In 2002 I was living in a small apartment on the west side of Fort Worth supporting myself. In an absentminded moment I had left my monthly tuition bill laying on the desk where I worked as a receptionist part time for one of the women I worked with to see. I knew I was in trouble when she exclaimed “Good God! That’s more than our mortgage and my husband and I are two working professionals!” Then watching the reality slide across her face she whispered “You’re paying this and your rent each month?” I nodded shamefully.
Not only was I a 20 hour a week receptionist at a church, I held a ministry internship, ran a house and dog sitting business with upwards of fifteen clients, waited tables at a chain restaurant most nights and doubles on weekends negotiating the cocktail waitress shifts whenever I thought the patrons would be drunkest and the tips would be highest. And I was in school full time preparing for ministry. I don’t remember much about that year and if I am honest, either of the adjacent years. I learned how to rotate bills, how to squeeze one more job in, how to feed yourself on $40 a week often living on dinner rolls and the kids menu which was free to employees where I waitressed. I did it. I graduated. I went to grad school. And I promised myself that the determination and fierceness I had mustered would pay off.
In 2011 at 8 months pregnant, my partner was transferred to Dallas for work. A blessed relief from him commuting to three major US cities the majority of the work weeks. I had just spent the past three years serving a church in transition from one site to two worship sites, growing by forty percent in mere months–the work had been invigorating and exhilarating but I was also exhausted. In a housing market still sluggish from the financial collapse of 2008, with 14 inches of snow on the ground the week after New Year we managed to sell out perfect little first home.
Between calls to the realtor, moving company and still working at the church, I called my mentor at the time to apprise him of the rapidly changing terrain of my circumstances. Worried about the strain of a move on my pregnancy, but equally fearful of the strain of a 70 hour ministry work week on my impending motherhood, unsure of what would be next in my vocation or really, my life, I told him about our move cross country to Texas. He said “I am not worried about you. You are one of the most resilient people I’ve met. I have no doubt you will be able to handle whatever comes next.” I felt a sense of relief wash over me. I was resilient and I did have the tools to make whatever came next work.
In 2017 I left a ministry that I loved but that had broken my heart. I was exhausted from using my vacation days to care for my child in the cardiac ICU and attend doctors visits instead of traveling or spending time with my small children and traveling spouse. My salary was barely able to cover childcare in our city and I was tired from the constant juggling of daycare and babysitters. The week after my last Sunday, I bought a little plastic pool from Walmart for the backyard, filled it with water for the girls to play in. I spent the summer alternating between reading novels and staring at the fence feet soaking in the little pool as the girls splashed and squealed with delight. My partner and I had held my daughter’s hand as she had faced her mortality not once but three times. I could feel everything that had taken in my bones.
By the time summer rolled into fall I had come to terms with the fact that I was burned out. Maybe something more than burnout…I was heartsick somehow from the sheer cost of my momentum. I was living a life carved from determination and will. Focused I had tackled every obstacle I had encountered or created. But something was wrong now; something was broken in me. Resilience as it turns out is helpful for a season of endurance, but no way to live a life.
It was that winter that I decided to choose a word that would help me grow. Not in a self-improvement way. Not to continue pushing myself to one accomplishment after another, climbing over and pushing past one obstacle after another. A word that would undo the small tendrils of resilience that were slowly suffocating me. A word that would challenge me to see my world and my life the way that God does. As a gift. A word that would soften what had hardened in me just to survive.
Joy. That is the word I picked.
I wanted to foster more joy in my life. More laughter, more playfulness, more jokes and lightness. More 80’s dance parties in the kitchen with my girls. More games of tag at the park. I wanted joy. I wanted joy becuase what the poet Ross Gay says “we know joy not becuase we know ease but because we are all going to die” is true. In a world in which you do not know how many days you have or what the shape of those days will take–why not foster joy in the face of all that uncertainty?
To say that practicing joy changed me would cheapen my experience with the cliche. Practicing joy cracked open my heart, changed my relationships, deepened my sense of gratitude for the small wonders and everyday miracles in my life.
Since that winter three years ago I have chosen a word to guide my year. In the Christian faith we call these “star words” because like the wisemen who followed the star to the Christ child, a star word is made to guide you closer to Christ as you make the year’s journey. Each year I choose my word by praying and asking:
How do I need to grow?
What do I need to work on?
Who did God create me to be?
What might guide me closer to who God is calling me to be?
What might give me healing so that I might be a part of God’s healing presence in the world?
I pray. I listen to what God is doing in my spirit and I wait until the word emerges.
Usually when it emerges I am unsurprised because it is something God was already working in me. This year when I shared my word with a friend she said “that makes sense, I already hear you wrestling with that in your writing and in our conversations.”
Your word should not be a source of shame. God does not want to shame you. Your word should not be about producing more. God does not want your productivity, God wants your heart. Your word doesn’t need to be about hustle or #goals (but it’s ok is it is). Remember, the word you choose is about connecting to your spirit who God created you to be.
This year I am cultivating tenderness. That’s my word–tenderness. I am fierce and resilient, yes, but balancing that is a softer part of my spirit I am hoping to cultivate.
Do you choose a star word? What is it this year?
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