A Dance Worth Learning: Of Swing Dancing & Faith

West-Coast-Swing-Dance-2932_l_aaaafc0bcef9707d

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The lights go down and the music begins, loud, quick, and perky. I stand on the side in my pretty dress, waiting, hoping for someone — anyone, mostly, though hopefully one who can lead me well and make good conversation — to ask me to dance with him.

Soon enough, he sweeps me up with his expected request, “Would you like to dance?” He reaches out one arm for me to take and we find a spot on the crowded dance floor. His hand goes to my waist, mine to his shoulder, our other hands intertwined.

“I’m Elizabeth,” I say and he introduces himself, too. We talk a bit, but mostly we just dance. He leads me beautifully, giving me grace I never knew I had.

“Ugh, sorry, I’m not very good at this,” I explain, embarrassed, when I falter.

“It’s OK. Don’t apologize.” He smiles to assure me it’s alright.

Feel don’t think. Release don’t controlGive don’t hold back.

I remember and begin again, feeling, releasing, giving, and suddenly I’m floating on musical air, moving in ways I never thought possible for any person, let alone graceless, awkward, and uncoordinated old me.

The song ends and he dips me. I let my body fall to the side he leads it, resting in the sole control of his strength. It is scary and exhilarating. That dance is finished. We thank each other and part ways, the smiles still living on both our faces as we look for new partners.

 

To tell you the truth, dancing scares me more than a lot of things. It’s something I’ve been around my whole life, and because of that, I have this built-in shame from all the memories of getting it wrong. It’s like I don’t remember a time when I ever got it right in the realm of moving my limbs to music.

And so it’s hard for me now, at twenty even, past the childhood years and teenage awkwardness. My memories haunt me in the church halls, the classrooms, and the theatre floor, as if they were happening all over again. Sometimes I can’t take it anymore. I can only move to the music for so long before I have to go relax or even cry.

I was never able to explain it till this April, when these fears really began to meet in conflict with the need to dance and the need to be. In tears, I began to explain to others and to myself. But it still felt like it was too late. The dance call had come and I’d done as poorly as ever, yet I knew it wasn’t just that. Beneath it all, there was a river of tears and I let them out, agonizing forever over the strange pain I felt. The movement I’d been forced to distribute had caused this unquenchable pain, I was sure. From then on, I vowed never to do what I couldn’t, never to move to the music and ignite this pain again.

Because this shame and pain and utter exhaustion would always be there, whether in the church halls, the classrooms, or the theatre floor. And the pain, I decided was just not worth it. 

 

I don’t remember how it started — probably with a text from my friend, Holly. She asked do you want to go swing dancing and I thought about it for a while and decided Sure, I’ll go make a fool of myself because it was sort of fun when I went before. I took a risk and gave up my vow in part. “This is different,” I decided.

I wasn’t good right away, but I found that I wasn’t entirely bad either. I still had trouble with the same old things — coordination, rhythm, remembering what to do, and getting so nervous I forgot the steps.

But I began to find comfort in the fact that I was a follow, and if I could depend on my lead, everything would be alright. Some leads swept me off my feet and I felt as if I were flying through galaxies and worlds of jeweled sunsets, and flowing waterfalls.

I began to feel more than I thought. A slow release occurred as I let go of bits and pieces of my beloved control. And I started to give openly and with courage.

 

Some days, I feel like I’m losing hard battles. My head becomes a maze, and beyond the joys and beauty of life, I feel tight and hard.

I’ve realized that I have this mountain size need for control. I don’t know where it came from, yet I’ve come to see where it is leading me and it is a place of more restlessness and battles and discomfort.

It is not worth the shame and pain, I’ve learned.

 

“You dance gracefully,” he said before bowing and departing after our song had finished.

I almost laughed in his face. Instead, I stuffed my laughter with a smile and a gracious, “Thank you.” Another boy asked me to dance and as we did, I pondered the last leader’s words and my heart soared.

When you hear something, whether good or bad, you begin to believe at least part of it. And this was the summer I began to believe that peaceful living is a dance that I can learn, a beat that I can swing to, a rhythm that I can find. Because even though my heart filled with shame in every church hall, classroom, and theatre when the music began and the dancing started, when the lights went down in the dance hall, I could only feel a very peaceful kind of joy that held room for more.

And faith is a dance, too. One I’d like to fall more and more in step with everyday.

 

This summer, I’ve realized that I like to lead way too much. And I’m really not very good at it. Well, not at the kind of leading I try to do. The control I try to take. The unnecessary worries, and big, unneeded plans.

“If you want to lead, that’s fine but go to the other side,” a dance instructor said to the follows at the last lesson.

I’ve been trying to lead from my follow’s place, but this leader’s position is not one I can take. Life and faith are dances, too. Dances in which I must follow and surrender and most of all dance without abandon. 

 

I went swing dancing for my twentieth birthday. To most, that would merely seem fun, cool, or interesting. Only I and a few others know the true significance of choosing to do that activity on my special day. It was something I wanted to do, and chose firmly and freely. That makes me laugh and almost want to cry at the same time.

On my birthday in particular, my limbs loosened and my heart felt truly light. I began to really dance without abandon, follow without leading, and fall in love with something worth caring for.

I’ve found dance to be a great analogy for faith. God leads; we follow. He creates and we create out of His creations.

God invites; we accept. We enter in to a covenant of many, many dances. Some are tricky, messy, and odd. All are beautiful.

His hand’s at my waist, mine’s at his shoulder, and our other hands are intertwined. Locked together in an unbreakable embrace. His breath’s in the music, in the movement, in my tangled steps, my graceful ones too, in every spin and dip and jump.

The pain and the shame weren’t worth it, but the dance was one worth learning with the Father of dance to lead. 

On Becoming Hard

She’s tangled her lips into a burrowed frown again, staring at the morning’s news, clearly unimpressed. Nearing ninety, the elderly lady still has her opinions, strong and bold as ever. 

“Always has to be newer and better,” she grunts before stalking off with the newspaper crumpled in a roll underneath her worn and wrinkled hands. 

She is petite and aged, worn around the edges as some would say, garnered with a consistently furrowed brow and rough, weathered smirk. Lined and hard–hard to know and hard to be known. 

 

I hear them criticize — the new ways, mostly and the new people. The “kids” who are really adults and should be acting like “adults” even though they are “kids”. I sip my coffee, trying to choke back laughs and text inconspicuously, a book hidden in my purse for later.

But sure enough, they catch my phone with their watchful eyes and criticize me now, citing the evils of technology and of course, the utter ridiculousness of updating your friends on what you are doing at every single minute of the day.

They laugh at their jokes and complain some more — about the hard chairs they’re sitting on, the hard days of work, the hard block of frozen spaghetti for lunch, currently de-frosting on the table. Sipping more coffee, they continue to talk in their hard, foreign ways, as I slip out the door. 

 

I notice him smile as I say good morning. It’s just a slight smile yet it brims to the corners of his mouth. I never remember noticing it before — I always figured he was just a grumpy, no nonsense type of older gentleman. 

But I notice the smile, soft at first, again and again and again, growing warmer just like the sun on these hot summer days. Soon he’s returning my good mornings and hellos. I wonder if I was wrong about him back then when I proclaimed him ‘no-nonsense and grumpy.’ 

His features are still weathered and hard and I bet he could tell me a lot of stories of a long life of labour and toil. But he smiles at me through the lines of an aging face and I see the life that’s in him still, that’s in us all until we die. 

 

They probably married young–those ladies sipping coffee on hard chairs. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, or maybe twenty-one. My age, they were all blooming young brides, basking in the light of their bride grooms’ gentle smiles. All white, beautiful, beloved. Love softens us, they say. 

But before that date, they were even softer, waiting for love. They must have grown from soft, pink baby to bright eyed little girl, pig tails flying, to a fresh and beautiful young woman, long hair clipped up. They must have picked flowers, memorized words for spelling bees, baked birthday cakes for younger siblings. Went to church in their best dresses, and blushed when the handsomest boy winked in their direction. 

And then when the handsome boy met her at the alter, she likely smiled more than ever. The babies came soon after–soft, pink, and fresh, with the life we’re all created with, the life we hold till we die. The life that was meant for eternity. 

I realize that this is not all there is and was. The complaining and criticism of youth, and hardened smiles. At one time, they were as youthful as I — probably smirking at their own parents’ and grandparents’ harsh commands and comments. 

We are all born soft and pink, fresh and young. And so I wonder, what makes us become hard? 

 

Months pass into a year. I’ve matured a bit — hardened even, myself. But I have more patience, endurance, and even, love. Does that come with being hardened? 

I become privy to different, harder conversations. About walking an hour to town, houses falling at the bombs of the enemy, little legs flying to bomb shelters, and loved ones dropping dead. I suddenly see so much within the lines of their hardened faces, and wonder how I once missed what is now so evident. 

Hardship. Pain. Utter devastation. 

That is how we harden. 

Experience. Endless toil. Death and desperation. 

That is how we harden. 

Long suffering. Tears left unwiped. No conclusions for our grief. 

That is how we harden. 

Yet within the lines, I now see a surprising beauty and a long hidden joy. It’s mixed with a new found courage and bravery and I develop respect and admiration, the more I notice. I see the softness within, still there after all these years — they’re still the babies, the flower picking girls, and the June brides, little boys longing for adventure, and winking young rowdies as well as the hardened women and men, living a midst the pain and continual tread of life. 

 

The softness lies within. You will find it if you look hard enough. 

The hardness has become a shell to protect, in many cases. A relief, a disguise. But behind the hardness, there is a garnered wisdom. A learnt renewal, and a cloudy resurrection to come. 

How do we become hard? The tread of years, the changes, the griefs, and unanswered prayers. 

But do we ever really become hard? We are all children in God’s sight, and His softness and mercy can be enough for us. 

Of Fridays Past & Future Joy

“It must have been sad when Jesus died,” I remember thinking, as I went through Good Friday services as a child. Even at a young age, I thought of Jesus’s friends and followers, of Mary Magdelene and Peter and doubting Thomas, of how Jesus told John to look after his mother, as he hung from the cross.

But Sunday always came swiftly, ever beautiful and painted with spring, making us all happy again.

I remember one Easter in particular, when I was quite young. It was the first time I’d discovered the Easter bunny and it was a glorious morning indeed. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the chocolate trail leading from my room to a pile of presents in the living room. It was a gold mine. My own gold mine. I was so excited that I picked up my sister’s chocolate, too!

And I recall these strange thoughts running through my head, as I contemplated my childish joy. I often spoke to myself aloud and I did then. I remember saying, “I’m not going to sing again,” “I’m not going to play dolls again,” and the like. I still don’t understand exactly why I said those words. But perhaps suddenly, as I was hit by that sweet five-year-old bliss, I thought I’d got it all, I thought I didn’t need to keep on trying, I thought my joy was complete at last.

That was a long, long time ago now.

Now I sit in church on Good Friday, watching a beautiful service unfold, much like the one it was last year. It’s one of five services happening around town and so various members of the church community gather in my own place of worship today. I enjoy the beauty, try to worship, and contemplate it all.

But I’m distracted, caught up in the memory of Fridays past. Of Easters gone by. My thoughts lead me far through life and back again to the present as the band starts up again and we take the communion cup.

I’m wearing black today. But I remember a Good Friday when I wore a light blue dress and greeted visitors at the door. I was just a baby then, in my faith, in my growth, in personhood. There were so many things then I had yet to do and know and learn. My immaturity, the poor decisions, the bitter disappointments of past days haunt me as I sit in the pew. Sometimes I hate to think of what and who I was. But I remember the fragrant joy with which I had towards life, and the love I was growing for God and church and people, the love that was only beginning, the love that still churns now.

“And if only I knew then…” So many things. So many words. So many problems.

Four years ago, I was fifteen, sitting perhaps in the same row, in a blue dress. I remember the older Dutch man who became a friend to me and my family that year and that day in particular, as he helped us greet folks at the door. But that was four years ago and a lot can change in time and now he’s not even here and he won’t be coming back.

“It must have been sad when Jesus died…” I think again. I’m sure it was, for his friends and followers. But then He rose again.

I remember that dear old Easter when a trail of chocolate made my little heart soar high. He came to make our joy complete.

I remember the person I was yesterday, last year, and four years ago. The pain, the mistakes, the strife. He came to change us, to set us free, to give us life.

I remember the ones who have died, the ones who will never sit in church pews again. I regret, I mourn, and I wonder. He came so that we might never die, so that we could live forever, so that we could find perfection with Him.

Good Friday reminds me of the strife of this world. It reminds me that there is something better, even than a living room full of chocolate. And with it all, I remember the joy past, and most of all, the joy that is yet to come.

On Choosing Theatre

“So are you glad that you became a theatre artist?” he asked me, settling down in the seat which happened to be next to mine.

His question took me by surprise. He was my professor in first year and he’d learned many of my struggles and problems with choosing theatre. But I was still taken off guard. I just hadn’t thought about the choice in so long; it had become so routine, so mundane, so natural to me.

Yet I’d been mulling my choice, whether I realized it or not, over in my head this past Christmas and in the weeks since the break, too. My holidays were wonderful, but I was very much out of the “theatre loop” and I began to wonder what the heck I was doing all over again. Most of my “back home” friends are working and others are studying to be engineers and nurses or planning to go to law school post-degree. Where does theatre fit into all that? I wondered. I know that I love it, I know that I can do it, and I even know that God loves it, but is it really valuable to others? What’s the point?

It was hard to wake myself up that first Tuesday morning of school. Besides feeling burnt out from the last three semesters and the recent summer, the question of why we do theatre still rumbled in my head till it was sore.  Really, I was asking: Am I valuable? Is what I do needed? And if it’s not, why do it?

I resisted, at first. I refused to be excited. Every semester, especially the last, has left me strongly disappointed. I refused to feel that disappointment again.

But that first week took me by surprise. And so did the next. I was filled with absolute joy in the presence of what I loved. My classes were amazing and inspiring and much more than I could have asked for.

The truth is, in my state of resistance and bitterness, I began to love acting like never before. It became exhilarating once again, in more ways than ever. My play. My acting class and the scenes I’m involved in. Voice & Movement. They brought me the excitement I’d lost hope in.

This all came back to me as I answered my prof. “Yes. I mean sometimes I’m not; sometimes I’m just tired and worn out, I guess. It’s work. But we’ve been doing Meisner and these Lindy Davis exercises and I’m playing Sister Aloysius in Doubt and Much Ado is a challenge but it’s fun and well, I’ve never loved acting more.”

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But is love enough? That’s the question I pondered next.

Does loving something make it valuable, useful, or right?

I’m definitely an advocate for doing what you love with your life. I believe in following your own dreams and not the ones someone else’s. But still. It can all be a little disheartening when other people’s dreams seem to be so useful and important and you’re left feeling like a joke. What then?

I’m not trying to play the martyr here. Theatre is hard, but I realize I won’t get burned at the stake for it. This isn’t Shakespeare’s time when actors were below slaves in status, or something like that. Yes, theatre and art are socially acceptable vocations, but sometimes I feel a little lost in the dust, as others, I’d assume feel, too.

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“We’re the messiest of them all,” the aforementioned prof has said before. Often times, he’s right. We get dressed up and walk around campus doing photo shoots. We take classrooms apart so we can rehearse or fill them with camera gear for a promo video and clean up just in time for the next class to start. We make people sweat and quicken heart beats when we swear and kiss people we’re not married to and portray lots of conflict on stage. We put humanity, in all it’s flaws and horrors, on display for the world to see. And it isn’t always pretty.

Plain and simply, I find theatre valuable because I love it. I do it because I love it. Frankly, I don’t have to justify that.

I believe in its value for a lot of reasons. It teaches us to have empathy, both as actors and audience members. It is art and it allows for creation, which I believe is very biblical. Last but not least, people love entertainment and people like me who study BFAs in Acting provide that. And really, this list could go on but it won’t for now.

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I get a lot of reactions on the answer that slips out of my mouth after the infamous student question, “What is your major?” That sounds fun! and Cool! or I could never do that! and What’s that like? are among the top. One person laughed out loud when I told him, but that’s a story for another time. Lots of people ask me what I intend to do with it, too. I tell them I want to be an actor.

This isn’t a pity party. As another professor says, we all have choices; it’s just silly to say we don’t. Thus, we honestly can’t complain about a lot of stuff because 95% of it likely stems out of the choices we’ve made. I made the choice to study theatre a year and a half ago. I continue to make that choice day after day. And I can make the choice to quit at any point.

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I suppose what I’d like for you to know is that choosing theatre can be great. It is for me, at least. Choosing what you love, I think, is best. Do it, if you can. No matter what it is. What you do, whatever it is, has value because of Christ. He created everything good in this world and has an intention for it. So go out and do it. Choose what you love.

So yes, I’m glad I chose to be a theatre artist.

What about you?

Today

Today is a Thursday.

Beep. Beep. Beep. I rise early. My door knob, the shower faucets, and the kettle are the first things I touch. Somehow, I feel awake, even at 6 AM.

I arrive at school ahead of schedule. I wait, sort of do some homework. My scene partner comes. We work with another friend. We sit knee-to-knee in the theatre, she whispers us our lines. You see, we’re not allowed to look at them just yet. Not today, anyway. Our Acting prof calls it Meisner or one of his techniques, at least. So our friend feeds our ears words and we go back and forth with them, reciting, strangely, beautifully.

Today, I go to chapel. I sit in the front row of the balcony for an easy get-away. I sing with the others and it is lovely and I listen to the speaker. But I leave 5 minutes early for class, to beat the rush.

Today, I arrive at class early. I change my clothes. Chat with a friend before class starts and eat jello for lunch. Today, other friends arrive and we ask each other questions about our Christmases and compliment new hair cuts.

Today, is the first Thursday of the semester. We have Voice & Movement. There are thirteen of us and one brilliant teacher. We all sit in a circle on the floor.

Today, we breathe, we learn, we discover. We write a bit, reflect, and then we talk. There’s a sweet intimacy that pervades the room and I’m happy and comforted by the time I leave.

Later today, I finish my homework in the collegium. Playwriting homework. It’s easy, but I’m distracted.

Today, I grab a mug and attempt to open a package of hot chocolate mix. A friend I hardly know is making tea, and then he offers to bring me a mug full of milk for my hot chocolate.

Today, I see many people. Many friends. I help lead youth group and we talk about evil and lies. I’m reminded of my thoughts in Voice & Movement and I smile.

Today, I drink from cups that others have filled. There are many because my life is very full. And I am so grateful for today.

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What was your today like? I’d love to hear about it!

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Cultivate 2014

My New Year’s resolutions. 14 aims for living wholly in 2014:

1. Love people well and be intentional in friendship.

2. Work hard, but rest harder.

3. Write something everyday. Doesn’t matter what. Just has to be something.

4. Dialogue with my Father and listen to Him more.

5. Learn to let go and relax.

6. Continue to get to know myself better.

7. Develop patience.

8. Take care of myself, body and soul.

9. Invest myself freely in my art, whatever it happens to be.

10. Remember joy and find it in life’s blessings, both big and small.

11. Make specific goals for acting, follow them and fly with others, and most of all: just dive right in.

12. Cultivate my own character.

13. Drink more tea, read more books, bake more cookies.

14. Live missionally, wherever I am. Seek justice. Be merciful and humble.

These 14 goals are brief and somewhat vague. They may change and I’m not holding myself to the originals, if they do. I’m also not giving up on them, even if I find myself letting go. In a nutshell, I’m an imperfect person learning to be whole. Every step, every day, every year in my life is part of my journey to that wholeness. And this list is made up of things that I believe make a person whole.

2014 will not be a perfect year. It may not even be the best year yet, either. But I’m going to do everything I can to make it a year in which I stepped a little closer that wholeness I seek.

This is a new year. This is 2014 and my theme word is cultivate. Cultivate joy, hope, love. Freedom. Passion. Salvation. Forgiveness. Productivity. Rest. Healing, justice, and beauty. Everything good. Cultivate Life.

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Here’s to 2014!

What are your resolutions and hopes for the new year?

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Recap & Dreams

2013 was a roller-coaster.

First year second semester didn’t pull me by the ear lobes like my first had done. It was stagnant at first; difficult, strange. I had to grab it by the neck and make it what I wanted and needed. I did just that. In the words of my professors and friends, I transformed in my art and I think also, in myself.

Summer came much too quickly. I put acting aside for a while, on a shelf though, to be found again, come September, no doubt. Core requirement books piled on my desk and for six weeks I devoted my time to completing courses in Old Testament, Self-Defense, and Human Kinetics.

June brought my first article to publication. One I’d worked at since January. It began as a tiny proposal forced from my hands. I never thought my first attempt at a magazine submission would lead to publication, but it did, somehow, beautifully.

My first real job, as a cashier at a Thrift Store, came and went. July and August were filled with long days and hard work, dust, unfriendly voices, interesting objects, and weird comments. But there was love and joy and peace and satisfaction there, too. And for those things and the lessons learned, I miss it every day.

Last semester boomed along. I played a small role in my first university play. I took hard classes. My professors pushed me and I pushed myself. And I forged friendships like never before. There was beauty and life, but at the end, I was burnt to the core.

More. There was always more. More to do, more to be, more to learn. It was exhausting.

My holidays have been quite the reverse. School flew away and I nearly forgot the little homework I did have.

I spent a lovely four days with a friend and her family, relaxing and celebrating the new year. I had a beautiful Christmas, filled with Christ, family, and sweet things. I’ve had a wonderful holiday, seeing fabulous people and creating to my heart’s desire. In everything, I’ve learned more about myself and the person I want to become.

And now, as I sit and think on January 3rd, I am hopeful. All of what happened, both the good and the bad, makes 2014, a new year, brighter to my eyes. Because we learned and we finished and came to believe in 2013, through every blot and beauty.

And this — why this is only the beginning. We’ve barely breathed on the new year yet. Hardly made mistakes. The days ahead are still coming and we don’t know what will fill them. And while unknowns can be scary, adventure lies in what we do not know or even understand.

It snowed this December. It rained a lot, too. And in it all, it “sunned” as well.

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2014 should bring similar weather, I believe. But who knows what the colour of the rain will be?

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Here // This is Beauty

I often find myself longing for the exquisite. I dream of adventure, beauty, and joy. Slowly, I pass through life, wondering if there’s more and when happiness will ever abound.

Every person has a dream. I have several. They say every girl longs for a prince and a castle and I’ve spent life looking for mine.

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But then sometimes I find myself, caught gently in snow-globe moments, within the passage of everyday life.

The sun rises, glorious, majestic, golden pink and sets in the same beauty and colour. A winter wonderland in the morrow. White magic glistens from the tree tops and everywhere, promising a white Christmas after all.

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Later, we bundle up, gloves on hands and boots on feet, ear muffs, toques, scarves and all. Giddy, we venture outside, dashing through fluffy snow, we prance and play. Two forts, we build. A snowball fight ensues.

Well after midnight, we sit around the instruments, playing and singing. One groggy body after another curls up in some sanctuary corner and falls to slumber. But soon enough, we’re laughing again, running through hallways, playing, and telling stories.

The table is set early, the smell of pancakes and sausage drifts through the space, and sleepy limbs settle on chairs. Christmas carols stream from the iPod in the kitchen. We say a prayer before eating, and the light from the wonderland shines in on us. Silence ensues as we gobble. Hot chocolate for still sleeping souls and scrambled eggs fill our tummies.

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And as I look upon the exhausted faces, smiling in spite of their sleepless night, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve found what I set out to. Its a snow-globe moment. Adventure, beauty, and joy are all in this room. The secret, daily longings I’ve struggled so long for have reached my soul at last.

~~~

Today, we skated round and round. Half the church came out. We drank hot chocolate and smiled in each other’s presence. The exercise and cold air and companionship filled my lungs and gave me strength.

And I realized, the answer of these longings is never far away.

What I’ve been looking for has been here the whole time. Perhaps it was hiding just beyond reach or maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. But it was here.

Perhaps the exquisite is simple and beauty looks like the smile in your eyes when we talk.

Maybe adventure can be found in building a snow fort in the church parking lot.

Perchance joy is grasped in simply being. Yes, I think joy comes from realizing each daily adventure and seeing the beauty for what it is.

Fulfillment is right now. Today. This moment. I’ve found it.

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Is there more to life than this? You’d better believe it.

But it is here, found among the ordinary, dancing in our souls. This God-given, blessed life is the more that we crave.

Here. This is beauty.