Two weeks ago, my son entered the world.
It took a lot of work to get him here, including 20 hours of labor, an emergency c-section, and a ton of healing. When the doctor pulled him from my womb, it was clear my baby had been through the wringer. His forehead protruded outward over his swollen-shut eyes, the back of his head flopped to the side like a smashed melon, and bruises blotched every inch of his face.
It’s no wonder when he arrived, all he wanted to do was sleep (praise the good Lord!)
He’d fall asleep in the hospital incubator, bundled tightly in blankets spotted with blue and pink footprints. He’d find comfort in the arms of friends and family, barely waking as they passed him from one person to the next. He even slept cozily in the arms of night nurses whom he’d never met.
Over time, the injuries from labor and delivery faded away. The swelling was first to recede, then the bruises. Bit by bit, my son’s face—who he really was—began to emerge.
I smiled down at his healing face, his head too heavy for his narrow neck, and cradled him in the crook of my elbow.
This was my favorite of all his resting spots. Right there in my arms, close enough to feel his choppy breaths on my skin. Close enough to admire my handheld miracle as he whimpered and adjusted himself in my arms.
Before my eyes, I witnessed the wounds lift from his cheeks, his lips, his forehead—as though the damage simply evaporated into the air, leaving behind the gentle, spotless skin of a newborn.
Deformity to perfection. All he had to do was rest.
Where do I rest? I wondered after nearly 36 hours of no sleep.
In my delirium, I pictured myself trying to get cozy in the folds of my wallet, constantly distressed by its lack of cushion. All too often, I toss and turn there, unable to relax, as suffocation sucks life from my chest.
If only I could pad the pockets, I could rest easier, I lie.
But the truth is I typically squirm out of the arms of the One who offers true rest.
Only when I lay my weary-laden head in the crook of my Father’s elbow can I truly find peace. Only then can the swelling of my sin recede. Bit by bit, my face—who I was really created to be—begins to emerge.
He smiles down at my healing face, my head too heavy for my weakened spirit, as He cradles me.
This is His favorite of all my resting spots. Right there in His arms, close enough to feel my breath grow calm against his Sacred Heart. Close enough to admire His miraculous handiwork as I whimper and adjust myself in His arms.
He gazes into my small face and then lifts the wounds of sin, leaving behind the gentle, spotless skin of a newborn.
Deformity to perfection.
All I have to do is rest in Him.
My two-year-old recently realized she can do lots of things for herself. It may take her forever and a day, but by golly, she’s going to do it.
“I got it.” Her gaze never waivers from the task at her tiny hands.
Buttoning her shirt? She’s got it.
Putting her socks and shoes on? She’s got it.
Brushing her teeth? She’s got it.
Or so she thinks. But there are times when she doesn’t ‘ got’ it.
There are times—like when she’s trying to buckle herself into her car seat—that her tiny thumbs simply aren’t strong enough to click the buckle together.
But that doesn’t stop her from pushing down with all her might, trying to force the thing together with sheer will, her face reddening with strain. Barely breathing, she squeezes her eyes shut, and I gently guide her along.
My daughter’s eyes pop open as a smile springs into her cheeks. “I did it!”
My heart melts at her enthusiasm and swells over her small accomplishment. I know that feeling—the seemingly impossible task, the struggle, the doubt, and the sweet, semi-unexpected victory.
Like my daughter, I am stubborn to a fault. I work tirelessly, my body and soul strained to the brink of collapse, refusing to give up. On anything. Ever.
I got it.
Like my daughter, accomplishment has lit my face, the thrill burning so deeply inside me it glistens in my eyes.
I got it.
But really, there are times when I don’t ‘got’ it. There are times when I’m simply not able to do everything on my own.
Of course, that doesn’t stop me from pushing through with all my might, trying to force things together with sheer will, my face reddening with strain. Barely breathing, I squeeze my eyes shut and work harder.
And, like my daughter, I get so consumed in the struggle, I completely miss the invisible hand that guides me along.
So now, as the demands in my life multiply, I choose to open my eyes and search for the only One whose hand can click things into place.
The truth is, I don’t got it.
I’ve got Him. And that’s way better.
I’m convinced my daughters are lizards. Chameleons, to be exact. They—along with all other kids their age—have an uncanny ability to transform into anyone they’ve been near.
My kids see everything that other kids do, then they want to do everything other kids do.
And it is disturbing to watch your own flesh-and-blood become someone else.
Just the other day, my four-year-old strapped herself into her carseat and began to morph into a girl she’d been spending time with recently. She crossed her arms over her chest, scrunched her nose, and huffed.
“I’m hungry. I want to eat.”
If I hadn’t been looking, I might have thought my daughter’s friend sneaked into our car and planned to stay with us—the mannerisms were that spot on. Even my daughter’s voice changed to copy this other girl.
It was terrifying.
And downright infuriating.
In my most dire attempt to stay patient, I closed my eyes and sighed. “Marie, I love you most when you’re most like you.”
“What do you mean?” Her pouty face stared at me from the backseat.
I know my daughter in her truest form. She’s a girl who earns special treats for being kind, then wants to wait at the end of an imaginary line while insisting her invisible ‘friends’ get the goodies first. She’s a girl who gives toys to babies and tickles their toes just to make them smile. She’s a girl who loves people greatly.
But in that moment, her future flooded my mind—school, sports, dreams, boys, jobs, a family of her own perhaps.
How different would she be at the end of her journey? Would the Marie I know fade away over time?
I glanced back into her little face—the one she had finally stopped scrunching—and my heart reached for her. It begged for my daughter to cherish and protect who she is at her core, the way I do. But it’d be impossible to explain that to a four-year-old.
“When you become like someone else, you disappear.” I exhaled and shrugged. “Please don’t disappear.”
But, I realized, I, too, am a chameleon. We all are, really. We see everything in the world, and then we want to do all those things.
And I bet it is disturbing for our Father to watch His children mimic someone else. Especially when the only other one we can truly mimic is His enemy.
Just the other day, I watched my daughters push and hit each other because they both wanted to be the “red triangle” in the book they were reading.
“Girls, stop,” I said.
More pushing and hitting.
Fire surged through my nostrils, and my teeth withered to bits as I ground them together. I stomped over and roughly separated the small children.
If God hadn’t been looking, He might have believed Satan sneaked into my soul and planned to stay with me—the mannerisms were that spot on. Even my voice changed to copy the Enemy.
It was terrifying.
And, for God, it was probably downright infuriating.
“Kelsey,” He whispered, “I love you most when you are most like you.”
I finally unclenched my teeth and rubbed my aching jaw. “What do you mean?”
He glanced into my face, and His heart reached for me. It begged for me to cherish and protect who I am, the way He does. He pleaded for me to remember who I am at my core—a human made in God’s own image. A girl made to be godly.
My Father exhaled and shrugged. “When you become like that someone else, you and I both disappear.”
My daughters strut out of my bedroom with adult-sized purses dangling from their shoulders. Sippy cups peek through the zipper as the bags drag across the floor.
My oldest daughter adjusts her neon green sunglasses, resting them perfectly atop her head. “Um, excuse me,” she says to me, “do you work for the train station?”
I pause my dish washing and throw the damp towel over my shoulder. “Why, yes I do, ma’am. How can I help you?”
“Where can I find the CMO Red Line?”
“You’re almost there,” I say. “Just take a sharp right at the kitchen counter and head straight. When you’ve reached the floral rug, you’re there. I believe the next train leaves in 10 minutes.”
“Thank you.” She nods like everything I said made any sense, then turns to her little sister. “Come on, Elizabeth, we don’t want to be late for work.”
Elizabeth nods in response, hefting the empty purse onto her shoulder before chasing her big sis across the house.
My heart overflows as they scamper away, and I can’t help but smile. My daughters. So grown up. So ready to be big.
They think they’ve got it all figured out. I shake my head at their trivialized concept of adult life. If they only knew.
After cleaning the dishes, I shuffle the girls into the (real) van, drop them off with the babysitter, and head to a coffee shop for a few hours to write. After all, writing is my God-given calling and I feel like I’ve been slacking. I’ve got blog posts to catch up on, endless revisions to make for Capacity, a begrudging need to start the second novel in my trilogy, and a brand new idea I’m excited to begin. Just thinking about all the words that need to come from my brain exhausts me, so I sip my caffeinated drink and pull out my laptop.
As I take my sunglasses off and place them in my bag beside my water bottle, I can almost hear God laughing.
My daughter. So grown up. She thinks she’s got it all figured out.
He shakes his head and smiles at my trivialized concept of Christian life.
If she only knew.
Sick kids are the worst.
They either calm down and curl up, breaking your heart to pieces, or they suddenly hate everything in the world. You along with it.
My youngest is the hate-everything-in-the-world type. The kind who won’t sleep, won’t eat, but will shout her head off. Constantly.
And she’s been sick for the past week.
At first, my mom-sympathy kicked in. I held her, rocked her, shushed her. I let her scream in my ear all day, then again all night when she couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep.
The kid had a temperature of 103 and a vehement refusal to slurp down baby Advil. Snot stretched across her face, sticking to her cheeks, the back of her hands, and everything she touched. Not to mention, all her coughs seemed to land directly in my mouth. Then blisters appeared on her tongue and she put herself on a strict animal cracker and ice cream diet. Anything else I offered—including food she specifically asked for—were left uneaten.
She’d poke it with her sticky, snot-covered finger, then grimace as though I just offered her arsenic. “Me no like it.”
“Are you kidding?” Anger swirled inside me. “You asked for this peanut butter sandwich.”
By the third day, my mom-sympathy had vanished completely. I was desperately low on hand soap, baby wipes, and patience for my daughter. Seeing her face in the morning made me want to hide beneath my covers, and the sound of her whining nearly sent me running out the door.
Like I said, sick kids are the worst.
I know, not only because I am a parent of a sick kid, but because I am a sick kid myself.
I’m the hate-everything kind. The one who pouts and self-pities and is never satisfied. But my illness isn’t sniffles, it’s sin. And I’ve been suffering with it for nearly 30 years.
Like my two-year-old, I’ve made tireless requests of my Father. And, because He is a good and generous gift-giver, He grants many of them. He fixes and provides, then slides the blessings in front of me.
I poke at them with my sticky, sin-covered finger, then grimace. “I want something else.”
Fortunately, however, we have a Parent who is much more patient than I am. A Parent whose love is much more perfect than mine could ever be. Instead of running for the door, He runs toward us, forever chasing after our contaminated hearts.
He’s not the grape-flavored Advil that masks the symptoms of our sickness. He is our cure, the only thing that can rid us of this death-inducing disease.
All we must do is drink Him in.
Everything’s bigger in Texas.
The geography, the portion sizes. Heck, even the weather. The hot is sweltering, the rains are laced with glass-shattering hail, and the winds rotate violently until they huff and puff and blow your house down.
Like last night.
Rain pummeled our house. Fist-sized pieces of ice pounded on the windows, threatening to break in. The candle on our countertop shuddered at the voice of wrathful thunder. In the darkness, my husband threw a towel on water gushing into our living room beneath our back door. I simply held my breath, listening for sirens.
“Daddy?” My daughter’s trembling voice floated above the noise. And, like the good father he is, he ran to her side.
The small girl hunkered in her bed beneath thick covers. “Will you hold me, Daddy?”
“Of course.” He laid down and curled himself around his little girl. A human shield. Her protector. “Would you like to say a prayer?”
They prayed together until the rain quieted to a soft tap against the windows.
“Looks like the hardest part of the storm is over,” he said. “Let’s try to get some rest now, okay?”
“Okay.” The shake in the girl’s voice betrayed her air of bravery. “Daddy? If there’s another hard storm, will you come back, please?”
He wrapped her in arms again and kissed her forehead. “Absolutely. You are safe. You are protected. You are loved.”
With that, he joined me back in our bedroom. And, knowing how much I hate Texas storms, he wrapped his arm around me, too. My human shield. My protector.
In his embrace, I could breathe. Having him there beside me gave me peace.
But in his arms, I realized I always try to weather storms on my own, holding my breath until I endure its totality. Never crying out for help. Rarely accepting it, if offered. I absorb life’s thunderstorms, withstanding the beating blows that pelt my skin, trying to outlast the devastation.
This storm will end sometime, I tell myself and grit my teeth. Just get through it.
And yet, even my three-year-old has figured out that storms pass more peacefully when she’s wrapped in the arms of her father.
If her father—a human shield—can provide that sort of peace and protection, how much more will my heavenly Father provide in times of hard storms?
I cry out to my Father now as I experience the struggles of this day—of this life—and ask Him to hold me. And, like the good Father that He is, He runs to my side. He lies down and curls Himself around His little girl. My shield. My protector. While the storms surge inside, trying to break me, He encourages me to pray with Him. To weather the storm with Him, instead of all by myself.
Finally, I relax. I breathe. Surrender.
He draws me closer then, and whispers His promises into my ear.
You are safe. You are protected. You are loved.
Up until about six years ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard the word ‘purgatory‘. I simply thought you died, your soul rose to heaven and you lived there forever. The end. Hallelujah and thanks be to God.
When I started researching the teachings of the Catholic Church, however, I discovered another stage in the afterlife experience. A refining process. A…purgatory.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Purification, it says, is necessary since nothing unclean can enter the presence of God in heaven. Including our sin-stained souls. So even though our sins may be forgiven, we still have sins. We still have imperfections. Even after we die.
“What?” I asked, appalled. “You mean that I can spend an entire lifetime trying to be good and holy, and then there’s MORE work AFTER I die?”
The idea was overwhelming—exhausting, even—and I wasn’t sure if I had the courage or stamina for such an endeavor.
And then I started my writing career.
For years I worked as a journalist before branching out to begin my own projects. First on the list was this dystopian trilogy that had been burning in my heart.
I started writing it in a hotel lobby in San Francisco during a family vacation when my oldest daughter was 13 months old. Now, as she approaches her fourth birthday, I have witnessed my Capacity series grow from a stand-alone novel into a trilogy.
In doing so, I have slaved to improve my writing. I have studied the techniques of good writers, and hungrily consumed articles and books about writing. I have devoted hard-to-come-by spare time to bettering myself in this industry.
Years. I’ve spent years working hard to be skillful, and now I’ve reached revisions.
From a distance, revisions sound pleasant. Fun, even. Like frolicking through a bug-free meadow, scooping wild daisies in each hand, as my manuscript grows stronger with each step. The sun warms my skin from a cloudless, cerulean sky, and my novel—once a victim of incongruity and grammatical errors—is now fully whole. Complete.
In my hands, it radiates with newfound perfection.
Which is not only neat, it is necessary.
After all, no imperfect manuscript can enter the publishing world.
The problem is that revisions themselves are not fun. There are no meadows, no daisies, and certainly no sun-filled cerulean skies.
The result of revisions is heavenly, no doubt.
But revisions themselves are tedious and tough. They require vulnerability and thick skin. They demand you to scour your work for each imperfection—every tiny mistake—and eliminate it.
Then you must invite others to help you do that.
It’s not easy to give other people a magnifying glass and ask them to find all your blemishes. It’s uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes downright humiliating. Some writers may not think they have the courage or stamina for such a purgatorial endeavor.
But, if anyone wants to enter the pearly gates of publishing, it is absolutely necessary.
Desperation happens at least twice a week, maybe more.
I mean, I love my sweet girls, but counting to 15 a billion times or rehashing the ABCs repeatedly can get a bit…well, suffocating. Monotonous at best.
It’s wonderful, no doubt. And I love getting to be the one who’s there with them doing these things. Being present in their lives. Helping them grow and learn. Witnessing each new level of development, every lightbulb moment.
But there are times when those things are suffocating. Like I need something deeper. Something with more meaning.
Something like another adult.
In those moments, the craving for another adult is so intense—so real—I can feel it moving beneath my skin. It rises to my throat and squeezes, crushing my windpipe until I fear I may not be able to breathe without it.
“Hey daddy! How’s your day treating you?”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent that message to my husband, either by text or voicemail.
It’s a flare signal. A plea for my most trusted ally to come to my rescue. To offer me an air bubble, however small, before I have to dive back beneath the waves. To give me just one detail—one syllable, even—from someone whose wisdom has matured a bit more than my three-year-old’s.
Waiting for his response is agonizing. Those long, drawn-out rings on the other end of the line. The blank, lifeless text message screen. My flare signal fizzling out, unnoticed.
And then it happens.
Those three gray dots start wiggling beneath my text message or “The Hubs” pops up on my phone. And even though I’ve been swept away in a tidal wave of temper tantrums and dirty diapers, someone has noticed me. Seen me. Heard my call for help. Someone has seen my distress and started to respond.
In that moment, hope eases the panic and I can finally breathe.
But it occurs to me that I rarely, if ever, send God a quick text message. During my panic-stricken moments, I find that I am desperate for my husband, not my Father. That I mistakenly view my husband as my most trusted ally—the one who will rescue me from drowning—instead of my Savior.
And yet, God is readily available the moment I say His name.
With Him, there are no unanswered ringtones, no lifeless screens.
There’s only rescue.
That’s the word imprinted on every writers’ heart. As if the word itself is made of celestial light and angels’ voices instead of scratches of ink.
It’s the ultimate dream to be mass produced and read by the entire world.
Before I faced the first page of Capacity, that very dream pushed me to the computer. It called to me each day, pulling me into my office like the tide to the moon. Which is appropriate considering I did most of my work before the sun came up.
This dream of being published demanded that I be relentless in my work, fighting for each scene—each scrap—of the story.
Fitting, since Capacity is about a girl named Marian who must fight for each scrap of her own dignity. A young girl whose country requires all eighteen-year-olds to compete against one another to see who is the greatest. To set apart the smartest and strongest, and set aside those who aren’t.
In essence, to see who has the most worth—and get rid of those who don’t.
It occurs to me now, as my husband finishes reading the manuscript, that it feels like my own Capacity is being measured.
A twinge of anxiety tightens in my chest as I begin to let others inside the private world I’ve been building for over a year—and to be evaluated according to its strength.
Will I be labeled Green, like those with the highest Capacities in Marian’s world? Will I be so-so like the Yellows? A subpar Red? Or completely excommunicated like those who fail the Capacity and get sent to the wasteland outside the city?
What is my Capacity? All I know is that whatever it may be, it can only be revealed when I share my work. So I will prepare as much as I possibly can, pray to avoid pure humiliation, and hope that one day I may find myself counted worthy by readers.
After all, it’s the dream to be mass produced and read by the entire world.
My three-year-old loves visiting the penguins at the zoo. It’s not because of the way they waddle like her younger sister or even the way they swim up to the glass. To be honest, it’s not because of the real penguins at all.
No, her favorite thing to do is stand beside the pictures of penguins that hang on the wall.
Because she still doesn’t quite measure up to the Emperor Penguin.
“Am I as big as him yet?” she asks, trying to see how close the top of her head is to the 45″ arctic beast.
“You’re getting closer,” I assure her. “But you’re not quite there yet.”
In that moment, it occurs to me that we have hearts for comparisons. We want to be bigger, stronger, better. Always. There’s something in us—even at three years of age—that simply has to stack up. Even to a freakin’ penguin.
You’re not quite there yet.
The words roll off my tongue to encourage her—after all, she is much closer than she used to be. But when I think about it, I hate hearing that message myself. I can’t stand it when I’m not quite somewhere. I want to be there, wherever it is.
I take a look at my daughter, whose blond hair reaches the penguin’s chin, and realize she’s got a ridiculous measuring tape. Who uses a penguin to measure their height? It seems warped, twisted somehow, like it’ll never give an accurate read out.
But what do I use as a measuring stick?
Almost instantly, tons of comparisons come flooding back to me.
- My favorite movies and TV shows reminded me that I could be much more disciplined with my eating habits. That, surely, if I gave up guilty pleasures (or food all together), I could look like that beautiful actress onscreen.
- A co-worker’s fat commission check implied I could have matched pennies and dimes if only I had worked harder or been more competent at my job.
- The upper end of the corporate ladder inspired me to become a slave to work…or risk the shame of not stacking up.
- Oh, and did Jill just buy a new house right after she got back from Thailand?
Measuring sticks, all of them. All broken, imperfect measuring sticks.
And yet, I let them measure and define my worth.
So what do you use as a measuring stick?
Because when we compare ourselves to anything that is not Christ, we scrap and fight for something that is imperfect. We spin our wheels, straining and struggling, to be something that is not perfect.
In short, we use a pretty ridiculous measuring tape.
And I don’t want to settle, comparing myself to an Emperor Penguin. I’d rather measure myself against the King of Kings.
“Am I as big as Him yet? As kind and loving as He?” I will ask.
Then He’ll look at me and see how much I’ve grown—how much closer I am now than I used to be—and He’ll smile, those eyes of His filled with grace.
“You’re getting closer,” He’ll say. “But you’re not quite there yet.”
And for once, I’ll feel the victory in those words.