Things I Need to Improve On: A Comparison on How to Improve in These Areas at Age 14 and Age 27

When I was 14, I wrote a lot of my adolescent thoughts, sorrows, and dreams in this little journal.

Not gonna lie, I’m still super proud to say I drew the dragon on the cover.

Sometimes, I like to take a little trip down memory lane and re-read some of my old entries. Usually this results in me wincing at my own teen angst and wishing I could explain to this kid how all those “end of the world” scenarios were real trivial, and to encourage her to believe in herself every once in a while.

During one of those recent trips, I stumbled upon this little excerpt, which I call: “Things I Need to Improve On: A Brief Excerpt from the Journal of Lindsay Mustafa Davis, Age 14, Dated August 27th, 2004”

I was astounded to find that the list of improvements I made at age 14 is startlingly accurate to the one my 27 year old self would make.

I also laughed when I thought more about what I considered “being responsible” and “doing my best” at 14 compared to 27.

So I decided to do a little remix of this list, and take into account both my own adolescent thoughts and my grown up thoughts, both riddled with their own anxieties and desires to be seen as “having it together,” because funny enough, that didn’t seem to disappear after 14 years.

I call it: “Things I Need to Improve On: A Comparison on How to Improve in These Areas at Age 14 and Age 27”

1. Being responsible

Age 14:

  • Pay attention in class so you get good grades and have a good future.
  • Complete homework before 9 PM because that’s what responsible students do.
  • Clean the bathrooms every weekend without Mom asking more than once because you’re a good daughter!
  • Load and unload the dishwasher as needed because, again, you’re a good daughter and the only one who helps your mother around this house, darn it!

Age 27:

  • Balance a budget without going broke each month, even though this budget also includes Northern Virginia rent.
  • Wash the dishes right away instead of letting them pile up for a week like a gross person.
  • Meet quarterly goals at work to avoid the boss’ wrath and the crushing sense of defeat.
  • Make time to call your parents at least once a week, then fail at it and worry your parents don’t think you appreciate them enough.

2. Being honest to myself

Age 14:

  • Understand and embrace both your strengths and your weaknesses a la The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, which was required reading for all incoming freshman of the James Wood High Class of 2008.
  • Realize when you are taking something too seriously and need to apologize for something you’ve done wrong because your friends already don’t like you and you need to grovel to maintain their good graces.
  • Tell your parents and teachers the whole truth all the time no matter the consequences because if you don’t, your mother will find out, and you don’t want that.

Age 27:

  • Tell people when you are too anxious to deal with shit, even if admitting you struggle with a mental illness is still stigmatized.
  • Apologize to your husband when you hurt him without getting indignant about it or spiraling into a panic over whether or not you’re being too “submissive.”
  • Understand when you are acting out an unhealthy pattern and choose to either be the stronger person and break the habit or keep going down that path, because sometimes acting enlightened is too exhausting.

3. Doing my best in everything

Age 14:

  • Don’t turn in half-assed assignments because instead of doing your best work, you spent more time talking on the phone with your 3 crushes.
  • Even though it seems everyone could care less about the tenor sax section in Concert Band, resist every urge to not play the difficult parts in band class and let the brass, flutes, and clarinets carry the load instead.

Age 27:

  • Spend an hour a day writing without taking a Facebook and/or YouTube break every 5 minutes.
  • Make regular three-to-five day attempts to eat well and excercise before taking the path of least resistance and eating pizza three times a week while binge-watching Hulu.

4. Ignoring taunts

Age 14: Let the bully’s comments slide off your shoulders.

Age 27: For the literal love of Jesus, STOP ENGAGING WITH INTERNET TROLLS.

Epilogue: What I’ve realized about self-improvement lists that is true at age 14 and age 27:

  • Making these lists is easy.
  • Living them out is tough.
  • And I’m still loved whether or not I “succeed” in them.

Goodbye/Hello

Choir

On Sunday, I processed with the choir. Somehow, I found myself at the head of the procession, and I freaked out a bit. I never lead this part. I always follow. After seven months in the choir, I still didn’t feel confident leading us down the aisle, up to the front of the purple tule covered cross, and to our seats.

But on my final Sunday, I led the way.

On Sunday, I heard the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, how the Word of God brought the bones, sinews, and flesh together, and finally breathed life into them.

With the choir, I chanted Psalm 30, a plea to God to hear Israel’s cry for mercy, a thanksgiving of God’s grace, a prayer for God to continue to draw near.

I heard the story of Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus, a death he could have prevented but instead chose to undo, and how Lazarus walked out of the tomb when Jesus called his name, still bound in his grave clothes.

And as I sat in the choir loft, one final time, I thought about the dry bones and the garments of death.

I wondered if I reeked to the high heavens of death like Lazarus, if my bones and body were without the breath of life. I wondered if, in saying good-bye to my two jobs in the span of four days, I was surrounded by the stench of death, and I wondered if anyone else could smell it on me.

Despite the financial hardships which accompany working two part-time jobs with no benefits, ties are made. Routines are established. A sense of normalcy, including the panic which comes at the end of each month when bills need paying and the numbers aren’t adding up, brings with it an odd sense of comfort.

Now that I am entering a full-time position, with a salary and benefits (health insurance! retirement! paid time off!), I am able to move into a new life, something I always imagined but never thought would come to fruition: stability.

But at what cost?

On Thursday, I had to leave a friend who gave me a job fresh out of seminary, someone I bonded with after I gave his wife a meal before she entered an operation to remove her breast cancer, someone with whom I had weathered the early struggles of his first pastoral job out of seminary. On Sunday, it was difficult to listen to the prayers of a friend who shares my Doctor Who obsession, and to bid farewell to the teens I had mentored, .

I never realized how hard it would be to print and fold my final bulletins and turn off my office computer for the last time. I didn’t think I’d struggle not to tear up when one of my students handed me an orchid in front of my congregation as I said farewell to my congregation.

When I accepted these jobs, I knew they weren’t permanent positions. I knew they were stepping stones to other opportunities.

But I didn’t know they would become so close to my heart.

In youth group, I remember my youth pastors teaching us to set physical and emotional boundaries with romantic partners, because they told us too much physical intimacy could make unmarried people “too close” and result in more heartache when the relationship ended.

I wish they’d told me this kind of extra heartbreak isn’t limited to the physical and the romantic.

I wish they’d told me about the pain you experience when you receive the broken body of Christ from your pastor’s hand and wonder if it’s the last time it will ever happen. I wish they’d told me how much a simple touch of my hair when receiving the blood of Christ from a dear choir member would undo me. I wish they’d told me how heart-wrenching it is to have to pull up your roots from the place you’ve called home for so long and plant them elsewhere.

I wish they’d told me less about setting up boundaries and more about how to love as fiercely as God loves us, even and especially when those upheavals happen.

If we are to live as God’s children, as people who want to connect more with God, we will touch the souls of the people around us in deep and profound ways, and they will touch the depths of our hearts, too. They will leave their marks and imprints, and the scars will remind us of their presence forever.

You can’t avoid it. To avoid it is to be the dry bones in the dessert, to be bound by the grave clothes and reeking of death.

I don’t reek of death. I reek of love. Beautiful, deep, painful love. That love is why I chose to sit with the pain of these losses, to insist that they mean something to me, and their losses demand to be felt and honored.

So I sang our final hymn, “The Bread of Life,” for the last time. For the last time, I hung up my choir robe. I gave out final hugs as I ate snacks from my final coffee hour. For the first and last time, I went to the house of my choir director and her daughter, a member of my Sunday School class, and made my farewells over plates of ravioli.

I said good-bye to the congregation which housed me.

Now, I can say hello to the next home which has found me.

Dreams Deferred and Reborn

Bouquet

Elegant Bridal Hair Accessories

Several weeks ago, Mom and I went to Hobby Lobby searching for wedding bouquet ideas. We walked through aisle after aisle of multi-colored flowers, trying to find the ones which most matched the scheme we had planned (burgundy and gold).

We walked. We browsed. We talked about my financial struggles and whether they would get better.

And as we talked and shopped, I thought about Mom and her life.

As a young adult, she worked a difficult night shift job she didn’t like to make ends meet and afford things she wanted, like her very first car. Around age 30, she moved home with her new baby and a loaded moving van to finish her college degree. As I grew up, she took up extra jobs to ensure I could own a horse, play my own saxophone in the middle and high school bands, and go to college.

As I reflected on all of her hard work and sacrifices, I thought about her dreams, the ones she didn’t see come true, like becoming a vet or a P.E. teacher or a star athlete.

But she became a teacher to ensure she had a steady income and the same vacations and days off I had. She educated multitudes of children, and some of them still visit her, letting her know how they’re doing and how important she was to them.

And she did all she could to make sure I had the opportunity to have my own dreams and maybe see them come true.

I was always a dreamer. Every time I had to write an “All About Me” essay in school, I got giddy with excitement when I got to the “What are your dreams and goals?” section. I wanted to be everything: a marine biologist, a vet, a farmer, a writer, a teacher, a member of the Navy, a jazz musician, a pro skater, a jockey, and then some. I filled those pages with dreams upon dreams, and I had my ways to get to them, even if they seemed impossible.

And here I am, working multiple part-time jobs, still struggling to eke out a living and begin a new life with my fiance, and I wonder if I’ve let my mom down. She worked so hard for me, after all, and what do I have to show for it?

I wonder if I’ve let myself down, because I don’t always know what my dreams are, and I don’t feel like I’m on the fast-track to reach any of them. They seem so numerous and sporadic, disjointed and unrelated, and I don’t know which ones to¬†pursue.

But as Mom and I went about our day, picking out my bouquet, eating lunch and dinner together, looking at bridesmaids dresses and arguing about where the reception should be and if the bridesmaids all needed to have the same style dress, I realized something.

Not many people accomplish the dreams they initially set out to do. And that’s OK.

Mom didn’t accomplish all of hers, and while I’m sure she feels the sting of those losses from time to time, I know she doesn’t regret having me in her life, even if the paths she took weren’t the smoothest. I haven’t accomplished all of my goals and dreams, because they change so often and the world isn’t always kind to dreamers, but I know I will always have the love of my mother, fiance, and others to give me reason, purpose, passion, and joy in this life.

For most of my young, life, I used to think not accomplishing your greatest dreams was the worst tragedy to someone could experience. I used to think it would result in regret and despair, the shriveling up of a soul like a raisin in the sun, as Langston Hughes described in “Harlem.” I told myself I had to accomplish at least one of my big dreams to find true satisfaction in life, or else I’d doom myself to a life of apathy, of going through motions and putting one foot in front of the other with no idea of where the steps would take me.

Now, I see this whole deferment of dreams as a mostly inevitable part of life.

Dreams come in and out like waves in a tide. As life happens, so do our dreams and plans. The flexible and willing among us adjust. They let their passion remain even when the dreams depart, and they fuel their new dreams with that same passion and joy.

Dreams can be for ourselves. They can be for the ones who come after us. They can be put on hold and then reactivated.

But as long as we keep the fire within us alive, as long as we continue to be surrounded and powered by love, we will remain alive, even when our biggest dreams die.