Little Paper Pieces: On the Tearing Up and Rewriting of Your Life

NOTE: The following is a featured post from 2016 which first appeared on my former creative blog, Scrappy Storyteller. I’m sharing this as a way of embracing my past creative self and sharing ideas she had that, well, still matter today. Enjoy!


Anyone who knows me well knows how much I hate the process of revision. Ideas tend to flow through me like freight trains, complete thoughts barreling down the track that is my early phases of writing. They’re coherent and prolific. This blog post itself is mostly a first draft, composed on-the-fly with a few stolen moments of time.

Generally after composing such a first draft, I walk away satisfied that I got my meaning across. This is probably the only real reason I write: not for the beauty of language itself, but to get something off my chest. 

And that is where things start to get messy.

Because the process of polishing my thoughts is never as straightforward or simple as the getting them down in the first place. I hate chaos, so there’s something inherently horrific to me about taking my neatly ordered ideas and tearing them up. Why un-make and re-make again what was decently adequate to start with—especially when it involves such violence?

To me, revision feels like a death: my beautiful first drafts get torn up into “little paper pieces” and scattered on the wind. Why can’t I just write it well the first time?

This is of course the purest form of creative impatience. Nothing on the planet (not even my words!) show up in the world fully formed. It must be shaped and fashioned, nurtured and evolved. Many sentences and paragraphs must die and rise again in new forms before the final product emerges.

That’s just not how the creative process works in real life. I think the same can be said for our inner stories as well.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Other Side of Storytelling. In this post, I explored what it now means to me to refashion my personal narrative of my own life experiences—so I can actually live with myself and move forward. Author Jean Houston has called this the process of “re-mythologizing your life.”

Just as cultures tell themselves stories to make meaning of their collective experience, so we individuals do the same. Just perhaps, more unconsciously. But as I’ve learned since I wrote the post, re-mythologizing an inner reality is much closer to the traditional process of creative revision than I imagined at the outset.

Revision is nothing more than a process of Getting Your Story Straight. To get your story straight, you must be willing to revise it, a thousand times if necessary. You must not fear the violence of ripping paper or the whine of the shredding machine. You must, in short, be willing to tear every unsatisfactory draft up into tiny paper pieces and scatter them to the wind.

Oh, the mess it makes!

Despite this mess, over the past few months, I have been blessed with so many angelic individuals coming into my life to help me “see” myself properly and retell my story at a crucial moment. Some of them are friends. Some are clients. Some occupy other capacities altogether in my heart and mind. But they all share one thing in common: 

They have, each one of them, forced me to tear up and rewrite my story—again. 

Every time I am tempted to settle for a less elegant rendition of what has happened in my life, or put up with a self-destructive turn of phrase, they pull out their red pens and call me on my bullshit. It’s editorial license of a breathtakingly destructive kind.

The funniest—and perhaps most grace-filled—part of it, is that most of these editors don’t even know they’re on the job.

They don’t know how many times I go home from being with them, feeling like my soul has been ripped up, ripped out or ripped open. They never see the tears I shed, or the long journal entries in which I force myself to reframe experiences that I have always naturally avoided, or seen in a particular, self-destructive light. Inspired by their nudges, I’ll start writing my story again, thinking this time I’ll get the final healthy version down pat. 

But it just doesn’t work that way.

There’s always another draft I need to write. And pronto.

Despite my frustration with the slowness of this process, there is hope. In my most private moments I find myself gradually being filled up with a story that (while different from the one I originally wrote) is probably far stronger. Yet in the presence of my editors, I still find myself frequently at a loss for words, or saying the wrong things, or losing my power of self-expression altogether. 

I do not have just the right turn of phrase to replace the part of my story they just redlined, or marked up with that dreaded bit of commentary: “Unclear. Rewrite!” 

Paper pieces start showering down everywhere, and no matter how fast I chase them with broom and vacuum, I can hardly keep up with the mess.

Of course, I hate the mess. And I worry that my friends and clients and others in my life will soon grow impatient with all the flotsam in my wake. Don’t they hate breathing in wood pulp? Don’t they get tired of red ink-stains on their fingers? And aren’t they going to revoke our contract when they get another horrible mid-revision draft that’s just north of complete drivel?

Then I remember, that they don’t see what’s happening in my soul. They aren’t inside my process of re-mythologizing my life. 

The paper pieces are likely invisible to everyone except me.

My mess, self-made, is also only self-seen.

So this is a thank you to all those brave souls out there who engage with me at a level I’ve never experienced before. You know who you are. You know how much you matter. 

What maybe you don’t know is just how painful (in the best of ways) your kindness is. 

I’m reminded of a quote from A Course in Miracles, which states, “Discomfort is not the final result of your perception.”

I trust wholeheartedly that this time of new perceiving of myself, and of rewriting my understanding of my life, will bear fruit in the years to come. I trust that the discomfort of my new perception, inspired by your collective kindness, will be rewarded with a great joy that I can give back to you a thousand fold. I trust that the sea of red ink you help me splash all over my internal narrative will deliver us at last a clean, fresh story that is satisfying all the way to “The End.”

I trust this, yes. 

And still , I grieve a bit every time a new draft splits into a thousand useless scraps.

Then again, maybe re-mythologizing not about getting the story “just right.” Maybe it is not about the death of the old drafts at all, but the celebration what might come in the next. And maybe—just maybe—that’s where I’ve always gone wrong with revision.

One can view the act of writing as a tearing up of the old, or as the welcoming in of something brand-new and wonderful.

Little paper pieces, I suppose, make their own kind of confetti.

Get Your Story Straight, and the Rest Will Follow

NOTE: The following is a featured post from 2016 which first appeared on my former creative blog, Scrappy Storyteller. I’m sharing this as a way of embracing my past creative self and sharing ideas she had that, well, still matter today. Enjoy!


Every year I have great plans for February. And every year, they get totally derailed.

Like it or not, for me February seems to be the month when I’m called to hibernate in my own soul, mulling things over. I feel like that bear in a cave, slowly burning off the fat of her last intellectual meal so that when she awakes, she can stretch and crawl out of her cave in search of a good trout and a handful of berries.

The reward for my hibernation, however, is rarely a sense of well-restedness. (I actually slept terribly this month.) 

It’s a sense of renewed understanding and purpose.

As I explored in my last post, there are apparently phases to this thing called the creative life. The early phases are so exciting! You watch concepts you heard and read about unfold before your very eyes. 

But once the excitement and glitter are past, you’ve got a long road of hard work ahead of you.

And as it turns out, that is where our storytelling skills most come in handy.

You see, in the middle of all my intellectual machinations and internal questioning this month, it occurred to me that our storytelling skills really are so much more important than we think. And not just for the creative endeavors we might be pursuing.

They’re critical to the living of this thing called life.

This month it occurred to me—possibly for the first time ever—that the story truly must come first in any endeavor, not just in art but also in life.

So often we want to rush into action, or see change happen, without getting the story straight first.

Every day, every hour, I’m shaping a narrative inside my own head about how my life is going, whether I’m the hero of a comedy or tragedy, or how close I am to achieving my goals.

The most important story I’ve been telling all of my life isn’t one of my many specific fictional tales. It’s the story I’ve been telling to myself about my life. 

I am my own first (captive) audience. I am also perhaps my own most important audience.

And like the reader of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, I will ultimately decide how the story turns out.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting I have ultimate power over my own life, or some kind of omnipotent edge that can merely think away obstacles and fly to the moon. But I am suggesting that I do have the power over how I react to, respond to or view what happens to me.

That internal narrative is just as important—maybe even more so—than any external one I’ll ever write.

So, yes. 

As I was lying awake many nights this month, thinking over many things, or letting my mind wander as I doodled in my art journal . . . I realized that the creative life really is not about being in the “right place” with the “right people” or the “right work.” 

It’s about telling yourself the right story about yourself, your place, your people and your work.

This is not to say that we should never make changes to our external environment, or pursue new opportunities, or perhaps finally lay that languishing project to rest. But perhaps we’re just too quick to look around us, expecting the change to happen.

We look to the details of the story to change magically on their own, rather than asking the Storyteller to change the plot.

I am the Storyteller. So are you. If we don’t like the story . . . all we have to do is change it.

After all, isn’t that the beauty of a story? It’s not completely random? There IS a Teller out there somewhere, shaping our understand of what’s happening, and helping us to make meaning of the events as they unfold.

In the case of life, we rely on ourselves to make meaning of what’s happening to us. It’s one of the sacred tasks we’ve been given.

So I’ll ask you the question I had to ask myself:

Do you like how you’re shaping the story of your own life?

If not, you always have an opportunity to shift the narrative inside your own head, and in doing so, to transform your reality.

That’s what stories are all about, anyway: the power of transformation. The transmuting of a soul from one state of being to another—whether literally in the physical realm or figuratively in the metaphoric one.

(I didn’t tell you we’d be delving into alchemy today, now did I? Well, every good story has got to have a plot twist anyway . . .)

A story starts off in one place and must alway end up in another. If there’s no shift or movement, there has been no story.

The bottom line for us is: transformation is possible. And it starts in our own heads.

So as we enjoy this unusual extra day in February, and prepare for March (already?!), I hope you’ll remember with me that we really, truly are the story that we tell ourselves. 

If we don’t like the story we’re living, the problem isn’t usually in the story. It’s all about the telling. 

This is why movies go south. Novels flounder. Graphic novels fall flat.

The telling of the story just wasn’t as grand as the original idea.

Our own less-than-effective telling is why the story of our life sometimes turns out as less than we’d hoped, too.

But the problem is never the story itself.

The narrative we spin inside our own heads, about our own lives, is quite possibly the most important narrative we’ll ever write. 

It’s about time we got absolutely clear on who we are, what’s happened to us, and why it matters.

Because when we get our story straight, the rest (of life) will always follow.

Where Souls Cry: Walking the Berlin Wall

My entire life, I’ve heard about the Berlin Wall.

I was just six years old when it fell. Before 1989, it was something the newscaster spoke about on my mom’s radio programs. After 1989, it was something everyone looked back on. I vaguely remember my parents reading voraciously about the circumstances around this historic event which led to the reunification of Germany. 

Twenty-eight years later, I got a chance to see and touch it for myself. 

On a blustery day in December I bundled up myself and leashed Sam the dog—the Aussie shepherd I was pet sitting, who already had a bundle of fur to keep him warm. It took us about twenty minutes to walk to the Wall Memorial from Sam’s owners’ flat.

Later, I found another Wall guard tower right in our neighborhood an learned the Wall ran almost literally under the flat itself. But I didn’t know that yet. So I took Sam for a walk in the park where parts of the Wall are now preserved for posterity, along with gravestones and various sculptural pieces. Nearby also stood the Wall Memorial Museum, a chapel dedicated to the memory of victims, and other sites of interest.  

I’m glad I took Sam with me. I cannot now imagine having done the Wall Memorial without his gentle, steady canine presence.  

Mostly because for the first time in my life, I could hear the spirits screaming.  

Let’s face it: the ground of Berlin is soaked in blood. 

It’s not just the blood of Jews. It’s also the blood of Germans trying to cross from East to West. The blood of the Roma people who were slaughtered en masse, and other nationalities too. I told someone later that Berlin, to me, seemed like a giant collection of “apology monuments”—places now dedicated to memorial, for atrocities committed against some internal group who had once found shelter on that ground.  

The Berlin Wall Memorial just happens to be the most famous.  

I found it particularly moving to walk past the names and photos of individuals killed while trying to cross the Wall. As I viewed each face, I wondered, “Whose son is that? Whose sister? Did their families ever know what happened to them, or did they simply leave—and never return?” 

The atmosphere in the park was appropriately subdued. People walked from place to place, murmuring to one another. Taking discrete photos that seemed less voyeuristic and more commemorative. Over it all, a weak European winter sun shone down, its diffuse light softening the harsh contraption of concrete-and-wire that was all now left of the wall. 

I think perhaps the most bearable part of the whole experience was the chapel.  

Somehow, in the middle of a space where the spirits of the dead still cry out for full justice, that place was a refuge. I could not take Sam inside, so we only stood at the threshold. But even as we stood there I drank in the serenity of that faith-designated ground.  

In the middle of despair and chaos, the church represented hope and peace.  

In the middle of loss, the church represented eternal rest. 

In the middle of pain, the church was a balm for the soul.  

Though what happened in Germany during those terrible years cannot be altered, the future still remains to be written. It would have been easy for me to avoid the Wall Memorial altogether during my time in Berlin. But I’m glad I went. The chance to pay my respects. To understand more of what happened and gain greater perspective. The opportunity to hear those souls crying out from the ground and know that spiritual warfare is real. 

Sometimes the most uncomfortable places are the most important ones for us to visit.  

Just … take a big, empathic Aussie Shepherd with you if you can.  

I promise, it makes all the difference. 

Life After Creative Perfectionism: Making Friends Again with Your Old Art

Me in 2012, in my Scrappy Storyteller steampunk costume


Recently, I made the decision to move my blogging back to WordPress.

This is the first platform I ever used to share my words with the world–and despite having hopped around to other platforms, I’ve come back here because it’s simple and built so well for SEO and for organic connections. In doing so, I bumped into my old art again.

Let’s rewind three and a half years. I was living in a 120ish-year-old Victorian frame house on Milwaukee’s blustery east side, just ten blocks from Lake Michigan. My husband (now ex-husband) and I had bought the house in 2012 and restored it from utter ruin to a beautiful gem on the block, and part of that restoration was turning two useless, broken-down rooms into a beautiful creative studio.

My first studio was a second-floor bedroom, which became a cozy nest for many creative endeavors, including my blogging, a 24-part serialized online fantasy novel, collaborative web series and Steampunk comic book.

In Spring 2016, I moved from that now-overflowing space into the attic, which my ex-husband had turned into a “rec room” for the buyer who would eventually allow us to flip the property. In the meantime, I made it my new, larger studio with dedicated spaces for sewing and appliqué, painting, reading, writing and running my small branding agency for women-owned businesses.

Interestingly, I have no photos of that second space. But it was about three times the size of the space above, if not more.

Our 120ish-yr-old Victorian home after fresh painting. (The third-floor window was my studio.)

At that time, I was running a blog about the improvisational creative process, called “Scrappy Storyteller.” The blog is no longer live. When I found out I was getting a divorce, I was so devastated that my creative process shut down almost instantly, and I eventually shut down the blog.

I thought I had deleted that blog. Until this month, that is.

While poking around in WordPress to get this blog up and running, I found the old Scrappy Storyteller, and with it, literally hundreds of posts that represented my creative hopes, fears, dreams, challenges and successes.

It truly felt like a “blast from the past.” Since I last wrote on Scrappy Storyteller, I have gotten divorced, built a business, destroyed it, lost everything in the process, traveled the world, renewed my relationship with God and wound up settling in the United Arab Emirates–where God has blessed me with a brand-new, overflowing life I could never have imagined in the old one.

Reading those old posts, I wanted to reach out and embrace the struggling, hard-working, sort-of-successful-sort-of-not woman that I was, and let her know that everything would be okay.

Yes, her worst fears were about to come true in the biggest possible way.

And yes, she would survive it all to rise from the ashes brand-new.

In other words … everything I was hoping and dreaming for in those long-ago days in my creative nest on the shores of the Great Lakes, have or are beginning to come true. I just didn’t know it would take the biggest losses of my life to unlock those good gifts.

I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude reading those old posts, as if finding them were a huge God-gift I hadn’t even expected.

You see, back when I got divorced, I went into a creative hole. Perfectionism had been my biggest enemy as a young creative–and my divorce was like the crowning proof that I was a failure, at least in my mind at that time. How could anyone want to read what I had to say when I had failed at my marriage? Partially because I was more married to my craft than my husband?

It seemed prudent to let all that writing go. So I shut down the blog and all my creative projects that were on the docket for that year, and for the three years since.

This pattern of creative rejection–and ejection–would continue over the next three years.

Trying to find my mojo again, I started other blogs and other projects, only to get halfway through and eject them, just like before. For some reason, I thought that getting rid of what I had done in the past was the only way to embrace the new.

And in those weary years of wandering, I desperately just wanted the new to come.

Now, looking back from a vantage point of time, healing and a greater understanding of God’s never-ending flow, I realize it wasn’t necessary to eject everything I had done.

Cutting off a diseased limb isn’t the way to heal the whole body (usually). For most maladies, a holistic treatment is available that preserves the limb. But amputation was the only method I knew. And in some ways, it was probably a reflection of my self-rejection, sadness and sense of failure at the time.

But now … but now … God has unexpectedly given me a new opportunity: to embrace that hurting young woman, recognize that nascent prophetic voice within her and retroactively extend healing to who she was.

After all, God lives outside of space and time. Sometimes I wonder if that Younger Me still exists concurrently with the Current Me in His vision of time. I don’t know–but I know that my own healing is tied to forgiving, deeply accepting and loving who I was in the past.

I’m excited to do that today.

Going forward, I’ll be sharing select posts from Scrappy Storyteller. I’ll denote them clearly so you know they aren’t my latest thoughts and ideas. But in making space for the Old Me in this creative space of mine, I think it will be a more fertile ground for the New Me to grow–especially as an artist.

Welcome, Old Lisa, Scrappy Storyteller. I celebrate who you were, the challenges you faced and the journey you went on.

You paved the way for Who I am today, and I bless you.

Your story is part of my story, always.

Let’s tell them together.

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.

The Truth and the Lies of Sexual Dysfunction

IMG-6135 (1)

“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:

7 Things That Happen When You Get Emotionally Free of your Past

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Sometimes, on the healing journey, it can feel impossible to believe that you will ever be free of what happened to you. You’re a goal-oriented woman, and you love to have a target to aim your arrows toward, or a finish line to run for. But when it comes to your emotions and healing from your past, that target, that line, always seems to move.

Some days are okay. Some days are terrible. You’ve been told it will “get better,” but what does that even look like? How will you KNOW when you’ve reached a place of freedom?

At one level, freedom is a lifelong event, and it’s entirely personal. Each day, we can make choices that take us closer to God and closer to total surrender and joy in Him, which will naturally break off the bonds that have held us back. That exact path may look different for each woman, of course. But the process is the same.

However at another level, I can testify from my own experience: you WILL know, that you know, that you know, when you become emotionally free. You WILL start waking up each day with the significant conviction that you are no longer moved by what happened to you: that your life is blank slate now, not a museum to the past.

Believe me, it’s the best feeling in the world.

“But wait,” you say. “I feel like a one-woman triage unit every day of the week, and that still doesn’t give me a lot of help.”

I totally understand. I did too, when I first started this process. Here are seven (concrete) things that you can also expect to happen when you break away from the pain of the past and allow yourself to be totally renewed. If you haven’t experienced these, don’t feel bad. Rejoice that this is what you can look forward to, and keep walking forward on your healing process.

1) You have no desire anymore to talk about “what happened.”

The biggest hallmark of emotional bondage is the fact that your pain will always come spilling out of your mouth—not matter how hard you try “not to talk about it.” Ask your girlfriends; if they are honest women, they will tell you if every coffee or wine date devolves into your personal trauma session. When I was in the worst of my pain, I instinctively looked anywhere I could to get relief. (Anywhere, that is, except to God!)

Stopping yourself from speaking when you are dying inside is not what I’m talking about. When you are in the midst of your pain, you must speak about it long and freely to whomever will listen. But the MARK of having received full healing is when your past wounds no longer define your present reality.

When you get to the place where you are truly no longer moved by what happened to you, and you rest in total peace that God has transformed your pain for good, you won’t even remember to talk about it. People will bring it up, and you’ll be thinking, “Wait, what? Oh right, that thing …” You might even be startled when people bring it up, because your former pain no holds you in a vice-grip deep in your soul.

Please note: I am not referring to activism on behalf of abuse victims, giving your personal testimony, or other types of important “speaking out;” I am referring to the obsessive need to share your pain with others in order to somehow get healing “from” their attention. The attention can’t heal you; only God can!

2) When you think of the people who wronged you, you feel only compassion.

Yes, what happened to you was terrible. Perhaps it was a collection of “somethings” that happened and there’s a parade of perpetrators a mile long: at home, at church, at school, in the community, etc. You may struggle to believe it will ever be possible not to feel the rage and grief that rise up every time their name or face flashes before your mind. But believe me, beautiful woman, it is.

You will know God has healed you emotionally when you can remember these people in your life or walk past something that triggers their memory and yet feel nothing but compassion for them—because you recognize that their own tremendous pain drove them to what they inflicted on you.

3) Your IBS, upset stomach, digestive issues and anxiety heal themselves.

Please keep in mind I am not a doctor and cannot give you medical advice. However, I can offer the laywoman’s observations: in my own life, and those of other women I watch heal emotionally from the darkest, most painful events you can think of, I have witnessed physical symptoms completely break off of those women as they reach healing.

In my own life, when I was in the worst of my emotional pain and disempowerment, I struggled with stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, digestive issues and unstoppable anxiety. As I submitted to the healing process by opening up to God’s love, taking control of my thought patterns, shifting my diet, incorporating gentle yoga, praying daily, etc. I began to notice a drastic reduction in symptoms. Ultimately, this resulted in several miraculous healing experiences. Today, I am symptom-free … without the aid of doctors, surgery or expensive drugs.

4) You naturally stop self-medicating with TV, greasy food, social media or shopping.

Many women tell me they admire my choice to eat meat-light and wish they could do the same—but they say they can’t keep themselves from “cheating” with junk food. If staying consistent with healthier eating choices, managing your spending, limiting your TV and social media time is hard … then you can mark it down, you are still in emotional bondage.

Each of these “indulgences” is perfectly okay and enjoyable in moderation but can quickly become an excuse to get our good feelings from somewhere other than God and ourselves. Needing anything outside of ourselves, exactly who God made us to be, to feel good is by definition a form of bondage.

When you are emotionally free, you won’t “need” these things any more and/or can enjoy them in moderation. Or choose to give them up altogether and not feel deprived at all.

5) You reclaim “painful places” and create new memories in them.

How did I know I had fully healed from the pain of my divorce? When I sat for two hours in the very same coffee shop where I had my last private conversation with my ex-husband … and didn’t even remember that event for about two hours of sitting there. I was SO in the moment, enjoying my work, the coffee and the space, that I did not even recall that my marriage had essentially dissolved in that space. This was not an act of disrespect to my marriage or that conversation; it was a marker that I had finally move on to create new memories in that space.

That is what it truly means to reclaim a space for your own after trauma has marked it. When I came back to my hometown, Milwaukee, after nine months of traveling, I felt that my emotional “set point” had been reset, because I could walk into places that preciously were emotionally loaded from my marriage and divorce, and feel totally free to “own” them again and make new memories that aren’t mixed up with what happened before.

6) Other people’s poor choices no longer affect your joy.

This is a fairly simple one, but wow is it powerful! When you become emotionally free, you reach a place where you realize that YOU are the only person you are responsible for. Yes, you can pray for others. You can seek to be a positive influence. You can give of yourself. But at the end of the day, you are the ONLY person you can truly change.

When you relax into that space where you are no longer responsible for everyone else’s well-being, you can truly release your emotional bondage and your attachment to the idea that other people need to change … which is nothing more than a distraction from how YOU need to change.

7) You feel genuinely happy for no reason.

I know, dear heart. I know it’s hard to imagine this when you are in so much pain right now. But the day will come when all those “weights” on your heart will come lifting off, and you will float down the street, truly in love with you life, no matter what is going on in your material, lived experience.

This will be possible because you will know, that you know, that you know, that your Redeemer lives, and that you are being held by the Everlasting Arms, in the grip of the Everlasting God who never faints or grows weary. The ancient yogis spoke of BLISS, and I believe this is it: the ability to dance your way through life, amid sunshine and rain, because what is happening inside you is no longer contingent upon what is happening outside.

Reading this list and feeling like you could never scale this impossible mountain of emotional healing? Wondering how to let go of the weights that are holding you back — so you can enjoy these seven signs of emotional freedom?

More on that another day.

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

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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.

_

I love mail! Send me a note, and I’ll respond: 

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.