Denica McCall

Fantasy Writer — Bringing light to hidden worlds

Racing, racing

I’m competing against time even though

Clocks never challenged me to a duel

I never watched watches, not until

My head clicked, clicked away from

Warmth

It was held, this mind, like

An eye in its hollow

Covered, like dew in a meadow

But I went blind and thought

I could see right until my lines

Went blurry and then I had to hurry

Stop.

I can’t catch up, the seconds tock by

And I’m nothing but flailing limbs and

Failed tries

A human with a mask

What is it? they ask

What makes these sinews dance?

What

Am I without romance

Or

Art?

Just a lonely mass of heart and bone and

Blood

Who told you I was anyone?

Breath,

Take a breath

Time’s going somewhere, but

It won’t reach its end before I’ve begun

Growing, growing

Pushing, reaching

I’m

Here now, encompassed in love now

Your beating pulse like a compass, pointing

North

Because it’s true

Time’s not the culprit, it’s you

Fear, it’s you

RachelDueckI’d like to introduce you all to my friend Rachel Dueck, one of the most kind and thoughtful people I know, who is also an amazing artist! Rachel has some great insights about art and creativity, and I hope you find encouragement from hearing a little about her own journey.

 

Rachel is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator based in Kansas City, MO. Her clients span a range of agencies and non-profit organizations and her illustrative work is featured on select products offered by Pinhole Press. When she’s not working, she enjoys photography and nature walks with her husband. You can find her on racheljoy.net and on Instagram @racheldueck.

 

The interview:

 

  1. When did you first know you wanted to be a graphic designer?

I learned about the industry as a sophomore in high school. A friend of mine invited me to take a graphic arts course with her. She had heard we would make t-shirts in the class, and hey, that sounded fun! So I signed up and was instantly hooked on design. I loved the blend of art, science, technology, and problem solving, and I knew at that point it was going to be my career.

 

  1. What are your near and future goals for your art?

In the near term, I’d love to make some of my artwork available as prints. In the future, I’d love to create something that would be commercial… maybe a fabric line or a pattern that gets picked up for a product in Target—wouldn’t that be fun?!

 

  1. What other kinds of art do you draw inspiration from? Any specific examples?

I love looking at paintings in the art museum. It’s fun to see similar techniques expressed in totally different ways, or to see different styles from the same person. I have a ‘cutesy’ look to my artwork, but I like trying to change up the style to push myself creatively, and looking at other artwork is always helpful in doing so.

 

  1. What do you do to get past creativity blocks?

Just keep swimming. I am a huge fan of prompts—they’re a good base point when I can’t think of anything to draw. The lettering and drawing challenges on Instagram (there are MANY!) help me stay motivated because each day there’s something new, and the community that participates in them is very positive, encouraging, and supportive. Plus, you get to see what everyone else did with the prompt, which is always really fun.

 

  1. What does your process look like when you settle down to create? (Both physically and mentally)

Physically, I like to have a good workspace with all my materials at-hand. If I’m at the computer, I have to have a snack handy because I like to chew while I think. (On good days, it’s carrots… bad days, gummy bears). I don’t snack when I’m painting or drawing on the iPad, because…mess. Mentally, I like to have a clear idea of the end goal so that as I work, it’s a cohesive process toward that goal, even if I change things a lot before I get there.

 

  1. What is your favorite kind of project?

My favorite kind of project is one with just the right mix of freedom and limitations. I like the freedom to be able to come up with my own ideas for a design or art piece, but the limitations (size restrictions, accommodating some amount of verbiage, audience type, etc.) really help me form boundaries and zero in on how I’d like to solve the creative puzzle I’m working on.

 

  1. How do you feel when you finish a project?

Relieved! And proud…usually. Sometimes I need to make changes and adjustments based on what my clients want rather than what I want artistically, so it’s a bit of a give-and-take. But I try not to create anything I’m not proud of in the end.

 

  1. If you could give just one nugget of advice to beginning/aspiring artists, what would it be?

Try new things, or old things again. When I taught myself hand-lettering, it was the first time in 6+ years I had created something by hand, not on the computer. It opened the door to other creative ventures, and now I’m sort of a blend of all kinds of art and design, both digital and physical. The more you explore and pick up on the way, the more you collect building blocks to the type of artist you are becoming.

 

  1. What is one of the most important things you’ve learned in your artistic pursuits?

Something you create that seems very ordinary might be very meaningful to someone else. I sometimes underestimate the impact my artwork can have on other people, and it’s neat to hear from them directly. Audience size can be that difference. I’ve created designs that were seen by millions of people and never felt the impact of the design, but I’ve painted a family portrait for a woman who lost her dad, and I cried when she told me how meaningful it was to her. The reach might be small, but it can be very important.

 

  1. What encouragement would you give someone who wants to make a living off their art but don’t feel like it’s practical or that it could ever happen?

It can! But be smart about it, too. I’m a very realistic person, so I built my freelance design business while I still had a full-time job, and took the plunge into full-time freelance after developing a solid base of professional experience, clients, and business sense (you have to know how to create an invoice, for example, if you want people to pay you). But that is all learnable, and sometimes the best way to learn it all is to just dive in and ‘make it work.’

 

Know your audience, too. Who will be buying your art? Consider that maybe there’s an audience for your knowledge or skill or procedure. In high school, I got my first taste of entrepreneurialism (is that a word?) by teaching piano lessons. It was a great way to share the things I had learned and make some money doing it. Online courses are huge right now. Perhaps there’s a way to package not only your finished product, but also your process. I guess I’m saying get creative about revenue streams—the more, the merrier.

 

  1. Do you think art can bring about change? If so, what kind of change do you hope to bring through your art?

I do think so. The designs I create serve as visual communication, combining imagery with information to get a message across. Many people are highly visual, and a powerful image, chart, or graphic can explain in one glance what might otherwise take a paragraph to describe. I’d love to encourage more understanding on a variety of topics in this way.

 

  1. Have you ever felt like giving up? If so, what got you through it?

Sometimes the workload can be overwhelming, or a client can be particularly difficult, but I guess I just keep going because I figure tomorrow—or next week or month—is a new day—or week or month. Everything that seems unmanageable usually turns out to be manageable, and any given situation is only temporary.

 

  1. How do you move past criticism?

Be self-aware of my own ability to know what’s true and what’s false. If it’s true, I learn to find ways to improve on a weakness. If it’s false, I learn to let it go. Criticism is extremely difficult for me as a perfectionist people-pleaser, but it’s something I’ve grown in over the years, and I’ve come to appreciate honest feedback that can help me grow as an artist/businesswoman/person.

 

  1. How, in your view, does comparison and competition affect the artistic world? How can artists keep their passion alive in the midst of pressure?

There’s a healthy and unhealthy version of competition, in my opinion. Healthy competition allows you to see how others are excelling, using it as motivation to move forward in your own work, and pushes you to offer your best. Unhealthy competition is making a comparison (usually a skewed comparison) and walking away feeling defeated or ‘less than’—or the opposite: arrogant and ‘better than,’ putting others down to make ourselves feel higher. We each have something unique to offer, and our collection of artistic building blocks—life experiences, skill set, opinions, beliefs—is never the same as someone else’s. We can cultivate our own artistic talent while encouraging others to cultivate theirs at the same time. There’s room for everyone.

 

  1. What do you see the role of art to be in our culture?

To me, art is a way to express/convey our ideas and beliefs in a thoughtful and reflective way. I personally believe we were created with intention, and that each of us are given some degree of artistic capacity because we’re made in the image of God, the ultimate Creator. Whether creating or consuming art, I think it can connect us to each other as humans.

 

  1. What do you find most beautiful in the world?

Nature. There are some very gorgeous places on this earth!

 

For Fun:

 

What would your superpower be, and why?

Teleportation. I have family and friends spread out across the globe, and I’d love the ability to visit any of them whenever I wanted!

 

What is your favorite TV show, movie, or fandom?

I’m a huge fan of the Gilmore Girls. Just love their mother-daughter relationship and witty banter.

 

As a kid, what other things did you want to be when you grew up?

I thought I might be a teacher or a nurse. Nurse was quickly written off when I learned I hated the sight of blood! I still enjoy teaching others, so you never know what might happen down the road!

Why do they call it “dancing for your life?”

It’s a phrase frequently repeated on the popular talent show So You Think You Can Dance, a phrase that extends an invitation for the contestant to take one last shot. There are only two sides to this coin—a 50/50 chance to either continue on in the contest or go home, defeated. The dancer faces a choice in this moment: Will they capitulate to fear, or will they embrace hope?

50/50…

How can they know how to respond without predicting the eventual outcome of their last-ditch effort?

I recently heard something else on a similar program. About how nervousness and excitement are essentially the same emotion, the difference between the two being our response to what lies before us, or in other words, our point of view. Hope and fear.

Perhaps they call it “dancing for your life” because something actually dies in the contestant who gets sent home. When your dream gets shot down, it’s easy to let your hopes wither. Death, basically, is loss. That’s why, when you’ve put it all on the line and that person you’re looking to for affirmation rejects your efforts, it can feel like death. Because you’re beginning to lose your dream. Not only that, but when they tell you to dance for your life, or give it all you’ve got, or something similar, a huge weight is dropped on your shoulders. Suddenly, it’s all on you. And if you don’t make it, it’s your fault.

You could have done better.

You did something wrong.

You’re not good enough.

Rejection always proffers a critical choice: Either rave against the ones who turned you down, beat yourself up for awhile, or continue to believe in your dreams, learn from the experience, and keep working.

This all brings me to share a bit about my own journey. I recently attended my third year at the Realm Makers writer’s conference, a unique gathering of speculative writers and industry professionals where we have the opportunity to pitch our manuscript to editors and agents, learn a ton, and connect with other authors. It’s a wonderful event, and I’m indelibly grateful for the connections I’ve made and what I’ve learned attending this and similar conferences. After returning home, I began to process my inner thought-reel. And I made some realizations.

I realized there were some things in my life that I’d “learned” to stop getting my hopes up for.

I want to be a published fiction author. I’ve been working on this dream for over twelve years. And it’s been good. But, it’s also been hard. I’ve invested a whole lot into my writing—tears, sweat, time, money, commitment, energy, prayer, my heart. I have worked so hard and sought out help and done my research on the industry. And I’ve punched out the words and written the stories, often treating it as a second full time job.

But I haven’t seen a lot of return. At least not yet.

Sometimes, the dream is sparked to life again. Realm Makers helps a lot with this. But I’ve come to recognize that most of the time, in the tension of uncertainty, I forget to be excited. I tamper down my hopes because I don’t want to risk disappointment.

And I’m dying inside.

Not because someone rejected me. But because I can’t seem to live up to my own expectations when I do gamble and toss out my hopes. And because I cheap shot my dream.

So I asked myself a question:

If I don’t see the return, and I can’t predict when it will come, can I sustain a life where I just keep investing, or is this whole venture going to wear me down?

See, I’ve told myself I have to dance for my life. I’m afraid of letting myself down, not someone else. So I stress over getting things “just exactly right.” But my perfectionist tendencies don’t work, because even if I do everything right, I still face the very real possibility of seeing zero return.

What I have to admit and embrace is that I can’t get it perfect. But that doesn’t mean I have to stop hoping, stop working, or stop dreaming. And it certainly doesn’t mean that my dream isn’t valuable. It means that maybe it’s not all on me. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to dream with God. With my Father, who is nothing short of the dream-giver himself. I might not get everything right, but he can and will do something good with my investment.

There’s a fine balance we must find between holding onto our dreams and letting go of certain mindsets. We do have to face the realities of life, the realities of the writing industry and that it’s not easy to “make it.” But if we can learn to surrender our need for control, our need to know the outcome and letting that determine whether we’re nervous or excited, we will be able to let ourselves dream again.

I’ve been holding too much.

I need to let God hold things for me so I don’t become disheartened. He’s really good at that. He loves to cradle our longings and desires to his chest, to breathe life on them, and to care for our hearts. Sometimes the ache of unfulfilled dreams is too heavy, weighing us down and stealing the joy of the process. But if we allow God to hold them, it frees us up to keep going. Because now there’s room. Of course this is going to require vulnerability and trust, but I’m convinced it’s worth it.

One more thing I was struck with at Realm Makers: The immense importance of the community around me. I may or may not get a book deal from this one conference, but I have gained an army of comrades. I am reminded of the specific people I’ve met that have had a huge impact on me and my writing. They have championed me and helped me and taught me in the midst of the doubts and hopes of my journey. Not only that, but I have a community here at home, people that have become cheerleaders for me, praying and encouraging and offering me their time and ear to practice pitching or bounce ideas off of.

And it makes me want to do the same for others.

In fact, I can keep my own dreams alive by championing and celebrating yours. And I certainly hope I do. On that note, let me make myself available. If you need a listening ear, an encouragement, or a prayer to keep going and not lose heart, please reach out. I’m learning, just as you, and perhaps our paths can intersect, if even for a moment.

Thank you for listening.

Thank you for not giving up. On yourself, or on me.

 

 

In truth, there are a lot of reasons, and even as a word-loving person I find it hard to express how I feel about this show, what it does to me both as a person and as an artist. But when a piece of art can move you so unexpectedly, it’s worth it to explore why.

Unexpected. That is the first word I would attribute to this Netflix series. But I think first it’s important to acknowledge that we all approach a new film or show in different ways. We come in the midst of our current life events, we bring our pre-opinions, our expectations, and a whole horde of things we like and dislike. We come to be entertained or to cry, to be moved or to escape. We come to be inspired to make great art or we come to connect with a character. I’m setting up what I’m going to say with this, because in the world of art critiquing, I think it’s wise to remember our differences. Your opinion is not worse or better than mine, because we have varying experiences in our lives and diverse ways of seeing the world, and we are simply never going to be exactly the same.

With that in mind, I want to tell you the first reason I was blown away by Stranger Things, from the moment I caved and finally gave episode one a try. I came in already quite critical and doubtful. I didn’t doubt that it was going to be good art and a great story, but I doubted I would enjoy it. I have never liked horror and I rarely get into things that are that dark in nature. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to handle the scariness or the intensity. I also feel strongly about the role of good characters. If the characters don’t have an excellent arc, and if I can’t emotionally connect with them, I don’t generally enjoy the story even if visual effects and other aspects are stunningly executed. So if Stranger Things was going to be all about the “jump factor” or the creepy monsters, I wasn’t going to get through it.

But here I am at the end of season three, still reeling in a good way from the emotional roller coaster it put me through.  I didn’t want to hop off that ride until the last bit. It kept me up past my “old lady” bedtime, and when it comes to stories, that is always a good sign. They did it! This show made me fall in love with a genre I had many previous reservations about, and to me, that says a lot.

A good story is driven by great characters, and here I come back to the word “unexpected.” I absolutely love it when a character that I expected to dislike from his or her introduction can, over the course of the plot, become a character I have great empathy for, someone I root for, even if I can’t relate in every way. See, there are certain characters, like the group of kids from this series, that you pretty much applaud from the beginning. They’re likable, funny, sometimes sweet and just want to make sure their friend gets back from the upside down. You expect to like them throughout the whole series. Then there are the characters that appear on screen with their egos fully intact, the bullies, those who belittle others, the “rough-around-the-edges” types like Detective Hopper, or the misunderstood, isolated types like Jonathan, who you maybe aren’t sure what to think of yet.

I love almost all of the characters in Stranger Things and was pleased by their journeys, despite all the mistakes they made in the course of things. But I especially loved Steve and Billy. These were two characters arcs I didn’t expect. I certainly never thought I’d be rooting for Billy by the end of season three. Stuck up, douche-bag Billy who hated on his little sister and took advantage of women.

I was quite surprised by what the character of Billy did to my heart, and by the end I was devastated for him because I really wanted him to get a chance to turn his life around. He had so much potential to become a better person.

I love the redemptive aspects of this series. There is a lot of darkness and violence, which can be questionable for some, and then there’s the suspense, which keeps you “turning the pages,” and yet ultimately it became about family. About loyalty and forgiveness. About loss and second chances. And about how one little girl from Utah saves the world. 😉 (Talk about unexpected.)

It goes without mentioning that the 80’s throwbacks, the music and cinematography, and the special effects were remarkably implemented. All of these aspects, along with the humor and the top-notch acting, composed a thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable series. Combine that with the well-crafted plot and the heart-shattering character arcs and you have a pretty darn great piece of art. Oh, and don’t even get me started on Hopper’s perfect, tragic end in the speech he wrote for Eleven. I love how the writers intentionally dig past the surface of these raw characters to get to the heart of them. I will tell you as a writer that is not an easy feat, but it’s something I aspire to do well with my own characters.

Lastly, I just want to give a shout out to the Duffer Brothers and the other masterminds behind the show. Stranger Things is well-loved, but it has also received a lot of flack, especially this newest season. Every piece of art that is put out into the world is going to get its share of criticism. As artists, it’s impossible to please every recipient. I personally don’t think that the Duffers needed to do anything differently. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but could it ever be? If they did something in another way, if they changed the plot at all, it still would have received harsh feedback. I think these guys did the best they could with what they had. They worked hard and poured their skill, their hearts, and their souls into the project, and in my opinion, the result was stunning in many regards. So props, Duffers!

And artists, never, ever give up or compromise or think that your art isn’t worthy. You have a voice and you have an audience, somewhere. Your melody will find the ears it was meant to reach. And sometimes, it’s the ears themselves that need to give your music a chance.

Come on, blow us away.

 

That is all.

Opinionated artist out. 😉

The wind used to be my enemy. Or so my perception taught me. It came with its unforgiving claws and snatched away the very ground I stood on, leaving me falling, helpless with only the air it left behind to grasp onto.

It snatched my sanity.

It wasn’t until I noticed one night how the wind danced with the stars, weaving its wanton fingers with the winking lights, that I began to understand that perhaps I hadn’t seen rightly. After all, with an invisible thing like the wind, how can one see it except in his or her imagination?

As a child, it seemed cruel, like a devil intent on stealing my innocence. I remember the day clearly. It was my eighth summer, and I’d been given a brand new cherry red kite for flying on blustery days. When I peeked outside one morning, my heart thrilled at the way the trees bowed to one side as if approached by unseen royalty, by the way the leaves fluttered like twittering songbirds and the chimes Mama had hung around the terrace sang.

It was the perfect day for flying my kite.

Without so much as eating a bite of boiled egg or letting Mama work my hair into braids, I grabbed the treasured gift and ran outside, laughing at the way the wind nearly knocked me to the ground. I had to catch my breath for its intensity, but I’d never felt more alive, there in the presence of a force so strong and stunning. Clutching the kite handle in one hand, I lifted my other, letting the wind push through the cracks between my fingers, relishing the feel of something beyond my control. I trusted the wind. Because it had always been, before the origins of everything. Wind simply was, and it seemed to hold some secret knowledge which, as a small girl living in one of the smallest villages in the kingdom, I took comfort in.

I lowered my hand and let the wind toss my dark hair about my face, tie it into knots that I’d probably regret later when Mama tried to pull a comb through it. But right now, I didn’t care. It was time to fly the kite.

Unraveling the string, I released it, allowing the wind to catch the bright redness in its grasp. I watched the kite and held on tight to the handle, pulling back against the tension. The kite dipped one way, and then the other, dancing to a melody that maybe only I could hear. I reveled in the joy of putting my gift to use. And I wished that I could fly, too. Until the wind picked up, becoming a gale and adopting a fierceness that sent a shaft of fear through my chest. A gash tore open in the middle of the kite, as if pierced with a spear, and I gasped. I could hear someone calling my name somewhere behind me, but the merciless gusts quickly drowned the sound, the urgency.

The wind ripped the red flyer from my white-knuckled grip, and I was powerless to fight it, or to go after it. I watched it, a red spot that suddenly reminded me of blood, until it vanished in between the clouds. And then the sky’s wound became my own, sitting heavy on my heart until I couldn’t breathe. Arms were flung around me from behind. Strong arms, maybe my father’s, and I was pulled inside, where soon the wildness settled into composure. But I still felt the tingling of the wind, its breath taunting my puckered skin. I turned my face into Papa, trying to smother its feel in his embrace.

“It’s gone,” I moaned. “I lost your gift.”

My groans became sobs and my sniffles turned into tears, trailing my face and smearing all over Papa’s tunic.

“It’s all right, Ayla. It’s all right.” His hushed reassurances didn’t steal the tremors running through my little body. And they didn’t amend my new belief.

The wind didn’t care about me. In fact, I could bet our underprivileged lives that it was a menace intent on depriving me of any bit of joy, light, or stability that I could ever find. Why would it rend such a precious gift from my very hands, when we had so little? And after I’d offered it my trust?

The wind was a deceiver, taking delight in bludgeoning dreams.

I pulled myself back from Papa’s arms, and, not willing to part with my harsh thoughts, stiffened, letting anger turn my heart into rock and sift its whispers through my veins. I swiped a hand roughly over my cheek to dry my tears, then lifted my chin.

“It’s ok,” I said quietly. “It’s just a kite.”

Papa stroked my tangled hair, but I turned away and headed for my cot, where I sat the rest of the day, pondering. What could I trust now?

The fury that took root that day bore me through the years, steeling me in defense. I held my own against the wind instead of letting it have its way with its satisfied grins. But I learned, in my eighteenth autumn, that the wind was not something that could be controlled. Resisted, yes. But it was an element that possessed no equal match, an opponent that proved victorious every time. I had many bruises to confirm this truth, but I hid them, calling them my secret battle scars. They made me stronger. They fueled the rage. Until that autumn, when at last my resolve was foiled, and the wind left me with only two choices: die, or surrender.

Both options felt equally unwelcome.

Since my eighth summer, the wind had eradicated our crops, had torn open our roof, and had taken Papa from us during a relentless storm. He perished trying to save our last goat. Which also died. Mama and I were left destitute, forced to sell off what little we owned or beg in the town square in order to feed ourselves.

Then one day I walked outside. The wind was there in all its vehemence, mocking my lament of our dead field and the memories buried in the same dust that brushed over my bare feet. I screamed at it as it rushed into my ears, seeming to not care about our predicament, our demise, but twisting its relentless fingers into my head and squeezing my brain until I thought it might burst. I ran back inside, yelling from the back of my throat and pressing both hands to my ears, overcome.

I lay in defeat on the cold, splintered floor while Mama continued to waste away in her bed, starving because she always insisted I eat the last bits of food. I laid there until nightfall, when the ache that had bloomed in my head and chest at last deflated, settled into something I could hardly name. A deepness penetrated my soul, until my lungs caved from the pressure and tears sprung to my eyes.

What was this?

The pain, the anger inside collided with a new presence. A calm, safe, wild presence that made my heart concave, made my nerves tremble for more. And then a voice rushed through my head.

Go outside.

Night had fallen, but despite the dark, I pushed myself up from the floor, desperate and hungry, and walked outside. I looked up into a sky so speckled with lights that its beauty dropped me to my knees. The wind came, then.

It was gentler this time, breezy and strangely warm, blowing all around, pressing up against me and sweeping over my parted lips. The sensation challenged the rage I cradled inside, as if the two were even now dueling over my fate. The wind lifted, throbbing against my body until it rose over my head, playing with untamed tendrils of my hair. It rose to join the stars, though I couldn’t see it. I just knew. I knew where it was, I could see it dancing, daring, inviting.

And it saw me.

Not my anger at it, but me. It was the moment I knew that my fury would kill me if I didn’t let go, but the prospect of surrendering to the wind, with its unknown intentions, matched my fear of the former.

Once more, much as earlier, the wind rushed into my ears. But this time, its warmth tingled down into my throat and chest, until an offer sat heavy upon my heart.

And that was the moment my anger collapsed before the love that ravaged my apprehensions.

The wind is invisible, as it has always been. I have much to learn, but one thing I now see is that the wind is a gift, because it reminds me I don’t have to be in control. In the past, I only thought I knew what I was seeing. But circumstances don’t always speak the deepest truths, while surrender always, always marks the path to freedom.

If time is all that separates, then my feet pass over

Your dreams

Paved pathways in the present were naught but dirt until a thought turned

Them into streets

And we think in tenses, but

History speaks, subtly leaving its marks like a ghost that haunts our lives

Waking each moment, breathing its mysteries into wandering souls

Maybe, just maybe those who listen close enough will hear

Its calls

Warning, urging, exhorting working hands to pay attention,

For time is merely a dance that will end one day

And as twilight fades into night, we sway

To the tune of a million hearts that beat on this dear land

We are closer than we’ll ever know,

Occupying the same space, our steps marked by the same grace, our

Tears making the same stains

We are people wishing in the moonlight for time

To go slowly, rendering sadness immobile and building houses around us

Of good tidings

For maybe in the future, our hearts will have left their

Footprints, beating their tunes against the dark, ushering light

With each sunrise, until time

Loses its hold, and we all find each other

At home

timepoemimage

In Disney’s recent remake of the classic Aladdin, the genie says something to Aladdin that I find quite profound. Here, I paraphrase in my own words:

 

“The more you gain while pretending to be something you’re not, the less you’ll have.”

 

Jafar—the villain—is the villain because he seeks power, status and riches above love and honesty and generosity, and he lies to get these things. Considering his demise in the end, it just goes to show how pursuing what we want without any consideration for others will cost us dearly. No one respected Jafar when his real motives were revealed. So everything he gained while pretending to be loyal to the sultan turned into loss. Interestingly, he trapped himself in the lamp. No one else did it to him.

Might the people of Agrabah have respected Jafar if he hadn’t used deception as a means to his desires?

Curious how our hero of the story, Aladdin, is faced with choices very similar to Jafar’s. And Aladdin nearly falls for the trap, too. See, we’re all tempted with selfish gain. We’ve all been hurt and have legitimate excuses to justify selfish choices. But the difference between a villain and a hero is that the hero embraces the courage it takes to be known plainly and fully.

To reveal your truest, most vulnerable self to people is scary. Most of us would rather create some sort of façade to hide behind, to dress ourselves up as the person we most want to be. Because maybe then we’ll be liked, accepted, acknowledged. Maybe then it’ll look like we have it together and we’re qualified to have or do the things we pursue.

The problem is, hiding behind an exterior is the loneliest place we could ever be.

When the genie dresses Aladdin up as a prince and parades him through town with an impressive entourage, he is now in a far more likely position to be allowed to marry Jasmine, the princess. And she does fall for him. But what Aladdin needs to realize is that she would have liked him even if he didn’t don the prince disguise. In fact, she met him earlier and was attracted to him. Aladdin just didn’t believe he could be loved, and would never even consider the possibility of acceptance into the royal family, being the “street rat” that he was.

So, in pretending to be a prince, Aladdin finds himself getting all the things he ever wanted. But he is afraid to reveal his true identity to Jasmine and the rest of her household. And not just because he’s living a lie. But because he doesn’t think that what he really is will be worthy of their attention or affection. Eventually, if Aladdin keeps up the act, he will find that he is ultimately alone.

Because they don’t really know him.

Hence, Aladdin has to face his fear of rejection, his fear of being trapped by the perceptions that people have of him, in order to experience the true fulfillment of his desires. He can continue the lie and lose everything in the end, or he can choose to believe that in being himself, he is already one of the richest men alive.

We all want to be known, but most of us are afraid to let ourselves be fully known. We’re afraid that people will see what’s wrong with us. That in the end we’ll end up alone because something about us keeps people at a distance. It takes courage to believe that this won’t be the case.

But look how it turned out for Jafar. And look how it turned out for Aladdin. Sure, Aladdin had his share of faults, but he found that people could overlook them when they saw his integrity. Jafar would find himself living the loneliest life, because he was too consumed with status, power, and image to expose his true self, faults and all. He could have found love, if he was brave enough to face his pain, to be honest, to open up.

So my proposition is simply, let’s stop pretending. Maybe the world will be a less lonely place if we do. Maybe there will be more heroes than villains.

Searing wind whistles through my tangled hair as sand slaps my face. My lips are cracked, and I can feel the crinkles in the corners of my eyes from too much squinting. I’ve been in this hot wasteland for longer than I care to admit. I look out from behind dancing strands of hair and see what I have seen for miles: white sand, stretching across a flat horizon. And a blazing sun, just now beginning its nightly descent.

If I am to be honest, I am uncertain to say how I came to be here. It is as if I was dropped upon this endless swathe of desert by some force I cannot fully recall. The memory is faint—so faint. Like a mirage long forgotten. But I know I am not here by my own will. Choice, maybe. But that is a different matter, isn’t it? Because choice can lead us to results we never expected, therefore making it possible for our choices to run against our will.

I sigh. I’ve had too much time to myself, philosophizing and waltzing with thoughts and questions that churn and eddy like the ocean.

The ocean. There’s a place I miss, though I can’t say why. I have no standing memories of times spent on its shores, within its wild waters, or carried on its waves. But it is a place I know nevertheless, and I long for the salty air, the cry of gulls, the spray of water cast by the wind.

I rub my sand-splattered face. Look down and wish a rivulet would split apart the dry ground, that rain would fall and make sandcastles possible. I squat and dig my hand into the white grains at my feet, watch them slip through the cracks in my fingers, and know that nothing can ever be made from such a dry substance.

I stand. I’ve been walking for a long time. I feel the aches in my calves, my feet, my whole body. It trembles with the need to collapse, but I can’t let myself do that, or I’ll be caught forever in this place. I have to reach the horizon; I think if I do, I might find what it is I need. But it’s so far, and tonight I am not motivated to move forward. So instead, I stare at that distant line that holds promises I don’t know if I can trust, let alone reach.

A train whistle echoes from a distance. My ear turns to the sound—to my left—as I marvel that it’s the only thing I’ve heard besides the wind, the skittering sand and my own labored footfalls for…I’m not sure how long.

Long enough.

The whistle comes again, aloof like in a dream, and I hear the soft puff puff of an engine focused on its destination. The sound neither grows louder nor quieter, but strangely, it remains at the same frequency despite the fact I haven’t moved. I close my eyes, because the invisible train sparks an unforeseen emotion in me. My stomach sinks and my chest swells with longing that cannot be put into words. Nostalgia is the only word that seems fitting. For in my mind’s eye, I am taken back to my childhood, where my fingers are small and my hair is wispy and I can hear the call of the conductor.

Alllll aboard!” he urges, and my feet pitter-patter to climb upon the platform behind another, bigger form. We are going somewhere we go every summer, my brother and I, and my little heart is split between two desires: the home I am leaving, and the great open fields of my grandparents’ country acreage. I gasp, opening my eyes. Puff puff. Puff puff. The sound is in fact louder now. I realize the fact as I realize the memory is real and as raw as a freshly scraped knee, and I suddenly feel as if I have lost something very dear to me.

I breathe the dry air, narrow my eyes against the sinking sun, and hear the train’s wheels and engine roar in my ear. Cha-chunk, cha-chunk, cha chunk. It doesn’t make sense, for it should be right next to me and yet I see nothing but the desert. When the whistle sounds once again, the sun suddenly blinks out as if someone flipped a big power circuit to the off position.

It is night, and the wind grows stronger, turning into gales that whip my hair and clothes about. Millions of stars dot the sky—close, as if they might converge and enter my pores. Then flashes of what seems to be artificial light catch the corner of my left eye, and I turn, astonished as the train’s cars whizz right by me. I stagger back to avoid a collision with the beastly machine, try to catch my breath. Sand swishes beneath my footsteps as I move further back, and then it begins to diminish, the grains swept out from under my feet and fading into the air. I look down and find that I’m now standing on solid pavement, but I can see nothing else but the fluorescent lights from within the passing cars, lights which drown out the stars.

Where am I?

I turn around and find there is a station behind me, but I am the only person in sight. Turning back to face the train, the lights from the windows illuminate my body as they pass, like blinking fireflies. On. Off. On. Off. My chest grows warm with each passing window, and soon it is too hot to bear. Hesitantly, I look down. To my horror, I find clumps of sizzling blisters covering the skin just below my neck. The lights pass. On. Off. On. Off. I cry out, stagger back and trip over my own foot, sprawling to the pavement. I feel a bruise bloom over the ribs I landed on, and I moan as I lift my head.

The train is endless, it seems, for its cars pass by in relentless succession, oblivious to my confusion, my pain, my fear. My chest stings as if it’s on fire, and a terrifying realization accompanies my next scream. The lights from the cars. They blink off as soon as they pass over me. Neither do they turn on until they pass. I wasn’t able to notice standing so close to the train, but sure enough, the lights are for me and me alone. This is not the train I am familiar with, the beautifully magical beast that promised adventure as a child.

Or is it?

I let out a long moan as I push myself to a sitting position, and begin struggling to my feet, because I want to get out of this place. But my wish is met before I even try, for I feel a slap of sand and am blinded by a blazing sun at the same moment. The pain in my chest slowly fades as I rise from the white sand beneath me. I look down, catching my breath, and find smooth—if sun-burnt—skin covering my chest once again.

Now more than ever, I want to find out how I got here, and how long I’ve been here. Because I just can’t remember. But it’s all staged. I know it. My fingers ball into fists as I let a new determination rise: I will resist this place until my captor is forced to surrender, to reveal all. I will not give in. I will not move towards the horizon that holds nothing but vacant hopes.

I scream, wishing for an echo but knowing it won’t come; instead, my voice is swallowed by the endlessness. Tears fall and instantly dry upon my face, a testament to the desert’s desolation. I drop to my knees, and sand bites into my raw skin, but I don’t care. I am so alone, and the truth of the fact encompasses me for the first time. I tremble and collapse to the ground, curl up on my side and imagine the sand is a soft bed, that I am home, surrounded by safety and family.

“Sometimes, it’s easier to believe a lie.”

I gasp and sit up, looking around for the source of the voice. But no one is there. I close my eyes. Swallow. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was hallucinating.

“If it’s true, you have to engage,” he continues. “You have to make decisions that you might not feel ready to make.”

I open my eyes. The voice is soft, close. And then he’s there, kneeling down, reaching out and placing a calloused yet comforting hand on the side of my face. I don’t know this man, but my lurching heart tells me I do. I must.

Sand skitters across my feet, my legs, sticks to the sweat on my face. And then the wind blows stronger, casting the man’s hair about his head, pushing into the crevices between his fingers and my face.

“Who are you?” I rasp, closing my eyes as if the act will confirm my suspicion that he is a mere projection of what I crave: companionship. To be known, to be seen. But even in the longing, I tremble with fear of such things.

“I am the one who hasn’t left,” the man says. My heart lurches again, but I hush it. He is the lie, this man who speaks of lies and truth. “It is harder to believe the truth. Don’t you see? I am here. I am real,” he continues.

“Where’s the train?” I whisper. “Was that real?”

He doesn’t speak for some time, and I wonder if he truly has left me. And then a breath. “It is how your heart remembers it,” he says softly.

I open my eyes, blink against the light filtering through our faces, and find his gaze even though I can hardly breathe. His eyes are aqua green, like the ocean that plays on the edges of my memory. “Do you mean…” I begin, quietly, “that’s how I remember the train that took me to my grandparents’?”

Lines appear in his face when a small smile tugs his lips, and he lowers his hand and slips it into mine. I gasp in its comfort. “It is rather…how your heart recalls your adolescence.” He pauses. “Your past. See…you feel singled out, alone, accused. Being known scares you because then everyone is looking. Then they might run away, like that train. If they saw you in the light, if they saw what a burden you were, if your lack was illuminated, they would all leave you. You were afraid to stay home but also afraid to go abroad. You sought the security of settling in one place and yet ached for adventure. The fear kept you still, staring at the vehicle that could have taken you somewhere but instead condemned you for your immobility. And then the train disappeared altogether, and you didn’t know what to do.”

His words drown me, and I don’t even recognize the tears rolling down my face until he stops speaking.

“Shhhh.” The man stretches out his free hand, swipes the wetness from my cheek. “It is not the truth. It is only the shadow your heart hides within.” I am rocking back and forth, lost in the illumination of his claims, undone by being known to such depth. I do not know how to piece myself back together. I’ve been in this desert so long, I can’t remember anything else.sandstorycorrectquote

“You don’t have to do anything,” the man says, as if reading my mind. “Do you recall the ocean, child?”

I look up at him, suddenly and without pretense. “I…get the faintest glimpses of it in my mind, but I can’t remember ever being there.”

He nods. “But you know it’s a part of you.”

“Yes,” I say, just below a whisper. “How do you know?” I am gulping back big ugly sobs in between my words, but the man is undeterred.

“You have been there,” he says. “A long time ago, when your eternal nature was more easily accessed.” He sighs, and I try to comprehend his explanation. “When your heart was free, and had not yet tasted this wasteland. Would you like to come back with me?” He stretches his hand out again, daring me to take it. “The only scary part is the decision to leap, I promise.” He smiles, and I can’t resist his dancing eyes, which remind me of the glimmering waves in my distant memory.

I know I can’t resist, but I do. I hold back my hand, this decision that he seeks, until my heart feels stretched taut like a stringed instrument tuned to the breaking point. I will break, surely, either way. Because I cannot handle this tension—this inner war between longing and fear.

And then, in a breath, he closes the distance between us, bringing his brow to mine and holding the sides of my face. The desert fades to my periphery, then disappears altogether, because all I can see are the tears, the longing, in his own eyes. “Just receive,” he breathes. And I don’t resist this time. I am butter, melting into his affection, this love I don’t deserve. But I want it. With all my heart I do.

And with the release, with the acceptance that I am not alone, a note tears through the air. It explodes, as if ripping through a large curtain that once contained my world. Music rides the wind, entangles in my hair, soars between our faces. Then he lets go, but he doesn’t leave. He merely steps back and lets me take in my new surroundings. Which are so familiar and yet bursting with life that feels newborn.

Light streams down on me from behind snow-capped mountains until my arms tingle with its warmth. Water cascades from the cliffs to my left, in too many streams to count. And to my right is the ocean I remember—but fresher, fuller, more dangerous and beautiful. Waves reach for the brown sand and rocks that speckle the beach, bubbling into white foam as they recede. They are hungry to swallow visitors in their wild depths. They rejoice in the majesty they bear. A gull cries, harmonizing with the melody around us, and cuts through the clouds over the water.

“Look, child,” the man says behind me. “Look closer. Deeper.”

“At what?” The words barely leave my mouth when I see them. They are like stars scaling the cliffs and floating and diving in the water. Little lights that soon materialize into faces and bodies.

“Family,” the man whispers, and I realize these people are singing along to the melody that broke through my anxious chest. “You are home.”

My feet get a clue and roll into a sprint towards the ocean. I’m completely drenched before I even know what’s happened, and my laughter tumbles into the song of this new, familiar world.

Setup:

The character, Jasper, finds himself in a very real-feeling vision, where he’s in a desert having to face the accusation and pain of all the people who have hurt him or whom he believes he has hurt in his life. It’s a desert of self-condemnation and loneliness; essentially, this world of lies that he’s created around himself, that he feels he deserves. But the desert then turns into the place of identity, freedom, and companionship when the truth is revealed.

Likewise, in his time in the desert, Jesus was faced with accusations from the enemy. These accusations questioned Jesus’ identity as a beloved son and cast doubt on the goodness of his Father. But, having received his Father’s approval already, he answered the accusations with his identity, from knowing his belovedness as the son of God. He comes to reveal this same belovedness to us all, regardless of what we’ve done or haven’t done, experienced or haven’t experienced.

 

Second half of Chapter 35

 

The layout had changed. Or perhaps he hadn’t yet looked in this direction? He honestly wasn’t sure. A large rock, much taller and wider than a man, sat a few yards distant. And behind that, an even larger cliff. Jasper had to crane his neck to see the top of it. The dark rock stood in stark contrast to the light sand. He looked back again, and River was gone. But the others were still there. He wondered why they didn’t come after him. When Jasper turned back toward the rocks, he was surprised to find a man leaning against the smaller boulder.

Looking at this man’s face, Jasper felt a distinct sense of companionship. A warmth grew in his chest, relaxing his muscles and taking some of the edge off. The man smiled at him. His smile was genuine and trustworthy—he couldn’t explain it any other way.

By every appearance, this man was no more than a vagabond. His clothes were nothing but torn rags hanging from his body, his face was badly sunburned, his lips dry and cracked. His long dark hair was pulled back loosely from his face. He wore leather flip flops on red and swollen feet. How long had he been in the desert? His thin body implied malnourishment. And yet he smiled, seemingly completely at peace. Jasper had no words to offer the man—somehow they didn’t seem necessary. There was a reason he was here, and he clearly knew more about this place than Jasper did.

“Why are you afraid of them?” The man spoke. Jasper was caught off guard by the question, though he knew exactly whom he referred to. He also knew now that this was the voice he had heard earlier, twice.

“Why have I not seen you until now?” Jasper’s voice came out thin and raspy. “Am I dead?” he added, thinking this man might know.

“You ask the wrong questions, friend. Look behind you.”

Jasper looked at the gathered crowd of familiar faces. “Are they real?” the strange man asked him.

“You tell me,” Jasper replied through clenched teeth.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to give you the answer you’re looking for. But think about it, Jase. What is real, and what is merely a figment of your imagination that you must obliterate?”

“These people are real, and they’re here because I’ve hurt them.”

“Really?” He heard the man ask softly behind him. Then he was standing right beside him. Jasper turned. He wanted to weep when he looked at the man’s face, but he didn’t understand why.

“There are a lot of things you haven’t understood, Jasper. But today, I want to bring some light to your darkened senses.”

Jasper couldn’t respond. His throat had closed. He looked at the people again, accusing him, hurt and bleeding.

“You need to ask yourself what is real, Jasper. Because sometimes the things you see are merely projections of what you believe. You have the power; they are no threat to you unless you allow them to be. Is their anger real? Is their pain real?” Jasper flinched when he felt dry yet comforting fingers on his burned cheek. “Is this burn what’s real?”

Jasper turned to him again. “I don’t know. Yes. No.” He closed his eyes and opened them, holding back a curse. “Of course they’re angry and hurting, and of course my face got burned. I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

“You’re right, in some measure.” He removed his hand from Jasper’s face. The spot he touched felt refreshingly cool. Then soothing warmth replaced the fading coolness. He lifted a tentative hand to his cheek and swallowed. The uneven skin caused by the burn was now smooth. He lifted his eyes to the man.

“You’re right in your assessment,” the stranger continued, “and yet you fail to recognize that there is a much greater reality, and this reality has the power to alter what you believe to be set in stone. It has the power—”

“To heal,” Jasper finished for him, fingers still groping at his restored skin.

“You’re already beginning to see.” The man smiled again.

Jasper looked at the people: Adrian, Joel, Brody, the phantom that was his bleeding son, his mom and dad, Penny, Renata. His eyes locked on Renata’s. Her mouth curved into a mocking smirk and her dark eyes bore into him. The familiar guilt gripped his heart and stuck like a knife. She had every right—

Her image began to shift, different parts of her spastically moving to the left and to the right, reminding him of bad television reception. At one point he could see right through her. He furrowed his brow and looked at the man beside him, who only smiled as if all of this was perfectly normal. He faced Renata. Her image continued to shift, but her expression remained, still cutting him deep. He had an urge to weep and beg her for forgiveness.

“There is a lot you don’t know, and what you think you know clouds your judgment.”

“I don’t judge her,” Jasper replied to the stranger’s voice.

“But don’t you? You have told yourself stories about what she has done, about what she thinks. But do you know the truth?”

Jasper had never thought of it that way before. He was trapped in guilt, and it altered the way he saw everything. Did guilt speak the truth? It was the first time he questioned it.

“Renata craves freedom, Jasper. Won’t you release her?”

Jasper let out a quick breath, overcome by astonishing new possibilities. It felt like his present world was gradually peeling away, revealing glimpses of radiant light he never knew hid behind it all. He let this new light into his body, his soul, willing to be swallowed whole by it. As he pushed a trembling hand through his hair, he watched Renata’s image continue in spastic movements. Her form began to blink out and back again, then faster. Finally, her whole body flickered like florescent lights in a windstorm before vanishing completely. Jasper let out another breath and staggered back, feeling both lighter and weaker at the same time. A strong hand was pressed against his back, steadying him.

“Welcome to a whole new world,” the man said as Jasper’s eyes shifted to the other people still standing before them.

miragequotefromdeserts

Chapter 36

 

Jasper set his gaze on Adrian and Joel. Joel’s face twisted in grief, and Adrian’s in anger.

“You have the power, Jasper,” the stranger who was not so much like a stranger said. “Are you going to hold yourself responsible for their well being, knowing you are incapable of saving them? Or are you going to trust someone who knows what they need and cares even more than you do?” The man’s voice held a twinge of sorrow. It rose in pitch as if he was about to cry. Jasper looked at him, swallowing. A question formed in his brain and he didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to him earlier.

“Who are you?” he breathed.

The man waited a second before responding, studying Jasper’s eyes. “I am the one who knows you better than even your enemies.”

Jasper’s lungs felt bereft of breath at the words. How could someone he had never seen or met before know him so well? He realized he wanted it to be true. He wanted this man to be his friend, because he understood him better than anyone ever had. He couldn’t breathe because his longing was so great, and yet his desire to be known fought against his fear of being discovered for who he really was.

“Jasper, you can’t save them—Penny, your brother and nephew and mom, your son and Brody. You think you have let them down, and as a result you are a despicable person.” Jasper let out a moan, overcome.

“Let go,” the man said, placing his hand over Jasper’s heart. “Let go of your expectations for yourself and your false perceptions…” The man moved closer and pressed his hand more firmly against his chest, making him want to weep. For gratitude or sorrow, he didn’t quite know. “…Be free,” the man whispered, his face so close to his that his breath spread over Jasper’s face. He was surprised at how sweet and refreshing that breath was, coming from a man who had spent who knew how long in this forsaken place.

“Look at them,” the man said after a moment, gently removing his hand. His warm touch lingered on his chest as he turned again to face his loved ones. “Do they condemn you?”

As he looked from one to another, each of the images, excluding his father, began to shift just like the image of Renata had. They were quickly fading. Jasper let out a breathy laugh. “No,” he said. The images blinked out so that only his father remained standing on the sand, arms crossed and scowling.

“Then neither do I,” Jasper’s companion said. Unbidden tears poured down Jasper’s face as he stared at his father.

“What about my father? I can’t change the past. He’s already gone.”

“Does he possess the power to alter the direction of your life?”

Jasper swallowed, not knowing how to answer. It sure felt like he did. He was never able to please him or live up to his requirements. He was never good enough for him.

“You will always wander if you aim to please man.”

Just like that, huh?

“I failed him,” Jasper said. He felt his jaw flex.

“Just like you failed Renata?” He felt a strong hand around his arm. “Just like her, Jasper, you have projected a false reality onto your view of your father. There is much you didn’t know about his inner thoughts. He expressed his own pain and regret by pointing the finger at you. But you didn’t fail him. He loved you more than he was ever able to communicate.”

Jasper’s whole body started to tremble. Could it be true? He stared at his father, whose expression didn’t change. Had his father been in as much or even more pain than himself? Had he really loved him?

“All you have to do is forgive. Release him…” The man squeezed his arm and breathed, “…for the sake of your own destiny.”

Jasper’s body shook and his fists closed in protest. A war raged inside him. Yet he had already encountered an astounding new reality. Could he let this one offense hold all of this reality’s fullness back from him? Jasper screamed to the sky, tears dripping off his chin, and released his fingers so that they tensed and spread at his sides. He dropped to his knees, looked again at the image of his father. He sucked in the dry desert air through his nose as deeply as he could and let it out via his mouth in one long, slow stream. After blinking once, his father simply vanished. A glinting object sat in the sand where his father’s feet had been planted.

Everything around Jasper grew still. The desert winds quieted yet still tickled his scalp; the sound of sand shifting under their feet ceased. Strength returned to him. And peace. Jasper stood and watched in silence as his new companion walked forward. It was like a dream—but how could one feel such peace in a dream? Maybe he was waking up from a dream. His eyes were glued to the man who knew him like a close friend. The breeze danced with the torn rags covering the man’s body, whipped strands of his long hair every which way. Somehow, despite all the dirt and grime and the flaking, sun-baked skin, this man possessed a kind of beauty he couldn’t explain.

Jasper continued to watch as the man knelt with his back to him and gently picked up the shiny object. He stood again and simply turned and walked back at the same steady pace, a small bronze chain dangling from his fist. Once he stood before Jasper again, he lifted his occupied fist, opened his fingers and looked down at the object. Jasper could already see what it was. His stomach leapt. The man handed him the compass. Jasper turned it over to reveal an engraved city on its back with silky white pearl embedded into the hill it sat upon. He met the man’s eyes. The smile in his eyes was accentuated by his slightly upturned lips and a reassuring nod. Jasper’s fingers enveloped the gift as he wiped tears off his face with his other hand. The man turned and headed the other direction.

“Come,” he said. “I have something to show you.” He walked toward the rock Jasper originally saw him leaning on.

Jasper’s heart still beat like the wings of a bird released from a cage. He followed, having no reason not to, curiosity tugging at the crossroads of his mind. He wanted to know more about this man and his purpose. The man stopped at the large boulder and looked down at its base. Then he lifted his eyes to Jasper, who had stopped two feet away.

“Our enemy once told me this was a hunk of bread. Or could be.” He shook his head. “He sure likes to play on our weaknesses. I was nearly starved—forty days without physical sustenance. But what he was really after was convincing me to believe that I had to prove my identity before claiming it as my own.” He paused and looked at the rock. “Temptation at its best,” he said, looking up again.

Jasper wasn’t sure he understood, but it didn’t feel right to ask for an explanation. Who was “our enemy?” And what did identity have to do with a rock becoming food? The man looked at him as if reading his mind, then turned around and continued walking toward the larger cliff. Jasper followed, thinking that’s what the man expected. While the man’s back was turned, Jasper rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. His companion possessed an uncanny sense of knowledge. The man stopped before the cliff, stretched his neck back to look up, then turned to him. Jasper stepped up beside him, close enough to reach out and touch the rock face.

“He took me to the top of this cliff. And when he did, I could look out and see the world. Every kingdom in one panoramic shot—people moving about, governors and rulers in their seats of power.” He chuckled. “Even different weather patterns displayed over each geographical area. It was overwhelming. Breathtaking.” He stopped, looking up again and closing his eyes. “And it was mine to claim. But, considering it was currently under the domain of our enemy, I couldn’t claim it unless I bowed down to worship him. He knew what he was doing, see; but he didn’t really.” The man looked at Jasper again, his face growing serious and his eyes becoming even deeper wells. “He didn’t understand where the real power rested. On one hand, I had all power to claim my divinity and take what was mine—and this he played off of. And yet the real power was found in trusting what I could not yet see—in resisting what was right in front of my face, what I could reach out and touch, and putting my faith in a greater reality and a greater purpose. See, my journey was not over.” He smiled. “It was only just beginning. It wasn’t my time to claim what I deserved. It was my time to surrender, for the sake of the freedom of all generations.”

Before Jasper could even process the ramifications of what he was revealing, he was pulled up by a sudden gust of wind. He tripped over his feet after being set down on solid ground and nearly fell. The man caught him. Jasper struggled to regain his breath. When he finally did, he looked out and then down. He swallowed his rising panic and took a step back. They were standing atop a high building. The wind blew stronger up here.

“Live on the edge but don’t throw yourself down,” his companion said, steadying him again with a hand on his back. Jasper looked at him, incredulous, taking in huge gulps of air. Was he crazy?

“Our enemy took me up here next. The top of the Temple of my people. That’s when he rained the “ifs” on me in a torrential downpour. If you really are who you say you are, throw yourself down. The angels will come and save you, and don’t you know it.” Jasper’s eyes widened. Who was he really standing in the presence of? Because surely, those rags must be lying.

“And I did know it,” the man continued. “The impossible was my domain. But put my father to the test by deliberately provoking his power?” He looked out at the vast desert below. “Madness.” He turned to face Jasper, stepping closer. Their breath mingled. Jasper’s heart ran hard, as if trying to escape this inferno of a man. “If,” he said. “If,” he repeated. “If,” he whispered, stepping yet closer so that their foreheads would touch if either bowed his head. Jasper’s insides quivered and then collapsed, or so it felt. The undoing dropped him to his knees. The man knelt too. “If you are any good,” he said, gently grasping the sides of Jasper’s face with rough hands. Jasper was too ashamed and too overwhelmed to look him in the eye. “If you aren’t a failure, if you are a man, if you have anything to contribute…” Jasper began to weep. “If you were a good person, you never would have hurt all those people. So prove that you are worthy. Claim what you think is yours. And if you don’t, or you can’t…” The man touched his forehead to his. “…you’ll be damned forever.”

His words insinuated accusation, but his tone revealed an understanding. This man was not condemning him.

Even though he had every right.

“Jasper, look at me.” Jasper’s body shook with another sob. “Please.” With much effort, he lifted his eyes. The man’s gentle expression brought more fresh tears. “Stop thinking you have to atone for your failures by becoming a different person with a different life. Running from the past will never free you. You will never become who you are if you seek your whole life to prove what you can never prove. And what you don’t have to prove. Find your life…” he swallowed, searching his eyes. “…in my way.”

“How?” Jasper managed, face crumpling again.

“By letting go. And letting me and my father be the judges. And accepting our love as your new way of life. You must go forward without regret.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I already paid for them. Because I embraced my identity without trying to earn or prove it. Your regrets, your failures, they may as well be mirages in a desert. Our enemy uses mirages and makes them look like the only truth. They take up the whole view, when really there is much, much more.”

Jasper nodded, only beginning to understand. He faintly remembered the ranch owner, Flint, saying something about a mirage the first time he found himself in this strange vision, when Renata stood pointing the finger at him. The man removed his hands then put one hand around the back of Jasper’s neck and pulled him into an embrace. Jasper melted at the love that encompassed his pain, vowing in his heart to follow this man to the ends of the earth.

The man released him.

“Compelled by love. That’s my way.”

“So,” Jasper said, swallowing. “If I’m supposed to turn my life around, I take it I’m not dead?” He chuckled, then sniffed.

The man smiled. “Have you ever really lived until now?”

Jasper had to wonder. Was there ever a time when he wasn’t running from something or trying to please someone? It dawned on him how exhausting it all was. If what the man said was true, he could be free without the obligation of compensating for his past. Could it be? Could another person actually have paid for all the things he did wrong so that he could start with a fresh slate? Jasper looked into the man’s eyes again. They spoke no lies. “Are you for real?” he whispered, meaning to say it to himself. The question sounded absurd.

The man held out his hand, palm up. “Let me see your compass.”

Jasper had nearly forgotten about it, having stuffed it in his pocket after the man gave it back to him. He pulled it out, letting his eyes linger on its face as he handed it to him. The man flipped it around and placed it on his other palm with its engraved backing showing. He swept the fingers of his opposite hand over the engraving. Lifted his eyes to Jasper. “More real than you know,” he said, handing the tool back to him. “You’ll have direction now, Jasper.”

The man stood. When he did, Jasper caught his breath as the sensation of falling shot up through his body. It took less than a second before they were on the desert floor again. Well, almost. They sat together on the large boulder. The man beside him rested an arm over one knee while his other leg dangled off the edge. Again, Jasper struggled to regain a normal sense of respiration. He let out a breathy laugh.

“I already asked, but…” Jasper began. “…Who are you? Do you have a name?”

“I have many names. But some of those closest to me, they like to call me Yeshua.”

Jasper looked out at the landscape, his gaze zeroing in on a tiny whirlwind of sand some distance away. Yeshua. He seemed to have heard the name before, but couldn’t recall where.

“Jesus,” he heard the man say under his breath. Jasper turned to him. But when he did, the man was gone. He quickly stood to his feet as he turned to face the cliff. The man had simply vanished. He released a breath of disbelief and squatted. He felt his adam’s apple move up and down as he squinted up at the top of the cliff.

Jesus. Had that really just happened? Jesus? He was real, then. It felt like he just learned that Santa Claus was not a made up character for children. But this—this was never how he would have imagined Jesus to be.

I used to look up at the stars and feel like I mattered.

Because even in possession of all this vast beauty, God still made me. I existed, and that had to mean something.

I’m not sure how or when this feeling began to fade. I don’t know if it was merely childhood resilience that kept me coming back to this truth over and over when I was young, despite my insecurities. But these days, I find it more difficult than ever to hold this sense of wonder and assurance.

This sense that every epic story I witness or read or hear about is calling me to something greater. That I can maybe, someday, find myself in one of these mystical tales. That I can walk among the stars, because I belong to their Maker. That I can scale mountains and defeat monsters because the light I carry is brighter.

That I am the unlikely hero. More than I seem. Braver. Stronger. More beautiful.

Why can’t I be the hobbit that saves Middle Earth from imminent doom?

I turned thirty recently, and I felt like it was going to be a significant birthday, that God wanted to bring me into something new with Him. A new way of walking with Him, a new way of listening, a new way of living. The past few years for me have been a journey of re-learning who Jesus the man is, of how he relates with me and cares for me. Of what it means to surrender and trust him to calm all my storms. To let go of control and let him love my heart into freedom.

But as I approached my thirtieth birthday, Jesus ever so gently took my hand and whispered to my heart that it was time to get to know his Father again. God as Father. See, God is all about family. You can’t have the Son without the Father, and you can’t have either without the Holy Spirit, the helper. As God has gifted me these past several months with the spiritual family that I’ve longed for, I have realized how difficult it is for me to receive good things. To receive love. To receive the truth that God is actually answering my prayers and fulfilling my longing for community.

See, in so many ways I have been living as if I have something to lose.

I fear loss. I am afraid that if I receive love from others, it will be taken away at some point. I am afraid that if I put myself out there, if I share my dreams and my thoughts, that I’ll be met with rejection or I’ll be ignored, and that it will kill a piece of my heart. I am afraid that if I write my stories and they never reach people, I will have lost. I’m afraid that I’ve wasted time or I’ve taken the wrong route. I am afraid that someone’s reaction to me could somehow make me less.

So as I turned thirty, Jesus met me and revealed to me that his Father wants to walk with me. He reminded me that he himself was thirty when he officially began his ministry. And he reminded me that his ministry didn’t begin until he received the approval of his Father.

I thought about the story of Jesus’ baptism, how the dove came and his Father’s voice boomed from the heavens:

“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!”

And I realized, He says the same to me. Before I ever do anything, before I become a hero to anyone, before I write a book or go to work or try to love people. He says, “No, the stars weren’t enough. I wanted you.” Someone to do life with. Someone to love and coach and dream with.

Someone to share the stars with.

I think along my journey, especially through adulthood, I’ve been stopped by potholes that tell me I need to apologize for my presence. Like, anytime anyone says or does anything that might imply they think I’ve got the wrong idea, my view of myself gets a little smaller. Until I’m stuck with a general feeling of being wrong.

And I realize now that this false belief has hindered me from approaching life with confidence. Because I haven’t truly received the Father’s approval.

But in this new decade, the sense I have is that He wants me not only to receive His approval, over and over again, but to become like a child again. I love how the Kingdom of God is counterintuitive. The older I get, the more He emphasizes my need for childlikeness and wonder.

And I would have it no other way.

All of this leads me to my time at the Realm Makers writers’ conference that I recently returned from. I don’t know what it is about these weekends, but they always leave a lasting imprint on me, whether or not I expected it. Maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many other wild dreamers who still bumble about at times in their insecurities, like me. Maybe it’s just that my creative identity needs a breath of life. But God always shows up and surprises my heart with an embrace I didn’t even know I needed.

When I came into Allen Arnold’s class called “When Chaos and Creativity Collide,” I didn’t know how reassuring it would be. I didn’t know what Mary Weber, our keynote, would speak about, of how much her words would resonate in my spirit. I didn’t know that Tosca Lee would have us answer soul-searching questions about ourselves during her lesson about characters. But this past weekend, I was reminded of some very important truths:

Success doesn’t look like getting ahead or producing as much as possible. It looks like walking with my Father, doing what He says is best even if it’s not on my to-do list or it doesn’t happen within my timing.

My calling is primarily to be loved and to love people. I can do this in many ways, and it is not at all limited to my ability to get my art and my stories out into the world.

As a child of God, I have the freedom to live and create as if I have nothing to lose.

Whew. I can breathe again. Because truly, I do not have anything to lose. My life has not exactly turned out as I once imagined or thought it should. But that doesn’t meant God isn’t in every bit of it. Every child I’ve cared for as a nanny, every question and risk, every friendship that’s lasted or hasn’t, every move across the country or across town, everything that’s made sense and everything that hasn’t. He is in it.

It all matters. I haven’t evaded my calling. I’m smack dab in the middle of it. No, I do not have a novel published yet. I thought I would have by now. But my Father stands outside of time, and He has a plan. The best plan.

I never thought I would be a nanny for so many years. At one point, I thought: this is just an interim job while I try to get my writing career going. But it has become more than that. I never expected my heart to break a little bit when having to leave a child behind to transition to a new family. I never thought my heart could swell with so much love for little people that aren’t even mine. But it has. And I didn’t think I could do it over and over again, not after feeling like I’ve failed to love them as I ought to.

But these little ones have changed me. Loving them, teaching them and learning from them has become a part of my calling, an important path in my journey. And they will all show up in my stories in some way, but more about that later. 😉

My job as a nanny is just one example of how success in my life can look different than what I think it should. But more than anything, it all boils down to living my life through my Father’s approval.truesuccesschildpic

Allen Arnold showed us a few different movie clips in his class, to demonstrate what it looks like to live and create with our Father. One of my favorites is a scene from August Rush, where the boy who is trying to find his parents encounters his birth father without even knowing it. His father trades guitars with him and together they play. The boy doesn’t know his musical abilities came from his father, though he has a sense about it. But the father knows. And the father gives his son the best instrument and delights in creating this melody with him.

Sometimes I am not aware that my Father is there, creating with me, playing with me, working with me. Approving me despite my haphazard appearance or subpar abilities. I don’t always know that He’s mine, and that I belong to Him. That my dreams are actually leading me closer to Him, because He is in those dreams. I don’t have to be very far along. I don’t have to be famous or on stage. My success is buried in His approval.

Right after the conference, I watched the movie A Quiet Place. Little did I know what a perfect end to the weekend it would be.

***SPOILER ALERT***

I am undone as I replay the scene in my mind. The father, wounded, watching his children in danger. Thinking of nothing but their safety and his love for them. His love runs deep enough that he would do anything. And he does. But not only does he sacrifice his own life, take the pain that is due to them upon himself. But he makes sure his daughter knows he loves her first. With a few simple signs, the father’s entire heart is revealed.

I love you. I have always loved you.

In this moment, the daugher’s heart is flung wide open. She didn’t realize that he could love her when it was her fault her little brother died. When she thinks her deafness puts their whole family at risk.

But he proved, in that last moment when he died in her stead, that she was the world to him.

That scene, for me, said it all.