On Emigrating in the 21st Century

Me, my first week in Dubai — August 2018

At the turn of the 20th century, a young Polish woman got on a boat bound for America. She was a land-owner’s daughter, likely accustomed to some amount of privilege, and even possibly to an ancient title of minor nobility. Yet she left it all behind to join her sister—who was already settled in a far-off place called Ohio.

The reason? An intolerable home situation. Her mother had passed away, and when her father remarried, he chose a woman not much older than his younger daughter. The two women, it turns out, didn’t get along so well.

I think I’d get a boat for the same reason. Probably more so because I’m related to that young Polish woman—as her great-great granddaughter.

Fast-forward one hundred years, and I got on a plane in Chicago this past August with the same intention my ancestor had when she said goodbye to her native land. Except that instead of going to the “land of promise,” as America was then known, I flew east, past Great-Great Grandma’s native land to a place that, back when she lived, hadn’t even yet met Lawrence of Arabia.

I doubt Great-Great Grandma ever thought much about Arabia, except perhaps to see an old lithograph or two in a Polish geography book in school. But here I am, also an emigre, just for different reasons.

Perhaps some things really do “run in the family.”

I should probably clarify at this point that no one really immigrates to the United Arab Emirates. You come here to work. Or you come with someone who’s been hired to work. And when you don’t work anymore—or your sponsor doesn’t—you leave. Period. This country doesn’t give permanent residence visas, unless you’re a property investor or a retiree with more than $300,000 US in the bank that you strictly don’t touch.

Still, every day, this dusty jungle of sand and steel welcomes the world’s misfits, from West and East alike, with open arms. And we embrace this once-forgotten, now-flourishing desert as our own, for as long as the strength of our hands and the economy will allow. Or in my case, as long as God chooses to keep me here.

I’ve thought a lot about Great-Great Grandma since I arrived here. I honestly don’t know her name, other than that her last name was (oddly enough) “Organic.” Probably a butchering of some beautiful Polish name an Ellis Island officer couldn’t spell, yo. But I now understand with much more empathy how much courage she must have had, and the dreams she must have entertained coming to the U.S.

My mother has a few memories of her great-grandmother, caring for my mom when she (mom) was very very young, at her Ohio home. Great-great Grandma married and built a life for herself in the U.S., yes. But she never learned much English. To this day, occasionally my mom uses a Polish word (like “yaitsa” for “egg”) which she learned at Great-Great Grandma’s house.

I, by contrast, landed in a country that favors Arabic as a political policy, but where in practice English is the national language. I could talk to almost anyone upon arrival. (Of course, understanding their accents has been another exercise in itself.)

Like Great-Great Grandma, however, I rub shoulders every day with people who came from vastly different places than me. And we’re all here for one reason only:

Opportunity.

(Or for some of us oddballs, the call of God. But that’s another story for another day.)

It’s a strange day in the world when a girl with an American passport leaves home to seek opportunities elsewhere. I’m sure Great-Great Grandma never thought she’d see such a day come when America was not the only real center of opportunity. For many it still is, but for me, in God’s good plan for my life, it was a worn-out door swinging shut on rusty hinges.

I don’t regret coming to the United Arab Emirates at all. The pace of life in Dubai is insane—let’s just get that out there—but it’s also an amazing place. I’ve made incredible friends from all over the world, traveled easily to places that take forever to reach from America, and been blessed with a new measure of financial stability after several years of relying solely, like Elijah, on the ravens of God for food.

But I still can’t help feeling a pang of homesickness every now and then. The people, the places, the food. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a vivid vision of some place in Milwaukee—the verdant slopes of South Shore Park, for example, on the beach of Lake Michigan—that I deeply love. The last summer I spent in Milwaukee was a glorious finale to ten years of loving that place very deeply and experiencing the very best of it.

Then, one day it was gone. I took off on a plane and, three planes later, got off in Ellis Island, which for me was the glittering marble and chrome of Dubai International Airport, where I was suddenly in line behind Indian women in colorful kurtas and Arab women, their whole bodies covered in black.

Life is strange, isn’t it?

Perhaps wanderlust is just in the family genes. Or perhaps God really does allow us to play out experiences of our ancestors, all over again, redeeming them for His purposes. I don’t know anything about my great-great grandmother’s spiritual life or beliefs. I don’t know if there were any other God-fearing prophetic women in my lineage.

But out of their experiences, God birthed me. And though I traveled here for Him—and not as an escape for an intolerable home situation—I still send love and respect to the memory of Great-Great Grandma.

Her courage was an example for me, long before I knew I’d even need that same courage myself.

Turn of the 20th century. Turn of the 21st …

The cycles of life continue.

4 Things Instagram Won’t Tell You About Traveling the World

I don’t know about you, but I really hate false advertising.

I mean, yes, I work in the marketing industry. But I still like to inject the truth in my marketing copy as much as possible. Well here’s a truth no Instagram travel feed will ever tell about wandering the planet:

It’s the dumbest, craziest, most exhausting, most stressful thing you’ll ever do.

Forget glossy photos of mountaintop conquests, bicycle rides through rainforests, and the obligatory compassionate shot with the locals. Those photos may have #nofilter, but there’s hiding a few things about what went into taking that shot. This is why I intentionally don’t improve my photography—or use a lot of filters to make it look better.

I want it to be 100% real.

So here’s the 100% bona ride truth about this sexy, everybody-wants-to-do-it thing called living out of a suitcase.

1) Prepare to be disoriented.

Sure, as a world traveler you develop the skills to drop into any culture and get your basic needs covered before you go out to explore. Local currency, check. Local SIM for your phone, check. A basic roof over your head and a working knowledge of whether or not you can drink the water? Preferably vetted by someone else other than your first bout of dysentery? Absolutely.

But that’s just the beginning. Your days and nights are probably turned around. Words even in English may not mean the same thing. And the number of possibilities for getting a ticket or fine for something that’s known by everyone else—but not posted on a sign for your benefit—are almost Code Red level.

For the better part of my year of traveling, disorientation was my status quo. I didn’t always get a lot done. Even when I had work, I struggled sometimes to be efficient.

No, being a “laptop entrepreneur” for me did not mean sitting at the beach, coding on my iPad, while I slurped my cocktail out of a coconut.

It meant fighting jet lag while I dodged from location to location, looking for reliable WiFi and trying not to get hit by a bus, taxi or tuk tuk in the process. All while calculating what time it was in my client’s country and whether or not I had missed a deadline.

I dare you to find a travel blogger who posts that photo. “Oh look, here’s what’s left of my shattered ankle after my jet-lagged self ran in front of a bus accidentally when I finally saw a Starbucks with a Free WiFi sign.”

2)  Most suitcases don’t come with space for your personal makeup artist and wardrobe assistant.

Oh sure, I love a great travel blogger’s Instagram feed as much as the next person. But clearly they’re not traveling Economy on a budget airline. ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I can’t fit a whole MAC makeup store in my one small suitcase. Or the entirety of H&M (for all those obligatory third-world photo shoot wardrobe changes). Or the staff it would take to look that good on site.

Maybe I missed out this course in World Traveler School: “How to Look Amazing in Every Single Photo 101.” Or maybe that was the class after I skipped out because I had a plane ticket somewhere.

Either way, that hasn’t been my experience.

There’s a reason why I choose to show “normal” photos on this blog, and always will. I mean, there’s no reason not to at least try to be presentable. But I live my normal life in the Goodwill wardrobe God provided for me before I left America. And in case anyone’s wondering, the Arabian desert is just waaaaaay too hot to be sporting much makeup. (I need to ask the amazingly-air brushed Arab women I meet exactly how they manage to do it… because they do look amazing!)

Bottom line: living abroad is just living a normal life with all kinds of extra complications. And less space for all the cool, extraneous stuff we forget we have access to at home.

 

3) Everything takes way more time, for possibly less results. (Other than your increase in patience and a plethora of good stories to tell.)

Somebody, please show me the travel blog where the blogger highlights what it’s like to spend 1.5 hours on a metro to go what would take 30 minutes by car. Or what happens when you stand in line at the visa office, only to be told the official you need is “out for tea.” And let’s not talk about all the sleep you miss, showing up at midnight to wait for the 1 AM bus to Berlin, so you’re absolutely sure you don’t miss it.

Yes, my specificity betrays me. I actually did do that once. In the middle of freaking January ….

Time is a hard thing to represent in photos when there’s no time lapse. It’s like a movie: all the hard work, plus months or years of failures and growth, get reduced down to a montage with upbeat music.

I sure wish my job search in Dubai could be collapsed into a montage. Preferably with a Tina Turner song behind it to keep my eyelids open while I fill out more applications.

But no such luck. Living in a place whose norms you don’t fully understand will always require a price in time.

Sure, the great stories and a lot of personal growth come from these experiences. But if you’re looking to do things the most efficient way possible, don’t travel abroad.

3) Sandy feet. Sandy legs. Sandy hair. Are you sensing a theme here?

Honestly, I never need a shower so badly every day than when I live somewhere I’m not accustomed to. Grime from bus exhaust. Crusted sweat from the heat and humidity. And here, in the UAE, so much sand everywhere all the time.

I love it all, because it means I’m fully living and showing up for my life.

But WOW is that a lot of weird grainy gunk going down my bathtub every day.

Somebody take a photo of THAT. I dare you. Just once, show the world the real uncensored truth. (Of what’s going down the bathtub drain, not you IN the bathtub, please.)

But I’m guessing no one will take me up on it.

I mean, there are some things even I won’t put in my Instagram travel feed. Mostly because, well, I have my travel blogger image to maintain.

 

A REAL TRAVEL BLOGGER ON A REAL DAY. I’M GUESSING THE HAIR WAS COURTESY BERLIN WINTER DAMPNESS, THE BLOODSHOT EYEBALLS CAME FROM JET LAG. AND THE LOOK ON MY FACE? WELL, ASK THE CAT. HE CAN PROBABLY GIVE YOU MORE DETAILS…

2)  Most suitcases don’t come with space for your personal makeup artist and wardrobe assistant.

Oh sure, I love a great travel blogger’s Instagram feed as much as the next person. But clearly they’re not traveling Economy on a budget airline. ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I can’t fit a whole MAC makeup store in my one small suitcase. Or the entirety of H&M (for all those obligatory third-world photo shoot wardrobe changes). Or the staff it would take to look that good on site.

Maybe I missed out this course in World Traveler School: “How to Look Amazing in Every Single Photo 101.” Or maybe that was the class after I skipped out because I had a plane ticket somewhere.

Either way, that hasn’t been my experience.

There’s a reason why I choose to show “normal” photos on this blog, and always will. I mean, there’s no reason not to at least try to be presentable. But I live my normal life in the Goodwill wardrobe God provided for me before I left America. And in case anyone’s wondering, the Arabian desert is just waaaaaay too hot to be sporting much makeup. (I need to ask the amazingly-air brushed Arab women I meet exactly how they manage to do it… because they do look amazing!)

Bottom line: living abroad is just living a normal life with all kinds of extra complications. And less space for all the cool, extraneous stuff we forget we have access to at home.

3) Everything takes way more time, for possibly less results. (Other than your increase in patience and a plethora of good stories to tell.)

Somebody, please show me the travel blog where the blogger highlights what it’s like to spend 1.5 hours on a metro to go what would take 30 minutes by car. Or what happens when you stand in line at the visa office, only to be told the official you need is “out for tea.” And let’s not talk about all the sleep you miss, showing up at midnight to wait for the 1 AM bus to Berlin, so you’re absolutely sure you don’t miss it.

Yes, my specificity betrays me. I actually did do that once. In the middle of freaking January ….

Time is a hard thing to represent in photos when there’s no time lapse. It’s like a movie: all the hard work, plus months or years of failures and growth, get reduced down to a montage with upbeat music.

I sure wish my job search in Dubai could be collapsed into a montage. Preferably with a Tina Turner song behind it to keep my eyelids open while I fill out more applications.

But no such luck. Living in a place whose norms you don’t fully understand will always require a price in time.

Sure, the great stories and a lot of personal growth come from these experiences. But if you’re looking to do things the most efficient way possible, don’t travel abroad.

3) Sandy feet. Sandy legs. Sandy hair. Are you sensing a theme here?

Honestly, I never need a shower so badly every day than when I live somewhere I’m not accustomed to. Grime from bus exhaust. Crusted sweat from the heat and humidity. And here, in the UAE, so much sand everywhere all the time.

I love it all, because it means I’m fully living and showing up for my life.

But WOW is that a lot of weird grainy gunk going down my bathtub every day.

Somebody take a photo of THAT. I dare you. Just once, show the world the real uncensored truth. (Of what’s going down the bathtub drain, not you IN the bathtub, please.)

But I’m guessing no one will take me up on it.

I mean, there are some things even I won’t put in my Instagram travel feed. Mostly because, well, I have my travel blogger image to maintain.

Bra Burning, Awkward Stares and Other Things that Happen When you Become a Christian Hippie

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From the time I was small, my mother told me stories about the 70s. One of her favorites was about all the women who burned their bras.

I got the impression she didn’t think too much of idea. Especially when many of those women put their bras back ON again in the 80s and 90s to become die-hard career girls. I didn’t really have a big opinion myself, but I did secretly admire those women for saying “no” to yet another social custom designed to constrict them.

Thirty years later, I followed in their footsteps.

My path to becoming the “Real Me” (which happens to be quite hippie-like, as it turns out) didn’t happen right away. In fact, it took a break-up with a boyfriend I really cared about to help me see the truth.

I learned from him that if he had known how hippie I really was when we started dating — we never would have dated at all.

Having always presented with a rather “normal” exterior, I had no idea my hippie tendencies were incongruous with my appearance. But the more I considered his feedback, the more I realized he was absolutely right.

Right after this breakup, I got an invitation to spend five weeks in Colorado (AKA: Hippie Paradise!). I also did a 30-day fast from meat, dairy and eggs (ie: a Daniel fast) as part of a prayer challenge with a friend. And in the middle of that fast, God wanted me to release these foods from my diet, at least for awhile, by going vegan. I also decided to buzz my hair and … you guessed it … take off my bra for good.

One morning I just didn’t put one on after my shower. By noon, as per Holy Spirit instructions, both of the bras I owned were in the trash.

I did not put  a bra back on again for almost seven months. The closest I get is the built-in support of my workout shirts. And I couldn’t  have been happier.

Because of the time period wherein I released my bra, I’ve come to have greater peace and serenity in my body. I have also come to greater acceptance because I no longer worry about whether or how other people feel about my “lady parts.”

So what if they bounce? So what if the occasional nipple shows through my shirt? So what if my physique looks a bit “flatter” because my boobs are smaller and they no longer artificially “stand up?”

My appearance and my choices are not defined by others. God gave me these two awesome mammary glands to—hopefully someday—provide nourishment for my children.

They are part of who I am as a woman. And that’s just … that.

Please understand, I didn’t go around flaunting my figure or intentionally trying to make it obvious that I was not wearing a bra. I simply didn’t wear one. It was a point of omission that many people couldn’t seem to help noticing, however. Which is a cultural commentary in itself. Were my breasts the problem, or the society who had somehow cast them as “sinful” and “gasp-worthy” to be present in the room?

I don’t suggest that this practice is for everyone; however, I was amazed by the number of women—friends and complete strangers alike—who would come up to me and whisper in my ear that they’d like to do the same, but just didn’t *quite* have the gumption yet!

But I’m here to say: simply not wearing a bra is easy. Just like I simply avoided meat, dairy, eggs, honey or any other animal product (for the most part) during this time.

You just decide you want to do it more than you care what people think.

It’s the releasing your concerns over other people’s expectations that is the tricky (and involved) part.

Being a bit “countercultural” for me at this point in my journey wasn’t for the sake of making a point. It was out of obedience to what I believe God has asked of me. And out of my commitment to be radically and authentically … me.

A few years ago, I could never have made any of these choices, because I was so conditioned to please everyone else and make sure I didn’t stand out too much.

All I can tell you is: my life became  considerably more blessed when I took “off” all my concern over other people’s expectations. Even in my faith community my choices are considered a bit eccentric. But that’s totally okay.

I think we often believe that if we let go of social expectations, we’ll be ostracized. However, I have found the opposite to be true. In my case, people actually show me more respect—and there’s lots more to talk about.

Not to mention that most people don’t forget the woman who has a buzzed head and doesn’t wear a bra.

But hey, at least now, they remember my name.*

*NOTE: As the prompting of Holy Spirit, I have since begun wearing a bra again because of the season of life I’m stepping into here in the Middle East. However, I can feel the difference–I no longer need that garment to make me sexier or more desirable–and I trust I’ll never put “on” the old cultural baggage again when I put on that garment!

 

The Truth and the Lies of Sexual Dysfunction

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“I’m sorry, young lady. You have a serious sexual dysfunction. You’re going to have to see a therapist.”

I got this diagnosis when I was 25: a newly minted wife who had been a proper virgin up until a disappointing wedding night. Fresh off a confusing honeymoon, I found myself sitting in the doctor’s office where I got the painful news.

Vaginismus, to be exact. Something I’d never even heard of. The doctor barely had, either.

Thus began one of the worst experiences of my life: therapy visits.

To be fair to the sex therapist, she tried. She really did. But at that time, I was a shut-up, locked-up volume of emotional trauma I did not even know I had. She asked some of the right questions. Others, I realize looking back, were pitiably pointless.

Either way, this multi-award-winning doctor for women’s bodies knew very little about what it was like to grow up in a Christian home where sex had been an unmentionable as a four-letter word, and my body a source of shame. So when her usual methods didn’t work, she resorted to Kegel exercises—which I didn’t really understand at the time—and forced me to watch something I had never seen before: porn.

I’m not sure which was worse: the diagnosis I’d gotten, the scratchy voice on the kegel exercise tape, or the quality of the sex romps she forced me to view.

Some of you may be shaking your head that I could have been so sheltered, in my middle 20s. It was 2009, for crying out loud! I mean, who’s even a virgin at that age anymore? Let alone so terribly …. clueless … about her own body.

If you talked to women I talk to frequently, it might not be so surprising. Sharing my story has given other women courage to share theirs with me, and the same threads keep coming up over and over again:

  • Born and/or raised in an extremely conservative Christian church (or Jewish or Muslim community)
  • Raised to be “pure” and a virginal until marriage
  • Struggled mightily with sex after marriage
  • Typical symptoms include physical pain, emotional trauma and difficulty with penetration
  • Ability to sense physical pleasure from intimate acts is low or non-existent

Let’s face it, if you’re raised to withhold your sexuality from everyone (even yourself) for the first 25 years of your life, it’s not going to just flip “on” like a light switch on your wedding night. At least, not if you’re a woman from such a background—whose body needs to feel emotional safe, gently-treated and emotionally close in order to begin to open up.

In these conversations, I have heard comments from other women, like, “My first year of marriage was hell.” And “I had no idea what was going on. I just cried every night.” And “My husband wanted me to enjoy myself, but I just couldn’t relax.”

If you resonate with these statements because, too … I want you to know you are not alone.

I also want you to know that the quickest way out of this dark, scary place is to take the diagnosis you’ve been given and set it on a shelf. Act like it doesn’t exist. Let it collect some dust. Forget about it. 

At least for the next few minutes…

You see, getting a diagnosis from a medical doctor did one thing for me, and one thing only. It convinced me something was wrong with my body the way God had made it.

“Your PC muscles are unnaturally tight, and they associate pain with penetration,” was the way one healthcare provider put it to me, in the simplest possible terms. And it’s true … from a doctor’s perspective, my muscles were too tight to allow vaginal intercourse.

But here’s the thing:

Being told that this was the sum total of my problem didn’t fix things. It actually kept me from finding the real cure for eight more years. 

Thanks to believing that diagnosis, I failed that round of therapy. Failed it miserably. And then failed more tries at home. The doctors talked about surgically opening my vagina—but then decided that procedure would only worsen the problem.

I tried every year after to start that therapy again, but the fear always kept me from getting too far. My body only shut itself down further. It became a demoralising cycle of sadness and frustration and isolation.

My marriage dragged on for almost eight more years until it failed, too.

It wasn’t until I decided—as a single woman again, at age 33, on her own, with no therapist—to set aside the diagnosis that I finally stumbled upon the truth:

Yes, I had physical symptoms in my body. But my body was only reacting to what was going on in my emotions and my mind. And had been, for a very long time. (In my case, since birth … but that’s another story for another day.)

Think about it.

All my life, I’d been taught to withhold myself from anything sensual or sexual. I’d been taught to cover up my body, even from myself. No one had had me do mirror work with my vagina or explore my own anatomy so that I’d actually understand how Part A went into Part B. No one talked about sex or taught me how to tap into my feminine energy so I’d be ready for sex.

At home, church and school, the female body was a problem for the male gaze … and that translated into the fact that I as a woman felt like I was the problem. Intimacy was a forbidden fruit that was frequently talked about as a source of sin and sometimes celebrated as a wonderful part of marriage.

I had been taught that if I saved myself for marriage, I would naturally enjoy superior sexual experiences because of this choice. This teaching was fundamentally a lie. Did God want me to save my sexual expressions for marriage? Yes. But shutting myself off from loving, non-sexual touch before marriage, and abstaining from studying and understanding my essence as a woman , actually hindered my ability to bless my husband within it.

In the absence of balanced teaching and a healthy relationship with my God-given sexuality, the concept of “intimacy” had been my enemy from the time I was born. No wonder it and I could not make instant friends after my marriage.

I was taught strictly to obey and achieve, holding back my emotions and physical touch, not to feel and experience and let go, surrendering myself to the pleasure of another’s warm embrace even in an innocent, platonic way.

I was dressed up and paraded as a “good girl” who knew how to look the part. But get past that down to the messiness? Let anyone see me in sweatpants (let alone less than that)? Nope. Not happening.

Even the notion of “experiencing pleasure”–the capacity for which is critical to healthy sexual relations in marriage–was suspect. Pleasure in church was associated with sin, not with healthy, natural everyday activities. Subconsciously, the teachings of my church suggested that too much enjoyment of anything, even godly things, was probably a problem.

In fact, if you’d asked me what brought me real pleasure—innocent, everyday pleasures to savor such as “the scent of flowers on a spring breeze” or a “hot cup of tea by the fire”—I don’t actually think I could have told you. I was too busy dressing up and over-achieving. And being super sure my head, rather than, my body, did all my sensing for me.

All of this fed my natural self-loathing of my body which every American girl is tempted to every day of her life.

Did I mention that unconditional love for your body makes it a whole lot easier to receive someone else loving it back?

Over those next few months, after making these startling realizations at age 33, and divorced, I decided to try the therapy again.

But this time, I did it God’s way. I asked Him to demolish any theology of sexuality that did not reflect He actually said about me and my body as a woman, and about marriage and about pleasure. I prayed for guidance to the right tools. Then I bought the dilators and yoni eggs the long-ago therapist had recommended once for the physical practice. But I only moved forward with that while totally getting quiet, sitting down with God and actually facing my tremendous inbred fear of intimacy … and my hatred of my own body.

Once I began taking each brick off the emotional and mental walls I had built up against my Real Self, the wall (miraculously) started to come down. Not easily. Not quickly. But it did come down.

One realization led to another. Which led to another. Which led to … well, another.

I discovered that as a woman, who would normally be deeply in tune with her body by God’s natural design, I had no real innate ability to feel into my body or understand what it was trying to tell me. In fact, my body and I had been at odds with each other my entire life. Yet my husband, who as a man naturally lived more in his head, had been looking to me to help him relax deeply into bodily experiences.

I started to learn what it felt like to love my skin exactly as it was. To make friends with all the parts of myself that I had previously not even understood. I learned to get comfortable dancing naked in my room, with the door shut. I took a mirror and stuck it up you-know-where and gave myself an anatomy lesson. Or two. Or five.

Above all, I asked God to unlock the deepest parts of my womanhood that had been locked up in a prison since babyhood, with the key tossed who-knows-where.

He heard my cry. He always does. And praise Him, He faithfully and gently handed me the key.

When I started the dilator work again, this time, my thoughts about myself and my emotional pain were healing first. So the physical practice was a totally different experience.

The body that previously “needed surgery” yielded naturally. No, I didn’t finish the dilator therapy overnight. But dilator by dilator, I retrained those PC muscles not to feel the pain they used to feel. By myself. Naturally. At home. Until one day, I outgrew the dilators and had to buy a genuine dildo. And I felt no pain at all.

(Some other day I’ll tell you about what it’s like putting condoms on a cucumber when the dilators don’t fit anymore. But yeah, that’s a story for another day …)

More than that, I started to feel totally relaxed and comfortable with myself as I was. I had to shed all that body shame, and truly redirect my thoughts to see how God sees me, as a woman. I began to pamper myself, to enjoy feeling beautiful, to lean into practices like yoga and chakra work that helped me get comfortable with who I was and become smarter about “hearing” my body.

That made all the difference in the world.

Now, when I look back on the frightened girl in the doctor’s office, all those years ago, I wish I could tell her to take that diagnosis and toss it right out the window. I would have bypassed the “sex therapist” and never even entertained the discussion of surgery.

Because I believe now that when it comes to our sexuality as women, most of our body’s physical responses result from what’s happening in our hearts and minds.

By telling me I had a “physical condition”—without addressing the fears, sadness, misunderstandings of God’s design for sexuality, and self-hatred in my heart—my healthcare providers encouraged me to see the problem as being outside myself. Which also means I saw the solution as being outside too.

You want to cure for your problems with body love? You want to conquer your fear, reclaim your intimacy, save your marriage? Or ensure that your first experiences with sex in marriage really are the blessed path of discovery I was once promised they would be?

Listen to what the doctor says, yes. Consider the therapist’s advice. Get prayer and counseling at your church. But above all, go deeper.

Go straight to the source.

Ask God to show you—really, truly show you—how you’re feeling about yourself, your body and your sexuality.

Then be brave enough to sit with the answers He gives you. Also brave enough to share what you learn with another woman you trust. And further more, brave enough to do whatever it takes to break down those walls.

When you begin to know yourself in this way—hard as it can be—you can truly take your first step to healing. Because healing this “sexual dysfunction” (really, the physical manifestation of an emotional wound) is an inside-out job. Your body will only be a thermometer for what’s going on in your heart and mind.

Let God heal you within, and your body will be set free.

Have a story to share? Struggling with vaginismus or wondering why you can’t seem to relax in intimacy? I love mail! Send me a note, and I’ll respond:

10 Ways to Experience Your Feminine Energy

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For most of my life as a woman, I didn’t really feel like a woman.

I dressed like one. I tried to act like one. I checked the “female” gender box on forms. But deep inside I felt like all the other girls had that special something, and it had passed me by.

It wasn’t until after my divorce, as I was healing my sexual dysfunction, finding my way to emotional freedom rediscovering my creativity, that I began to wonder if this sense of alienation from my feminine self might be part of the whole problem. As I traced each challenge or “heart ache” I felt to its root, I kept coming up against that same thing:

I wanted to be joyful, open, receptive, free, magnetic and relaxed … like the women I knew who seemed most “women” to me. Yet I found myself more unhappy, shut down, closed off, chained up, stressed out and unseen. Was there a way I could “turn on” that energy flow inside me and access my womanhood, too?

I am grateful to God that He took me a long journey finding my way to my real, authentic feminine self (who, it turns out, was inside me all along). On the way to meeting her, I learned there are many ways to start tapping into that energy. Do this long enough, and It will begin to feel like the default flow in your body.

Eventually, operating in your feminine energy will feel completely normal—and you will realize you truly do feel “like a woman” now, deeply and fully within.

Here are a few of my favorite practical ways to tap into the feminine life flow that makes you uniquely you:

1. Dance, dance, dance

This is the number one go-to secret I teach all my clients: when you’re stuck up in your head and trying so hard to figure … it … out, switch on your favorite tunes and rock to the beat. You don’t have to be a great dancer, just feel the rhythm and let it move your body and soul. Nothing lifts your mood and makes you feel sensual (and sensuous) like your own private dance party.

2. Stop to smell the roses.

Tempted to race through your day on your latest mission? Stop. Wind all that anxiety and striving energy back in. Tell yourself, “It can wait a little while.” And seriously … if you like roses, go smell some. Or have a cup of tea. Or read a chapter in a novel. Whatever feels like a little relaxing luxury … start indulging in that daily. It’s like a mini miracle cure. Seriously.

3. Receive someone’s offer of help.

One of the biggest struggles for me as I began working with feminine energy was to stop always trying to save myself. Yes, you might not want to be a damsel in distress. But if no one can ever help you or see you in need of help, no one can get close to you. And emotional connection is the true gift of feminine energy. So when your friend offers to watch your kids, or your boyfriend wants to fix your car? Say yes. A thousand times yes. And then bless them with your joyful spirit.

4. Say “yes” to when your ego says “no.”

Along with Number 3 … you know when you are shutting down possibilities and saying “no” out of fear. You’re scared to go to that class with a friend because you’re afraid of what she’ll think. You don’t want to get up and say anything at the PTA conference—even though you’re a great speaker—because what if they laugh at you? Any time you feel yourself coiling up due to pride or fear, relax a bit. Unwind. And say “yes.” Whole worlds expand for me every time I do this.

5. Wear what feels good.

My life changed the day I quit wearing what I thought I should wear and started wearing what actually felt good. Look at your wardrobe and ask yourself, “What do I really feel beautiful in?” Wear those things. And only those things. Find reasons to put on your favorite jewelry or lipstick “just because.” When you start treating yourself as special, beautiful and worthy of adornment … you’ll start feeling exactly that way, too.

6. Find things to really be thankful for.

A grateful spirit makes for a radiant woman. No, really. Is your daily conversation—both with others and with yourself internally—full of gratitude? Or full of complaining? If you’re more in the latter camp, don’t fear. You can shift that narrative now by taking time every day to SAY aloud what you are thankful for or thank people or God audibly when something good happens. Honestly, you may not be able to afford fancy makeup … but a thankful, happy heart will make your face shine like no cosmetic ever could.

7. Pamper yourself.

It’s really okay to have that bath, or take the night out for yourself while a sitter watches the kids. It’s okay to have the more expensive dish you’d rather have, and carry a purse you really like. When you give yourself these small gifts, instead of saying “I have to wait until I achieve this or that impossible goal,” you are saying I am worthy right where I am, as I am. And that alone with one of the most relaxing, freeing states to be in.

8. Discover what relaxes you.

Not sure how to pamper yourself, because you’ve been living in Stress Land so long? Then take it in bits and pieces. Try a new latte today. Walk a new street tomorrow. Try on a dress you never would have considered before. As you do these things, you will begin to find new things that bring you pleasure and joy. And over time, you’ll have a whole new set of strategies for raising your mood and helping yourself feel happy.

9. Let yourself off the hook.

Things didn’t work out with him? The presentation wasn’t perfect? You blew it this time? Okay. Well, that happens. One of the ways we as women keep ourselves trapped in unhappiness is with our incessant need to batter ourselves for everything that didn’t “go perfectly.” Perfection is not your birthright; transformation is. You learned something. Now let it go. I have literally seen women shed years off their bodies by letting go of this emotional weight.

10. Swing your hips when you walk.

I know, this sounds cheesy. But really … your hips (sacral chakra area, if we’re getting technical) are the locus of your feminine, creative, reproductive energy that is your life essence. When you hold them rigid, it’s as if you’re trying to hold in the energy that is moving and alive. And how well does that work? I remember when I first discovered the freedom of letting my womb energetic center sway naturally as I walked. It gave me a whole different connection to the energy in that space. And somehow, yes, it made me finally “feel like a woman.”

11. Tell yourself you’re beautiful until you believe it.

So much of the battle for our feminine essence is in our heads. For years, I didn’t believe I was beautiful … and looking back on it, my dress, hair and makeup followed my assessment. Then I changed my thinking. I got serious about seeing myself as God sees me and speaking words of life over myself. When I began to believe I was beautiful, things really changed outwardly. Most people looking at pictures of me from five or eight years ago versus now see the marked shift. I can see it too—and I know it goes back to my decision to be beautiful. Decide what you are, and it will be so.

12. Indulge in some “girl time.”

Maybe all you need is just a good old fashioned “Ladies’ Night Out.” Get a sitter. Send your husband out with the boys. Call your best girlfriends who encourage and build you up (not those who tear you down or discourage you). No money to spare? Then just eat in at home, sharing something fun from everyone’s fridge. Got a little to invest? Go out for dinner, or just for the glass of wine and chocolate. Laugh. Get dressed up, if that’s your thing. Let all the cares go and have fun.

Telling Your Story Is Great, But Which One are You Telling?

IMAGE
Apparently wanting to shoot your alarm clock (or your iPhone) when it goes off isn’t a 21st century experience? 😉 Photo taken at Museumsinsel (Museum Island) in Berlin.

It takes a great deal of courage to tell your story.

In my old life, before Nothing, the suitcase and cross-continental moves, I used to do a lot of coaching for women. Telling your story was something I preached and taught. And to a certain extent, I lived it.

But I did not understand then what I have come to see since: that telling the story you have lived is so much easier than telling the story you are living.

When we start out on this journey, with God toward greater intimacy and vulnerability with others, it feels like a “big thing” to finally talk about the parts of our story we may have kept hidden for years.

I personally found it revolutionary to speak of the night God spoke to me in Tuscany, of my healing journey with sexual dysfunction and many other aspects of my story. Receiving love from others and knowing that they still cared for me despite what I had been through was revolutionary for me, given where I had come from.

Yes, vulnerability comes in layers. And telling the story of the past is one layer. If we are not willing to start there, we will never find any other form of intimacy in our lives.

There’s a leap that must be taken, and the leap from the past is perhaps the most accessible.

But telling the story of the present is another kind of leap entirely.

Intimacy with others—the healthy kind, where we feel truly seen and known and loved in spite of what has happened in our lives, and also because of it—is a such a rare gift. And it prepares us to get braver, say more and let others see more of us, too.

Though sharing the story of our past is indeed one powerful form of intimacy, it still allows us to stay hidden. We can craft a narrative of transformation and change which may be genuinely true … but enables us somehow to still avoid speaking about the mess we are currently facing.

The story of our past transformation, if we are not careful, can become a beautiful image that unlocks for us admiration, not connection.

There is a powerful difference between those two which I cannot overstate. But it’s taken me years to recognize it.

Admiration is an external quality. People stand beside or around us and gaze at us, loving the qualities which we have carefully put in front of them for their review. It’s a good healthy start to something more in a relationship … but it’s also just that. Only the start.

If our relationships never get past admiration—and that’s very easy, by the way, for those of us “good girls” who know how to placate everyone by doing what they want and need—they will perpetually leave us unsatisfied. Because admiration does not require true understanding, or a sense of  empathy. It only requires awe.

Awe is so much easier to manufacture than understanding. Just ask any of the world’s dictators. Or celebrities…

Connection, on the other hand, is a much messier proposition. It requires a great deal more courage, because to speak of the mess that absorbed today, is a heck of a lot more challenging than to speak of the mess tha absorbed the last decade. Or even the last week.

As a writer, it’s easy for me to write about last week’s or last year’s or last decade’s mess. But to write about the tears I shed last night (yes, I actually did) over the love of my life I lost fifteen years ago? And the aching realization that I never …. really never …. got over that relationship?

And that at age 35, I have somehow only just realized I still desperately need the healing of Jesus for a huge mistake (which I could be so bold as to call it a “massive fuck-up”) that happened at age 20?

Dear God, save me from having to admit that to anyone.

And yet … I need to. And I did.

Because the story I lived is just my narrative. The story I am living now is my battleground. And wars are rarely won alone.

So maybe it’s time we stopped. Trying to win them alone, I mean.

Maybe it’s time that the story we lived becomes a platform for telling the story we are living. And that we recognize that all the wounds we drag ourselves back home with, and all the wounds that have never healed properly, whether from the actions of others or from all those “massive fuck-ups” of our own, are the very stuff of which real relationships are made.

When we refuse to share the story we are living, we cut ourselves off from having a warm hand in ours, and feeling the safety of a human hug, and the sweet relief of a voice that says, “Me too. I’m there also.”

At the end of the day, the only person who can deny us this sweet relief is … us.

The stories we choose to tell will determine how connected we feel. But perhaps the biggest mistake of all is not to realize that you can tell your story, and still stay completely hidden.

Maybe it’s time we came out from hiding behind our stories of triumph.

The unfinished, unedited next chapter is so much more powerful.

_

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How Everything Began with Nothing


IMG_0258 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form and void, and darkness
was over the face of the deep.
G
enesis 1:1 (ESV)

Walking up Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee, you wouldn’t immediately call it a great place for meditation. Especially not at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday—when suit-clad office workers come streaming out of the buildings, scrambling for the car keys that will whisk them off into another lazy weekend.

The tallest buildings in this small-big Midwest city line that street. One end of Wisconsin Avenue stretches all the way past Marquette University and out to the suburbs. The other, which was the direction I happened to be heading, dead-ends in the white wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum, spread against ribbons of Lake Michigan blue.

No, Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee is not at all a good place to meditate on a gorgeous day. But it’s where I happened to find myself, pairing my even footsteps with my uneven heartbeat that Friday afternoon. My headphones were in. The worship music was blaring. I had just come from a routine trip to the local bank and now, on my seemingly routine trip home, I found all sorts of reasons to “meditate.” Which was, at that time, really just my shorthand for asking of God how long, exactly, until He sent me everything I wanted.

At that point in life, I felt I had some decent reasons to demand something good.

The year of 2016 had been brutal but transformative for me: an unforeseen divorce, business highs and lows, the carving of a new life from the rubble of the old. I had faced each challenge head on. Brave (with a few lip quivers) Uncomplaining (well, mostly). My body was bruised from repeated falls from grace, and my fingers bled from clawing my way back. But claw I did, fighting every day through that crazy year to create a different future for myself.

By early 2017 I had moved into a brand new apartment I actually liked with a sliver of a Lake Michigan view. I had built my freelance marketing business up to a bona fide small agency with twelve contractors. I had new clothes to hang on a body I actually felt good in, had just bought my first-ever designer purse and driven home a new-to-me Fiat that represented the first car I had not relied on a man to buy on my behalf. I had even just gotten my dream couch: one of those delicate antique settees with scrolling mahogany woodwork. (I considered this my personal down payment to myself on settling in to an altered existence where I had finally achieved some semblance of peace and prosperity.)

Yet something was missing. Well, actually somethings, to be precise.

Money was flowing in, but thanks to all the contractors it took to actually do the jobs I got, my bank accounts always looked anemic. The business had grown, yes, but I was now chained to a desk twelve hours a day selling projects and managing what I had sold. I had finally begun to rediscover the artistry that went into hiding after my ex-husband broke my heart.

Yet even there my progress was fitful at best: the one-off pieces of art that sputtered from pen and paintbrush were a shadow of the complex projects I had once finished regularly. I had even gotten a new handle on body love, health and exercise—things that had plagued me from childhood—but the stress from the divorce and its fallout had taken a toll on my health. Chronic digestive issues and fatigue seemed to eat up every little physical gain I made.

And then there was the matter of my love life. I had done a ton of work on myself post-divorce: really delving in to where I was blocking love from my life, not just romantically but from friends and family too. I had made a lot of changes. I had learned to be really present with the people I love. And yet, I found myself burning from the heels of two broken dating relationships, both of which had started out with great potential.

Oh yes—that sultry, blue-skied Friday in July might not have been the most opportune moment to tell God all of my troubles. But while I dodged the suit-clad on their rush for the suburbs, tell Him I did.

The strange thing was, in my heart of hearts this time, I knew He would answer.

Leaving the bank, I wound my way up Wisconsin Avenue, past the twelve-story, rust-red Railway Exchange Building, Victorian architecture at its ornate finest. On the tenth floor, less than a year prior, my ex-husband and I had sat in separate rooms while his lawyer gave mine an ultimatum: accept the paltry settlement he was offering—far beneath the amount stipulated by Wisconsin law—or face an ugly divorce trial that would wipe out what little I had left. The memory still burned in my conscious as I stepped quickly past the door. Less painful for the resources in question than for the agony of realizing my tender college sweetheart had become my stone-faced enemy.

Beyond that was Amalinda, a red-and-gold painted lintel the only announcement that the city’s finest Spanish and Portuguese food might be found within. Here, in the midst of my divorce, I had sat the previous July with a dear friend. We had talked until midnight over the dessert of the day. Dating soon followed. Being seen and heard for the first time in my life, I fell for him. And I fell hard. But by September, we were parting ways in deep anger and disappointment. Just the thought of eating another dessert there still left a bitter taste in my mouth.

The memories flew by me with each passing buildings, each of them more painful than the last. There was the Pfister Hotel, where I had spent the day roaming with my most recent boyfriend, a gifted professional photographer. We had broken up just one month prior. And then there was a cramped little Starbucks, where one of my best business mentors had encouraged me to up-level my freelance business into an agency. In my heart, I blamed him for the overwork and constant stress that had been mine since adopting his recommendation.

Further beyond that soared the tallest building in Milwaukee, the U.S. Bank Building, though soon not to be the tallest anymore, its rigid white bones were knit together with glass. I ignored the twirl of the revolving doors as I passed them, trying to ignore, as well, all the times I had tried to get inside the upper eschelons of that building, seeking any toe-hold for my business in the endless climb for entrepreneurial success. All I had gotten was after fall. More blood. And more bruises.

“When is it all going to show up, God?” By now I was asking the question out loud, not caring in the least which fleeing office worker chanced to overhear. “I’ve been asking You for so long. Doing all the things You have told me too, as far as know. But did I miss something? Am I not obeying you in some way?” The tears came now, unbidden. “What am I missing here, on the path to everything?”

At the moment I let these words escape, I was still traversing the U.S Bank Plaza. Just then, I happened to glance up to the left. I was startled to see a series of limos, lined up bumper to bumper at the curb. The nearest one’s license plate read THINK 1.

Seriously? Did I just really see that?

“Okay, God.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll think.”

So I thought.

Nothing came to mind.

I glanced at the next limo’s license plate. It read THINK 2.

“No really, God. I’m thinking. I promise. Okay?”

Still, nothing came to mind.

THINK 3.

“Seriously, God. This isn’t funny. I’m thinking, okay? Thinking thinking thinking! Do you see me over here thinking? You can hear my thoughts. I know You can!”

God was mercifully silent in that moment, relegating Himself to satisfaction of a visual joke. No matter how hard I thought, I came up with Nothing. And yet, though I kept walking, I could guess by now where this was going. Limo after limo, each had the same license plate with the same minor adjustment:

THINK 4. THINK 5. THINK 6. THINK 7.

Seven limos, altogether. Seven calls to think.

Seven is the number of perfection in the Bible, I knew. But I wasn’t perfect; that much, the last year had taught me. Now, as if I any doubt left, my feet hurt and the rising stress in my gut was making short work of my lunch. I could feel another of the endless digestive attacks coming on. Suddenly, all I wanted was to be home, stretched on that antique couch with a blanket pulled over my head.

“I’m not perfect, alright?” I shouted to the Heavens. “You should know this by now! And I cannot figure out what you are saying! If you’re going to answer me, You’re going to have to just say it Yourself, God. Just say it!”

I shouted this last sentence so loud, even the most frazzled commuters paused to stare.

Leaving the limos in the wake of this last plea, I rounded the bend in the street. To my right, the orange arms of the Apostrophe Statue spread over Spaight Plaza, punctuating the wings of the Calatrava-designed Art Museum behind. Just a few nights prior, I had gone to this park in the cool darkness of an early July night. I had kicked off my shoes, rushed the grass and danced with manic ecstasy to the tunes in my earbuds. The same tunes that, now, mocked the warm tears streaming down my face.

Ahead was the corner of Prospect and Mason. This, to me, was the end of Wisconsin Avenue, the place where it turned sharply east into Prospect, while Mason stretched to the east, to the east toward War Memorial Plaza, overlooking the Lake, and to the west toward the jagged glass column that would one day become the Northwestern Mutual Building.

In the shadow of this monstrosity, the soon-to-be tallest building in the city, I stopped to cross the street. The no-walk signal flashed. I held myself at the corner, all the pent-up anger and sadness burning inside. Finally, a walk sign. Relief! I stepped into the street. But as I did, a rattle-trap car pulled up at the intersection in front of me. It was so unremarkable that I hardly noticed it, save for the fact that it was a jalopy in every sense of the word.

I had had enough with license plates for one day, thank you very much. But sometimes God causes us to look where we don’t want to, if for no other reason than to remind us that He is still in control of all things, even the trajectory our gaze.

The car was a broken-down wreck, yes: a peeling blue Buick so beat up, its very presence on the road was clearly an exercise in faith. It grumbled and growled at me as I passed it. I made it a point not to look the driver in the eye; to this day, I still don’t know if it was a man or woman. But there was one thing I could not help noticing: a license plate so unmistakably clear, this time, that I stared in spite of myself.

EXNIHLO.

That was the license plate, yes. Due to letter restrictions, the Latin phrase had been shortened, but my mind immediately filled in the details.

Ex NihiloOut of nothing.

I knew that phrase, oh yes.As a good little Bible college girl years ago, with one of those good little theological educations, I knew the phrase Ex Nihilo. Though it never appears in the Bible, it is often used by theologians when debating the origins of life. Some say when God created the world “In the beginning,” as it says in Genesis 1, this means creatio ex materia—creation out of something that already existed. (A few versus in the chapter appear to suggest there was water or some type of matter already present in the world at the creation.) But other theologians say no, it was creatio ex nihilo—an artistic act that called up everything we see around us out of absolute and complete Nothing.

My purpose here is not to convince you of one or the other theological takes on Genesis 1. But if you’re curious, yes, I do come from the lineage of the Ex Nihilo. God knew this when He sent a beat-up Buick with a crazy license plate my way. And when I saw that license plate, I knew that God had decided to answer my prayer.

Before my foot even hit the opposite curb, I heard His still, small voice thunder in my spirit.

Everything you want will come out of Nothing.

I paused on the opposite curb. This was my answer; I knew it even before the voice of God had coiled again into its majestic silence. I glanced back. The light changed; EXNIHLO was rattling its way on up Prospect Avenue, spewing black clouds as it went. I had never seen that car before, and I have never seen it since. Sometimes I wonder if it really existed at all—or whether it might be some sort of joke, a cosmic illusion conjured up by God’s considerable humor and powered by angels for the sheer purpose of putting me on notice.

My prayers had been heard. The season was shifting.

Everything you want will come out of Nothing.

Had I been more perceptive at point in my life, or perhaps more receptive, I would have seen immediately that “nothing” had already been my portion for some time now. From the first day my ex-husband announced his desire for a fast, surgically-precise divorce, everything in my life had been receding like the slow ebb of a tide. But I had fought the tide. This was the supreme lack of perception that, at this point in my life, had kept me from seeing the truth so long that on July 21st, 2017, I actually had to ask for it. For every inch of bare sand in my life that the ebbing wave had exposed, I had scooped that same water into a jar and splashed it back over the sand, trying to keep it all wet. Now, even the jar itself would soon be swept away.

But I was neither that perceptive nor that receptive back then. Instead, I took comfort in the explanation, though I did not really understand it. My stomach settled. My feet softened. I had no idea what this directive meant, but it didn’t really matter. I walked the last four home, utterly content with what I had heard from the Most High

As miraculous as this experience had been, there was an ominous edge to it. What I did not understand on that boiling-hot Friday of July 21, 2017, was that my attempts to grab hold of everything were not just premature to my personal process. They were in direct violation of how God actually enacts transformation. He cannot bring us everything He seeks until He wrests from our grasp everything else that keeps our hands balled into a fist.

The visitations of THINK and EXNIHLO—and His subsequent pronouncement—were the only warning He would give me that the hour of complete Emptying was now at hand.

There would be no art without destruction. No progress without regression. No making of anything without the unmaking all that had come before.

That day, God said to me,“Everything you want will come out of Nothing.” And I am here to testify: He always makes good on His words.

This is the story of how I lost and gained it all.

When God Speaks Through Tuscan Stones

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“He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
– Luke 19:40

My traveling season began on an unnaturally cold Tuesday night in a stone villa in Northern Tuscany.

Oh sure, I was already traveling. Coming 5,000 miles to Italy does count as travel. But I had not yet committed to the itinerant lifestyle that was about to become my portion.

I had not slept well since arriving in Italy, but I was determined that that night would be different. So I read several chapters in Dan Reid’s huge manual on Chinese medicine. That should put me to sleep, I thought as I finally extinguished the bedside lamp and reclined into the thick, drafty darkness of the villa’s ancient embrace.

No such luck on the sleeping. Around 1 or 2 AM, I awakened to what was nearly an audible voice in the room. I can’t tell you if it was a man’s or a woman’s, high or low, or what kind of accent it had. I can only tell you that the words were so clear, so insistent, I will never forget them as long as I love:

“Take no money. Take no luggage. And go into whatever house will receive you.”

I switched on the light frantically, searching the shadows of the room for some intruder. But there was none. Only my suitcase and its contents, a mini-circus of trip hazards strewn about the floor.

Immediately I knew this had been a word from God.

Since the first word from God I heard back in July 2016, I had become familiar with those small ideas bubbling up from some deep place within, the voice that was not audible, and yet there. But sometimes, the voice became louder. At critical moments, for example. Or when I wasn’t paying attention.

Apparently this was a moment I was to take note of.

So I did whatever I did at times when a thought like this struck with forceful clarity. I got out my phone and began to type in the phrase:

Take no money. Take no luggage. And go into whatever house will receive you. 

For one thing, I knew this was a paraphrase of a passage straight out of the Bible. You can find it in Mark 6:8 and Luke 9:3-4. Jesus sent out His twelve disciples on a mission of healing and proclaiming God’s kingdom, and He gave them very specific instructions about how they were to travel. These were now the same instructions He had given me.

After noting down the passages, I felt led to just type out whatever came to mind, as I contemplated what I had just heard from the Spirit of God. Writing this post after the fact, I realize that everything I heard was deeply prophetic. That “word from God” in my phone has sustained me through more than a year of traveling since.

It was also not until a year later that I realized I had received this word on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This is traditionally a time when God wipes the slate clean, metes out judgment and begins His new work for the year. This was, apparently, my commission for the Hebrew year 5778.

But of course I did not understand that at the time. I only understood that I was freezing to death in a part of Italy that should be sweltering at that time of year. And I was more than a bit freaked out by what I had just heard.

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Here are a few excerpts from the stream of consciousness in my phone. Keep in mind, this whole adventure began because I had been asking God for Everything. And He had told me that Everything I wanted would come out of Nothing.

“You have to let me give you everything. As in EVERY THING. Not as in “some things you insist on calling ‘everything.'”

I realized that had created a very small box that I filled with the few things I thought I wanted and labeled it “everything” when in reality the world was a much larger place with much more in it than I had even bothered to acknowledge or ask for.

Part of this happened because of how limited my perspective really was on the possible things I could do, have and/or achieve in one lifetime. I had written world travel off my list in part because I believed I would have needed a bottomless pocketbook or at least a much larger marriage settlement to make such a lifestyle possible. And because I secretly also believed it would be “irresponsible” to expect to have my needs provided without a job.

Really, if we get right down to it, I wanted a job to secure me social acceptability–of the “you can categorize me and label me as a decent person because you understand easily how I contribute to society” variety–and to rationalize the cash flow to my own ego that wants to be darn sure it earns its keep fair and square.

“’Every thing’ is defined as the whole world. I want to give you the whole world as yours … not just one piece of it. I want you to have many countries and many languages, not just one country and one language. I want you to have many homes everywhere, not just one little apartment in one American state.””

“I want you to have ALL the love from the friends you will make and the people you will help around the world, and in particular to experience the TWO loves that will never leave you–Mine first, and then your own. Isn’t that a whole lot more of everything than you have been asking for, Lisa Maria?”

“Your provision will follow your purpose. Take no scrip for your journey … The way you traveled to Charlotte is exactly how you will travel the world. You cannot get on a plane always knowing where all the money is going to come from. Where’s the fun in that?”

“Wherever you go IS YOURS. For that moment I put you there, and for no longer. Home is where I am in you, and as I go with you, your home will be wherever you go.”

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Somehow, after this I tossed down the phone, exhausted, and managed to fall fast asleep. But the impact of that word would stay with me for over a year.

I returned to the U.S. a few weeks later and sold what was left of my possessions. Then I hit the road again, this time in earnest. Little did I know that word would take me, penniless and possession-less, through five different countries and over 2/3 of the U.S. before landing me at last in the sand-and-concrete jungle of Dubai. And every time thereafter, for about the next 365 days, whenever I asked God if we could finally hang up the suitcase, He would tell me, “Just keep moving.”

Everything I will tell you about after this follows from what happened in that Tuscan villa.

If only those old stone walls could talk!

Dancing in the Footsteps of St. Hildegard, Part 1

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Names matter.

I’ve always loved asking people about their names, and what they mean. People, too, often ask me where the name for this blog–“That Fiery Dance”–came from.

For me, “That Fiery Dance” has many meanings. And I’m sure it may have some totally different for you.

First, for me it’s a nod to freedom. (Because what do I do when I’m totally free in body, mind and spirit? I dance!) It’s also a nod to the Holy Spirit. (Listening and following His Voice is a dance all its own.)

But mostly, it’s a nod to the woman and the prophet whose memory has inspired my own journey over the past few years: St. Hildegard of Bingen. Here’s her whole quote:

“I will tell you a secret about that divine light, about creative fire.
The more you nourish it in your heart, the more it radiates out from you.
The more you release it through your words, your deeds, of wisdom, of
loving compassion, the brighter the flame burns … and in that fiery dance,
you will find that you are, as I myself discovered, no longer aware of your years.”
St. Hildegard of Bingen

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Freedom transforms us.

It causes barriers to fall away. It lifts off our masks. It gives us the courage to get up off the sidelines and dance under all the lights where everyone can see us–and we don’t care anymore what they think.

Freedom gives us the courage to go after the dreams God has put in our hearts. To own our gifts. To stand up and let His power flow through us however He wills it to… and not to fear the outcome.

Above all, the freedom of God takes away the weight of years–literally–from our hearts, minds and bodies. It provides us a continual wellspring of Living Water within that renews and refreshes us.

No matter how dry the desert she dwells in, a truly Free Woman is young in spirit, and spry enough to dance, because she drinks from the water of eternal life.

St. Hildegard is, to me, the picture of that kind of Freedom.

Almost a year ago, I got to walk in her footsteps.

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I first learned about St. Hildegard’s life when I was researching medieval convents for a writing project about five years ago.

Even though she was born almost 900 years before me, I resonated immediately with her isolated upbringing, her love of books and learning, and the creative determination that defines her story.

In a time when more men than women made headlines, St. Hildegard became an advisor to kings and the pope, a preacher who toured Europe, the first recorded female to found a spiritual community for women in Europe and an icon of her generation.

Armed with the courage that marked her 70-some years, Hildegard became one of the first practitioners of modern medicine, a gifted herbalist who contributed treatments for women’s sexuality and health issues, a dietitian who saw the relationship between food and health in an era when many did not make that connection–and a composer whose music is still performed today.

She was also a prophet, theologian and writer who recorded original visions from God that are still not entirely understood today. And she became the spiritual mother of several convents full of women. Together, these women defied the church’s tradition for nuns to dress in plain habits and ugly veils  by donning red dresses, letting their hair down and decking themselves with pearls–because, as Hildegard insisted, they were the bride of Christ, and ought to look like it.

Along the way, Hildegard escaped being buried alive in an anchorite’s cell and almost losing her life because of her prophetic gifts. When she left that cell, after almost thirty years trapped inside it, she never looked back. Instead of letting her long confinement break her, she made it a stepping-stone to full freedom.

She also felt extremely misunderstood and, for long periods of her life, was shut away from most of society.

I was enchanted with Hildegard’s story right away. While I could not relate to her many achievements, I aspired to them. But I could connect with her experience of feeling isolated and misunderstood in my creative gifts. At that time in my life, God had not yet begun to speak to me. But as I read books about her and watched Vision, a recent German film based on St. Hildegard’s life, I wrestled with whether or not I thought this strange but magnetic woman really could have heard from God.

Foreshadowing doesn’t just happen in stories; it happens in real life. I believe God used these experiences, bumping up against St. Hildegard’s amazing story, to prepare me for the beginning of my own.

After my divorce, when God began speaking directly into my day-to-day life, St. Hildegard’s experiences didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.  And One day, He spoke to me about her directly. When I was in Italy in September 2017, God told me to go to Germany that December, after the solstice, and retrace St. Hildegard’s steps through her home town.

And so it was, December 26, 2017, I found myself both homeless and penniless, riding a train from Frankfurt, Germany, to tiny Bingen am Rhein, Hildegard’s hometown.

I had just enough money for the hotel and food for the next three days. The German countryside was blurred with endless sheets of rain, and my soul felt just as grey. Here was the nadir of the year. I had been in Germany for almost four soul-crushing weeks. I was struggling with horrible digestive issues, not to mention a heart-wrenching lack of purpose. I had never felt less ready to make such a pilgrimage.

Though I had dreamed of visiting St. Hildegard for years, I never wanted to do it under such duress. Here I was fulfilling a life dream of following her footsteps, which had been a direct command from the Voice of God Himself. And yet I felt so beaten down. So unsure of what my own future held.

When the train pulled in to Bingen, I dragged my little red suitcase and a bag of food the 1/4 mile walk to the hotel I had booked. I remember having hot tea, prunes and a bath for my digestive condition, and going straight to bed.

I should have been excited about what was going to happen the next day. Yet I was feeling so unwell, I could hardly even think about it.

But then morning came: Wednesday, December 27, 2017.

I woke up to find that my digestive issue had been miraculously healed during the night. And I remembered one of those large facts in life that one tends to forget when they come associated with so much pain: December 27th, 2017, was also my 9th wedding anniversary.

Or would have been, anyway, had I not been divorced exactly 14 months to the day prior.

I laid there, listening to the rain on the hotel roof, remembering the hopeful young girl who had donned her wedding dress–still not entirely sure she wanted to be married, but putting on a brave face and doing what had to be done. A thousand thoughts and feelings flooded through my body at that recollection. And at all that had happened since.

Seven-and-a-half years of a life that had been aborted without warning. The roller-coaster ride that came after, including the first time of hearing God’s voice. Hildegard’s writings had carried me through that maelstrom of personal reinvention.

In many ways, I felt that, like Hildegard, I had found the key to my own cell and stepped out of it, as I began to hear the Voice of God and follow it.

And that obedience had led me here: broke, alone and empty-handed, to the womb of earth that had birthed my spiritual.

In that moment, I heard God say to me, “It’s your wedding day once again.”

I knew instantly that I had come to another kind of wedding: not the wedding of myself to someone else, but my own wedding to the vision He had given me. Coming to visit Hildegard wasn’t just another act of obedience. It was the beginning of a whole new life.

This date, which had been loaded with so much sorrow, was now reborn. December 27th will forever be “the day I visited Hildegard,” and I intend to celebrate it as such each year. Because why allow our past and our pain dictate what a day means?

Encouraged, I tramped across the rain-soaked cobblestones of Bingen, trying to imagine what it was like to be here in Hildegard’s day. Of course the town was much smaller then. And there was no railroad, nor any ferry across the Rhine River to Rudesheim, a town that also existed in Hildegard’s day, and is now dominated by a hilltop abbey of which she was abbess for many years.

I started my visit by stopping in at the permanent Hildegard installation at the Bingen City Museum, where I was able to see many artefacts I had only ever seen photos of: original paintings from Hildegard’s visions, letters she wrote to various kings and the Holy Roman Emperor, mockups of the now-destroyed monastery and various abbeys where she lived, and other documents.

Perhaps what I admire most about St. Hildegard was her willingness to be exactly who God had told her to be and speak exactly what God had told her to speak. This was her true freedom. Even as I read letter after letter where she delivered His words to popes and kings as honestly as possible … I was in awe of the authority she moved in.

“Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong,” Hildegard wrote. For many years, she herself gave testimony that fear had bound her and kept her caged in that tiny cell. But when she decided to let go of fear, she stepped into her voice and her power.

In her willingness to be exactly whom God made her, and be completely transparent about it, she made an impact that is still felt 900 years later.

In late morning, I walked up the side of a steep hill, through “downtown” Bingen, to the famous St. Rochus Chapel where a shrine stands to Hildegard’s memory.

Along the way I walked through a “garden of saints”–statues representing all of Jesus’ disciples, the Apostle Paul and others–and found my way through a muddy forest to the chapel road.

The door to St. Rochus was open, but no one was there. I stepped into a dank, chill medieval stone sanctuary, where a row of benches and a locked set of iron bars separated me from the priceless relics in the church itself. The famous icon of St. Hildegard was lit by single lightbulb on a timer; I had to keep flicking the switch to get a good look at her from afar, behind the bars that separated us.

But I was okay with the distance and the darkness, mostly. It gave me time to sit in silence, to contemplate all that had passed in the previous years and what coming to this place really meant. I felt pricked in my conscience that God was saying something me here, in this place.

Something, perhaps, about coming out of hiding myself.

Though I had not been locked up in a stone cell like Hildegard was for many early years of her life, I had been locked up in more invisible prisons than I could count. I had found the key when I had begun to find my voice, and (more importantly) the voice of God within me. But there was still a part of me that was silent and hiding.

Sitting here in the darkness, with St. Hildegard on the other side of the bars, I came face to face with that. I knew I wanted to be free to dance again–maybe for the first time in my life–and like St. Hildegard, help free other women to dance themselves.

After leaving St. Rochus, I visited the nearby nunnery, where I enjoyed a lunch cooked by the nuns from Hildegard’s original recipe, complete with wine from grapes grown on the property.

Side note: I’m in love with Dornfelder wines now, but I’ve never been able to find them in the U.S. (And good luck finding any particular kind of wine in Dubai.)

As I enjoyed this meal, I thought about St. Hildegard’s work as a healer. I myself had seen first-hand how my body had reacted to the tremendous sadness and stress I underwent during my divorce. I had enjoyed good health up to that point but found myself at the . mercy of terrible digestive issues that continued up to this day.

Every aspect of the meal I was eat was designed to heal the body. Though St. Hildegard had incomplete medical information, and not all of her medieval ideas were medically factual, she had indeed made a lot of sound conclusions. And she understood the root cause of such issues: the connection between mind, spirit and body.

What happens in the body affects the mind and the heart. And Hildegard had not been afraid to treat them together.

I have seen in my own journey how working with these three elements together brought me incredible freedom. And I want to pass that freedom on.

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As I completed my first day in Bingen, I felt that same tug in my heart that had drawn me to the city in the first place from more than 5000 miles away.

It was the tug to step into a life bigger, more courageous and more authentic than anything I had previously lived.

And just as it had begun for St Hildegard with owning her voice, her gifts and the visions God had given her … I knew it would begin there for me. This blog is the beginning of that journey. It has now been almost a year since I walked with St. Hildegard in Bingen … and God has brought me to settle in a new country and given me an entirely new life.

But have I truly stepped into my voice and my gifts? Have I really acknowledged who I am, and owned it to the whole world, regardless of what anyone thinks?

That’s a level of transparency hardly any of us reach. But this transparency is exactly the reason Hildegard’s life shines so brightly almost 900 years later.

Today, I resonate with St. Hildegard’s story more than ever. I understand now that my first attraction to her story was really God’s way of drawing me deeper toward my own calling. Like her, I hear from Him. Like her, I write down what He says–though I often am too afraid to share it. When people ask me for advice, I tell them exactly what I heard God saying to me about their situation.

I have stories to write, visions to paint, dreams to turn into dance. Not everything I have to say will be popular, or even appreciated. And I hope my life can shine brightly for some other woman who needs hope that God can transform her.

You can’t make an impact when you are sitting in silence behind prison bars. And I can’t make an impact while I’m silent, either.

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Like St. Hildegard, I found the key to my prison, and it’s time I leave it behind–and don’t look back.

The last almost three years were my first lessons in what it’s like to live without prison walls and without limits. What remains now is for me to pick up my pen, open my mouth, step into the work God has given me as His daughter and His prophet.

Because it is not in silence that we reclaim our lives. It is only in transparency can the light radiate out from us. It is only in the midst of THAT FIERY DANCE with God’s Holy Spirit and with the life that He has given us do we find that we are no longer aware of our years.

I’ve told you parts of the story but I haven’t told you the whole story. That begins here, today, in this space dedicated to speaking freely.

“I will tell you a secret about that divine light, about creative fire,” St. Hildegard once wrote. “The more you nourish it in your heart, the more it radiates out from you. The more you release it through your words, your deeds, of wisdom, of  loving compassion, the brighter the flame burns … and in that fiery dance, you will find that you are, as I myself discovered, no longer aware of your years.”  

May this blog be my sacrifice of praise and my platform of transparency.

It’s time to dance.

Want to reach me directly? Send me a message!

What Really Happens When You Buzz Your Hair in the Middle of a Nebraska Blizzard

On Saturday, the 14th of April 2018, I buzzed off all of my hair. 

My journey toward this moment began more than a decade ago, in Tibet, where I was frustrated by the intermittent showers I could get in that harsh, wild landscape. Sometimes a week went by between real showers, and my greasy hair was suffering. I told some other people in my travel group that I “just wanted to buzz it off.” They all thought it was a great idea, a smart solution, but ultimately I chickened out. 

Why? 

Simple.

I was afraid of what other people would think. 

Fast-forward a decade and a half. I had just come out of a rich, full romantic relationship that did not last as long as I had hoped it would. But in that breakup, God gave me the tremendous gift of revealing to me, through my now ex-boyfriend’s wise observations, all the ways in which I was not honest on my exterior about who I really inside.

I sat with his words and recognized the truth in tI knew I needed to make certain changes to be more authentic. And I had a feeling my hair was one of those changes. 

My friend Snowe and I started praying about what I should do. And you know what God said? 

His response was to show me an image of myself, vowing to buzz my hair back in Tibet. 

I knew immediately that the meaning was clear: this actually was the real me. But my fear had gotten in the way, and it was time to let that fear go. After all, it was fear that had kept me from fully being the real me in my dating relationship, which was a large shared of my contribution to its ultimate demise. 

I had learned my lesson. There was no going back. 

I promised God I would buzz it all off as soon as I got to Colorado, where I was going to visit a friend. 

God has a sense of humor, of course. 

I had a gut feeling that He wanted me to buzz my hair on 4/14, which back home in Milwaukee is known as “Milwaukee Day,” since our primary area code is 414. But as it turned out, I never made it to Colorado for 4/14. Instead, I got stuck in the biggest, nastiest blizzard I have ever witnessed. On 4/14 I was stuck in a roadside hotel in tiny Paxton, NE.

After paying for the unexpected hotel bill, I had $14 left to my name. (Ironic, no? $14 on 4/14? God has such a sense of humor!) But I was undaunted. I went to the hotel clerk and asked who in town could buzz my hair for $14. Keep in mind this was the day after a mammoth blizzard, when the I-80 highway was still completely shut down from Lincoln, NE, to the Colorado border!

He sent me into town to find the only beauty parlor, which was located in a house. Long story short, I almost missed the stylist, but by some miracle, she actually did come in to work that day. She buzzed my hair for $10 and I gave her the remaining $4 in tip. 

I walked out the door feeling completely liberated of every fear I have ever had about “looking good” in order to be accepted by others. 

The funny thing is, too, that the response of other people has been far different from what I anticipated. I thought I might get shunned, or get a lot of negative comments from people. (After all, where I come from in Milwaukee, you don’t see a lot of shave-headed women running around like you might in some more fashion-forward towns.) 

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Shaving my head has shown me who my true friends are. And I discovered, in fact, that more people were ready to applaud me for revealing the Real Me than were ready to ridicule me. 

People come up to me all the time now and ask about why I shaved my head. Women tell me they wish they had “that much courage,” and I encourage them to step out and do what their heart is leading them to. 

Perhaps I have been most surprised by the number of men who come up to me in stores or restaurants and compliment my hair—not in an uncomfortable or suggestive way, but with an energy of genuine appreciation for someone choosing to be different. 

People tell me all the time that my buzzed hair looks good on me, but here’s the dirty little secret about that: 

I had no idea if it were going to look good, or not, when I decided to do it. 

I simply went with God’s leading, and with the absolute conviction that I NEVER wanted to get into a relationship again where someone was unclear about who I really am. 

My buzzed head said “rebel.” It says, “free spirit.” It says, “artist.” Funnily enough, more cool people who also fit that description are showing up in my world every week now. 

Why? 

I think it’s because I chose to step out first, in the middle of a blizzard, when I didn’t know what the outcome would be. Following what God has for us, and creating the life He has given us a vision for, is all about faith. 

Sometimes you gotta take a pair of clippers to your head before you can really see who you are under all the layers of social conditioning, people-pleasing and unconscious choices you have been making all your life. 

Let it all fall away, and find out who you were meant to be.