Why life between the lines matters more than you think

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

My son once had a dream that he found me dead beneath a pile of dirty clothes.

Today, only a few weeks away from being a licensed counselor, he could probably provide me with an irritatingly accurate analysis of that dream.

He dreamt it years ago during the divorce, and I can’t say I didn’t feel exactly like that, like I might smother and die beneath a mounting pile of secrets and sins and everyday chores and child rearing that suddenly seemed to weigh 10 times its weight in normal.

I still wonder about the details since I never asked him. Did all the t-shirts I refused to turn right side out finally get their revenge? Were the lights separated from the darks? Was I clutching a dryer sheet in one cold hand and a very clean $5 bill in the other?

Photo I took on the streets of Asheville, NC

Photo I took on the streets of Asheville, NC

Sometimes we feel that overwhelmed even when we aren’t going through a traumatic season.

Sometimes we are just buried in the mundane, and the ordinary becomes it’s own burden.

Maybe that’s because most of our life story is lived between the lines. The day job, errands, and dirty laundry–the literal and figurative.

That’s why I recently changed the name of this blog to Living between the Lines.

Because that’s what I’m doing, even though–especially as a writer–I envision my life reading more like a really compelling National Geographic article or the biography of Joan of Arc (without the burning alive part).

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I am a story. Or at least a SparksNotes version of one. 

We hear a lot about STORY in relation to the lives we are living.

What is your story? What story are you writing? What story is God writing?

We use quaint phrases about being co-authors with God. Ugh.

Great stories, the ones people want to read, are in books. But even the very best books collect dust on people’s shelves or get assigned to high school sophomores who just buy the SparksNotes version.

Paul Young, author of The Shack, said, “We don’t just have a story, we are a story.But maybe I’m more like a short story in an anthology…

Years after the “Exhausted Divorced Mother Dies in Laundry Avalanche” dream, my son told me that one of his favorite songs was “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes, mostly because of the lyrics. So I listened closely, hoping to better understand my man son. 

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique.

Yep, I taught him that.

Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. 

Yes, you are a snowflake, Sweetie!

And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be 

Rather be what? What’s wrong with a snowflake?

A functioning cog in some great machinery… 

What the hell? Just functioning, not excelling? Cog, a cog? A big machine? What is this, Orwell’s 1984?

 …serving something beyond me.

Oh. Well, you may have a point.

Isn’t that what the Christian life is supposed to be about? It’s about God and our being part of a greater story, which makes me responsible for developing my character, for moving the whole kit and caboodle forward, and for changing and growing along the way.

Sure, I may be a story, but I am not the story.

library

All the things we do in the “meanwhile” have meaning.

Just because most of our life happens between the double spaces and in 8-point font doesn’t make those parts less meaningful.

Why does life between the lines matter so much? 

1. It develops our character and proves itself when the big stuff happens. This wisdom has slapped me in the head over and over again with its raw truth: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much…” (Luke 16:10ish)

2. It gives us some space. It isn’t humanly possible to only live big stories. Adventures. Thrillers. Harlequin Romances. No one in those stories ever spends a Saturday morning paying the bills or has to pull over and let their car sick kid puke out the window. Life between the lines creates some cushion between the big happy events we celebrate and provides some respite during the most trying times.

3. It lays the foundation for the rising action, support for the climax, and a gentle slope for the denouement, the gentle descent that follows the peak. No one ever looks at a beautiful home or towering high-rise and says, “Get a load of the foundation on that thing.” The dirt rises and falls beneath the majestic mountains and the green valleys in all our lives.

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Has anyone ever said, “You should write a book about your life”?

If, yes, that’s pretty cool, and you should do it.

If, like me, people have only said something barely similar like, “You should write a quirky sitcom about your life that gets canceled after one year causing a brief uprising of 17 fans and a petition-signing campaign that results in a really bad final Netflix season,” then you might want to skip it.

But then I think of all of the bloggers and authors out there writing about everyday life. About family and illness and marriage and jobs.

We read that stuff because we relate to it. And when we realize there are about a bazillion of us going through the same things, maybe our stories don’t feel so much like the high school sophomore English assignment.

amanda-cleary-eastep-writer

In college, I wrote a book about my grandmother’s life. I wrote down all of the stories she had told me across the Sunday dinner table full of dirty dishes. Most of those stories would have been pretty ordinary while she was living them. Her family tended their gardens and plowed their fields, buried babies and grandparents, walked miles to school (really!), cooked, prayed, fought and laughed.

And every moment fascinated me.

But my grandmother never asked, “Why do you want to know this stuff? It’s not important…it happened so long ago.”

Nope, she never appeared to doubt the value of those stories. She owned her 70+ years of ordinary, and she had carried it with her all this way.

I am owning my story, too. All of it.

The climactic moments and the Facebook highlights…the sidebars and the backstory…the typos, deletions, and crossed out parts…and every single moment I am living between the lines.

 

 

You wouldn’t believe the stars

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

“You wouldn’t believe the stars.”

My daughter tells me this in one of her voice messages from the refugee camp in north Africa.

She and her friend had dragged their bedding out onto the desert sand, staying up until 2 a.m. as if this was some junior high sleepover, chatting and “wow”ing and awestruck.

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We live 30 minutes south of Chicago, the nightlight of the suburbs. Except instead of providing us comfort, it simply adds to the light pollution that washes out the starry sky.

But in the country on a black night, I have looked up, awestruck, like a child comprehending for the first time that the face of her mother is connected to the hand that is always holding hers.

You wouldn’t believe the stars.

I haven’t been able to get those words out of my head this week.

I keep wondering what really important and beautiful things we aren’t seeing because of the “light pollution” in our lives…because of the worry or busy-ness or overabundance of crap in our closets.

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Last week, my daughter called direct for the first time in weeks. Her host “mother” wanted to talk, as well, and I was glad to put aside my pressing office tasks to hear her piece together English words to ask, “How-is-your-family?”

I piece things together, too, as I try to understand these people and my daughter’s experience based on the snippets of information she reports when she is able to catch a wi-fi signal.

Sand like silken dust

The importance of tea

A small black scorpion

Canned peaches

No running water

112-degree heat

The sandbag school they are building

Hospitable exiles without a home

Beautiful and terrible pinpricks of light.

I imagine this woman is not so far removed from the atrocities that brought her family, and hundreds like hers, to this desert “refuge” a few decades ago. Even the youngest children have probably seen their parents and grandparents weep over painful memories still bright as those of last week’s birthdays and weddings.

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God once made a covenant with a man in the desert.

“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.”

How ridiculous that must have sounded to Abraham as he gazed up that night and laughed. But God still promised kings of peoples would come from Abraham and his wife.

Doubt, like worry, busy-ness, and the rest, can become our light pollution.

These things can even become our nightlights, distracting us from all that God glitter spread over our heads with a wide and generous hand.

We bask comfortably in the glow instead of believing awestruck in the darkness.

You wouldn’t believe the stars.

But do we even see them?

Are we still gazing up at the clouds?

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

Easter Day 2015

I have one raw egg in the fridge.

My youngest is at a missionary camp in Florida.

My other daughter and son are at their dad’s girlfriend’s for the first time.

These things don’t negate the fact that it is Easter, and the sun is shining.

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But I needed some color in the day, because Easter is about blue, hard-boiled eggs and yellow dresses.

So I planted pansies even though the ground is just thawed and the trees haven’t started budding.

What am I supposed to do with this day?

What did Jesus’ mother do after the resurrection…after Jesus’ ascension into the heavenly, unreachable realms?

I think she missed him. I think the disciples missed him.

That gut churning missing; the kind where you catch glimpses of your loved one in the stranger rounding the street corner or disappearing through a doorway, and your instinct is to run and cry out “Hey! I’m right here. Wait for me!”

I imagine they must have missed his physical presence. His human body. The sinews of the wrist in a handshake of greeting. The prickle of bearded chin in the palm of his mother’s cupped hand. The laughter reverberating a joy that mingled man and god.

sunshine

I felt like I needed his physical presence Easter night. Not like Jesus had disappeared into some fluffy cloud.

The thing is, I had forgotten what followed in the Book of Acts.

Jesus sent the Comforter to his followers. A helper, an advocate.

He knew that’s what they needed. What we need still.

But something happened in between Jesus’ ascension and the Holy Spirit suddenly coming from heaven with the sound of a rushing wind.

Two men in white asked Jesus’ followers why they were still gazing up toward heaven.

That fast. No time for final waves goodbye, no watching Jesus become a tiny dot in the sky.

Why are you fools wasting time looking up?

Get back to work. To prayer. To ministry. To living.

Jesus ain’t no pie in the sky kinda guy.

This isn’t the end of a hard and lovely story, it’s the beginning. Start living like Easter meant something to you.

clouds-gaze

So Easter felt a bit “off” this year.

So not all the family was together. So we grilled hamburgers. So the pansies strained to color the drab spring.

It’s Monday now. Quit gazing at the clouds.

It’s time to get back to living like Easter made all the difference in the world.

Walk as Well as You Can

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

Maybe it was your mother. Your wife. Your daughter, sister, grandmother, friend…even a historical figure.

But at some point in your life, a woman made a difference in it. A big I-would-not-be-who-I-am-today-without-her kind of difference.

Today is the last day of National Women’s History Month. (Nothing like jumping on the lesser-known holiday bandwagon at the last minute.)

Even Jesus had such a person in his life. Sweet little, unassuming Mary, his mother. She was with him from manger to cross, and I can only imagine her confusion, her joy, and her pain in the 33 years she tried to understand who he was and transitioned from loving him as her son to accepting him as her savior.

It wasn’t easy. That much I know. A mother is a mother. I know as she watched him die, her eternal spirit rejoiced at its salvation while her heart screamed ‘why’?

I often think about all of the women in my life who are some small but integral puzzle piece of me. They are as beautiful as they are imperfect; flawed as they are forgiven.

Running-girl

Of course, there are the women who may have really screwed you up and over, too.

The crappy mother. The vindictive wife. The sister who liked to jump out of hiding and scare the daylights out of her unsuspecting younger brother because she loved to hear him scream like a little girl and pummel her as she laughed maniacally…anyway…

But even with such relationships, we can take the bad and shove it like a jagged rock into our pocket and allow it to prod us when we become unkind, uncaring or apathetic.

Even the words that weren’t necessarily meant to inspire can become a motto.

“Walk as well as you can.”

These words were spoken to one of the most famous photographers in history, Dorothea Lange–maybe best known for her iconic photo Migrant Mother, which captures the horrors of the Great Depression in one woman’s portrait.

camera-woman

At the age of 7, Lange contracted polio, which left her with a misshapen foot and leg. She feared it would make her unmarriageable, so she did her best to cover it.

Her mother’s advice. “Walk as well as you can.”

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Not only did Lange do that, but later in life, on a day in 1933, she marched herself down to the soup lines she could see from the window of her portrait studio. According to an inspiring film I watched recently, Lange sensed deeply the discrepancy between the work she was doing in her studio and what was happening on the street.

She determined to “grab a hunk of lightning.”

In a 24 hour time period, Lange went to the street and captured not only photos but stories of human beings that today bring me, separated by years and very different experiences, to weep.

Apparently, Lange was not the ideal mother or wife. But neither have I been.

I, too, walk as well as I can. But I also hope to walk as well as God empowers me to walk.

I can humbly accept all the best of what the women–and men–in my life have offered and honor them by being better.

I can take the mediocre and even the worst of what people in my life have thrown at me and rebel against it by expecting better.

And I can claim what every child of a King can claim–love, grace and redemption–and obey him by walking better.

boots

 

The Year of Living Courageously

Biplane

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

I’m a little afraid to write the words.

Be. Courageous.

Writing those words in my journal means I can’t tell God it was only a fleeting thought.

That I was “writing drunk,” as Hemingway said, and planned to edit sober later.

And I can’t blame someone else. No one’s handwriting is that bad.

But it’s the theme I’ve been contemplating for the new year. In 2013, I began the practice of choosing a theme to live by instead of making resolutions.

Yes, it’s already March. No one is blogging about their resolutions or goals or laser-focused  “one words.”

That was SO two months ago.

I’ve been procrastinating. I mean, who am I to choose “be courageous”?

I married a man who lived in India, who survived riots and backyard cobras and Mumbai traffic.

I have a daughter, who at 18 is preparing to leave for North Africa when she should be shopping for a prom dress.

But the two words keep haunting me.

And if I don’t give them physical form, they’ll take matters into their own hands and rise from the ground like some folkloric golem and track mud on my carpet.

So what does being courageous look like?

Nelson Mandela said it was triumphing over fear

Winston Churchill said it is what it takes to stand up and speak and sit down and listen

John Wayne said it is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway

Courage calls you to act. 

If you can do the thing without trembling or throwing up in your mouth or going to God, tugging on his sleeve, and saying, “Can I skip this part?” it probably isn’t courageous.

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Courage is personal.

Your act of courage may look completely different from mine. It could be as quiet as looking a bully in the eye or as loud as launching a nonprofit to fight human trafficking.

Cats

Courage is not necessarily bravery. 

All the English occurrences of the word “brave” in the Bible’s Old Testament refer to brave warriors, ready for battle and able to handle the shield and spear. 1 Chronicles 12:8 (NIV)

The word bravery conjures a picture of the soldier advancing into the desert where the sand may hide a lizard or a land mine. Bravery seems to have more to do with a reaction to danger that is innate in some or ingrained in others. Bravery is the Israelite warrior, the Navy Seal…the mother of triplets.
aftermath

Courage doesn’t happen apart from God.

Unlike “bravery” in both the Old and New Testaments, being courageous happens when the believer is bolstered, emboldened by the presence of God. Soldier or paralytic, leader of the Israelites or bleeding woman clutching at Christ’s hem, each of these people in the Bible is commanded to take courage, because God is with them.

That’s why we can all be courageous. We can be like the two disciples standing before their accusers. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were … ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

[Clive Birtles at the wheel of the car with the dog, Wowser]

So what does the year of being courageous look like?

I’m not sure. We Christians can yak all we want about trusting God, but he can call you to some crazy shit.

Lately, for me, courage has looked like leaning on the peace my daughter and I both sense about her decision to travel overseas instead of the American path of summer job at the mall and majoring in “undecided” at community college.

Maybe courage would mean sticking with my three-year plan to freelance write full time.

Or no longer dreaming every Saturday morning of 10 acres in Realtor.com, North Carolina and actually move there.

Or flying to India to wash the feet of a leper.

The words Be Courageous don’t lend themselves to a bullet-pointed list but rather to a commitment to be open, to be willing. Maybe that’s a better phrase, but it feels a little safe, cleaned up. Being courageous is scarier, messy even.

On a postcard my daughter sent me from her missionary camp, she wrote that I was full of courage. As much as I would like to say, “Awesome, mission accomplished! Year of being courageous completed ahead of schedule!”

I know that whatever it is she sees may only be a glimpse of God beginning to do some work…

…of God empowering an ordinary woman to live, not only the rest of the year, but the rest of her life, courageously.

postcard

What would a Be Courageous year look like for you?

Don’t quit…just keep hanging your mantle in the sun

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

I think about quitting.

Letting go of writing like it’s some wild mammal I’ve tried to raise and train only to have it piss on the furniture and snap at my hand when I try to feed it.

But who would I be if I didn’t write? I have announced, “I am a writer” — followed closely by “I am a mother” — for most of my life.

amanda-cleary-eastep-writer

pen-journal

I’m not a prolific writer (and I only birthed 3 kids, 1 every 3 ½ years).

I’m not Christian author Ann Voskamp whose words blow out of her brain as regularly as my daily fits of hopeless sighing. She reads her words to audiences; she sells posters with quotes in calligraphy from her books.

But if I don’t write, the mantle God has given me to wear hangs heavy on the fragile wire frame of my heart, soaked with doubt and fear and excuses.

So I write, and hang it out there in the sun.

And it feels good, my heart is lighter. I trust that the words made a small difference. Made one person feel good, made her heart lighter, too.

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sunshine

This is the sometimes uncomfortable part where we do everything unto the Lord. Not the thousands of readers I think I wish I had.

I’m a writer in a blogger bog that sucks most of us up; only a few stand above it somehow. Maybe they’re stronger swimmers, more determined, more called than I am. Anointed even. As my golfer husband noted, for every Rory McIlroy there are 100,000 good golfers.

It’s hard to be ok with that.

It’s hard until I whine to God, sigh heavily for the 27th time that day, and obey when — just like I did with my kids — he feigns a sad lip and tells me to get back to work.

But really, who better than God to write unto? He died for me. For everyone. And for just me.

He hung there and only a few fans gathered at his crushed feet.

He rose again and only one mourning woman was there to witness the greatest miracle.

rejoice

Today my friend and I met for lunch, for a 15-minute speed goal-setting workshop in the middle of a day filled with job tasks I don’t always grasp the purpose of.

I could have set goals for a family vacation in North Carolina, for acquiring two more clients for my freelance writing business, and *SIGH* for my writing.

But I didn’t, and she didn’t. She didn’t even bring a pen and paper.

Instead we talked about what we value and not hearing God’s voice and what success looks like if not money and numbers.

I admitted the list I had come up with that morning instead looked something like this…

#1. Don’t quit.

#2. Hang your mantle in the sun.

#3. Do it all for the glory of God. 

 

Surprised by April and Sharp Turns

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

The ground is confused and awakening groggily, because it is too warm today for December.

All those organisms aroused by the surprise of sunshine and high 40s stir, unaware that their future holds a predicted “swath” of 3-6 inches of snow that will unravel a 3-6 inch ribbon of white across northern Illinois and northwest Indiana.

But I embrace this April imposter. I escape my overheated office to fill my lungs with tepid, wet air and the scents of early Spring that is not.

This unseasonable warmth doesn’t bother me, doesn’t dampen my Christmas spirit. I consider it a gift to walk outside without curling into my own body heat; to feel alive and renewed, as if something worth waiting for is right around corner.

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snow-forest

I’ve been feeling expectant lately. Anticipating change does that to a person.

Or it makes you want to close your eyes tight and hold your breath until you pass out until it’s all over.

But I can’t. I am compelled to keep my eyes open on this ride, the kind of roller coaster some sick engineering freak would design on a computer then say, ‘Hey, let’s run this baby in the dark!’

I’m trying to not hold my breath into the new year as we look forward to milestones like college graduations, overseas journeys, and marriages.

Those are the changes we know about and prepare for the best we can.

But what about the dips that await us in the dark?

We are two days past the solstice, and I wait each night for one more bit of light to pierce it like a pin prick. But sometimes in our lives, we feel like we’ll never spy the light at the end of the tunnel.

We turn the sharp corner and don’t find what we expected.

We dive down into black and maybe throw up a little and want to get off, even if that means totally off the track, rolling and crashing as we go.

starry-night snowy-tracks

Let me tell you that hurts like hell. And takes out small children and animals. I should know.

The funny thing is, that after I have insisted on throwing myself off course because I just couldn’t take IT anymore, I realized when I came to that a Strong Arm still held me tight, kept me in my seat, and had never let go.