Breaking Free of the Approval Trap

My little girls and I stood under the red and orange trees and tried to catch the leaves that were falling. A breeze would sweep over branches far above our heads and we’d see color released like a slow burst of confetti. Sometimes a wind current would retrieve the swell and send it higher, carrying it like a lost kite far from where our outstretched arms were waiting. But now and then, leaves would float gently down and we would leap and try to catch them as they came spinning.

Lately, the words have been coming to me just like autumn leaves. It’s rare that I catch them in their falling. Often, I see the wind shake loose the colors of life, stories spinning in the air, and then they get carried away in the currents of a busy life.

And, I find myself torn between just letting them go and chasing them down.

For a while now, I’ve thought of myself as a writer.

In college, I walked beside a professor in the spring sunshine and I asked him, “What should I do?” And he said, “You know how to capture the poetic. Keep writing, Lara. Publish a book.”

And at twenty-two years old I envisioned a book of poetry by the time I was twenty-five. And when I was twenty-five I held another newborn baby and I said, “Forget it. I’m just going to write poetry on the souls of my children.” And, we looked together for the poetic in blocks and Play-Doh and bugs in the grass. And these children, seven of them in just over eleven years, with their refining chaos and fresh eyes for beauty, wrote poetry in me as well.

It was only while I was snuggling close my last baby that I felt a resurgence of that drive toward written words, pushing me toward pen and paper. Once again, a notebook was placed on my nightstand and another beside the kitchen stove.  And, I’ve felt like a writer again.

That first summer, after the resurgence, my family took me to Liberty Tool Company on my thirty-sixth birthday. We meandered through three floors of used tools, antiques and random treasures; the kids were each allowed to spend two dollars. A daughter found a tarnished silver spoon and a little boy found a screwdriver that would fit in his pocket. Finally, making our way to the third floor, we were surrounded by shelf after shelf of old books. One by one, I would pull an old hardcover off the shelf and blow away the dust that had collected on top of the pages. On each cover was a name. I thought about the dream contained in the book I was holding. The author was a writer. He or she had felt the angst of the words pressing to be written and had experienced the absolute satisfaction and joy of holding in their hands a published work with their name on it. They had achieved what had started rising again as an aspiration in my own mind.

And, suddenly, as I looked at the thousands of dusty hardcovers with long forgotten titles, I saw a desperate futility in that sort of dream.

When I walked with my professor that long ago spring day, I had asked him another question. It had burned in me throughout the entire semester of Poetry 308. With hope and angst I had asked him, “Do you think I’m any good?” And, standing in Liberty Tool, I realized that my dream of a published book was a longing to have that question answered, “Yes, you are good! You are a worthwhile human being! People are going to love you, girl!”

There’s something in me that craves approval from others. That craving can become intense and I can become wildly insecure when I pour my heart and mind into a piece of writing and share it. When I see that ambition in me, to win the love of others by an extraordinary writing performance, I know it’s like trying to draw water from a dry well. No matter how beautiful my words or how many books I publish, that thirst would never actually be satiated. Our souls weren’t meant to be fed with the praise of other human beings.

The knowledge of this unhealthy craving inside makes me want to go to another extreme and not share my work at all. It makes me ashamed of my pride and embarrassed by my neediness. I fear rejection because of how crushing it would be given my insecurity. I decide that I should keep my words close and private. Friends also, hoping to help me to be less inhibited, have encouraged me to just write like no one will ever see the words. I’ve tried. The result is that  I sit at my desk and picture myself like Emily Dickinson, a recluse in my lonely little cabin in the woods, filling a chest with secret poems not to be seen until I’m buried deep in the ground. And, I want to cry for the loneliness of it all.

Slowly, I’m learning that writing must be both not about other people and also deeply about connection to other people.

This last month, a renewed connection has helped me to push through the angst I’ve lately felt about writing.

Carolyn Locke was my very first creative writing teacher. She was a writer herself, pursuing poetry while teaching English to high school students. She managed to pour herself into her students and also her family and friends, all while balancing this internal push to write. She never taught us that the goal and proof of being a writer was in having a book published. She made us a community of writers right then and there. She brought in authors who shared their stories with us like we were peers. She read to us her own poetry and listened intently to ours. And, before the class was over she held a poetry reading to which our loved ones were all invited. She knew that it wasn’t just in publishing, but before we could experience the fullness of our work, it needed to be shared. Words are meant to go out from us into another place. Words are meant to connect.

Recently, I shared with her The Wave Song and told her how much the memory of her tears when I read a poem in high school had meant to me. Remembering the connection people can have over words helped me to start writing and sharing again. The poem that connected us then was about how I felt sitting between a boy I was dating and his mother.  I laughed when in our reminiscing I sent her a copy and remarked that I could easily be brought to tears myself by the subject matter now that I have boys of my own.

Her reply surprised me. As she remembers it, her tears weren’t over the subject matter (as I have always thought), she was moved because of what she saw in me. It was my compassion for the mother in my poem that made her cry.

When I read her words and for the first time saw that experience differently, it was like being washed over with all of my conflicting emotions about sharing my writing. I long to be seen and yet I want to run to the hills and hide away, never to be seen. Because the reality is that I know what is inside of myself.

C.S. Lewis wrote ‘The Silver Chair’ in which Aslan, the great lion, admonishes Prince Caspian for his disappointment over being merely human. “‘You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,’ said Aslan. ‘And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.'”

I know that honor and that shame. I feel it in myself.

But Aslan went on to say, “Be content.”

In order to write, and share, I must come to a place of contentment with myself. Not because I’m perfect but because I’m not. Not because I lack motivation to grow and to do better but because in order to grow I need to be free to fail and to have that failure exposed. Isn’t this also the gospel? Jesus took the shame of being human and gave us the honor, freely. I can come out of the bushes and face exposure because I have been made secure. I can ‘be content’ to be and to be seen. I can be content when I’m pretty and content when I’m ugly. I can be content when I’m right and content when I’m wrong. My value is intrinsic and secure, separate from my performance.

My once-again teacher, Carolyn, recently shared this quote:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. . . It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to stay open and aware to the urges that motivate you.” Martha Graham

This frees me. It’s not my business to determine how good my expression is nor how it compares with others’. With abandon, I can go chasing and leaping after those stories falling like autumn leaves.

When I was a little girl I could sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ like it was nobody’s business. I would gather an audience but I wouldn’t worry about what they were thinking. I just wanted my sisters and parents and grandparents to experience with me the absolute joy of the song. I was content. It wasn’t until I got older, while enjoying my own children, that I realized how special and beautiful is the self-forgetfulness of childhood. And, how worthy of a thing it is to strive to recapture. Maybe this is even a reason why God made me a writer; He knows it will draw me to the true answer, to the well of living water that is His love. And content in that, I’ll truly be able to write and sing again like it’s nobody’s business.

~ Lara

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~My little sister, a couple of brave neighbor boys and self-forgetful me~

Did you enjoy reading about my first and most inspiring creative writing teacher? To enjoy some of her beautiful poetry, check out Carolyn Locke’s books, available from her website at carolynlocke.com. 🙂

The Wave Song

She grew up outside of the fog. Where her house sat, there were fields of cows and fields of grasses growing tall for hay. Always surrounding these were hills covered round and green by the tall pines. But on the way to town, before they came to stores and to the only stop light, she would see it; a cloud starting to lift below. The ocean was just ahead; a bay cut deep into the rocky flesh of mid-coast Maine.

In the heat of July and August, sticky sunscreen would be packed beside Italian sandwiches and she could play for the day on the shore. Even before she had words, the waves made poetry deep inside; they lapped against rocks in a steady rhythm that said ‘this is so big and you are so small’. Over and over and over again, the tide coming up unrelenting (stealing shoes if it could) and then releasing its grip on the shore (leaving shell-treasure in recompense).

In school, she sounded out words to tell the story of a sea-witch and wound the tale around with waves and weeds and dashed wickedness. When she turned in her paper, she watched from her desk as her teacher read it, saw her smile and leave the room with the story still in her hands. And the girl wondered and didn’t know.

Little Lara at the Beach

Later, she didn’t have to sound out her words anymore; they were emotions decoded and thoughts sorted and composition books were stacked under her bed. In her first creative writing class, teenagers sat in a circle and she read her poem aloud. When she looked up, her teacher had tears streaming down her face and left the circle for tissues. And the girl wondered and realized that words aren’t just for her to sort but that they connect and stretch across space and bring people close.

In college, the girl would drive her car to the ocean. She sat overlooking the bay and wrote poems about sailboats and the wind and being on the shore. One night she stayed with a friend in a little house where she could hear waves and smell salt. In the morning she woke to the thudding sound of lobster boats. As she scrounged for breakfast, she watched the pretty sea gulls circling over the boats and scavenging as well. She scribbled out a lobsterman poem and, even though a Mainer all her life, as she thought of them pulling traps out in the chilly morning, she realized she was just a tourist at the sea side.

That fall she met a boy with hair bleached blonde from working all summer on the ocean. He called sea gulls rats and didn’t think they were pretty at all. He teased her about her little bay with the gentle waves and showed her the ocean where the waves were wild and crashed and where when you look out into the ocean it was like looking up at the stars in the sky, seeming to stretch on and on for infinity.

Soon, she started writing poems with a ring on her hand and delicately put the word ‘fiance’ in her prose whenever she could make it fit. There was marriage and moving far from the ocean and a baby was born. She held the new little one in her arms and again, felt the wave song swelling up inside, “this is so big and you are so small.”

The boy knew his wife missed the cow fields and hay fields and before long they had a farm and a farmer’s family; half a dozen babies trying to help pull weeds and mend fences. She was so happy she forgot all about the ocean and the stories. Her hands were too busy for pen and paper. The ocean was only thought of on those hot summer days when they stacked hay bales and longed for a cool sea breeze to dry their sweat. Sometimes, when the hay field was past due for mowing, a light summer wind would send rippling waves through the grass. She’d catch her breath and for a moment, as she watched the timothy bend and bow and lift again, she was beside the sea again. A poem would start to swell like a wave but then there was lunch to make and a baby to put down for her nap and the sheep had broken the temporary fence and were in with the cows. Her thoughts didn’t need to be sorted as much as the laundry waiting in piled baskets.

But then, came a summer of breaking on the farm. The boy and girl sold their animals and old farmhouse and their farm kids became kids with tree forts and hatchets. Their new house sat on a pine covered hill with big windows looking west. So, she would gaze over the rolling hills below and into the big sky above with her back turned to the ocean. She didn’t think about waves or salty air, but she thought about miles and dirt roads and stars in the sky. The miles and the dirt road would sometimes taunt her with their song, ‘you are so alone, so far away’. But every now and then, the stars would whisper to her the wave song, ‘this is so big and you are so small’. Slowly, a swell of stories started to rise inside her heart. Sometimes she walked with her children in the woods and told them stories; a fairy named Perchance had been blown away from fairy land during a storm (when she didn’t listen to her mommy and come inside) and was now wandering about the woods. She was shy but lonely so she loved to follow children and would sometimes leave little gifts in the trail for them. And the farm kids turned woods kids would walk with quiet feet and try to catch a glimpse. They would look in stumps and under leaves and they would find Perchance’s gifts of acorns and shiny rocks and funny shaped sticks.

And the girl-now-mother-in-the-woods started filling her journals again. She even wrote a poem or two. But she was still looking west out her windows and the dirt roads still taunted her with loneliness. She remembered how her teacher had cried and how her words had gone out of her heart into someone else’s and connected them with strings of understanding. She decided to share her ‘walk in the woods’ and would sometimes find a story pressing in and out. So, she would take her heart and put it into words on a computer screen and when she pressed ‘share’ somehow her words bypassed the long dirt road on their way to other screens and into other hearts. And sometimes, words would come back to her. Sometimes other hearts would be put into words and a wave of connection and love would swell.

Sometimes the girl even started to feel wise. When she wrote she would pray and have the Words of the Master of all Words by her side. His Word came in like a tide at the ocean; where there was once a tangle of weeds and rubbish the deep waters would come and rest. And then, as the tide receded she found it had taken much of the debris and left behind treasures of truth glimmering for her to pick up and make her own. She started longing to share these treasures gleaned from the deep tides rolling over her soul. This longing could possess her; she craved the tides and the washing and the sharing and the hearts being strung together with strings of wisdom. She started wanting to spend her day stringing together words and checking and rechecking them.

But she was still a mother and a wife and a housecleaner and a schoolteacher and… on and on it could go. One night, she and the boy sat face to face with their New Years’ sparkling cider in their hands. And, they talked about the year ahead and she knew there was more to do than she could ever, ever do. She looked at this boy whose hair was brown now and who worked so hard and she wanted to do whatever she could to make their life happy in the woods. So, she decided to cut out the words and the stories and the sharing. She would make her hands busy with dishes and laundry and school books and diapers and do it without the distraction of the stories pushing up and in and out.

And she tried. She put schedules in place and made her hands as busy as they could be. And her house was a bit cleaner and she thought, ‘Yes… this is right. This is what I needed to do.’

But at night, she started dreaming of the ocean. The waves woke her from her sleep and she was thirsty with desire to be standing on rocks with salt air blowing her hair and wild waves crashing below.

And, neither the girl nor the boy was happier in their tidier house in the woods. After a while, her heart sank with this knowledge. She could do and do and do and do and do and all the while there was more. One day, she took an old board and painted the words, “Our home, a place to BE” and hung it on the wall. And, throughout the day, she would look at the crooked letters and wonder how to ‘be’ and how to let others ‘be’.

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And all the while, she prayed that the Master of all Words wouldn’t wash over her with His tide. She couldn’t bear to see the treasures shining and know she had given up stories. They were the only thing she could think of to let go because dinner needed to be made and children needed to be snuggled and socks needed matching. But she didn’t need to write.

Though at night, she kept dreaming of waves and sometimes they were gentle and sometimes they came crashing down and made her afraid.

Just before she sank down under the weight of the doing and the crashing waves, the Master of All Words gave her counselors kinder than those of Job. One was on her way to the ocean, and gave her the gift of listening and belief and confidence in her stories. Another wrote from the desert, and sang songs over her like the tide washing up and over and around, strengthening and stilling.

And the girl knew. She needed to write. She needed to weave stories while walking with her children and write love letters to her husband and to let the Word wash her and speak it back in ways that connect her to people beyond her long dirt road. She needed to let go of ‘doing’ her writing with its checking and rechecking and trying to be wise and to just ‘be’ and write like she inhales and exhales. She wouldn’t write to teach but she would write for healing and to love. She wouldn’t worry about her grammar or style or being pretty for other people… she doesn’t have time for all of that. But she would write like she was standing by the shore and listening to the waves crash.

And, while her windows still face west, she’s holding tight to something better than the ocean welling up inside. She has the One who thought of the seas and spoke them into being with His Word. She has the One who looked at the crashing waves and told them to ‘Be Still’ and they quieted. So, she can listen to His song in her heart, and write to and through and for the One who calls out, over and over and over again, ‘this is so big and you are so small.’

The Path Home

I’m sure I first fell in love with my husband on a walk in the woods. Which walk I can’t say because there were so many that first summer. We’d pull on long sleeves and pants over our shorts before climbing on his motorcycle (no need to mention the motorcycle part to our kids!) and then be off. Most often our trip would partly consist of being jarred uncomfortably along a dirt road leading to a far part of the woods in northern Maine (north of Bangor anyway). There was the memorable ‘appliance graveyard’ hike where we wound ourselves through a plot of old refrigerators, ovens and other remnants left to rust in the woods and ended up on a boulder in the wilderness as the sun set and darkness settled. Then, the coyotes started howling and we howled back in a conversation only they understood.

Often on our adventures we would look for a mountain to climb and then sit victorious at the top, looking west as the sun set and watching the stars come out. We’d see the distant glow of light from a town far away and feel like we were somehow separate from the rest of breathing, drudging humanity; closer somehow to the coyotes and stars. Maybe it was the effect of sitting with someone who was gently being revealed as the man I would be united with for life, or the stillness in the cooling air, but those moments after the sun set seemed to stand still. They were miniature eternities where time seemed peeled away and I felt that all that had come before in my life and all that would follow, even for generations, was surrounding us as we sat together. They were moments when we would speak in whispers even though there were miles stretched between us and any other listening ear.

But then, a breeze would break through with an extra chill, or a mosquito would bite and one of us would have to look at our watch and time came back.  We would have to make our way back down the mountain.  Always without a flashlight we’d start back down the rocky, often unfamiliar trail.  He always led the way and I remember being thankful for his white t-shirt reflecting the little bit of moonlight on a particularly dark night.  Ours was an unordinary falling in love.  He didn’t hold my hand until the following winter when he placed a diamond on one of my fingers.  So instead of a finger grip, my eyes stayed fixed on this man as we made our way down.  With the night closed in around us, in a far and unfamiliar wood, I just kept moving one foot in front of the other.  There were stumbles, branch scratches and the occasional fearful shiver when I thought about the dark trail behind me. But my eyes kept searching and fixing themselves on the man I trusted leading me home.

Years have gone by, babies born, boxes packed and unpacked and here I find I’ve followed him into the woods once more. The trees surround our cabin-house and we can watch the sun set over distant hills in the west. Instead of just two adventurers there are nine of us now and someone often speaks the words, “Let’s go for a walk in the woods.”

This is a sweet, happy, busy life we’ve been blessed with. But this isn’t all.   I have unwrapped countless gifts in this life.  I have been blessed with the fulfillment of nearly all the dreams I had as a young girl.  But strangely I’ve found them wanting.  The greatest joy in this life is dulled by the brokenness of living in a world where sin and death have entered in.  Its the pain of holding a great treasure in your hand only to watch it fading slowly away.

This life, with all its blessing, is being used up.  We can grasp it only to have it slip through our fingers. My hope isn’t found by looking at the great gifts in my life though I am deeply thankful, beyond words, for each one.  My hope comes from remembering that I’m not really home yet.  I’m on a path where even my dearest, most beloved friend can’t blaze the way. 

Ultimately, the journey my soul makes through this life is not one I make as a wife or a mother or a sister or a friend, but I am journeying on this path as a follower of Jesus.  He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”   His road home isn’t always what I would naturally choose for myself or for those I love.  Sometimes I think there must be some other way.  I start looking for hope in some other place but always there is emptiness and a darkness when I turn my face away from Him.  Its like trying to satisfy my thirst by eating sand.  I get more parched and long again for the life giving water.

I can’t escape that I am a believer.  A questioning, praying, stumbling, fumbling in the dark, believer.

But he keeps calling and there is grace.  “Light is sown for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” (Psalm 97:11)  He calls me, covers me with his own righteousness and lights my way.  This gospel is simple and hard and so often I feel like I can only see a glimmer.  It’s a bit of light springing up along the path like a seed that was sown.  It’s the encouragement to keep following.  It’s the seed of light that grows into faith and blossoms into joy.

So, here I am, just starting to share my journey, hoping that those little seeds of light in my life might send a glimmer of hope to another soul like me, in a far wood but on the path leading Home.