Wednesday, January 17, 2018

How I Found Joy in Country Music

  "I have learned, 
in whatever state I am, 
therewith to be content."
Philippians 4:11

 When I first started my current job, they only played country music. It was the favorite musical genre of the woman who began working in my department first, and every morning when I walked into the room, she already had on her country tunes.

 And I hate country music.

 I do love Lady Antebellum. I admit I enjoy the old, country-ish Taylor Swift. And there's a few Rascal Flatts songs I will play occasionally. I have even come to appreciate a Carrie Underwood song. But those are the exceptions to the rule. Play a song about a truck in the mud and how the dirt road winds like a woman's body and my soul dies a little. When I hear a  man's deep, twangy and raspy voice that sounds like he is intentionally pretending he never learned how to read or correctly pronounce English words, I want to scream- no exaggeration. 

 That is what I listened to eight hours a day for over six months. But during those long months where sometimes I wanted to crawl into a hole when turned on the local country station yet again, I did something I'd never done before- I sang along anyway.

  When I was twelve and my best friend moved away, I stopped singing. I couldn't sing. It was several months before I could go back to singing again, an activity that I am always doing. And when I look back on my life, as a small child and a young adult, for the big things and the small, I wallow and pout in what I consider the unfair and cruel treatment from God. I don't sing.

 I'll never know why I decided to sing along to the country music. Clearly it was the Holy Spirit working in my life, because I learned some things those long months of my country music immersion. 

First, I began to appreciate country music on a small level. 
  I learned new tunes, sung new harmonies, and found country music almost like a new world I had never explored. I tried to see my hours of listening to country music as an education of a genre of music I had previously avoided. 

 But most significant was when I discovered that none of my co-workers realized how much I loathed country music. 

I'll never forget when one of my co-workers looked at me in shock when I admitted I hated the radio station.

 "Really?" she said.

 I was confused. "No," I said. "I've never liked country music." I couldn't think of any time I had said I loved it.

 And then I remembered that I had also never said anything about my musical dislikes. I remembered that I'm always singing. Even to the men with the raspy, deep, hick country vocals.

 Though I was thrilled to correct my co-worker and tell her about the music that I actually love, I was also proud that they didn't know about my hatred for country music.

 I learned a lot about joy over those country music months. Joy is something I have struggled with a lot throughout my life. I used to beg God for joy, but really, what I wanted was to be happy. And the only way I thought I could be happy was if God made all of my dreams come true. 

 Joy didn't come, and I became angry. Joy was a good thing to pray for, something that I knew God would love to give me. So why wouldn't He? Instead, with each year joy became even harder as situations in my life seemed to get darker and my life went in the opposite direction of where I wanted it to go.

 So where was my joy?

 I have always had joy since the day at four years old when I surrendered my life to Jesus. Jesus is my joy. Jesus is joy Himself.  Because of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for me, I have everlasting joy.

 "And the angel said to them, 'Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.'"
Luke 2:10-11

The joy Luke is talking about here is Christ Jesus Himself born as a baby to save us from our sins. Peter fleshes this out more in one of his letters.

"Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."
1 Peter 1:8-9 

 We have joy in Jesus himself as our God, Savior, and friend and we have joy in Jesus' death and resurrection. We have joy in Him now on this earth and we have joy in knowing that someday we will live with Him forever in Heaven. This is the joy that I have.

 I shouldn't have prayed for joy. I should have prayed for the strength and diligence to practice and live out the joy already inside of me. 

This Christmas I went to a women's event at my church. After a delicious breakfast and a gospel centered talk, we were discussing the song "Joy to the world." 

 "Do you guys think joy is a choice?" one woman asked.

 And without hesitation, I said, "Yes."

 I told them about the country music I was forced to listen to at work. I told them that for me, joy is a daily struggle in which I constantly have to recommit myself and remind myself of the truth of the joy I have in the gospel. The struggle could be from something small, like wanting to tear my ears out from all of the country music. Or it could be bigger, like my life going in the complete opposite direction of what I wanted. No matter what the struggle is, I have the tendency to forget my joy.

 Ultimately, I have the joy of Jesus and His gospel within me always, even when I don't feel joyful or content. But it is a choice I must make each day. There is a tension there between the joy I already have and the joy I need to learn. I must choose to look at my life through my joy in Christ that can never be taken from me. I must choose to rejoice and sing through all of life's circumstance. 

I must choose to believe and trust in the joy I have in Christ even when it feels joyless.   

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Dear 2017 // My Year in Books

2017, you were full of the unexpected.

 One of your many surprises was reading forty-five books, which was eight books over my goal.

 People that know me well would not think this surprising, but I read fewer books than people would expect. My friends on Goodreads set goals of anywhere between fifty to one hundred books and exceed them months before the year is over. In high school and especially in college, I stopped reading as much since my brain was so full and I was already reading a lot of books for my literature classes.

 Since graduating, I find my mind craves a higher volume of literature again, and I have been happily feeding it this year.

 But that is not the only reason for the volume of books. This year I read to forget. I read to immerse myself in other people's problems. I read to get away from my surroundings.

 2017, you were full of unexpected things.

 I am learning that I have lofty goals and big dreams. On the outside I am a realist and pessimist, always practical, simple, and modest to hide the inside where I am bursting with desire and dreams. I talk myself down only because I have high expectations for who I will be and what I will do. 

 I applied to one college and one college only. If I couldn't go there, I wouldn't go at all. And that is how I do most things in life, too. God was kind and I went to the only school I applied to, but other things, especially this year, just haven't worked out.

And sometimes intentionally and other times unintentionally all the books I read were about those unexpected things you brought, 2017.

The Ones I Read Because Everyone Else Was 

"All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr (5/5 stars)

"Go Set A Watchman" by Harper Lee (5/5 stars)

"Hollow City: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children #2" by Ransom Riggs (3/5 stars)

Image result for all the light we cannot seeSometimes I will read interesting books from the best seller lists just to keep track of the publishing world and new trends. It is one of the many parts of being a writer that I enjoy. I never read something I don't actually want to read. These three books excited me. But it was also a conscious decision to keep up with the current trends (even though I am a little behind in them).

2017, you brought new struggles of being obsessed with what people thought of me. I found myself in a new situation where everyone had a different opinion. And I didn't know what to do. There didn't seem to be clear answers. I was plagued with the decision and plagued with what different people would think of me.

 The situation is over, but I am still struggling with shame from some poor decisions I made, shame about the entire situation that I shouldn't be ashamed about, and shame about what certain people in my life must now think of me. 

 In that situation especially, you revealed to me, 2017, my sin. Again. You let me experience more fully that Jesus died for ME and took that sin to the cross. You showed me just how much I actually care about how other people perceive me. And you showed me this quote from Tim Keller that still makes me cry: 

"'I know God forgives me but I can't forgive 
myself means you've failed an idol, whose 
approval is more important than God's." 

The Ones from Foreign Lands

 "The Sound of Things Falling" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (5/5 stars)  *Adult content warning

 "Seedfolks" by Paul Fleischman (5/5 stars)

 "The Bitter Side of Sweet" by Tara Sullivan (4/5 stars)

 "The Book of Unknown Americans" by Cristina Henriquez (4/5 stars) *Adult content warning

 "Tiger Moon" by Antonia Michaelis (4/5 stars)

 "Peace Child: An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery in the 20th Century" by Don Richardson (4/5 stars)

 "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros (4/5 stars)

 "Pride of Baghdad" by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (3/5 stars) *Adult content warning

 The best part of you was my trip to Medellin, Colombia. I find myself now gravitating toward books about Latin and Central Americans and read several Colombian books and novels about immigrants from those places. It is a new and exciting world I can visit in books until I get to travel again.

That trip has lit a spark for international travel and missions. I want to travel more. I am trying to find a way to live overseas for a few months. Though I haven't had success, I pray that God will open doors. Until then, I plan on reading books that take place all over the world.

The Ones I Didn't Want to Read

 "Chasing Contentment: Trusting God in a Discontented Age" by Erik Raymond (5/5 stars)

 "Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness and Dating" by Marshall Segal (5/5 stars)

 "Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Control" by Elizabeth Elliot (read for the second time) (5/5 stars)

Image result for passion and purity These are the books I wish I didn't have to read. I wish I didn't struggle with contentment. I wish I was reading books on marriage instead of singleness. 

 I was reading Passion and Purity at work (Sub-note of honesty: I usually avoid reading books about singleness in public since it is a painful subject even in a non secular setting, but at this point in the year I so desperately needed Elliot's words that I didn't care anymore.) and one of my coworkers saw the title and slyly commented, "Oh, Allison, do you have a love life?"

 "No," I said.

 "But you most if you're reading that book," she said, looking at the title again.

 "Then the sub title should really be changed to 'Bringing you love life, or lack thereof, under control'."

 I do wish I could change it to that title. Lack thereof. Since that is my issue.

 Those are the books, 2017, that you gave me and I didn't want to read.

The Ones About Writing

 "Story Trumps Structure: How To Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules" by Steven James (4/5 stars)

 "Chapter After Chapter: Discover the Dedication and Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams" by Heather Sellers (4/5 stars) 

 "Letters To A Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke (5/5 stars)

Image result for letters to a young poetYep, 2017, I am still writing and I am still trying to finish my novel manuscript and still trying to get published in, well, anything. I am still working full time at not writing and trying to figure out how I can fit writing into my daily life. Maybe the truth is that I am still trying to figure out how to make myself write when I am tired from my full time non writing job.

 I read more books than that. More happened this year than that.

 But this is what ultimately happened. 

 I read more books than I thought I would. More negative things happened than I thought they would. I tried to do things I have always wanted to do, and most of them didn't work out. I experienced more heartache and frustration than I have before. I felt my weakness and sin more than I have before. I felt God's grace, love, and mercy more than I have before.

 And while I am so ready to forget most of what you brought, 2017, I am charging into 2018 ready to try again and confident- not confident in myself, but in my Savior's strength. Not that things will "go my way" but that Jesus will get me through whatever comes.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

When I Used to Draw

Image result for art pencils

 I haven't been writing as much of my novel as I've wanted to this past year. Life hasn't slowed down since I graduated from college. 

Full time job.
Church events.
A library full of books.
Big life decisions I need to make.
Tiredness from all of the above.

 You get it. I haven't been writing much. 

 These past few months though, I've been trying to write again. Really write, as in crank out this novel that I've been sitting on in my nest for almost six years. 

 But I feel dry and weary of life and what is in my life. Like my job that often feels meaningless and yet drains me every day. Of the same old routine. Of my student loans that weigh me down. Of dreams and opportunities that always seem to fail. Dreary from the sun that no longer seems to exist.

 How can I write feeling like that?

 I can't. Not really. Unless you want to read a novel that is dull, lifeless, and depressing.

 But I think I found a breakthrough. A breakthrough that started many years ago.

When I Used to Draw  
My writing breakthrough starts with my sister being better at drawing. I loved drawing when I was young. We both did. Books and writing were always more important to me than drawing, but I still loved the feel of the pen in my hands and choosing the colors that filled in the black lines. Until my sister was better.

 Though younger, her drawings were better. Not that I had really practiced. But her artwork shocked our parents. Their mouths in o's, the words "gift" on their lips. They would watch her move her pencil in awe and admired her work like they never admired mine. Not even my stories evoked those emotions from them.

 So I stopped drawing my shameful pictures. And I focused on writing, which had been my first love anyway.

 I don't regret focusing on writing. It is what I love most in the realm of art and always will be. I just wish I hadn't given up drawing.

 Graphic Novels
Then in college I took a graphic novels literature class. I wasn't thrilled about this class, just intrigued, curious, and needing those three easy credits.  With rare exceptions like Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes, I felt that comic books were for children and lazy adults who never tried to read a real book and had to rely on pictures of superhero drama for their so called literature. (Savage, I know). 

 I never imagined what I would discover in that class. I discovered that in some ways I was right, (which I hope to talk about in a future blog post) but I was also terribly wrong. I discovered that I loved graphic novels. 

 And I was horrified when my professor announced we would be making our own journal comics. My head again filled with the images of my sister's drawings compared to mine. But my professor insisted he didn't care if we drew stick figures, and my grades were at stake. So I drew stick figures. 

 After the initial shame and shock at my horrible drawings, I began to relax and found that I loved it. I loved writing and drawing about what I was feeling. Though I was frustrated that my pen could not even try to capture the images in my head, I still loved making comics. It was fun. It was a release. It unleashed new things in me. I promised myself that someday I would write a graphic novel, words and pictures by me.

The Breakthrough
 It's now been two years since I took that class. I still read graphic novels. I still plan on making one myself someday. But I'm trying to write again and be creative again. I remember the words flowing out of me and I want that again for my novel in progress.

 And this image appeared  in my head. An image of my main character and a vine attached to her foot. I won't reveal my secret of how that correlates with my novel, but trust me when I say it does. This image made so much sense to me. It made me rejoice. Until I had this thought: How do I turn that image into words? 

 That question turned into more questions and more thoughts, thoughts that made me realize how visual I am. How my stories often don't initially come in words, but pictures that I then translate into words. 

 What if sometimes my thoughts must first be pictures on paper before it can be translated into words?

 I tested my theory during the long car ride back home after spending Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania. I had empty, lined paper and my colored pens that only God knew I would need, and I put on that paper whatever came to me. There were words followed by pictures, and pictures followed by words. The emotion, the feeling, the desire of my character in my head became an image on my paper, and then that image turned into words that sounded like poetry. 

 My breakthrough.

 My pictures are terrible. I drew stick people. I drew the lamest bed you have ever seen. I drew the ocean, and no one but me would know it was even water. But the words that followed those silly pictures, I think, make up for it.