Thursday, March 20, 2014

the beauty in high schoolers

Before I started volunteering with my church's youth group, high schoolers really intimidated me.

Lamest confession ever, right?

But I'm serious. I would have rather been in a room of twenty crying babies than stuck in a one-on-one conversation with these partly-adult humans.

Which is ridiculous on many levels. Number one, I was a teenager less than 5 years ago. Number two, I loved being a high schooler and my friend group was awesome and if we were awkward (of course we were) we were blissfully unaware. We were fun and our adult leaders loved us and laughter came easily and things were good. If an adult would have told me they were intimidated by me, I would have said, "Uhh wait, what?"

I remember being on choir tour with my university and talking with high schoolers before concerts at their schools. And I remember walking into the room where we would perform, wearing my long, formal, unflattering choir dress, wishing I could do anything, ANYTHING, but approach these groups of girls and TALK to them.

What in the world would I say? The usual hi-how-are-you and what-grade-are-you-in can only lead so far, and teenagers aren't usually the most talkative, and when they're together they giggle or stare or worse, both, and oh-my-gosh-I-was-reliving-my-high-school-experience-all-over-again. Reliving the bad parts, that is. Not the good parts.

I was falling prey to comparing myself all over again, and wondering if I'd be accepted, and wondering if they would think I was weird (newsflash, I am), and hoping there wouldn't be any uncomfortable silences (newsflash, there were).

This was only a couple of years ago, you guys. I was an upperclassman in college and I was worried what fifteen-year-olds were thinking about me.

Whoof.
This is from a Wednesday night. We did an activity called selfie-destruct, which is exactly as it sounds. We had every kid take their phones out, snap an unflattering selfie, and post it using the hashtag #selfiedestruct. It was awesome, and the students totally loved it.
But when I moved to Pasadena in September, I started attending church immediately and some of the first connections I made were with the high school students. Now, this is mostly because I was the junior-high pastor's girlfriend who was finally in-town and yes, real, but regardless of the reason, those initial connections changed my views of teens (and thus myself) in a completely new way.

First of all, I realized it wasn't the students who intimidated me. In fact, it wasn't a matter of intimidation at all. It was a matter of identity, it was a matter of people-pleasing, and it was a matter CARING. Caring what other people thought and caring how I might be perceived and caring that I could come across wrong and caring about all the things that ultimately get in the way of forming relationships. I did this in high school, I did this in junior high, I did this in elementary, I do this now (although it's infinitely better than previous years). Comparing has been my vice for as long as I can remember, and unfortunately, not even high schoolers transcended that insecurity.

My first Sunday at church, though, man. I was greeted by name by more than one student and wrapped into a hug by another. And that pattern continued, and continued, and continued, until what did you know? I was making friends and learning a TON.

In January I started volunteering on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, and admittedly I was a little nervous. I was really excited, and I already knew a dozen of the kids, but my old fear still crept in. I shadowed another leader for a couple weeks, seeing how small groups worked and getting an idea of who everyone was, and now I can't even begin to imagine not being apart of these students' lives.

I can't imagine not listening to them process about the world around them, even if it's like pulling teeth sometimes, and I can't imagine not hearing them laugh at the most insignificant of things, just like my friends and I did. I can't imagine not teasing them for the number of selfies they take in an evening and I can't imagine not being there to see them perform their recitals, play their sports, or tell their jokes. I don't know if our church is lucky or if I'm unaware, but we seriously have some of the coolest, sweetest, most sincere students.

I've learned how important trust is. And I've remembered how important it is to NOT CARE. To be as weird and silly with them as I am with Ayden on a daily basis. It's true that bringing Jesus into the picture can bring a legitimate level of intimidation in a different way, but even with that I'm learning I have to establish a safe and trusting relationship before I can expect them to share or listen to this stuff called Christianity and this being named God (of which I have very few answers, which is also okay).

Getting outside of ourselves is crucial to living a full life. I'm outside of myself when I'm with these students. I'm outside of myself when I'm nannying. I'm outside of myself when the relationships around me encourage growth and new identity and grace.

Teenagers are cool. And they don't scare me anymore. :)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

becoming me, not you

I'm going to write as long as my computer will last without charge...if we're lucky that will be at least 10 minutes.

I've been thinking about a new blog post, because it seems that every time I think about writing it's geared toward posting, and not just creating.

That's a main reason I haven't written in forever. I've wanted to do purposeful-writing rather than throw-away-writing, although both you and I know there is no difference.

The last month was a hard one. I was an emotional wreck and discontent and questioning so many things.

Who am I? Who am I most myself around? Why don't I have an answer? UH-OH UH-OH UH-OH.

Through a few tearful conversations, though, my head began clearing from its fog and proceeding toward clarity.

I'm becoming more me and less you. 

And sometimes that's really hard, because you seem to have it all together, and you seem to know everything there is to know, and you never seem to have emotional breakdowns.

You have direction and have started your career, or at least know where you're headed.

You speak with poise and write with ease, you never doubt yourself and couldn't care less what a single soul thinks.

This "you" is no one in particular. It's a personified you, the you that embodies all the reasons my "me" has allowed itself to get squandered beneath unattainable expectations.

I'm learning that it's okay to be emotional, it's okay to have emotions. Never again should my first reaction to tears be an apology. Why am I apologizing for being human? For not having everything figured out? I couldn't tell you. 

I'm also learning, however, that being emotional can lend itself to something sobering and beautiful or something destructive and dependent. I don't want emotions to define me, yet I don't want to be ashamed of them.

I don't want to push them away but I don't want them to control me.

And this is difficult, but I think it's also extremely healthy. Exercising any extreme all the time probably isn't the healthiest course of action. This balance, though....this delicate, beautiful balance, is truly an artful discipline.

So as I'm learning more about myself,  as I'm learning who I want to be and consequently who I don't want to be, I'm primarily learning that to become more myself I must BE myself.
Yeah yeah, like none of us have ever heard that before. But I think a lot of us practice it a lot less than we admit. I think we are all apart of this beautifully broken thing called humanity but all we ever do is reject it. We both reject our vulnerabilities while emphasizing our weaknesses, saying that we are beyond grace or beyond importance. We are both extremely prideful and extremely insecure. All of us.

Becoming more me starts there. It starts with recognition that I don't have anything figured out for a majority of the things in my life, from the really important to the really mundane. But something seriously crazy happens once the recognition begins...change.

Good change. This change doesn't necessarily alter where I stand on having things figured out, but rather helps me accept and welcome exactly where I'm at. It's a perspective change, an internal change.

I don't want to be you, I wan't to be me. And for those of us that have a harder time accepting our "me's," that's a huge step. 

Some of my biggest me's are this:

I'm emotional. I feel things before I think them, and feeling things helps me understand the world around me. I cry during any weighty conversation simply for its weight----not because its necessarily sad or intense or frustrating, but merely because I feel its importance. I'm sensitive in both the wonderfully gracious way and terribly defensive way, and I'm learning to accept both but transform the latter.

I'm extroverted. Not just because I like people, but because the way I process is external. I process through writing. I process through talking. I process through, yes, crying. If I've had a long day, I feel better if I turn on some music and do the dishes, or cook dinner. If I sit alone at home for too long without a purpose, I feel very UN-me. I get restless. I enjoy being externally stimulated while maintaining independence (i.e. sitting in a busy coffee shop but being in my own corner, my own space, my own world).

I thrive on the little things. A perfectly written line in a book, a simple cup of black coffee, a beautiful day spent outside. I find extreme joy in these moments and they are often what fuel me. I also, however, can be just as easily swayed in the opposite direction. One word spoken in an ill-tone, one interaction that didn't go how I expected, one moment of frustration...they equally impact me and drain me instantly. I am the birdie flying over the badminton net, getting thrust back and forth by the smallest of force. This is my biggest struggle on a daily basis...to find consistency and joy even when my emotions, my external circumstances, are directing me elsewhere.

I need connection. If I'm unable to connect with someone I start shutting down, because I enjoy relating and feel lost when I cannot. This doesn't happen too often, but when it does, it really hits hard and I take it personally. Again, with every strength comes weakness, but I don't believe in disregarding the weaknesses. The weaknesses, if addressed with perspective and grace and humility, absolutely have the potential to become the strength, or at least become manageable beside the strength. In this case, it's accepting that I'm literally incapable of clicking with every human on this planet. During those times, I should not suddenly disregard who I am and think a lack of connection means a lack of value. 

I must maintain my "me."

Monday, October 28, 2013

on being a writer

Being a writer feels silly sometimes. "Oh what do you do?" 

"I'm...well, I'm a...writer," I reply, dragging out the sentence as though it'll lessen the blow. 

Claiming the title "writer" creates a couple of responses: affirmation—in the wow-good-for-you kind of way, usually from a fellow creator who understands pouring hours over a project that's borderline significant to the world, but incredibly significant to you—and rejection—in the um-yeah-cool kind of way, usually from a rational, type-A human who understands reality more than creativity, and recognizes writing is synonymous with unemployed.

Sometimes.

I graduated college almost a year ago (WHAT the), and haven't claimed the title "writer" yet. Mostly because it's always been a hobby, it's always been personal, it's always been second to my "actual" job.

As the year has (very quickly) progressed, countless people have asked that jabbing, invading question: "So what do you do?"

I can never respond well because there are too many things I'm doing, can't you tell. There isn't just one job. No, I haven't started my career. No, I don't even know what my career is yet. 

I've worked for a small magazine the last 8 months and still can't say I'm a writer. Crazy, right?

That being said, it's been a strangely good month in my little world of writing. And an even better week.

A couple posts ago, I mentioned how a stranger and I struck up a conversation about writing in a coffee shop. And I said don't judge me, it was inspiring.

He was working on his memoir and l said, "If you're writing a memoir, you must have a good story to tell!" He kind of laughed it off, but I decided to ask him what I wanted anyway: "Soooo...are you going to let me read some of it?"

Again, he recoiled a bit, but about ten minutes later he leaned over, asking if I wanted to look at precisely two pages. I lit up, exclaiming yes yes yes, and thanked him—I know how difficult sharing something you've written is...especially when it's a personal excerpt from your life, and especially because I was a complete stranger.

After I finished reading, we talked about what good writing entails, and who has influenced us. I spoke highly of William Zinsser, whose book On Writing Well fine-tuned my writing unlike anything else. We talked about revising and how important it is, and how much it sucks.

As the conversation slowed we went back to our individual projects, and before he left he thanked me several times for talking with him. He said something clicked and he was going to work, work, work. We exchanged emails, and that was that. 

I drove home and was beside myself. In those moments of talking, reading, and writing about writing, I felt more in my element than ever. Like something clicked for me too, and I wasn't just this and this and then also kind of a writer. 

No–I was a writer. I am a writer.

In the week following that encounter, I've had multiple, random affirmations regarding writing. Some in person, some over text message, and some through Facebook messages. But they've all been intentional, direct encouragements that say Hey. Alyssa. Do you get it yet? Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep. Writing. 

And so I have been. I've been writing a lot—for myself mostly, but if you've noticed I've also blogged once a week for three weeks. Huge accomplishment people, huge accomplishment.

This post is long, and I still have something cool to share, but I will save it for next time. Stay tuned. 

And as always, thank you to those who have constantly been voices of encouragement to the part of myself I am very happily accepting:

"Oh, what do you do?"

I'm a writer. What do you do?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

babies + classical music

Being a nanny has made me soft(er). I generally respond emotionally to (extreme or mixed) circumstances anyway, but especially especially in the context of these little humans. The fragility of life is something so insanely fascinating and calming and intriguing. It constantly makes me more aware of God and less aware of myself—ironically, less aware of my own humanity. 

Classical music also does this. I realize I'm not the first person to lump babies and classical music together, but it's on the brain because my weekend consisted of both. (And let's be honest, so do my weekdays).
My grandparents have season tickets for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and they invited Mackenzie and I to this month's concert in Pasadena. They took us out to dinner at a tasty Mexican spot, and we dressed up and double-dated from 4pm all the way until 10pm. 

The main piece was a Haydn cello concerto, but before that was a tribute to Benjamin Britten for his 100th birthday. As soon as the conductor lifted his hands and the entire viola, violin, cello, and upright bass sections struck their instruments, I was done. Or, more accurately, undone. Completely undone.
It was the best musicianship I've seen. Every single person was playing together, as one, and there were points where the conductor just stopped, hung his head, and allowed himself to soak in every moment of his orchestra's playing. Such an incredible experience.
Then on Sunday night, I hung out with babies while their parents enjoyed a triple date/early birthday celebration. Mackenzie came too, and while I was quickly realizing watching a 2-month old is vastly different from a 6-month old, the mixed emotions erupted.

I felt mildly concerned—wanting to do everything I could to make sure this baby was comfortable, taken care of, loved. I felt thankful—thankful that I wasn't alone, that even if Mack was watching the Broncos game, he was there, he was present. I felt relieved—instantly calm as the baby fell asleep in my arms, fully content after being fed.

And then I had my moment. The moment after yet another amazing, amazing weekend, where my mixed emotions turned into one overwhelming one: gratitude. Extreme, extreme gratitude.

I can't express it other than that. My weekends have been full of meaning in the smallest yet most significant ways, because they've reminded me of this thing called life. This thing that I am experiencing every day, yet too often overlook. I'm so thankful for these people, this city, the position I'm in, the generosity and love surrounding me.

It was enough to make me cry. Happy-cry. Happy-thank-you-Jesus-for-reminders cry.
This is Ayden, the baby I nanny. She is the cutest and most curious. She's not the above baby mentioned, but she is the one who reminds me daily how cool life is—how cool it is when you just zoom out for a second, and focus on the small miracles, like rolling over or sitting up, or learning that yes, you have fingers too!

Her and her family are a huge part of the gratitude. I am so blessed. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

weekends, weddings, and wine(ries)

This weekend was one of those weekends that just falls into place perfectly.

Where your Friday is a workday and your Friday night is filled with familiar faces, new faces, and free pizza. 

Where your Saturday is a road-trip with your boyfriend for his good friend's wedding, and you get to go too, and that means a lot of quality time. It means 3 and a half hours in the car, talking away, drinking coffee, and listening to good music. It means meeting people who have been crucial parts of your boyfriend's life the past four years, and hanging out with them, and celebrating together.

This wedding was incredible. It was northeast of San Luis Obispo, nestled in the heart of wine country. The couple and bridal party were unbelievably beautiful. Navy dresses and nude shoes, gray slacks and white button-downs. Rolling vineyards, willowing trees, a setting sun. The venue was a winery, which meant delicious wine and yummy cheese plates with dips and sourdough bread.
It meant a tri-tip dinner with a port-mushroom sauce and roasted vegetables, and s'mores around fire-pits for dessert. We literally had our cake and ate it, too. We had a good 2+ hours of dancing, much to my heart's content, and I swear it's nights like these that fill my soul more than anything else.

Sunday was an early morning since Mack had to get back for church, so we left at 5am and enjoyed more time together. Sunday meant creating space for Jesus, meeting more people while sharing more food, and indulging in afternoon naps. It meant playing sports at a park as the sun went down and the air became cool, it meant laughing and running and being active. 

And to top it off, my favorite gelato was on sale at Target, so post-shower and pre-bedtime, I cuddled up with a bowl of double-dark-choclate Talenti and the very last episode of Ugly Betty, and fell asleep at 10pm.

There is something about the combination of busyness and rest, celebration and normalcy, togetherness and solitude, that when exercised often and together, create a really wonderful experience. Last weekend is how I would spend every weekend if I could—where life feels pregnant and every moment is expectant, every moment is meaningful. 

Happy Wednesday, people. Here's to dreaming about this weekend :)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

lithuanian nation

Who knew how fun Lithuanian festivals could be? I went to one last weekend with my good friends Logan and Destiny. They studied abroad in Lithuania last year, and the Los Angeles Lithuanian fair is the biggest one outside the country itself. 
Lithuanian food is starchy, greasy, and carb-y. We had a "lazy" version of kepta duona, which is slices of rye bread fried with garlic and topped with melted mozzarella. Ours was more like rye croutons with some garlic salt, but they were still really tasty. Its usual companion is a white beer, which the Schreiners' said is so bad, it's good.
Culture festivals always involve dancing (praise the Lord), and the performers were a traveling group all from Lithuanian descent. Precious old man up there had that exact face the entire time. He loves Lithuania so much.
Destiny told me how amber is extremely popular. Almost every woman wears a necklace with a large amber stone, or bracelets or earrings, or well, anything resembling jewelry. There were booths set up throughout the fair and each had some sort of amber item.
As all good days should end, we went to a great coffee shop a couple miles away called Bru. Iced coffee after a hot afternoon was perfect, and we talked about writing and creativity and how to pursue both.

The conversation was sparked by a conversation I had with a stranger in a coffee shop (about writing) the previous day, and it might sound cheesy, but it was very inspiring. I'll share more next post.

This weekend I'm going to a wedding! Mack and Logan are groomsmen, so Destiny and I are going as well. This will the fourth wedding in 3 months that each of us have attended together. I don't even know how things like that happen.

What are you celebrating this weekend? (Nor-Cal friends, you better answer Fall, and send some my way. We had ONE beautiful Autumn day yesterday, but the sun is back again. Sigh).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

beloved


You know, when you're sitting in the middle of an LA highway, two miles away from your destination, and your truck decides to stop working, you have time to think about life.

Granted the thoughts are more like flashes, and not totally coherent, but regardless, they show up.

When the 5-month old baby you're taking care of won't stop crying because she knows you're not her mom—you're not her home—the thoughts come.

They come when you're visiting your uncle who's battling colon cancer, they come when you're finally sitting in church again, and they come in the quietness of the morning.

My first two weeks in Pasadena have been accompanied by these thoughts, and it's been a really beautiful thing. I'm seeing fragility and dependence all around me and I'm remembering how blessed life is.

I finished reading Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen last week, and aside from its straightforward writing and authentic voice, I am most aware of its timing and its ability to piece together my fragmented thoughts. 

It's harder to listen to the voice that calls us chosen, harder to claim blessings amidst ordinary days, and harder to face brokenness when all we want to do is package it neatly and send it away. But the easy way doesn't affirm our Belovedness, doesn't push us to see life, doesn't encourage us to claim brokenness so it can be redeemed.

I could go on and on about how "the great spiritual battle begins—and never ends—with the reclaiming of our chosenness," but really you should just read the book. It's a super quick read that is simply and perfectly profound. I love how God sobers us into dependence, and how He surrounds us with tangible situations where dependence lends itself to something beautiful.