That afternoon as I was driving east, I spied the unlikely sight of a large, caramel colored dog trotting steadily toward me, hugging the median. Alarmed, I had just enough time to note it's slightly emaciated condition, ears flopping, tail flagging, in the millisecond before I saw a middle aged woman bearing down on the dog from about three hundred yards behind. I wouldn't call her heavy, but by the way she was moving, or lumbering, determinedly forward, she was definitely not accustomed to chasing dogs down busy highways against traffic on weekday afternoons (who is?). As I passed her, I swear, even with my window rolled up, I thought I heard her scream "Roxy!" Or maybe it was "Outfoxed me!" Or even more likely, it was "Oh, God, please!" which is the equivalent of what I was praying for them even as I passed the third anomaly of a parked car, driver's side door hanging open at an angle against the median. All three were in line and precariously close to the buzzing noonday traffic . . . and as the space that we -- the dog, the lady, and me - had all occupied for just a few agonizing seconds stretched wider between us . . . as the scene flashed across my rear view mirror, I felt uncertainty. What would happen back there? What could I do? But the distance widened into a mile, two . . . and I couldn't find a place to turn around. I offered up one more plea for a happy ending . . . and jumped back into my own story.
But stumbling into someone else's story that afternoon, even for the three and a half seconds it took me to drive through it, had some impact on me -- other than just reminding me that we are all a part of each other's journeys in this great big world . . . even for just a passing prayer . . .
It pulled me out of the reverie of my own false story -- a lie -- that had been forming in my mind.
You see, it was a Wednesday, and the first day of that week that I felt well enough to venture out to work. I do contract work, and if I don't work, I don't get paid.It was a trade off I had been willing to make a year ago in order to write, choosing a degree of independence and freedom over a steady, salaried gig with paid summer vacations and sick days and health insurance. But getting sick hadn't really been open for consideration -- I haven't been sick in years -- yet, here I was, headed to an important, first impression admin meeting, sucking down cough drops like they were lemon skittles and praying I could go an hour without hacking germs all over my new colleagues. But that was only part of the story - the lie:
I won't get better. It's chronic whooping cough-ititis. I'll begin to miss too much work. Lose jobs. I'll get behind on my bills. My husband will lose his job (this really happened a year ago - just after I quit my job - stay with me). We won't be able to afford health insurance. We'll get a penalty. We won't be able to pay our taxes. The IRS will start calling. We'll have to find a cheaper place to live . . . foster out our dogs . . . my nails will be become weak, dry, and brittle from lack of shellac and general nutrition . . . Grilled cheese on white bread will become our staple . . . my wine rack will diminish to the single bottle of Barefoot Shiraz that I keep around just for the funky orange label. . . We'll have to go to government issued flip phones . . . One at a time, the cable will be cut off, the utilities . . . and we'll be forced to wander the mall to keep warm, stumbling into the electronic section of Sears just at the eight o'clock hour on a Monday night to watch the season premier of Survivor for a little life inspiration. . . Why . . .Oh, WHY did I ever quit that job? . . .
So now my dirty little secret is out. Yes, I am a doomsdayer. I look (and generally act) normal enough on the outside. But if you catch me in a moment of uncertainty, when life is spinning out of control, you might catch a glimpse of my soul, haunted by the former shadows of poverty, betrayal, sickness, abandonment . . . whatever calamities I've encountered in life . . . You might witness an ugly lack of faith derived from the "waiting for the other shoe to drop syndrome".
So what does all of that have to do with a stray dog on the side of the road and a woman intent, against all odds, on catching him?
We all have them. As a matter of fact, each one of us a living, breathing story that has already happened, is happening now, is about to happen . . . and all three at once . . .
There are the inevitable trials and tribulations of everyday life, setbacks, the mundane and the lifechanging . . . There is debt and divorce, dentist appointments and dairy allergies. There is sibling rivalry and sibilant lisps. There are loss of jobs and loss of security, broken relationships and betrayals, personal failures and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. There are unexpected pregnancies and mean people. There is faulty wiring and househunting, identity theft and neighbors from Hell. There are corrupt politicians and scheming co-workers, lice, GMOs and the Zika Virus. There are bad genes, bad backs, bad choices that ripple through generations . . . and bad dogs that won't come back.
And then there are things that separate us from the truly unfortunate, until we realize (it's always a shock the first time) that we are all on an equal playing field.
There are natural catastrophes -- fires and floods and monster storms -- that take our breath away and leave us feeling small and insignificant. There is true evil -- people that violate us and those we love - that take away our faith in humanity and keep us peering fearfully from behind closed doors . . . and closed countries. Even people we love break our hearts. . . our spirits . . . our bodies. People don't come home. There is homelessness . . . mental illness, birth defects, handicaps . . . broken dreams. There are horrific accidents and horrendous illnesses. Phone calls. Parents get sick. Children die. Children are longed for . . . children are unwanted. There is profound, paralyzing grief and debilitating pain and loneliness. There are moments that bring us to our knees in the knowledge that our world, or the whole world, will never be the same.
Now that you've found yourself in there somewhere (I know you were looking;). . . did you notice I only included the "bad" stories? If not, don't be too hard on yourself. I'm not. I've come to understand that defining ourselves by our challenges seems to be our default mode. It's part of the human condition, and it can even drive us forward to do better, be better. There is wisdom in owning our stories and using them to connect with others, to build one another up in our common tragedy.
If we're not careful, though, our hardships can become our comfort zone . . . even a place to hide that feels "normal" because it's all we know . . . a convenient excuse for staying who we are when God intended us to be so much more..
Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the Holy Bible. I love the old testament stories because they are about ordinary people that God used for great things. In fact, they were extraordinarily flawed . . . like you and me. They doubted a God who would stay faithful to them and make promises in spite of their sins . . . pride and envy, adultery and treachery, murder and deceit. They disobeyed Him. They laughed at Him . . . ran away from Him . . . wrestled with Him. They even cursed Him.
I am always particularly amazed -- and a little skeptical -- by the story of the Israelites, who grumbled and complained the whole of their journey out of Egyptian slavery, even between the miracles God provided for their protection and provision. Even after witnessing the plagues in Egypt that led to Pharaoh's final capitulation to let God's people go, the parting of the Red Sea and the cloud of fire that separated them from the pursuing Egyptian armies after Pharaoh changed his mind . . . even after God sent Manna from Heaven and provided fresh water in the desert. They Israelites FORGOT these things, and wished themselves back in Egypt. They were willing to trade their freedom for the security of knowing that even meager rations of food and water were readily available from the enemy. They lost faith over and over. Every time I read this, I'm a little skeptical . . . until I realize how easily I forget.
A year ago, I was expending every ounce of energy and God given ability I had into a job -- an institution -- that my efforts were lost upon. A few weeks ago, a handful of beautiful people, a small group of like-minded supporters who had shared that same space and circumstance of journey, sat in my living room celebrating with me (to a person) dream jobs that we could not have acquired or accomplished without that harsh bridge. It was not lost on me that I got to take the heart of that place with me . . . and leave the heartbreak behind. A year ago, my husband suddenly lost his job and we, the home that we had raised our children in. He never missed a day of work . . . and I'm writing this from the loveliest little rental home. I can see that glow of fuzzy duckling yellow kitchen from where I'm sitting. God and true friendship provided. A year ago I wrote a blog to celebrate small journeys in lieu of the big ones that temporary circumstances were forcing me to give up. Next week, I'll be on a beach one day and celebrating life with all of my favorite people in (one of) the happiest places on earth on another.
If we could learn to look at adversity as a bridge or a stepping stone to our destiny, maybe we wouldn't so keenly feel the fear of the unknown, the devastation of loss, or let the paralysis that comes with the pain stop us from living life to the fullest. Are there things that we . . . I . . . would choose to strike from my life if I had the choice? Absolutely, there are. If I had a button for personal do overs and if only resets, I'd be clicking that thing like a ski accident with a morphine drip. But at what cost . . . what compromise to who God intended me to be?
I think that I've come to a place where I realize that the only way we can truly fail is if we're not willing to grow. . . to move forward . . . to take risks even, for the task that God puts before us. As a matter of fact, the more we hope and the harder we live, the more risks we take, the more likely it is that LIFE will happen to us. Think of it this way: If we never jump in the ocean, we'll have absolutely zero risk of a shark attack . . . but do we really want to miss the ocean?
I want to have faith that the same God who parted the Red Sea . . . who sent daily bread from Heaven . . . who created clouds of fire for the protection of His people . . . has the power to create beauty from the ashes of my life. I want to be among the people who took risks, dared to hope . . . the Joshuas and Calebs of the Israelite story . . . who stepped out of their comfort zone . . . believed . . . fought giants to change their circumstances.
In the end, we'll all have a story . . . What will you do with yours? Will you walk in circles in the wilderness for years, robbing yourself of the blessings of life by refusing to move . . . for the fear of the unknown? . . . for regret or shame? . . . worry over the past or fear of the future? Or will you press onward to tell your story with dignity and grace?
Me? While I'm basking in the sun . . . washed in waves of gratitude and joy for the chance to be with my favorite people . . . I'm going to be praying for that lady . . . and the dog. No matter how the story ended . . . I'm hearing the echoes of her voice . . . wishing her to be telling someone "So there I was . . . chasing that dog down the highway . . . risking my life . . . giving it everything I had . . . "
And I'll still be chasing my dreams . . . crossing bridges and fighting giants to tell my own stories. It's all we can do.
Isaiah 66:9 ". . . In the same way, I will not cause pain without allowing something to be born, says the Lord."