are free to look at ourselves, see the gifts and desires placed in our hearts, and act boldly upon them. We can be unafraid of appearing egotistical because the gifts we’re given are meant to be used. We can be unafraid of failing because our ultimate joy does not reside in our success (indeed, it may reside in its failure, as another writer put it recently).

By the time I’d finally found my way through this realization, my tea was cold. I spread a thick layer of fig jam on a cookie and slipped another cucumber sandwich onto my plate. My friend opened up an old red book she’d been reading, My Utmost for His Highest, a daily devotional by the early twentieth century Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers.

“I think this applies to you,” she said, and began reading an excerpt from Aug. 5.

“If we are in communion with God and recognize that He is taking us into His purposes, we shall no longer try to find out what His purposes are. As we go on in the Christian life it gets simpler, because we are less inclined to say — Now why did God allow this and that? Behind the whole thing lies the compelling of God.”

How freeing to be able to let go of oneself and trust that one’s fulfillment lies not in what one does, but in the sturdy love of God. It’s a powerful realization. Something worth writing down, I think.

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Reflections on South Sudan

August 21, 2015 § 1 Comment

During the first two weeks of August, I traveled to South Sudan as a volunteer with a Christian microfinance nonprofit called Seed Effect (I wrote more about the experience here and here). Since returning to Dallas, I can’t count the number of times my family and friends have asked in amazement, “How was your trip?!”

I am glad for the question. I want to answer it. I really do. But it feels like the hardest question in the world. The experience was different than anything I ever experienced before, so profound that a passing description could never do it justice, so powerful that I’m still trying to figure out what exactly happened, what it all meant.

Usually, I wind up saying something like, “It was amazing!” and then word vomit a bunch of disjointed sentences about malaria pills causing nightmares, soldiers with AKs searching our bags, rice and beans, giant cockroaches, the guy with the bow and arrow who guarded our compound at night, and the stars, oh those beautiful stars!

Afterwards, I’m usually wishing I said something else, something that actually made sense, something that explains why a country so full of generous and faithful people could also be so violent and poor, something that explains why traveling to one of the poorest countries in the world could fill me not with doubt or despair, but a faith in God stronger than ever.

The truth is, there is no simple way to describe South Sudan or my experience there. Its political situation is complex. Its people are nuanced. My experience was colored by my own stage in life, my own desires, my own fears.

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As we began making the journey home, our team leader warned us not to make any big life decisions until at least a month after the trip. In other words, don’t quit your six-figure job and buy a one-way ticket to Africa, don’t shave your head in solidarity with the South Sudanese (who often wear buzz cuts to keep their hair clean), don’t judge your friends when they want to go shopping and all you can think about are the South Sudanese children without any shoes.

I think I’m starting to understand why.

I know something big happened to me on that trip, even if I can’t explain it, even if I don’t yet know what it is. There are moments in our lives which we can (and should) recognize as special, experiences that direct our way forward, that set us in movement toward a new start. If traveling to South Sudan isn’t one of those experiences, I don’t know what is.

Sometimes, we understand their meanings in sudden flashes of light. More often, the meaning of an experience reveals itself over time, seeping up slowly to fill from within. I prefer the former (I’m impatient, after all), but the latter often means a deeper understanding that really sticks.

And so, I’ll keep sharing about the mosquito nets and the tree church and the African hymns, all the while discovering what really happened, and what it all means.

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P.S. I’m still raising funds for the trip until Aug. 23! If you are or anyone you know might be interested in donating, you can visit my fundraising website.

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Into the deep end

June 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

Last winter, I had a dream. I dreamt that I was a child again, a toddler, standing on the edge of the deep end of an indoor pool. My fat toes curled around the concrete lip. Chlorine water lapped gently against the pool’s blue tiles.

I wanted to go swimming, but I was afraid. I had never swam before. I didn’t know how.

Certainly, I should not jump, though the water was inviting, though I could tell how wonderful it would be to bob up and down on my back, arms splashing, cries of joy echoing off the walls.

As I was about to turn away, a figure appeared in the water before me. Though everything was fuzzy, the way dreams are, I knew the figure was God. He opened His arms wide, and the gesture was obvious.

Come, it said. Trust me.

I was still afraid, and rightly so. After all, I couldn’t swim. But those arms were so inviting, and I, I wanted so badly to swim.

I took a deep breath. I leaped.

Of course, you know He caught me.

He supported me on my belly, like a mother does her child, helping me paddle this way and that. When I dunked my head underwater, we were no longer swimming in the deep end of an ordinary indoor pool. What should have been water had transformed itself into a celestial night sky, full of stars and galaxies and swirling planets, all of which, with his hand under my belly, I could explore.

When I awoke, I knew the dream as an answer, an answer to a prayer, a prayer I had prayed for a long long time. There was a thing I wanted to do, but was afraid of. There was a thing, and here was the answer. Come. Trust me. Leap.

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