How I do what I do

Sunday, October 13 marks Disability Awareness Sunday in my church denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Since 2013, I have been volunteering through a ministry called Disability Concerns, which is also a part of the RCA. Typically, when Disability Awareness Sunday appears on my calendar each year, I seek to educate and remind my congregation about matters relating to people with disabilities and encouraging welcome in our house of worship. I plan to recognize Disability Awareness Sunday in some capacity sometime this October within the context of Sunday morning worship, but I wanted to go one step further and utilize the space in this blog to also create some awareness.

After a few recent conversations with friends and co-workers, it has been brought to my attention that perhaps I have not shared my entire “disability story.” What I mean by this is simply that I don’t often make a pointed effort to connect my vocation as a worship leader with the nature of my visual impairment. I have come to realize that my visual impairment is so common and typical for me that I have a hard time feeling as if it is anything less than normal. But the truth is, the way I live, work, and create music is all impacted by the presence of my disability.

The ladies in OneVoice and the Praise Team who serve beside me each week are truly remarkable, servant-hearted musicians. They have adapted to my unique way of leading worship and have excelled in singing and crafting arrangements in a way that I can only describe as being in sync. Almost from the beginning when I was first hired, I hardly had to explain my methods; we simply found a way to make music together that didn’t rely on sheet music and chord charts. We simply sang and “figured it out.” Practice and intentional focus on building community as a group helped us to evolve into something that just clicked. Almost eight years later, I am marveling at God’s goodness in bringing these ladies into our worship and music department. I truly get to work with the best of the best, and I’m not just saying that! I have truly been blessed.

Sometimes, I get questions from congregation members on how I am able to lead the team without any music in front of me. The fast and easy way to answer that question is that I simply memorize. Really, I have no choice but to memorize because no matter what method I try to utilize, I still wouldn’t be able to see the music on the music rack. I only have vision in my left eye, so my field of vision is very narrow. When I was young, we had music enlarged by the copy machine, and although it helped somewhat to be able to see the music, the pages were flopping all over the place, they had to be taped to piece them together, and I was turning pages constantly. Most often, I would listen to my piano teacher play a song and simply try to replicate it. At home when I would practice, my mom would often call out to me, “You’re playing it wrong!” I knew I was playing it wrong because I just couldn’t remember how the song was suppose to go. I would try to read the music to find my place, but frustration would take hold and I would just give up on practicing.

Eventually, my piano teacher gave me the basics on playing chords and playing “by heart.” I started writing music in third grade because as my piano teacher would often remind me, “If you write a song, you’ll never play it wrong because you wrote it that way.” In time, I would gradually move to playing simple renditions of hymns and praise songs— anthems that I could pick up easily and didn’t have too many difficult chord progressions. When I was in high school, my mother and I would share Sunday evening services; she would accompany the congregational hymns on the organ and I would play for the prelude or during the offertory.

When I started leading worship in 2009, I only knew how to play a few songs. I would play the basic chords in my left hand and embellish a little with my right hand. I would “fake” it, so to speak, because I wasn’t really playing full accompaniment or anything close to what would be visible on sheet music. I carried the congregational worship with my singing and played minimally on the piano. “Here I am to Worship” and “My Jesus, I Love Thee” were some of my first songs.

Now, ten years later, my way of playing piano is still the same. I have increased my repertoire considerably, and I keep track of what songs I know how to play with a list in Microsoft Word. After each song title, I make sure I include what key(s) I typically play the songs. When I’m working on learning a new song, I first listen to it over and over, eventually determining what key I should play it in. Sometimes, I play the original artist recording on my phone or tablet and play along with it on the piano simultaneously. This helps me hear if I am on-point with the chord progression and if I can add anything on the piano that I hadn’t noticed before when just listening. Then I simply keep listening and playing until the song is memorized and I can play and sing it fairly confidently.

Once I have crafted an arrangement and have it memorized, I record a blank practice video. Since I don’t have a tripod or fancy recording equipment, I place my camera face-down on a surface near the piano and press “record.” I play and sing the song— sometimes having to do multiple takes because of mistakes or interference (the phone rings, doorbell, or other background noise). Once the video is recorded, I upload it to Facebook as an OPV (OneVoice Practice Video). My team members can listen to these videos and become familiar with my arrangements so that our practice times are not taken up with me teaching the songs. Those who sing harmonies can practice their part by singing along with my video. This proves helpful when I have to change the key of a song so it is easier to sing for a female vocalist. If I play a Chris Tomlin song, the melody line and harmonies will often be in a different range than the original artist recording. It’s important that I have a way to demonstrate my arrangement, not only so my singers know what to do but so that I can remember how I arranged the song. I have often used my own videos to jog my memory when we haven’t sung a song in a long while and I need a refresher.

Everything is in my head. Occasionally, I will glance at a print-out or ask Google to show me song lyrics, but most everything is logged in my memory bank. I have often joked that just like computers and phones can have external hard-drives for more memory space, I need that too. If there would ever be a way to add any memory to my cluttered brain, that would be brilliant!

Sometimes, mental fatigue can set in when I’ve led worship for several weeks in a row. It’s not just physical fatigue. It goes beyond getting up early to lead worship on a Sunday morning. It goes beyond sleepless nights when I can’t shut my mind down because I’m thinking about the Sunday morning just over the horizon. It goes beyond sound check and the service itself. It all centers in the week of preparation leading up to a service: crafting arrangements, listening to the songs, memorizing them, recording, leading practices, and then finally bringing everything together on a Sunday morning. Although the work is rewarding, it’s very taxing mentally.

I have often said that if I were not visually impaired, most of this preparation time wouldn’t be a factor. If I could see better, perhaps I could rely on sheet music and chord charts. I wouldn’t have to memorize all of the music unless I wanted to. My practice time wouldn’t be as extensive and maybe I would be able to introduce new music without as much preparation.

But the truth is, I can’t think about what could have been if I didn’t have my visual impairment. My reality is that I am a visually impaired worship leader and musician, and I need to work with what I have been given. Although playing piano is not my strength, I know I can sing well, and I make sure I am a good steward of my voice by memorizing lyrics and singing with as much passion as I can put forward. Yes, I may have to put in extra hours of work that a sighted person might find tedious and unnecessary. But although the work is challenging and sometimes difficult, I truly believe it has made me a stronger musician.

Since the music is all in my head, it doesn’t take long to recall a song we have played in the past and bring it back into use; yes, I need to practice and recall it to mind again, but it isn’t as difficult as starting from the beginning with memorizing and crafting the arrangement. Once a song is ingrained in my memory, it frees me up to focus on transitions and communicating with my team. Sometimes, I get lost in my piano playing and forget to cue the singers in, but for the most part, the memorizing helps me stay focused.

Connecting with the congregation has always been harder for me than interacting with my team. My lack of peripheral vision has always prevented me from truly seeing out into the sanctuary. Recently, we switched the piano from one side of the stage to the other. The hope was that by having my sighted eye face toward the congregation, it might help me connect with the crowd. I was anticipating that I might be able to see the deacons taking the offering or individuals coming forward to pray or share announcements, but the reality was that the piano’s positioning didn’t help with this. But one good thing materialized from the moving of the piano; I am now able to access the entrance to the stage that doesn’t require me to walk up and down the stairs to the platform. I can take the stairs in the alcove, which is hidden from the sanctuary’s view; I can take my time and hold on to the railing without worrying about the rest of the team coming up behind me or others watching my halting progress.

I share all of this, not so you can extend sympathy for the challenges I face. I also don’t share this as a form of inspiration. I share this because I want to educate and make others aware; I am a worship leader who happens to be blind. Yes, challenges come with the territory, but it is my reality and I am doing my best to fulfill my job role and calling with these circumstances in place. I am grateful for my team members who just seem to “get it.” I so appreciate their willingness to make music with me even though it looks different than the average worship team structure and technique. I love what I do, and in many ways, I am grateful for my challenges because they push me to be a more competent and well-rounded musician.

Maybe I could benefit from more sleep and that extra memory boost, but I am striving on and making music because I can’t imagine life without creating, writing, and leading in worship. Thank you for reading and sharing in the description of my process.

Out of the Cistern

I love the season of Fall! The crisp and cool temperatures combined with the beautiful foliage make for a serene and beautiful time each year. Perhaps I am biased as well because September is the month of my birth, and by the time my birthday rolls around, the leaves are changing color and falling to the ground. I always looked to the Fall with anticipation… until everything changed.

In the Fall of 2017, it wasn’t just the leaves that were changing colors; it was my entire life that was on the cusp of change. I had just entered into an agreement to record my album and excitement was at an all-time high. I was in on a creative high; songs were spilling from my piano and pen with suddenness that stunned me. The season ahead looked promising, and I basked in the idea of all that was ahead.

On September 16, 2017, I was out grocery shopping with a friend when I saw a streaky, floating spot migrate across my line of vision. It looked like a narrow, dark, smoke-like intrusion and it immediately rattled me. In fact, I stopped in the Wal-Mart parking lot and simply froze. “What was that?” I think I said out loud. It happened a few hours later after I had returned home that evening as I prepared dinner in the kitchen. Again, I froze in my bright kitchen, knowing this second occurrence couldn’t be just my imagination.

Over the next ten days, I got really good at pushing all warning signs aside. I was deep into album planning, songwriting, arranging songs and coordinating practices for OneVoice, and preparing for a work trip. I saw the smoke-like floaters everywhere— against the pale yellow walls in my bathroom, against the sky as I biked to and from work, against the stark white of my computer screen and tablet. I saw shimmery spots in the dark too; every time I turned my head in the darkness of my bedroom, it looked like Christmas lights were twinkling in the corner of my sighted eye. On my work trip, things got worse; I began to squint against the sudden unbearable brightness. I was so light-sensitive in fact that I was always seeing spots as if I had been staring at a spotlight or toward the sun too long. Looking at the PowerPoint presentations was nearly impossible.

And then as the plane took off for home, I knew for sure that something was wrong. Everything became a blur, and the bottom corner of vision was completely gone with only a shadow left in its place. I found myself tilting my head to look past that shadow, but I still couldn’t focus because everything was a bright blur around me. The best way to describe it was that it was like looking at a neon-white blizzard in the middle of winter. Occasionally, some color would spring into my vision, but those colors were neon too.

When I landed at the airport, I knew I needed to make an appointment to be seen by my ophthalmologist, but we were heading into Sunday, and I had a job to do: leading worship at church. I played that morning on autopilot, trying to look away from the drummer because his turquoise-blue shirt looked like one of those highlighter markers I used in school when I was young.

By the time I managed to make an appointment, the fear was real. For two days, I tried to focus on work and follow-up from the conference I had attended. My musical creativity stalled as I waited for the inevitable bad news. There was no optimism whatsoever because I knew deep down that there was no ignoring my symptoms. Google seemed to imply that I had a retina detachment, but I didn’t want to believe it even though it was probably bad no matter the diagnosis. By the way, NEVER, and I mean, NEVER use Google to self-diagnose. What you read can be SCARY!

But on Tuesday, September 26, the doctors confirmed what I had been dreading. It looked like a retina detachment. I was immediately scheduled for surgery, and 24 hours later, I found myself in the operating room. I woke up in the late evening of September 27 to complete and utter darkness. My sighted eye was patched after the surgery, and since I am already blind in my right eye, I couldn’t see anything. It was disorienting and terrifying. True, my visual impairment has prepared me to navigate to some degree in a sighted world, but I wasn’t prepared for this!

The next three weeks or so were challenging to say the least. My vision was dark and murky at first. When they removed the patch that first day, I was nervous about what I would see, or rather, what I wouldn’t be able to see. In fact, I wouldn’t let the nurse remove my patch until my parents were beside me. I had been prepared for all scenarios, one of which was that the doctors had not been able to save my vision. But we were hopeful that they had been successful, and that I would at least be able to see light and color.

When the patch came off, the light was blinding! I immediately closed my eyes against the intrusion. But the nurse encouraged me to try again, and when I attempted to open my eyes once more, I saw the blurry but oh-so-welcome emblem on my mom’s shirt: the logo and green and gold of the Green Bay Packers.

That first blurry glimpse gave me hope, although at times my courage wavered. The antibiotic drops compromised my vision even more, and the other meds burned when they were administered. I stumbled around, my depth perception and balance severely impacted. I carried my cane everywhere— even at my parents’ house and at my own home. I spilled my food and knocked over the juice glass right beside me. I cried more than I probably have in all of my life. The doctors were hopeful for a steady recovery, but I was despairing because I wanted to see clearly sooner rather than later.

Now, I know I’m not the first to experience pain and suffering, nor will I be the last to endure such hardship. All around me, I have witnessed cancer, divorce, death, financial struggle, and so much more. In fact, I would go so far as to point out that I’m not the only person to have a disability and the challenges that come along with it. Disability doesn’t necessarily mean a life of suffering, but it certainly means adapting one’s life to accommodate altered circumstances. In the two years since my retina detachment, I have come to a deeper and wider view of God’s goodness in the midst of suffering, and lately, I can’t help but find comparison in the Biblical story of Joseph.

Joseph’s story is well-known to many, most likely thanks to the musical starring Donny Osmond. Every time I have watched this drama play out, I am gripped by the highs and lows, but especially the lows. If I close my eyes, I can still see Joseph standing in the jail cell, singing his heart out with the haunting sound of the children’s voices adding a feeling of absolute despair to the scene. “Bar all the windows and shut out the light,” is a lyric that I can’t get out of my head as “Close every Door” plays on… But not even the barred walls and darkness can completely shut out the light. The ending refrain speaks of promise, and candlelight is visible just outside the cell.

I wonder what Joseph must have been thinking and feeling when he was imprisoned— innocent of all wrong-doing. He had been betrayed and wrongfully accused, and yet, this wasn’t the first time he had been thrown in a pit. It all began when his brothers became envious of his dreams and favoritism, and they threw him into a cistern, only to lift him out of the pit later to sell him into slavery. In the jail cell—in the cistern— I’m sure he questioned God a time or two. Really, God, what now? What did I do to deserve this? What about my dreams? Sold into slavery at the age of seventeen, he became successful in Potiphar’s house, only to be cast out by Potiphar’s wife when he rejected her advances.

A glimmer of hope arrives on the horizon when Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer are thrown into prison with Joseph, and Pharaoh’s servants eventually have dreams that need interpretation. In the end, Joseph rightfully interprets each of their dreams, and the cupbearer is restored to his position of honor while the baker is killed. Joseph had asked the baker and cupbearer to remember him in prison, but it would be two years before Pharaoh would have a dream as well and seek out interpretation. Finally, the cupbearer remembers Joseph and he is brought out of prison in order to meet with Pharaoh.

As the story goes, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and he is eventually promoted to serve as governor over Egypt. Inevitably, his dreams come true, for his brothers in coming to buy grain in Egypt, bow down before him. There is a lot to consider as Joseph’s story draws to a close. I can only imagine the healing that had to take place in that family— the forgiveness that needed to be extended and then accepted, trust that needed to be established, and the restoration within pre-existing relationships and the hope visible in the birth of Joseph’s sons.

I was struck profoundly this week as I read the account of Joseph’s story in Genesis. For the past few months, our pastor has been walking us through the book of Genesis at our Sunday morning services. I was planning ahead for worship and music, and digging deep into the text when I realized something. After Joseph interpreted the dreams of the cupbearer and baker, he remained in prison for two years until Pharaoh called for him. Two years… wow… that was kind of ironic because…

It has been two years since my emergency retina surgery. It has been two years of healing and gradual visual improvement. It has been two years of fear and doubt. Every floater or flash of light has filled me with dread and terror, making me think that a detachment is happening all over again. My sighted eye has played tricks on me, drawing me into full-blown panic mode. I have spent most of the past two years simply afraid. I can’t stand to be in overly bright environments nor in the complete darkness. At night, there is always a light on somewhere in the house or at least the glow of the TV. Sunglasses have become my new best friend, although I am trying not to wear them as often now.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I have spent the past two years imprisoned in fear. Yes, there have been some beautiful moments over the past 24 months. My album was released exactly a year to the day when I landed at home, knowing I would need to seek medical attention. I have received positive reports from the doctors and the assurance of clear ultrasounds. My work at the church, although halted briefly by my recovery, has resumed, and just like two years ago at this time, my creativity abounds. I have met some incredible people and created beautiful music with others. If it weren’t for the past two years, I wouldn’t have the experience to color my current situation. By no means do I want to go through any of that pain and suffering again, but I know somehow, some way, there was a purpose for it.

Again, I am not the first, nor am I the last to experience trials in this life. Just look at Joseph if you want an example. He was literally thrown into a cistern— into a jail cell— while some of us are experiencing pain, anger, deception, betrayal, grief, fear, feeling as if we’re beat up, alone, and left to die. Our pastor encouraged us to look for God in the midst of Joseph’s story, because if we know the ending, we know that the jail cell and cistern are not the end of his existence. That cistern was probably 30-40 feet deep, used to store rainwater, so this was not something Joseph could have gotten out of on his own. Imagine his momentary relief when his brothers lifted him out of the cistern, only to sell him into slavery. Could it get any worse for Joseph? As our Pastor said, sometimes when it rains, it pours. Joseph’s dreams were a long way from coming true as he waited in the cistern and later waited again in prison.

I didn’t realize it until now, but I’ve been waiting in the cistern too, but my imprisonment is of my own creation. The truth is, I can see and have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. My vision was restored— with some deficits, yes— but restored nonetheless. I should be celebrating God’s goodness and glorying in the beauty of color and light. But somehow, I’ve been afraid that it will all be stolen away. In trying to move forward with my life, I was actually stepping back into the prison cell. Little by little, I am finding freedom, learning to adapt to my circumstances and recognizing my panic and anxiety for what it is— the devil’s schemes to derail me. I have spent two years in the cistern, but it’s time to be lifted out.

“I called on your name, LORD,
from the depths of the pit.
You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears
to my cry for relief.”
You came near when I called you,
and you said, “Do not fear.”
You, Lord, took up my case;
you redeemed my life.” Lamentations 3:55-58

If you’re looking for a way out of your cistern today, read the whole chapter of Lamentations 3. A great deal of this passage inspired my album, The Dawn. Hold your head up, friends. I may not know your struggle, but if you are in the pit, know that God is lifting you and leading you to the light.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Kansas City

Kansas CityI startled awake to a loud crack of thunder. I have always been a light sleeper, so it was no surprise that the storm had broken me out of my slumber. I shifted in bed, instantly uncomfortable with the severity of the weather outside my window. I have never liked storms. There is something about the disorienting brightness of the lightning and the deafening rolls of thunder that make me nervous, particularly if there is a tornado warning. No amount of looking out the window is going to tell a blind girl what is happening outside. I simply have to wait it out and hope it will just be a typical summer thunderstorm.

I sat up in bed and grabbed my cell phone, quickly bringing up my weather app so I could check the radar. Instantly, I focused on the narrow line of storms that was right on top of my location. My first inclination was to groan with anxiety and fatigue, but then a sudden peace came over me. It was then I remembered that I wasn’t alone in the house. My parents were right down the hall, and somehow I just knew that my dad was awake too in that moment. He is a light sleeper like me, and I had a feeling I wasn’t alone in my wakefulness. It had been like that since the time of my childhood. Even though storms made me nervous, as long as I knew my father was awake and close by, I was okay. Even though I was now a grown woman, this hadn’t changed.

I released a calming breath and rolled over in the bed. As the storm raged around me, I allowed myself to succumb to sleep. I found shelter in the knowledge that I wasn’t alone in the storm.

*****

Less than a week later, my anxiety had returned. I sat under a tent at the county fair, nervously waiting to be called to the stage. Over the past few weeks, I had meticulously practiced. Even after three years of vocal coaching, it was still a foreign concept for me to simply accompany someone. Singing has always been my easy go-to, a place of shelter and familiarity. But today, my mentee would be taking the stage to be judged in vocal performance. Although I was confident in her abilities, I was still nervous. I didn’t want to mess up the piano part and ruin her moment.

The day had not gone smoothly thus far. I was having a bad hair day, there had been a mishap in printing the materials that needed to be submitted with our entry, and we were all flustered and out-of-sorts. Then a close friend walked into the tent and I realized we would technically be competing against her daughter. I was intimidated and rattled, which was not a good way to start the day.

When we were called to the stage, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We quickly realized there was no piano on the stage and the music stand and mic stand needed to be repositioned. The sound techs were quick to assist us, but the music stand didn’t want to behave. Finally, my mentee told me to just start playing. Hoping she was truly ready, I started to play, listening carefully for the cue for the vocal line… only no sound came from her mic when it came time for her to sing! Her mic wasn’t working!

I quickly turned to the judges and asked if we might be able to start again, Given approval, I began to play the opening notes again. The first lines of her vocal came over the mic loud and clear, but then I heard it— hesitancy and then words failed her. She had lost her place. Inwardly, I mouthed the words, knowing she couldn’t hear me and it would be of little help. Frantically, I prayed that she would be back on track, and to my relief, she found her place and began to sing once more.

But as the second verse began, I heard the same hesitancy, and she stumbled again. Once more, I prayed even as I kept playing. I wondered if I should have stopped and let her start again. But I quickly released that thought; we had started over once already, and this was out of my control. She finished the song, and I was proud of her resiliency. Her notes rang out, clear and confident, and if it weren’t for those early, fumbling moments, one would have thought she had delivered a solid performance.

But she and I knew the truth, and we were both crushed. Even so, she held her head high as she approached the judges. She was given positive feedback with only the briefest reference to the “something” that happened early on in her performance. The judges encouraged her to keep singing and commented on her professionalism in the midst of the mishap.

Do you know what struck me as the judges critiqued her? It was the reality of her song choice. I had been so proud when she had agreed to sing a worship song at the county fair, a beautiful tune by Vertical Worship called “Shelter.” I was excited for her to share her gift of music with those gathered in the tent that day, eager to see her Light for Jesus shine bright among the other performances. It was her voice, the song, and the message that resonated in the most powerful way that day. For even though her performance didn’t transpire like we had hoped, there was still an incredible peace and beauty that came from her music. I think we were all reminded that God is always our shelter, especially on bad hair days, in disorganized entry forms, and in forgotten lyrics. We can run to Him when the world is a chaotic mess around us. He welcomes our worship as we seek refuge in His love.

*****

I carried this song and message with me as I traveled for work a few weeks later. I was nervous because I had to cross the border into Canada, but in the end, the border crossing turned out to be the least stressful of all. Navigating airports has never been easy for me, but I managed the first leg of my journey with very little anxiety. I spent the night in Detroit with friends before I made my first border crossing. I was feeling a bit more confident until I got my first glimpse of the conference center and hotel.

Standing 22 stories high, the hotel was instantly intimidating. I quickly learned that the elevators were in high demand and that it would be nearly impossible for me to navigate the building without assistance. None of the elevators verbally announced the floor, nor was there any “beep” or “ding” to indicate when a floor was reached. My room was on the eighth floor, and I didn’t have a roommate. How was I going to make it through the next three days when the overwhelm was all-consuming?

My prayer was simple: Lord, walk with me. And step by step, minute by minute, I navigated through the next three days. God led me to a sweet woman named Miriam who became my place of safety for the remainder of the weekend. Armed with calm assurance, a power chair, and her service dog, Wendell, Miriam took charge. I never needed to worry about logistics when she was with me, and I could actually pull in a deep breath in the midst of the chaos. It was almost as if she could read my mind. One day at lunch, as the 700-some conference attendees swarmed around us, I got quiet. I was beyond overwhelmed, and I think Miriam could sense that. A moment later, she pushed her chair back from the table and announced that she was leaving early for the next session. She asked if I was ready to go with her. Um… yes, please!

But even with Miriam’s help and the knowledge that God was walking with me, I still stumbled under the anxiety. On the last morning, I felt sick, so I stayed in bed and missed the first session of the day. Ordinarily, being late and missing a session would have been unthinkable for me, but I was past caring. Even though I had no idea how I was going to get downstairs to the lobby, check out of my room, and find breakfast, I made my way to the elevators. I was now numb to the fear and overwhelm. Step by weary step, I walked through the morning routine, eventually meeting up with Miriam to attend the final workshop. But I was on autopilot now, and I was ready to be done. But it would be two days yet before I could fly home, so I knew I had to endure just a little while longer.

Once I crossed back into the U.S., much of my tension eased and I was able to relax with friends. I was grateful for those two days, for they proved to be a source of encouragement and sheltering grace. I basked in beautiful music, savored delicious food, and participated in soul-stirring conversation. I was finally able to sleep through the night without being awakened by nervous tension. As I navigated through the Detroit airport, I felt surprisingly calm in the hectic atmosphere. A kind airline representative walked with me through security and led me to my gate. I boarded the plane early with my white cane in hand and waited for take-off to Minneapolis.

Our flight was uneventful until we were about to land. That’s when the captain came over the intercom with this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are not able to land in Minneapolis due to bad weather, so we took a left-hand turn to Kansas City. We are sorry for the inconvenience.”

Wait! What? I sat up straight in my seat and glanced at the people beside me. Everywhere I turned, I heard the grumbling. This couldn’t be happening. Kansas City, why?

As we taxied down the runway, I powered up my phone and called home. I waited for someone to answer, each ring in my ear mingling with the murmur of voices all around me. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one making a call. I swallowed hard against the rising anxiety, and then I heard a familiar greeting. Almost instantly, I calmed when I heard that voice from home. The miles between Kansas City and Wisconsin seemed to disappear, and I basked in the feeling of safety.

I relayed what had happened, making sure it was understood that I had no idea when I would be home. My friends told me they were watching the weather, and it looked like the storms would pass quickly. That gave me reassurance that it wouldn’t be long before we could be on our way to Minneapolis. My friends promised to wait up for me and would be there when my shuttle would arrive in our home town.

Two-and-a-half hours later, we were finally taking off for Minneapolis, but that didn’t mean it was smooth sailing, or rather, autopilot from that point forward. Even after we landed in Minneapolis, we couldn’t deplane because there were so many other aircraft vying for position at the gate. As the other passengers finally began to make their way off the plane, I followed, only to be detained by a flight attendant. I was told that someone from the airport was on their way to escort me to ground transportation, so I needed to wait onboard until they arrived.

I was having none of that! Somehow, I managed to talk my way out of waiting on the plane. I had been onboard for more than six hours, and I was getting claustrophobic. I was tired, hungry, stressed, and still fairly anxious. I needed to make a connection with my shuttle, because there was no guarantee I would be able to get home that night.

My cell phone was dead, and I anxiously waited for it to power on at a charging station. I quickly messaged and called friends and family to update them on my situation, and then made sure I had a seat on the shuttle. There was a spot remaining on the 10:55 p.m. trip, and I was grateful. Every other seat was taken for the rest of the night.

Once onboard the shuttle, it was only an hour’s ride home, but it felt like the longest hour of my life. I just wanted to be home! If it weren’t for the air conditioning that was cranked to the max, maybe I would have been able to sleep. I tried to relax, knowing that home and safety were just minutes away. I meditated on the lyrics to “Shelter,” catching glimpses of God’s goodness and provision all along my journey. True, things hadn’t gone as planned. Yes, I was about as drained as the battery on my cell phone and I couldn’t decide if I was more hungry or frustrated. But God was with me, even in the chaos.

Being diverted to Kansas City was an inconvenience for sure, but I was protected from the inclement weather. My shuttle was delayed, but I had incredible friends who were willing to meet me well past midnight so I could make it home. I was hungry and thirsty, and those needs were met with ice cold water and a plate of pancakes at nearly 1:00 a.m. Sleep came swiftly once my head hit the pillow.

My trip was harrowing and stressful; it would have been easier just to stay home. My mentee could have given up and never performed again, but she sang “Shelter” in church a few weeks later and blessed all of us with her beautiful offering. I could have let that storm keep me awake as I tried to sleep, but knowing my dad was close by gave me the peace I needed to sleep without worry. The truth is, there are no clear answers as to why we have to walk through stormy and chaotic situations. We may never see resolution or understand God’s plan, but as the storm rages, we can be confident that He will never leave or forsake us. He is our shelter, our place of safety. In the center of His love, we can try again, because we can do all things through Him who gives us strength (Philippians 4:13).

“Welcome to Kansas City”— certainly not the words I wanted to hear, but they were a reality I needed to embrace. We all face situations outside of our control at some point in our lives. It isn’t easy for me to relinquish control, and that’s when anxiety arises. It is in times like these that I need to be reminded that God knows the way and He is my protector. He is my shelter. Instead of cowering in the face of the unknown, I can hold my head up high because I know the One who holds tomorrow. Life is unpredictable, messy, and chaotic, but if you listen closely, there is beautiful music too. “Welcome to Minneapolis” was certainly beautiful music to my ears! The song “Shelter” concludes with these words: “I am safe, I am safe.” Yes, I am safe, and I am home.

Compassion in Action

Recently, I have felt increasingly drawn to one thing— making sure others know how much they are loved and valued. For most of the winter, I stayed inside, relatively alone and isolated. I went to work, lead worship, and followed through on my commitments, but I didn’t engage a lot with the outside world. When a person spends a great deal of time alone, it can be easy to become pretty frustrated with the company. I was anxious and irritable, and I didn’t appreciate my attitude and behaviors. I was so glad when Spring came and I could begin to become independent again.

It was in engaging with community again that I began to feel a greater compassion for those around me. Compassion is something that has never come easy for me, so it was encouraging to see the attitude shift take place. I began to initiate interaction with others. I found myself praying more often and more frequently. I found that certain circumstances had me in tears pretty quickly. There were so many people around me who needed more than I could give: a friend who had yet to embrace faith, another who was battling depression, another who had just left a toxic relationship, another battling through health challenges and family-related concerns, another struggling with finances… The list seemed endless, and as I began to sink in the sea of overwhelm, all I could do was pray.

I was all in— jumping out in faith to embrace the challenges that came with the struggles listed above. Nothing about this phase has been easy, because as I wrote earlier, compassion has never really been a focus for me. Sure, I care about others, but living independently and working through my own challenges medically and through disability has made me very selfish and one-dimensional. I am not proud of the times when I have thought of someone else through the lens of my disability and thought: “If I can work through my challenges and come out on the other side, why can’t you fix/change/figure out your (insert issue/problem/challenge)?

Hey, I told you I wasn’t proud of my attitude. I am fully aware that I am not perfect, and somehow, God still loves me and pursues me. He has carried me through many of the challenges I have faced throughout my life, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for His grace and mercy. So why can’t I extend even a small piece of the mercy and grace to those God places in my path?

That’s why this Spring has been so refreshing and eye-opening. I still struggle to offer compassion in many cases, but I’m trying to recognize the value in everyone and give every connection a decent effort. As I have explored compassion in my community, music has been a constant companion, and one song that has been making its presence known is Cory Asbury’s “Reckless Love.”

Now, I’m sure many of you are familiar with this song. It’s been on the radio for more than a year now, and has been recognized as a top song on many charts and worship leader resources. And although the song resonated with me from the beginning, I was reluctant to bring it as an anthem to my local congregation. It wasn’t until a church member posted a comment about it on my Facebook page that I began to consider the possibility of introducing it to our faith community.

Since that comment was made on Facebook, I can count on my hand the number of times we have played “Reckless Love” at church. It’s kind of been intimidating, if I’m honest. The song isn’t easy to sing; the range is all over the place. It’s also lyrically heavy. I have always been conscious when utilizing the song to place it at a specific point in our service. I want the congregation to be attentive and focused on what the song articulates, because I don’t think we can be reminded enough of just how much God loves us.

Just last week, I began to plan for worship, but this worship planning wasn’t typical. I had not been scheduled to play, so I was filling in for another accompanist. The song selections came together quickly, but I was stuck with where to place each anthem in the service. It had been requested to lead “Reckless Love,” and although I wanted to agree to that request, I struggled with how to use the song. If done during prelude, would the congregation truly engage with it? We couldn’t use it during the offering because there would be a video shown. That left us with the beginning or end of worship to play the song.

I was so close to dropping it from the service entirely, but something nagged at me. I felt a pressing need to not just include “Reckless Love,” but make it a focus in our worship. I considered it no accident that I spent time later in the week working through Psalm 23, drawn into the imagery of the Good Shepherd, green pastures, and still waters. But something else struck me in this familiar passage. In the final verse: “surely your goodness and mercy will follow me,” I realized something. My Bible translation had not used the word “follow.” I had glossed over the words, not really realizing that the text had read: “surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me.”

Wait! Pursue me? Those weren’t the words I had read as a child! After digging a little deeper, I learned the Hebrew translation for “follow” meant just that— to pursue, to hunt or to chase down. Before I knew it, I was at the piano, singing “Reckless Love” with tears streaming down my face. This is what I had been living into this Spring: not only recognizing that God loved and pursued me, but that He was also actively loving and pursuing all of my friends with their struggles and challenges. I didn’t have to carry their burdens alone, because the Good shepherd would leave the ninety-nine sheep if one was lost, just to bring that one to safety.

So with a pressing need to communicate this monumental truth, I did something out of my comfort zone on Sunday morning. Instead of just singing, I shared from my heart: about Psalm 23, about God’s unfailing love, about His longing to be in relationship with each one of us, about His reckless pursuit. And then we sang. I know each one of us on the team tried not to cry as we led in song, for we felt the lyrics and message so profoundly.

And do you know what’s awesome? If your eyes are open to the Savior’s unfailing love, you will begin to see compassion and loving relationships all around you.

In the twenty-four hours after our Sunday worship, I witnessed so much kindness and compassion, I was scheduled to see the doctor at 11:30 on Monday morning, so I patiently waited for my driver. He was on time and efficiently completed his work, but he wasn’t very talkative. That was fine, because I was pretty anxious about the day’s events, so I was stuck in my head most of the time anyway. I have never enjoyed going to the doctor; in fact, my anxiety over medical appointments could probably fill another blog post, and I don’t think you want to be bothered with the details. I was also worried about getting into the clinic by myself since this was the first time I had gone to this particular doctor alone. My driver dropped me off at the door and told me another provider was scheduled for the return trip and that I should call for a pick-up when my appointment was done.

In the end, I had no cause for worry. A receptionist at the clinic saw my cane, and instead of sending for an escort, she came around the desk and walked me to the correct waiting room. After a routine testing and consultation with the doctor, they were processing my prescriptions when a computer error occurred.

“I don’t mean to rush anyone,” I said. “But while we wait for the computer, would it be all right if I call my transportation provider so they can be on their way here since we’re almost finished?”

“Sure, that’s fine,” my doctor said. “Good idea.”

So while sitting in the doctor’s office, I made the call, only to find out that my return trip had already been booked for 12:30. My appointment had gone so well and efficiently that I would have 45 minutes to wait.

My doctor heard my end of the conversation. “12:30?” she said. “Not for another 45 minutes. That’s crazy. You’ve got to be hungry since its lunch time and all, plus the headache.” She had known about my headache from the beginning of my appointment. “It’s a good thing we have a coffee shop off the lobby. You can wait there and you’ll be able to be close when your driver pulls up. Here, I’ll get one of the nurses to walk you there and get you settled.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I responded. “I’m sure I can find my way out to the lobby and if I need to I can ask someone to walk me to the coffee shop.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” my doctor said. “Come on, follow me.”

We walked out into the main department, only to find there were no nurses in sight.

“Well, it looks like I’ll be taking you to the coffee shop,” she said. “We’re short a nurse today, and things have been crazy.”

“Really, its okay,” I tried to interject, but she wouldn’t listen.

“It’s no trouble,” she said. “I don’t have anything scheduled for another twenty minutes, and besides, I can’t just leave you. I would feel terrible all day long if I had the ability to help and did nothing. And believe me,” she said a bit more quietly. “If I didn’t have that meeting, I would be grabbing lunch and coffee too.”

Once I was settled at the coffee shop, I got my mocha and Panini to-go and sat outside the main entrance, waiting for my driver. That’s when I realized I didn’t know what vehicle I was looking for; I didn’t even have the name of a person— just the company’s promise that they would send someone. Even though my sandwich and coffee had dulled my headache somewhat, the anxiety set my head to pounding again. I hoped I wouldn’t be waiting all afternoon for someone— anyone— to take me home.

At exactly 12:30 a van pulled into the drop-off zone and a female voice called out the window. “Are you waiting for me?”

“Um… I don’t know,” I admitted.

“What’s your name?”

I gave her my last name and she called back with the name of my hometown destination. I sighed with relief and made my way over to the waiting vehicle. I couldn’t help but think about Psalm 23 then. I had not been forgotten, and although this woman was not the Good Shepherd or God, for that matter, she knew me by name and had come back for me. Upon talking with her on the hour drive to my home, I got to know more about this beautiful soul. She was more than a taxi driver, for she truly loved her job and her clients. She talked about driving a woman to the hospital to have surgery, only to learn that the company didn’t have the right location on file. As a result, the driver was faced with the reality of dropping her client off at the wrong address— to a clinic that wasn’t even open for the day. She called into the office and relayed the situation. “I’m not leaving her here. It’s the wrong address,” she said. “I need permission to bring her home or we need to find the right clinic. I’m not leaving her here.”

She was putting her job on the line, refusing to simply abide by the rules. Her compassionate heart truly resonated with the client, and I felt so grateful that this woman— this taxi driver— had gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure her client would be okay. It was similar in nature to what my doctor had done for me just moments earlier. She was a busy physician. She had no obligation to take a patient to the coffee shop. But she had done so anyway, and that spoke volumes to me.

After four hours at work that afternoon, I closed out my day in the most amazing way. I got to watch as beautiful women embraced someone in their community, offering up financial gifts and tokens of appreciation. The generous gifting was welcomed with humble tears and fumbling words of gratitude. It was grace. It was mercy. It was reckless love. These women reflected Christ as they gave and as they served another in love. It was true compassion in action, and I was so blessed to be able to witness it— to know that if we are willing to engage with those around us, there are endless possibilities.

So thank you to those who are living in Christ’s love and putting that into action. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes God uses others to communicate his love and mercy. Thank You, God, for recklessly loving me and pursuing me, even when I don’t deserve it.

Remain in My Love

FRC Stained Glass

I was finishing up my album late last summer. We were almost there, but we had encountered a few challenges along the way. I was overwhelmed with the details, and when the mastering didn’t come together as we had planned, I nearly crumbled under the pressure. I was afraid we wouldn’t meet the deadline, and I had a horrible feeling that all of our work would be for nothing.

Who is this “we” I speak of? Well, I certainly didn’t release my album all by myself. I had an incredible team behind me: producer, engineer, bass player, percussionists, violinist, back-up vocalists, cover artist, and many others I’m sure I’m forgetting. In particular, my producer and engineer had been with me every step of the way. He wouldn’t let me settle for second-best. He told me I was paying too much money to get mediocre results. When I was too tired and stressed to call the distributor one more time, he got online and chatted with customer service until everything was resolved. He told me he “had my back,” and that made me smile. I needed the assurance that I wasn’t alone in the struggle. Nate wouldn’t let me down, and he had proven his trustworthiness over the year we had spent in recording and post-production. We were a team; there were two of us, and if we needed help, we had many others we could count on to come to our aid.

A few weeks ago, I heard a sermon based on John 15. Before I go into detail about the message, I thought I would share the pastor’s opening illustration. He told about a woman who had worked for her employer for over a decade. She was dedicated and never seemed to tire of whatever tasks she was given. When everyone else went home for the day, exhausted and tired, this woman seemed like she could work for several more hours. When the woman submitted her resignation because she was ready to retire, her boss sadly accepted the reality and planned a party to celebrate this woman’s contribution to the company. On the day of the party, everyone in the office was surprised to see two women, identical twins, enter the room. It quickly became obvious that the twins had been sharing the job and paycheck for over a decade. There had been two of them, doing the work of one.

In his message on the vine and branches in John 15, the pastor spoke about the branches (us as believers) remaining in the Vine. The Vine is Christ, and God the Father is the Gardener. God prunes and cuts away the parts of our branch that will not bear fruit in order that we may begin to make a difference in the Kingdom. If we remain in the Vine and submit to His loving pruning, others will begin to see the evidence of His love within us based on the fruit from our branches. But if a person does not remain in the Vine, he or she will be cut off and the fruit will wither and die.

This passage is one I can relate to quite well. I have one plant in my house that I have managed to keep alive for three years. It is usually green and leafy, and occasionally it will flower. It hasn’t flowered in nearly six months now, and I am getting discouraged. Surely, I must be doing something wrong. So recently, my household assistant cut off some of the dying and yellowed branches, and I am hopeful now that this will start a process of growth.

I am also hoping and praying for growth in another area of my life. I have been praying for a dear friend for a long time, and the days and months have blended into years. My friend is kind, generous, dynamic, and gifted— incredible qualities that drew me in from the day we met, but there is something missing. That missing element is connection to the Savior. My friend has been supportive of my faith and ministry, but yet, has not entered into relationship with the Lord despite everything I have shared and conveyed over the years.

I am not a charismatic evangelist; I don’t often witness by preaching and sharing outright. I am more of a friendship evangelist. I would feel much more comfortable talking over a cup of coffee without the pressure to share the Gospel. If a friend can see by the way I communicate that I love the Lord and one day asks about the hope that is in my heart, I would be overjoyed to tell my story of faith.

Typically, I have been satisfied with this approach. Throughout my life thus far, I have been placed in many situations where I was able to share my faith. Often, I wasn’t able to share my testimony or directly speak of my salvation, but I made many life-long friends, many of whom are still not professing believers. I pray for these friends frequently, hoping that God has been able to use me as an instrument to communicate His love. I know I cannot save someone in my own power; I might just be the one to plant or water the seed. Perhaps someone will come along later to harvest what has been planted as the Holy Spirit convicts a friend to accept the gift of eternal life.

But when it comes to the dear friend I mentioned earlier, I feel a strange sense of urgency. As I explained, I have known this person for many years, and we have had several deep and intentional conversations, but matters of faith have always created a roadblock. Recently, I have felt a renewed stirring to pray for this person because I am sensing something is changing. I am restless and unsettled, my thoughts constantly wandering to this one person. The burden is great and it is heavy. In my own strength, I have carried it alone for all of these years. Yes, I’ve prayed; I’ve tried to leave it in God’s hands, but it’s been difficult to relinquish control.

Recently, I shared an evening with a sister in the Lord, and I talked about what was on my heart. That opened the door to two more sisters in Christ coming alongside of me to offer support and encouragement. I know they are praying for me, and even more importantly, for my friend too. I realized that like the twin sisters in the story I recounted above, I am not alone in this journey. I have a team surrounding me, similar to the dedicated souls who supported my album production.

But greater than my sisters in Christ, I also have Christ, my Vine, to cling to as I wait and pray— as I intercede for my dear friend. I don’t have to save this person in my own strength. For some reason I have been planted here in this time and place to play a part in this life-saving endeavor. But it remains to be seen the impact I will have in the end result. I only pray I don’t have to wait much longer. There are two of us— Christ and me— and my sisters who will carry me and pray with me.

I was surrounded by some of my sisters in Christ at a recent cardio/drumstick class at church when something incredible happened. I was dancing in the back row when we began a routine to Blanca’s “What if.” Just then, the sun came blazing through the stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary. The image depicted on the glass is of Jesus, knocking on a door, and even though I couldn’t see the details from the back of the room, I knew what the sun had illuminated just then. Call it coincidence. Call it a God-wink. Maybe I was just hyper-sensitive to the need in my heart. But I got the distinct assurance then that God had everything under control. Even then, perhaps, he was knocking on the door of my friend’s heart with the invitation to eternal life. He was working, even as I fumbled forward, trying to do the saving on my own. Oh, how I longed for God to use me, to be an instrument in this work, but I didn’t need to carry the burden alone.

As I danced, I basked in the glow of the setting sun, knowing He was front and center, leading and guiding me forward. I let the words from Blanca’s song wash over me, and I marveled at the peace that came over me. I was probably grinning like a fool but I didn’t care who was looking; I had my eyes glued to my Savior.

“I know You’re holding me up
I know Your love is enough
I know the power in Your name
Can do anything
And I know You’re making me strong
I know You were here all along
I know I’m right where You want me.”

There are two of us: me and God— and together, we are going to pursue the one who needs His love. As God does His work, I will do my best to reflect Him and bear the fruit he has brought to life in me: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). I will remain in the Vine and remain in His love.

Chasing Rainbows

 

Rainbow

It was early last summer when my father and I stood in the garage and watched the rain come down. He had been grilling our dinner when it started pouring, but he managed to get the grill just inside the door to avoid the deluge. I had just joined him in the garage to check on his progress. My mother and I had been getting everything else ready in the kitchen, and we figured our main course would be ready soon.

Neither of us said anything as we took in the brief rain storm. A rumble of thunder overhead took me by surprise because it had seemed like the rain was letting up. In fact, it looked like the sun was about to peek out.

So that day, just outside the garage, I kept searching for the rainbow, even though I knew it was possible that there wasn’t enough sunlight to cast upon the fading raindrops. But then as I continued to squint, I saw a faint line of color. “Is that…?”

I had barely spoken when my dad replied: “Yeah, there’s something there. It’s a rainbow, getting brighter.”

I stepped further out of the garage, not caring that I was getting dripped on by the drizzling rain. My mom came out of the house then and asked what we were doing. I don’t know if my dad answered her, because I was focused on that rainbow, drinking in the beauty and thanking God that I could see it.

Eventually, we all went inside to eat, but it wasn’t before I watched the rainbow fade from the sky. I waited until the sun was warm on my dark hair and the dark clouds were barely visible on the eastern horizon.

I thought about this moment last week when it rained for the first time this year. The abundance of snow that we had on the ground rapidly began to melt as a result of the added moisture and the warm temperatures. It made me think of Noah in the Bible and how God had shown His promise of faithfulness after the flood had receded from the earth. As water ponded and flowed in a small stream around my house, I longed for the beauty of a rainbow. But instead, the sky was dreary with no hint of sunlight, and the snow banks were gray and muddy. I couldn’t help but compare the scenery to my recent circumstances.

The day before, my sister had called and we talked for awhile. She asked how I was doing, and when I said “fine,” she pressed a little deeper. “I’ve been reading your Facebook posts,” she said. “Your loneliness, your ankle, all those challenges— you’re okay now?”

“Well, yeah, I guess,” I said. “It’s still rough. I can’t really go anywhere on my own yet. The ice is finally melting, but now there’s water everywhere. And my ankle is still not healed. I’m just taking it a day at a time.”

Immediately, I found wisdom in my own words. Yes, it had been rough, but it was totally okay to take things day-by-day. It reminded me of the early days after my retina detachment. The depression had been significant during that time, but there had also been some sweet moments too. I was able to spend time with my parents, my sisters, and my nieces and nephews. My mom and I cooked and baked together. We made the best of our trips to Mayo Clinic by stopping at Trader Joe’s and finding tea we both enjoyed. We would spend our evenings, sipping tea by the fireplace and simply being together. When I think of the fall of 2017, fear and depression are definitely a part of that season but there was also a calm and security too. It was a time for healing and growth.

I knew if I examined my current season with fresh eyes, I could find the blessings in the difficulty. It wasn’t long before I began to formulate a mental list of positives that had come from the recent winter months: the fitness class, learning to do my hair, embracing new technology, making music with my OneVoice girls, and watching Hallmark movies. Friends helped me get groceries, drove me to work, and made sure I got to my appointments when I couldn’t leave my house due to the weather. Other friends were just a call away if I needed a distraction or words of encouragement. Even though there were moments I felt limited and closed up inside my house, I was never left lacking; God was faithful and took care of me, even as the smoke alarms malfunctioned, a hoped-for opportunity was cancelled, and my ankle still radiated pain.

I knew I could find beauty in the challenges if I was willing to look on the bright side. It made me think of the little sun-catcher prisms my grandma had hanging in her windows when I was young. I would sit on the floor and purposefully follow the little rainbows of light as they moved across the floor and walls of the living room. Maybe this is why I’ve always liked rainbows and searching for the sunlight because it has been a part of my life since the beginning. It made me smile when I went to visit my grandma in the care facility recently, and I saw the little rainbows moving across her bed. Someone had found her prisms and had put them in the window. I had thought that maybe the sun-catchers had been put into storage or lost somehow when she had moved out of her house. But they were there in the window, and it was like everything was right in the world. I never knew how much I had missed those little sun-made rainbows until I glimpsed them again after their absence.

Rainbows don’t always last for long… they are fleeting, and sometimes they appear and then fade moments after the rain. But if it weren’t for the rain (the tough stuff in life), we wouldn’t be actively looking for blessings along the way. Even though life has its challenges, grief, and heartache, God is still faithful. Sometimes we need the darkness of our circumstances to find the blessings in the sunlight. The rainbow is the bridge between the pain and beauty. But sometimes you have to be looking intentionally to see the promises up ahead. You might be tempted to escape the rain just as soon as possible; I know I have that perspective for sure! It’s no fun to stand in the drizzle, nor is it enjoyable to endure life’s challenges. But if you can find perspective in the midst of the storm, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of color and light. Don’t hold back; go chase that rainbow.

Stumbling Forward

Early in January, I made the bold proclamation that I would be running free in 2019. Even with tendonitis in my ankle, I was motivated to leave behind my complacency and venture out into productivity. Well, I can definitely say it has not been an easy journey. We have encountered some bumps along the way, not to mention a fair share of anxiety.
Early in February, I was faced with some unwelcome obstacles at home. As a result, I was very anxious and didn’t sleep very well. In addition, the weather made it nearly impossible to leave the house. One week, the temperature didn’t climb above zero for several days. Local schools were cancelled due to the dangerously low wind chills. Then came the snow; inch after inch piled up. We would barely dig out from a storm only to be slammed with more snow two days later.
I was feeling boxed-in at home. A friend drove me to the store before the arctic blast so I could stock up on food and other necessities, but it didn’t take long before my meals lacked appeal. I was able to work from home, but I missed walking back and forth from the office. My only diversion was my daily shuffle to the mailbox. It was remarkable I could even find the mailbox in the drifted snowbanks at the end of the driveway.
One day, when my anxiety was at its peak, I was granted an opportunity to leave the house. It wasn’t good timing, because although I was eager to venture outside, I wasn’t in a good headspace. I tried to hide it, but I’m sure others were able to tell I was struggling. I am one of those people who wears their heart on their sleeve, and it’s impossible to hide behind emotion. A good friend and team member sought me out in the crowd that day and we started talking. I failed miserably as I pretended everything was okay. It wasn’t long before tears were streaming down my face, and I confessed that I had been battling through loneliness and anxiety.
Almost immediately, I realized I had found a compassionate confidant— someone who had witnessed anxiety in her own family and could relate to my struggle. As our conversation concluded, my friend extended an invitation. “You should come to class,” she said.
The class she referred to was a fitness and exercise session, held every Monday evening at the church. Attendees would dance and move to routines, many of which included the use of drumsticks. I had always been intrigued by my friend’s class but had never attended; I had assumed that I would not be able to keep up in such an environment. I was not in the best shape, and visually, I knew I would not be able to follow the instructor. But my friend encouraged me to attend class the next day and just give it a try. She said I didn’t have to return if it was beyond my ability.
Surprisingly, I was excited for the next day. I had my doubts that I would be able to keep up with the class, but I was willing to try anything. I think I would have agreed to anything at that point just to get me out of the house. But guess what? Monday morning dawned with the promise of accumulating ice and snow. Schools were cancelled, and my friend had to make the decision to cancel class as well. I had been so excited to try, and then snow once again derailed my plans.
Nearly a week later, friends from out of town informed me they were coming for a visit. Again, I was excited. We planned to order pizza and watch movies Saturday evening and then my friends would join me at church on Sunday. One friend made it to my house safely, but the other met with some difficulty. After a three-and-a-half-hour drive, he checked in to his hotel room only to come down with the stomach flu. Sadly, we spent the evening without him, but we still had an enjoyable time together, just the two of us. We ordered pizza, made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and watched movies.
At one point, I complained about my long hair and how difficult it was getting to manage it. That’s when my friend found a hair tie and told me I should pull it back. “I don’t know how,” I admitted somewhat sheepishly. Yeah, I know; what woman makes it to her mid-thirties without knowing how to make a ponytail? Well, apparently, I am that woman.
My friend was incredibly patient with me— talking through the steps and even occasionally pulling or tugging to get my hair in place. My first attempts were pretty pathetic. My arms hurt from being curled behind my head for such a long time. But finally, I made a passable ponytail, and we settled in to enjoy the rest of the evening.
The next morning, I awoke early so my friend could French braid my hair. You wouldn’t believe how many people came up to me at church that day and remarked about the new look. “Trust me,” I said often that morning. “My hair will never look like this again. There is no way I can replicate it.”
The next day, the house was quiet after the busy weekend. But I was determined to not get sucked back into the loneliness. It was Monday, and I was finally going to the fitness class! But the last thing I wanted was to battle my long hair. So I stood in my bathroom, a hair tie curled around my fingers, and twisted my hair into a pony tail. It took six attempts before I was satisfied, but I finally had a ponytail!
I went to class feeling confidant and ready, but I had no idea what to expect. It took me awhile to catch on; I found it was easier to follow the routines with drumsticks. The sticks were neon green and stood out as the other women moved their arms and tapped their sticks together. It was harder to figure out how to use my feet, but I managed to sway from side to side and click my drumsticks to the beat. I’m sure I didn’t get the same cardio workout as the other women, but it was certainly challenging. The more I thought about it, I realized it was both a physical and mental exercise for me. I was constantly moving my head so I could look at the others around me. Then I would look down to make sure my feet were in the right position. It took a great deal of concentration as I worked to follow along with only my left eye to compensate for all of the action. By the time the other women were stretching out on the floor at the end of class, I felt completely and wonderfully spent.
My friend, the instructor, played the song “I am not Alone” as performed by Kari Jobe, and tears spilled from my eyes as I sat on the floor. This song has been an emotional trigger for me over the past seventeen months or so in my recovery after my retinal detachment. In that moment, all of the anxiety and loneliness rose to the surface, and I felt God’s presence beside me as I cried. I was certainly not alone. I was surrounded by women who had welcomed me into their midst without questioning my level of physical strength and ability. I felt included and motivated— encouraged to be myself and to just try.
As I rose to my feet and moved to put my drumsticks away, my fingers rubbed against each other, and I looked down to find a blister. I didn’t think it had anything to do with the drumsticks or the workout, so I ignored it and went home. But the next day as I was attempting another ponytail before rehearsal, I came to a realization. Over the past few days as I had fumbled through multiple ponytail attempts, I had been gripping the hair tie between my fingers so tightly that I felt pain there. Then the blister made sense.
hair memeI had been trying so hard that the physical evidence on my finger was a nagging reminder of my accomplishments. It would have been easy for me in that moment to get discouraged— to tell myself that a ponytail shouldn’t be that difficult to make and I was failing miserably— but I recognized the negativity immediately. I couldn’t control the fact that my visual impairment had impacted my ability to learn the skill of doing my hair or following an exercise routine. I could only do my best and maintain a positive outlook on my circumstances, because truly, that was all I could control in the midst of my circumstances.
After my second week in class, I came home to a painful twinge in my ankle and a hair tie that had been stretched to its limits, thanks to my many attempts to do my hair. I was tired, but once again, I felt connected, included, and motivated. I think it’s going to be a long journey to recovery. I need to stay off of my ankle long enough to let it heal. I will need to keep doing my hair so that eventually it will become second nature. I will keep dancing and moving, even if my routine doesn’t match that of the other women. I will work through the coming days of winter loneliness, because Spring and Daylight Saving time is just around the corner. Longer, brighter, and warmer days are on the horizon, and I will keep stumbling forward one step at a time.