Everything will work out.

If I could go back and tell my twenty-year old self just one thing, it would be this:  everything will work out.

That was the signature statement of one of my favorite church leaders, and I wish I’d understood it better as a young adult.  Everything will work out.  Believing that would have saved me so much heartache.  (Not to mention breakouts.)

I would tell myself to make a decision and then move forward with it, believing that the best is yet to come—because it is.  I would tell myself to do more and worry less.  I would tell myself that The Big Happy Ending comes slowly, slowly, oh-so-slowly…but it does come.  In bits and pieces, here and there, the long way around and through the back door.  It looks less like the End and more like the Middle and it sneaks up, rather than announcing itself, to you.  But you gotta stop folding the towels and filing the bills long enough to notice.

If I could go back, I would tell myself to trust myself.  I would tell myself to stop listening to what everyone else is doing or bragging about doing or pretending to be doing or thinks that I should be doing.  I would tell myself that what works out for them—even people I like, people I am like—is, quite certainly, not at all what will work out for me.

road line

I would tell myself this at age twenty.  I would tell myself this at age 40.  I would tell myself this today, because it’s so simple and so hopeful that it’s still hard to believe:  everything will work out.

I think (I know) this means something different for each one of us.  I’m beginning to see what it means for me.

What does it mean for you?

Really, why try?

Today my darling sister, bless her darling heart, sent me a link to Narrative Magazine‘s Fall Story Contest.  She’d received an email advertising the annual contest and thought I might be interested.

Interested?  Um, yes.  And flattered.  To send me such a link, I figured my (smarter and more competent) older sister must see me as somewhat qualified to enter.  And as you well know by now, I’m not above having my itchy ego scratched now and then.

My eager fingers clicked on the link and hovered over the keyboard, poised to shift from clicking to typing, anxious to launch the construction of what would surely be Narrative‘s Next Big Thing.  Okay, so I’d never actually heard of Narrative Magazine (stay-at-home-mom + small town + small bladder = I don’t get out much) but that wasn’t going to stop me from winning Whatever Contest they were running.  So what if I never enter contests and had absolutely no idea how to begin? I’d just had a long chat with some fellow moms about the importance of optimism and thus decided that my sister’s email was a serendipitous sign that I should write something—anything—and win, well, everything.  Or at least win something.  (Anything.)

Scrolling down the magazine’s home page, however, my bright-eyed anticipation quickly gave way to a sinking resignation.  A few clicks informed me that Previous Contest Winners included those who had been awarded the Pushcart Prize, the Atlantic Prize and, yes, the Pulitzer Prize.  Reading the individual bios was no less disheartening:  “Graduated with an MFA from Harvard,” “Finalist for the National Book Award,” and “Won the Nobel Prize in Literature” were among the honors shared by members of this publication’s exclusive contributors.  I stared blankly at the smudged screen, covered with Cheeto-flavored fingerprints (my son) and yellow post-it notes yelling “write something today!” (me.)  So much for optimism. Behind that screen lay the world of Real Writers, and out of respect for the order of the universe (and my own dignity) I should not, and would not, attempt entry.

We can talk about goal setting and positive thinking and “Outliers” all day long, but the truth is, there are some things that most of us will never achieve.  I’d put “winning the Nobel Prize for Literature”–along with tasting Olympic gold and performing at Carnegie Hall–pretty high up on that list.  Sorry friend, but it’s probably not gonna happen for either of us.  And though I’m pretty comfortable with the fact that I won’t be winning a Nobel (I had to come to terms with it at some point), reading that vast list of Other People’s vast accomplishments was a bit daunting.  Such brilliant people out there, doing such brilliant things.  So brilliant, in fact, that I hadn’t even heard of most of them.  And they were certainly never, ever going to hear of me.

So I sat back in my chair and let my mind wander.  Why, I wondered, knowing even our fiercest efforts will make but a slight dent on the world’s crust, do we continue to make them?  Whether it’s writing or painting or guitar playing or cake decorating, most of us will never meet Charlie Rose or see the inside of a Food Network studio.  Most of us, in fact, are kindasorta doomed to mediocrity from the start.  (No offense, Mediocrity.  You’ve been a loyal friend.)  So why do we do it?  Why do we put in the hours and dollars and brain pain necessary to get good at something, when we most likely will never get great at it?


I was still asking this question at bedtime when, as usual, the answer showed up in a book I was reading.  I’ve been reading a novel (see next post for deets) about a man who enlists in the Civil War as a chaplain with noble aspirations of saving bodies and souls.  Just a few months later, however, his ideology crumbles as he realizes he has not only failed to help but has in fact hurt many of those he set out to serve.  Lying in his hospital bed bemoaning the tragic, unintended outcomes of his actions, his wife tells him this:

“You are not God.  You do not determine outcomes.  The outcome is not the point.”

“Then what,” he replies, “is the point?”

“The point is the effort.  That you, believing what you believed…acted upon it.  To believe, to act, and to have events confound you—I grant you, that is hard to bear.  But to believe, and not to act, or to act in a way that every fiber of your soul held was wrong—how can you not see?  That is what would have been reprehensible.”

This hit me hard.  The outcome is not the point.

My life’s work and your life’s work are a bit less dramatic than this poor hero’s, but the truth still holds.  The outcome—for him, for me, for you—is not the point.

The Nobel Prize and the Food Network and the recording contract are not the point.  Those are outcomes.

The word grinding and the kitchen mess and the strum, strum, strumming—day in and day out, when we don’t feel like it and no one else is watching—are the point.  The point is the effort.

That’s why we aim to excel when we know we probably won’t and we choose to compete when we know we’ll probably lose.  Because it feels so good to try.  Trying—especially trying hard—feels infinitely better than not trying at all.  Mediocrity may be a foregone conclusion, but we can have a lot of fun getting there.

Striving to achieve is like taking a deep breath before sailing off the high dive.  You may land in an ugly belly flop, but the three seconds leading up to it were glorious—full of vulnerability and hope and courage, the best that’s within us.  And it’s our effort that allows us to exercise those traits.  The outcome merely allows us to reflect on them.

So if you’re embarrassed about starting tennis lessons or taking a sculpting class or learning Mandarin because, well, you’re not really an athlete and you majored in accounting and you’ve never seen China and probably never will, I say:  go for it.  I say:  try.  Not because you will be great at it (though you may be), but because you will become great by trying.  Your vulnerability and hope and courage will flex their muscles as you do, and they will become stronger.  And so will you.

See, we were not put on this earth only to love and serve and obey and raise children.  We were put on this earth to learn and explore, to question and develop, to grow and keep growing and then grow some more.  We were put on this earth to try.  The point is the effort.

And as for me?  Well, I’m quite confident my name will soon be appearing on Narrative Magazine‘s impressive Contests page.  Perhaps not beneath the heading that says Winners, but certainly beneath the one that says Tried.

I’ll meet you there.


Three cheers for Starting Over.

My eyes flew open at 4:30 this morning with a single, panicked thought.  Cold water down my neck could not have woken me more rudely than this particular thought did on this particular morning.  What insight, you may ask, was vital enough to push my warm and comfy subconscious into a cold and prickly consciousness?  Some kind of epiphany, or even just a great idea?  No.  It was simply the sudden, jarring realization—the kind that comes only in the bald of dawn—that, as a grown person whose life is half over, I never finish anything.

I know.  It’s not like I woke up with the guilt of a murderer or the regret of an adulteress.  And it’s not like I’ve never bemoaned this fact before; what woman doesn’t feel like she can’t finish anything?  But for me, this morning and for some reason, the familiar resignation became a frightening revelation, and it was damning.  Not in the curse-word sense, but in the literal sense; I felt permanently condemned—to my own lack of discipline, my own mediocrity.  I felt guilty.  Look at all the good things life had given me.  Why couldn’t I make more of them?

I lay slumped in bed with these thoughts for far too long, then finally heaved myself up to pull on capris and a tee for the gym.  I stumbled to my desk to get my workout sheets (I’m such a nerd, I actually bring them to the gym) and found them missing.  (Where could they have gone?  Do you see what I’m talking about?)  Irritated, I pulled up the website where said workouts were stored so I could print a new sheet, only to find that the site had been changed, and my old workout program–the one I’d zealously committed to completing in twelve weeks—had been replaced with a new, unfamiliar one.  I’d spent hours poring over the old workout regime, learning the correct form for each exercise and carefully putting together a routine that would work for me, and now I’d have to start all over since apparently I’d lost the only hard copies I’d made.  I had no time to figure out any of this at 5 am, so I headed to the gym and did the best I could from memory, all the while thinking, Here I am–barely started a new exercise program and already quitting it.  I proceeded to lift my piddly little weights, grunting out of disgust as much as effort.  The morning’s first, brutal thought hung heavy in the rank gym air:  I never finish anything.


Stretching afterward, I caught sight of myself (okay, stared at myself) in the mirrored gym walls.  All I could think was, I should really start dieting again.  This notion had barely formed in my head when it was toppled by another one:  Why start?  You’ll just quit in two weeks.  Such self-defeating talk was, in fact, based on a long history of starting and quitting diets within two weeks.  Why?  Because I never finish anything.

Driving home, the lovely summer morning was wasted on me.  I could only think darkly of the family meeting I’d called the night before to discuss the “Summer Schedule” I’d written up for the kids.  It included things like chores, scripture study, cooking dinner, and extensive reading.  (Of course I’d penciled in some Free Time each day, fun mom that I am.)  I’d typed the whole thing up in what I felt certain was an attractive and seductive format.  As I passed out our Summer Schedule to each family member, even my husband couldn’t repress a grin.

“This looks great, Jen.  But what will the schedule be for Week Two?”  Meaning, of course, that we’d only keep to this schedule for Week One of summer.  I put him in his place (and set a good example for my children) with a composed reply.

“Shut up.”

And though I drug my kids through a whole rigmarole of what our “Summer Expectations” would be (which were listed in fine print beneath the Summer Schedule), I knew, of course, that my husband was right.  Vacations and sports camps and grandma’s house would, within a week, sabotage my great expectations.  At one point during my lecture, I saw my twelve-year old daughter lean over and whisper something to my nine-year old son, upon which they both giggled.

“What did you say to him?” I asked her.

“Well,”  (smirk)  “He was bummed about all the chores he was gonna have to do, but I told him not to worry—he would only have to do them for the first week!” With this, the entire family burst into laughter—except me.  Because with this, I realized that I haven’t been fooling anybody, all these years.  Even my kids knew it:  I never finish anything.

Pulling into the driveway and walking through the front door, my mind then leapt to my ill-fated e-book, that glorious fantasy of yestermonth.  I had it eighty-percent completed as of March, and then we got busy with Spring Break and leaving town and having company in town and church stuff every weekend and leaving town again and more company in town and and more church stuff and Memorial Day and home renovations and opening the pool and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning the house before and after all those visitors and trips and piano recitals and violin recitals and friends for dinner and karate class and scouts and errands, errands, and more errands and in short:  I never finished it.  Because I never finish anything.

And that aborted effort led my mind to another one:  I’ve been trying, for years, to become a more consistent, capable blogger.  But as soon as I get on a roll, Life comes crashing down and I put off posting and I lose my audience and I have to start all over to get them back again.  Because I never finish anything.

But I do start over.  I start over a lot.

Start over.  It’s what I do best.  Finishing?  Not so much.

And here is something I just realized, just now, just today, when I began writing this post:  starting over is half of finally finishing.  The exciting half?  Sure.  The easy half?  You bet.  But it is half.  It’s the Starting Over that makes it possible, one day, to Finally Finish.  If I don’t start over, finishing becomes a statistical impossibility.  (I mean, it would if I kept statistics on my failed diets and unsuccessful chore charts.  But some things are just too painful to see in print.)

start track

So unlike the jolt of reproach that woke me this morning, here’s a new thought that’s getting me through my day:  Whenever I fail to finish something, I can always just start over.  ‘Cause see, if I keep starting over—again and again and again—I will, eventually, narrow the gap between Starting Over and Never Finishing.  And one day, I’ll have started over so many times that it will become the way of the Middle, not just the Beginning.  What used to be How-I-Start will evolve into What-I-Do.  And I’ll forget to not finish.  Because one day, the Start Overs will swallow up the Never Finishes.

The trick, I think, for today and every day, is to feed the fuel of Starting Over and starve the fumes of Never Finishing.  Both will exist, but we can choose which one we dump our energies into.  Because though never finishing is not good, I can think of something worse:  never starting.