“So what’s next then?” he asked me, arms crossed, standing at the threshold of the conference room where I set up my laptop, notebook and file folders twice a week. I’d just told my boss about my recent decision to leave book publishing, and his question did not come as a surprise.
It was my answer that surprised him.
“This,” I said to my boss, nodding to my laptop and my file folders on the conference room table. “What I’m doing right now is what’s next.”
I could see surprise in his raised eyebrows and hear it in the pause that yawned open in the small room. He laughed a little, not quite sure how to respond to my vague, unambitious answer, and I changed the subject so as not to prolong the awkwardness.
But my answer to my boss’s question was the truth. My “what’s next” is what’s right now.
The truth is, our culture demands that we have our “what’s next” all figured out. We are expected to follow a logical trajectory in our professional and personal lives. We are expected to have a one-year plan, a five-year plan, a ten-year plan. We are expected to have goals – to be ready with an acceptable answer when we’re asked “what’s next?”
It’s the American way, right? We strive. We have ambition. We have our “what’s next” lined up, and it typically follows an upward trajectory.
For most of my life this is exactly how I’ve operated. I had the plan, the strategy, the vision. I plotted my trajectory, methodically ticked through the necessary milestones to reach my goal. I’ve always lived with my heart, mind and soul set on the future – one foot in what’s next, and what’s next after that.
These days, though, I’m finding what I most desire is to live with both feet firmly planted in right now. I am craving small and ordinary. I am craving valuable but not necessarily publicly visible work. I am craving face-to-face connection, intimacy, smaller circles.
Admitting I don’t have my next thing worked out – that in fact, my right now is what’s next – is the antithesis of societal and cultural expectations, especially when it comes to one’s professional life. And yet, it feels right. I feel incredible freedom and contentment in doing good but largely invisible work for The Salvation Army, in stepping back from the relentless push toward platform- and brand-building, in living more intentionally in the mundane but surprisingly satisfying facets of my life.
I write fundraising copy for my part-time job. I refill the Oriole feeder with grape jelly. I shuttle one kid to tennis lessons, the other to a study session. I walk the dog and empty the dishwasher. I follow my son across a wide-open space as he takes photographs for a class project. I sit on the back patio with my husband as the evening breeze blows through the white pines and the cardinals call to one another from the honey locust trees. A painted lady butterfly lands on the lilac, and the baby squirrels skitter up the river birch.
Maybe a big “what’s next” will reveal itself in time. Or maybe not. Maybe, as Susanna Wesley once said, some of us are called “to be content to fill a small space if God be glorified.” For my right now, that feels exactly right.
“You’re going to feel some pressure,” the doctor murmured as he inserted the needle into my elbow. Turns out “some pressure” was the euphemism of the century. What I actually felt during the five-minute platelet injection was teeth-gritting, fist-clenched agony.
By the time the short procedure was over, hot tears were slipping down the sides of my face, along my hairline, over the edge of my jaw and down my neck, where they dripped one at a time, slowly and steadily like fluid in an IV bag, onto the white sheet beneath me.
Much to my surprise, once the tears started, they didn’t stop. Neither the doctor nor the nurse knew quite what to make of my silent but persistent weeping. The nurse thrust a fist full of tissues into my hand. The doctor advised ice, two Extra Strength Tylenol and limited elbow movement. And then they both fled, the nurse urging “take your time,” before pulling the door closed with a quiet click behind her.
I cried as I retrieved my purse from the hook and gingerly slipped it over the shoulder of my good arm.
I cried as I hurried through the waiting room, chin tucked, hair shielding my streaming eyes so as not to scare the living daylights out of the patients awaiting their own appointments.
I cried as I drove home, wrangling the steering wheel with one hand.
I was still crying as I tucked myself into the corner of the sofa, cradling my throbbing elbow with a cupped palm.
It was only then that it occurred to me that I might be crying over something other than my elbow.
Earlier that morning I had published the blog post I had written about my decision to quit book writing. As I’d sat in the orthopedist’s waiting room, I’d pulled the post up on my phone to read some of the comments that had begun to accumulate.
I didn’t expect any “big feelings.” Though I’d published the post about my decision that morning, I’d made the actual decision weeks before. Choosing to leave traditional book-writing and publishing was a decision that, after careful discernment, I believed in my heart was right and good. I acknowledged there was sadness – I even named it grief in the post – but mostly what I felt in the aftermath of the decision, and as I wrote the blog post about it, was relief, an unburdening.
Until, that is, the orthopedist’s needle pricked something else far beneath flesh, bone and tendon.
What began as a tearful reaction to unexpected physical pain crossed an invisible threshold. My tears at the sudden, sharp stab of the needle deep in the soft tissue of my elbow opened a portal of sorts into which I tumbled headlong, like a time-space traveler hurtling into an unfamiliar dimension.
The tears prompted by the unexpected jolt of searing pain opened the way to the sorrow and loss I had acknowledged in words but hadn’t actually allowed myself to feel.
Experts say that we Enneagram Type 3s are the least aware of and in touch with our feelings. Until recently I would have told you that I was a person who was very in touch with her feelings, thank you very much. But I am beginning to see this might not be entirely true. I am beginning to realize that just because you say you feel something and even name it publicly doesn’t mean you’ve taken the time and space to actually feel it – to wade into that sorrow and allow yourself to experience the confusing, uncomfortable, unkempt mess of it.
The truth is, it’s hard and deeply uncomfortable to feel, really feel, pain. No one actually wants to sit with and in pain. And yet, I believe the only path to true healing, growth and transformation is to do exactly that – to step into the pain, to stay in it and lean into it for as long as it takes. As so many wise people have said, the only way out of grief is through it.
After the emotional ungluing in the orthopedist’s office, I spent the rest of the week quietly and slowly reading through every beautiful, heartfelt, kind, loving, and encouraging email, blog post comment, Facebook message and tweet I received in the wake of my announcement about leaving traditional publishing. There were A LOT. (thank you!!!)
My inclination was to rush, to skim over these notes of kindness, empathy and compassion. I wanted to read through them fast, to get it over with in order to keep myself at arm’s length from whatever emotions might begin to rise to the surface.
But I didn’t do that. Instead, I read each message slowly and thoughtfully and responded personally to many of them. As I read and replied, I let myself receive and feel all the feelings – gratitude, love, joy, relief, regret, sorrow, fear, disappointment, grief. I stayed in the feelings, leaned into them – into their unruliness, into their stubborn refusal to be managed and contained.
It was uncomfortable and unfun to feel the real brunt of this loss. And yet, I believe it was an important and necessary step toward trusting in something that is, for right now, beyond what I can see.
I tried to think of softer, more sophisticated title for this post, but the fact is, I’m quitting book writing, and there’s really no other way to say it. Turns out, I wrote a book about the journey toward uncovering your true self, and along the way, I discovered my true self does not align well with my work. This is knowledge I think I’ve understood deep down for a long time, and yet, I’ve held on, clutching and grasping with all my might, unwilling and afraid to let go.
The truth is, working as a traditionally published non-fiction writer is a rough sea to swim in if you wrestle with a desire for success and recognition, if you grapple with a longing for approval and affirmation or if you tend to fixate on outcomes. Plenty of writers are able to navigate a smooth, steady course through these tumultuous waters without losing their whole selves in the process.
As it turns out, I’m not one of those writers.
I’ve learned the hard way over the last ten years of writing and publishing that staying whole and healthy in this vocation is, for me, not a simple matter of willpower, nor is it a simple matter of surrender. It’s not about trying harder or surrendering more. Believe me, I’ve done both. I can muster every ounce of willpower and surrender six ways to Sunday, and the bottom line is still the same: working in traditional publishing is not good for me. My tendency to seek affirmation and validation and my desire for recognition and success can quickly veer toward addictive behavior if I’m not careful. It’s a little like an alcoholic working in a bar. It might be doable for a while, but in the end, it’s probably not a wise choice for a long-term profession.
Last fall, two months before True You released, I stood at the curb with Josie on the leash and gazed up at a large pine tree in my neighbor’s front yard. The tree was wrapped round and round with a thick vine that snaked from the roots up the trunk, fanning out along the limbs and branches. I saw that beneath the lush and vibrant vine, the tree itself was dying, its needles crisped brown, its branches brittle.
Not long after that late autumn walk, as Brad and I sat talking on the living room sofa, he offered a quiet observation. “Your work as an author in Christian publishing has brought you more sorrow than joy,” he said gently, as the snow wisped outside the windowpanes.
I knew the moment the words left his mouth that they were true. I knew I was the pine tree wrapped round by the vine.
In that moment I finally acknowledged that the culture of publishing is not a place I thrive. I can’t separate my self – my whole, true self – from the platform-building, from the push to attract and attain more followers and subscribers, from the Amazon ranks. I can’t separate myself from what often feels like a relentless drive toward bigger, better and more. I can’t separate myself from wanting to be known, affirmed and recognized by the “right” people.
That winter afternoon, sitting on the living room sofa with my husband, I finally understood that I can’t unwind the vine. And honestly, I’m flat-out exhausted from trying.
This has been a hard truth to face. There are the logistics, for one. I was contracted to write another book, which means I’ve had to withdraw from that contract and pay back the advance I had received to write the book. That is hard.
But even harder has been the unexpected grief that’s accompanied this decision. It’s painful to acknowledge that the story I wrote for myself in my mind and in my dreams all those years ago didn’t write itself the same way in real life. There have been joyful chapters, to be sure. But there have also been many, many chapters full of sorrow, disappointment, bitterness, resentment, anger and frustration. There is heartbreak in recognizing and acknowledging that my dream did not turn out as I had imagined and hoped it would. There is grief in letting go of the story I’d hoped would be true.
But there’s also hope in knowing the story is still being written. As Emily Freeman writes in The Next Right Thing: “Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it forever.”
As Esther de Waal says in her book To Pause at the Threshold, “Our God is a God who moves and he invites us to move with him. We must be ready to disconnect. There comes a time when the things that were undoubtedly good and right in the past must be left behind, for there is always the danger that they might hinder us from moving forward and connecting with the one necessary thing, Christ himself.”
God is moving and he is inviting me to move with him. It’s time.
So I am sad, yes. But I also know, as Emily Freeman says, that I didn’t choose wrong. And I know this because of you. I am full of gratitude for you – the generous readers who have come alongside me – for your kind words, your emails, your comments, your hugs when we’ve met in person. I’m grateful for what you have taught me along the journey. I’m grateful for all the things I’ve learned – about myself, about life, about faith.
And I’m also full of expectant hope for what might be next. I’m confident that even though I can’t clearly see it yet, what’s to come will be different, but it will also be good. I know this because I know God, and I know that he is good.
For now I am content to continue my work at The Salvation Army. I am glad to do my small bit for an organization that does good work. Most of all, it feels good and right to do that work anonymously, without fanfare, without pushing for recognition or readers, without trying to attract attention, without trying to be known.
As Akiko Busch writes in her book How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, it’s time “to reevaluate the merits of the inconspicuous life, to search out some antidote to continuous exposure, and to reconsider the value of going unseen, undetected, or overlooked. Might invisibility be regarded not simply as refuge, but as a condition with its own meaning and power?”
I think it might indeed.
As I walked Josie along our favorite path a few weeks ago, I noticed that the branches of the white swamp oak were bare. The leaves that had held on through the long, hard winter had finally let go. Beneath the tree’s naked limbs lay its desiccated foliage, crumpled, ripped and bedraggled from months of hanging on tight through tossing winds and stinging snow.
Standing beneath the bare tree, I tipped my head back and saw that each branch and twig were crowned with a tightly curled bud. Over the dark days of our long Nebraska winter, the oak tree had been slowly, quietly working undercover, preparing new growth that has, I see now, begun to burst free.
First the letting go, then the unfurling. As is so often the case, the trees have shown me what I needed to see.
I wanted to let you know that though I will not be writing books, I still hope, God willing, to write in this space. After months of discernment I was relieved to realize that writing is still life-giving for me. And so, if you’re still game, I would love to still meet you here from time to time and monthly via The Back Patio newsletter. I am ever grateful for you.
I called Angel on a Wednesday morning for a “human interest” article I’d been assigned for my job at The Salvation Army. I had very little information about him, aside from the fact that he and his wife host community dinners every few months for residents in their apartment complex.
I was skeptical. It didn’t sound like much of a story.
Angel answered on the second ring, and when I told him why I was calling, he eagerly began to talk. I pressed my cell phone to my ear and frantically scribbled into my notebook. Angel talked fast, and at times, I struggled to understand his words through his accent. But one thing was immediately clear: Angel had a story.
As a young boy living in San Antonio, Angel had learned to cook in order to survive. Homeless at age seven, he’d lived under a bridge and had panhandled on the streets, pooling his resources with other homeless children and adults, together cooking the food they’d gathered over an open fire.
Today Angel and his wife, Christy, live in a Section 8 apartment in Kearney, where every few months they invite all the residents in their building to a home-cooked dinner. The morning I spoke to Angel he was preparing to make “Mexican goulash.”
The idea for the community dinners was sparked three years ago at Thanksgiving, when Angel realized many of his neighbors didn’t have anyone with whom to share the holiday meal. More than 30 people showed up for that first Thanksgiving dinner, which Angel and Christy, both of whom are disabled, paid for with their food stamps. When staff at their local Salvation Army Corps heard about the community dinners, they donated additional food to help offset the costs.
The dinners are a lot of work, Angel admitted. And they aren’t perfect. Sometimes disagreements break out; people argue. But overall, the rewards are worth the effort.
“I like to watch the faces of the people as they eat,” Angel said. “It warms my heart to see everyone together.” He appreciates that the dinners draw residents, many of whom are elderly and isolated, out of their apartments to connect with one another. “None of us really knew each other before this,” he said.
Nowadays Angel and Christy don’t even have to post notices about upcoming dinners in the elevator or the laundry room. “People just smell the food and they show up,” Angel said.
Last week I sat in a pew at First Plymouth Church and listened as author and pastor John Pavlovitz urged the audience to “build a bigger table.” Pavlovitz was talking about the practice of radical hospitality — of broadening our circles to include people who don’t look like us, vote like we do, practice the same faith, make the same lifestyle choices or celebrate the same cultural traditions.
Hours after Pavlovitz had finished his talk, I was still mulling over his words. The idea of “building a bigger table” sounded promising and inspiring when preached from the pulpit, but the truth was, I had trouble envisioning what it would look like from a practical perspective. “Where would I even start?” I wondered. “What does ‘building a bigger table’ look like in actual, everyday life?”
Then I remembered Angel, who showed me exactly what building a bigger table looks like in actual, everyday life. Fix an enormous pot of Mexican goulash, invite your neighbors — every last one of them — to your table, and eat together.
It really is that simple.