in-progress masterpiece

I recently finished Emily Freeman’s A Million Little Ways, and I loved everything about it.

If you long to live a life with purpose, read this book. If you’re afraid that your life doesn’t have a purpose, then even more so, this book is for you. If you’ve bought into the world’s attitude that productivity is king, again, read this book. Really, if you are a human and love beauty and wonderful, personal writing, then chances are you’ll enjoy this book.

I am all of the people I just described above. My deepest fear is I would live a life that does not matter. I long to live a life that is deep, full, and meaningful. And Emily’s book shattered all of my preconceived notions on what a life like that truly entails.

She writes from a belief that because we were created in the image of the Creator, we are all creators ourselves. She equates our life to a masterpiece, a poem that the Creator is writing line by line. And even the everyday, normal rhythms of our life have a place in this poem. More so, the beauty of the poem is in the everyday rhythms and doings of our days.

And this, this idea that our life is a masterpiece, a work of art that is constantly in progress, that’s where God began wrecking my ways of thinking about life.

You see, I’m a list person. I wake up and before my feet hit the floor I’ve begun making a running tab of what I have going on that day, and what I’d like to get done. The first thing I do when I get to my office in the morning is make a to-do list. Lists are how I stay focused on tasks. To be sure, they are helpful at work, or when I’m running errands. But, I’ve come to notice something different in myself lately. Lists have become more than a helpful tool. They are how I get through days.

If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I make a list. If I have some free time and I’m not sure how to spend it, I make a list of all the things I could do. Lists are comforting, they calm chaos, they give me control, they are concrete, they leave little room for nuance and the unknown, and (this is the key) I can cross them off. As I was reading about living life as a poem, an unfinished work of art, that idea slowly began butting heads with my love for lists, which is really a love of productivity. Because to be honest, I’ve been wearing around checked-off lists like a badge of honor. Look at me! How productive I am! I matter! Oh, and those lists that don’t get checked-off? Filed away in the drawer of shame. Push those away, I don’t want to think about them because a list that isn’t completely taken care of must prove that I am not enough.

Checklists have become more than simply a tool to actually help me focus once in a while. They’ve become one of the ways I measure my worth. I have been living life like it’s one giant checklist, and I’m coming to think that’s not the healthiest way for me to live.

For example, my life checklist will often look like this: pay off debt, write a book, write full-time, live in another country, start a fly-fishing/outdoor ministry/ backpacking business with Taylor, and so on. Nothing on that list is bad, but here’s the problem: behind each item on that list, there are about 1,000 other items. To go with the analogy, each one of those items is its own checklist.

More than that, those things aren’t cold, concrete, shallow items. They are dreams. And surely they will form and take shape and mold over the years. In my mind, checklists don’t allow for nuance. They don’t allow for grey area, or true depth. It’s black and white, you got it done or you didn’t. They don’t take into account the journey, the process, which may be the most important part of it all anyway.

One of my good friends, John, is an artist. When he paints, the white canvas doesn’t drastically change into a finished, clear picture right away. He mixes the colors, working to get them just right. And then, he begins painting shapes. He’s not worried about details at this point, and when he’s done with this stage it can often look like he forgot something. The canvas is left blurry, no sharp edges, no clear distinction on what it is he’s painting. But it’s ok. It’s all in the process. Over time, he fills in lighting and detail. The picture begins to take more shape, become more clear. Sometimes it doesn’t end up the way he originally envisioned it, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless.

If I only saw a blank canvas one day, and finished painting the next, it wouldn’t make sense to me how John got there. I missed the process. I missed mixing colors and being ok with the uncertainty of blurry shapes and the slow, tedious work of filling in detail. The process allows for growth, for freedom, for change, for depth. In the process, things don’t always make sense. They definitely aren’t black and white. But they all work together to form one complete piece of art.

And such is life.

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P.S. If you like what you see from John, some of his art is available on his etsy shop here.

cool coffee

On most mornings, I pour myself a half-cup of coffee with a little milk added in. I wrap my cold fingers around the white hot ceramic mug and breathe the steamed caffeine in deep. There’s something about holding a hot cup of coffee in the morning that wakes me up, that’s comforting. I’m not one of those people who needs coffee to wake up, but I pour myself a cup anyway. I like the idea of sipping coffee while the soft morning light dances through the tree leaves in my backyard. I like the calmness it brings, in the still quiet of the morning before the day gets started, my eyes opening to the world around me. There’s something almost romantic about it.

I head to the couch, set the coffee down on the table and open my notebook to begin writing. The steaming cup of coffee quickly becomes secondary, as my mind digs deeper and deeper into my soul, unearthing all the thoughts and feelings and beliefs that I’m carrying into today, streaming them in black ink on graph paper. I reach for the coffee and take a sip only to find that it’s turned lukewarm. I stomach the sip anyway, cringing at the bitterness on my tongue as I swallow, telling myself it’s necessary to finish. A few minutes later, another sip of cool coffee, and I walk to the microwave to salvage the situation. Thirty seconds ought to buy me a little more time in this romantic ideal.

Yet, the coffee never tastes the same as it does freshly brewed, straight out of the pot. The idea of it- this romanticized idea of being an artist that the coffee has come to represent- quickly loses it’s legs that it stood on so firmly in my mind. Once I get back to the couch, I’m alert again to my reality. To the real thoughts and the real spirit moving through my veins, and its as if there is no excess room for coffee. This is not how I thought this would go. The cup goes cool on the table next to me. In vain, I take one last sip, trying to force it to fulfill my longing. It doesn’t, as the romantic ideal never does.

I walk back to the kitchen, this time to the sink, and pour the last of the coffee down the drain. My romantic notions about what living art really looks like go with it once again.

All of my life is where I am right now. And so many times, I trick myself into thinking that I’d rather be somewhere else, and that I have the best way of getting there. Do I have dreams? Absolutely. Is that bad or wrong? No way. But to give in to the romantic notion that the grass is greener on someone else’s lawn, is to deny that I have been created with a unique capacity to create: for a certain purpose, in a certain way.

It’s believing that the romanticized ideal of my life is better than the real one. That if it doesn’t look like how I think it should, it’s not worth doing. But, if I’m not accepting of my real life, with my real friends, at my real job with my real co-workers, in my real house with my real husband and real neighbors… If I’m not living in that, then I ask: What am I doing?

I am trying to fill myself up with cool coffee and an imaginary life that will never satisfy me in the end. My real life is happening all around me, and I’m trying to keep the coffee hot.

Most mornings end the same way: the cool coffee goes down the drain, I put on my shoes, and head out the door to work, asking the Real Life for help to engage with my real life. To be present today. Because all of my life, all I have to offer, is where I am and what I have right now.