Scarred

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    I was just getting to know my roommate and I really liked her. We had lived together for five or six months and we were entering that stage of friendship when annoying personality quirks are no longer masked or pose a threat to mutual benevolence. She was from a small town in Wisconsin that left her with a cute accent, the pride of cheese curds and Packers football, and American oddities like saying “bubbler” instead of water fountain. When her childhood best friend came to visit, they chose to permanently mark their newfound adult freedom. 

    The last night of their whirlwind tour of Minneapolis had come and gone, and there was my roommate, standing in our communal bathroom with the waistband of her pajamas edged down below her hips. 

    “Liv, please just help me out.” I had warned her against this. She talked to me about it without knowing that I had formed a dogmatic opinion of tattoos. They were permanent, and they were scars.  

   On the fleshy part of her lower back swam a navy blue outline of a fish—a tattoo she and her best friend had just inked. I didn’t understand. She handed me a moldable metallic medicine tube of healing cream and bent over the sink so I could get a look at it. I struggled with the safety seal, tore off the plastic wrap pressed over her skin, and began to drown the fish in a layer of white cream.  

   I said, “I just don’t get tattoos.” The tattoo was already there and I really liked her, so I had to be careful as I crafted my passive-aggressive tisk-tisking.  

   “What happens when you’re 80 and someone is wiping your wrinkled butt in some nursing home?” It was a funny image that served us well. I made my disapproval known and she could continue to enjoy the emotional afterglow of the best friend tattoo right-of-passage. 

   Two weeks ago, I was 45 days away from turning 40. I sat in a tattoo artist’s chair. It wasn’t a mid-life crisis—I had already survived one of those—and I wasn’t drunk. I had carefully researched tattoo parlor reviews, asked all my friends for design suggestions, discovered that vegan ink was “a thing,” and had narrowed all my options down to a decision.   

   On tattoo day, I took a shower in my hotel room and looked down at my right arm. I was about to intentionally scar it forever. Is it possible to pity an arm; to anthropomorphize a part of my body and give it a soul? 

    “I am sorry. I didn’t think to give you the right to choose.” Maybe some day when I am 80 and receiving a sponge bath in a nursing home, some nurse’s aid will look down at its faded ink, click her tongue and sigh.  

   I have other scars already. A sunburn turned a birthmark into a sprawling, brown, puffy continent along the right side of my back. Tiny spider veins appeared in the summer of 1992, when my feet pounded sidewalks in search of my goal weight—teenage anorexia is visible in the web of broken capillaries. In my late 20s, I ran out of birth control pills and had my first baby. Stretch marks. Then I learned that years of taking those pills masked a genetic hormonal disorder, as I broke out in acne for the first time in my life. My once smooth face had permanent scars. Now I was designing one. 

   I considered designs to symbolize the start of my 40s. I called the recommended tattoo parlors in the artsy part of my town and sent the image files. “We don’t do one word projects.”    

   My life-changing one word was too elementary for them.  

   So instead, I had a reservation with Vlad, from Ukraine, who had moved to Bali for the booming tattoo business. Vlad personified the stereotype of the stoic Slavic male. He walked up to me, silent, and nodded once to let me know that it was okay that I existed. His thick frame, messy hair and full beard contradicted the black and red velvet Moulin Rouge décor of the Artful Ink Tattoo Parlor.   

   As Vlad began to lead me upstairs, the Australian girl who checked me in said, “We’re sorry. There is only room for one person to sit with you during the actual process.”  

   My husband and son went to the coffee bar. My nine-year-old daughter, Ava, and I slipped our shoes off and followed Vlad.  

   He led us up the steps to the second floor, past four or five customers sprawled out on various types of tables and chairs. At the top of the stairs, a beautiful girl with long dark hair laid on her side with earbuds in; her eyes closed tightly into a grimace as her entire thigh was being covered in floral art. They were alone. And for my one-word tattoo, I had brought my entire family: my husband and kids.  

   Vlad led me to his work area. Next to us laid a shirtless woman adding a flock of flying birds to the delicate area between her breasts. I sat down in something similar to a black dentist chair, my legs slightly elevated. His tools were neat and more modern than I anticipated.  A man who preferred silence and the hypnotic buzzing sound of the tattoo needle, Vlad answered my nervous questions with few words and zero eye contact.  

   “Where should I put the tattoo, exactly, on my forearm?” 

   Vlad pressed a blue-print of the design on the inner side of my wrist. Ava jumped up by my side, took my hand, and tried not to make Vlad too unhappy. She understood the meaning of the one word, and why I chose to mark myself. 

   About five years ago I began to take long drives, alone, along the sea. The scars on my body began to form words. Old. Trapped. Broken. Forgotten. I hoped that as I drove the words would disappear and I would be scarless again.  

   The scars never dissolved. Somehow I knew they were permanent--like the fish tattoo. When I am 80, a stranger will wipe them clean for me and wonder what story lies behind them. They were permanent tattoos that refused to let go of me. I think that is why I wanted to follow my roommate twenty years too late. I needed a scar that I chose to inflict; a reminder that I was no longer the same person on the invisible inside. I chose one word that summarized the years of mistakes, lessons learned and a new motto: “Trust.”  

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   Ava had given me font choices, including her own scribbled hand-written versions which did not make the cut—mostly because they always included a playful heart. But, to my surprise, one font she found was the most beautiful of all, and we chose it together.  

   Ten minutes. Ava leaned over my leather chair to see the needle carving into my skin. Stepping back, she could read the pain on my face. Vlad still had no emotion. The shirtless lady would throw me a sympathetic smile from her own black leather dentist chair. Ten minutes and my arm was changed. Vlad wrapped my forearm in a layer of cellophane that would soon gather sweat under the hot Indonesian sun. I was sent downstairs to pay and pick up my tube of healing cream. The Australian girl did her best to appear disinterested. 

    “Oh. I like that font,” she said. 

   Ava proudly grabbed my hand, and we walked out of that tiny tattoo parlor and back into the beehive chaos of Bali. Small, square, homemade straw bowls filled with pink and yellow flowers and burning incense lined the sidewalk, hoping to invoke favor from the gods. Dozens of scooters fought for the same piece of road, driven by Balinese in shorts, flip flops and a young child on the back. We walked to a café, drank smoothies, and waited for our taxi. My arm’s cellophane wrap sparkled in the sunlight. 

{Trust that the One who holds the stars holds your heart; your pain and dreams; your past and future.}

 

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Living Outside the Box

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My life of obscurity began in 2003. I moved to a small, unknown nation on the border of Iran that was hidden inside the borders of the Soviet Union for decades: Armenia.

My neighbors for eight years: Turkey, Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan and a day's drive from Baghdad, Iraq.

My neighbors for eight years: Turkey, Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan and a day's drive from Baghdad, Iraq.

Before moving there, I stood across from an elderly American woman leaning against a wooden pew in a red-carpeted church sanctuary. After hearing our 30-minute speech about our work, she insisted, “Now, you won’t live in Armenia. I’ve never heard of that place before. You must mean Albania. I know that country exists!”

 

Smile and nod.

 

Five years ago, I left the three million residents of Armenia to set up residency with the 1.5 million citizens of another post-Soviet, scarcely known country--Estonia.

My current neighbors: Finland, Latvia and Russia. 

My current neighbors: Finland, Latvia and Russia. 

Repeat.

A middle-aged couple found me standing in the church’s foyer. Their naivety shined like the Minnesota sun through the lobby’s glass walls. “Estonia?? Isn’t that the country that Anne Hathaway’s character is from in the Disney movie--The Princess Diaries?”

 

Inhale, Liv...One, two, three, four…Exhale slowly.

Smile. Nod. Maybe throw in a charming wink.

 

Some Americans may not be able to recognize the history, location or language of many countries in the world, but the world certainly recognizes us. There are obvious giveaways that we are from the USA: our choice of shoes, love of workout pants with sweatshirts, and our ability to fill up quiet space with words.

 

Last week I stood on an airport bus crowded with neck pillows, small rolling suitcases, and travelers. We represented many nations all going from Frankfurt, Germany to one place—Chicago, USA. I heard German and English spoken with a European pronunciation. Then my ears immediately felt at home--I heard the American accent roll off of five people’s tongues around me.

 

These fellow Americans were complete strangers and quickly enacted their well-tuned talent of small talk. As any decent quiet person would do, I began my equally-honed skill of eavesdropping.  A young man sporting a full and long black beard stood behind me.

 

“God, I hate these airport busses. There is nothing more disappointing on earth than being trapped inside a plane for hours, and seeing an airport bus waiting at the bottom of the stairs when you deplane.”

It is common in Europe to leave the plane via steps and walk on to a bus that drives you to the terminal.

It is common in Europe to leave the plane via steps and walk on to a bus that drives you to the terminal.

An elderly man in his 70s clung to the metal bar beside me through sharp turns. He started a different conversation with his neighbor.

“Did you see that mom with the stroller? I know I’m old, but I’m not that slow. She nearly ran me over to get on this bus!!! What was her problem?”

 

Once again, I overheard the continued conversation of the aspiring lumberjacks behind me.

 

“God. Did you see that airport security agent? Their German hands were all over me. Next time I guess I need to wear sweat pants to make their work a bit easier. Sheesh!”

 

The older gentlemen to the left continued with an observation: “What is the problem with Frankfurt? Why are the United Airlines planes parked all the way at the end of the airport? This ride is taking forever.”

 

A man seated nearby spoke with a slight German accent. He attempted to add to the conversation. “America has such tight security, they request to keep their planes in this more secluded area of the airport. They feel it is safer.”

 

The American elderly gentlemen in loafers seemed bothered, looked out the opposite window, and gruffed in reply a simple, “Yep.”

 

Without even buying a ticket for the performance, I got a front row seat to a show I entitle, “The Art of Complaining.”

 

At that moment, my adopted Armenian/Estonian self felt like quoting a proverb my church’s youth group leaders would drill into our young minds. Through overseas service trips, American teens got a taste of what the rest of the world calls reality.

As a teenager, I took summer trips to serve in Jamaica {in schools, not beaches}, Cost Rica, Venezuela and Belarus/ Russia. This pic is from my last trip as a teen at Red Square. I was 17 years old and the one in front row, furthest to the right.

As a teenager, I took summer trips to serve in Jamaica {in schools, not beaches}, Cost Rica, Venezuela and Belarus/ Russia. This pic is from my last trip as a teen at Red Square. I was 17 years old and the one in front row, furthest to the right.

Standing at the front of our hormone-filled bus, the older team leaders would shout words of wisdom at souls who were born and raised within close proximity of air conditioning units.

 

“We have a rule during our trip: don’t state the obvious if you cannot offer a solution to change it. If it is terribly hot and you are sweating all day, don’t grumble, ‘It’s so hot, and I am so sweaty.’ We already know it is hot and we are all sweating with you. Complaining about it makes the situation worse. Smile and go with the flow.’”

 

So easy to say; difficult to do.

 

As a member of the human race, I feel like our default setting is to complain. If you hit restart and restore our factory default settings, we will come alive again with a grievance on our lips.

 

From birth, the skill is refined.

Hungry? Cry!

Tired? Scream!

Wet in the knickers? Share your pain! We hope for secret revenge: a diaper leak on our caretaker so they, too, can enjoy our horrible state of constant moistness.

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We are born into a free, open world but locked inside a box. Its walls are covered with mirrors, and we don’t notice the outward beauty that surrounds us. Everywhere we look, we only see ourselves. We emerge from our mother’s belly and shout to the world, “Here I am!”

 

We compare our box to our neighbor’s and verbalize everything it lacks. We growl at those who accidentally bump into its weak walls. Like a homeless man, we sleep with our head against a cardboard pillow and keep a shopping cart, filled with everything that matters most, parked close and inside.

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It may be the home we were born into, but as long as we stay in that box, our soul remains broken and homeless. This box keeps us trapped inside our own universe, where the world revolves around OUR thoughts, OUR dreams, OUR desires, OUR schedule, OUR emotions, OUR money, OUR anger and offenses.

 

When we make the difficult choice to step outside the box, the mirrors must shatter. We can no longer demand to only see ourselves, or demand an audience that listens to our story and complaints. We start to see other people for the first time. We seek to understand THEM. We learn new words, “There YOU are.”

 

We catch a glimpse of the essence of people instead of only noticing how they inconvenience or pain us. Their stories are printed on their sad eyes, tired faces, and everyday mistakes. The laughter and victories of our neighbors are no longer food for jealousy. Instead they give us an appetite for joy and chasing dreams. We not only tell our stories; we listen to theirs.

 

On the airport bus, there stood another American. Without doubt, this  woman was once a beauty. Hair dyed an intense red; her eyes were radiant. Beautiful long lashes and brightness made her blues eyes appear crystal clear.

 

She too entered into the art of small talk.

 

When her friend complained about the horrible mom with the runaway stroller, she didn’t just see that woman, she looked back and remembered herself as a young mom traveling alone.

 

“Oh. She didn’t mean to hurt you. I could tell she was nervous. Traveling by yourself with a baby is challenging. She was worried that the baby’s stroller wouldn’t fit on the bus. It’s ok. She was just anxious.”

 

When the discussion commenced about the American airlines parking their planes in a secure, far-away area, she recalled the reason. Unlike thousands of New Yorkers, her loss of having to ride an airport bus for security seemed minimal compared to their tragedy. She replied. “Yep. 9/11 changed everything for us. I’m glad they are doing their best to keep us safe.”

 

As we were stepping off the bus, a hurried young traveler attempted to push her way in front of red-headed woman. There was no frustrated roll of the eyes or huffy breathing. A lovely smile crossed her lips, and she used her hand to motion for the young woman to exit before her.

 

Incredible kindness. Contagious grace.

I observed her crystal eyes again and made a vow: 

I want to be like that woman yesterday, today and tomorrow.

 

I don’t think I will ever attempt to dye my hair that shade of flame red, but I pray my eyes always remain open and clear.

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May I always motion for those hurrying through life to step in front of me.

May I be the calm presence in a room that tells others’ stories through my words.

May I see the lives that surround me and listen to their silent voices instead of my own. 

May I learn to live outside the "ME" box.

 

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This week I quit Cross Fit

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This week I quit Cross Fit.

 

I have been pretending to be an Olympian for the past three years. I strapped on a black weightlifting belt with a hot pink “Tough Girl” embroidered on the side. Those words were written there to taunt me and squeeze every weak cell out of my body. While the frailty left, I also hoped I would finally achieve the persona of a 21st century Barbie--curvy, yet trim and strong; smart enough to build my own empire.

 

Let's be honest. I’ve never been like a Barbie. I have never owned a real three-story dream house complete with elevator. I never look out my balcony window to see a Barbie-sized pool filled with half-naked Kens, waiting their turn on the steep yellow plastic water slide.

This is what sat on my bedroom floor in the 1980s--next to my pink Barbie dream house.

This is what sat on my bedroom floor in the 1980s--next to my pink Barbie dream house.

In the past, I did manage to have a few things in common with the icon. In high school, I drove my own personal “Barbie Malibu Tracker.” However, when my dad occasionally drove that car around my hometown in Missouri, shirtless on a warm day, it was as if a middle-aged G.I. Joe highjacked my pink, palm tree-filled dreams.

This car is exactly like my high school ride.

This car is exactly like my high school ride.

 

Like a good Barbie, I pursued multiple careers. I never became a rockstar, astronaut and doctor in stiletto heels, but I tried my very best.

 

Piano and voice teacher, English professor, Armenian Bible College Dean, group fitness/spinning instructor, Bible translation director, women’s ministry coordinator, performance musician, worship leader, writer, mother, pastor, missionary and wife. 

 

I’ve done a lot. It is obvious to me now, as I begin my 40th year of life, that I was searching for my distinct place. In a world filled with plastic-perfect Barbies and Kens (men who never have receding hairlines, or beer bellies, or a mid-life crisis), we begin to believe that we were created weak.

 

Of course, I always knew I was fragile.

 

I cried easily. When I lost my elementary school’s spelling bee, a room full of students and parents could hear my sobs echo against the wooden gym floors as I left the stage.

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I was slow. Putzy runner. Weakest athlete. Last one to be picked for our playground's foursquare, kickball, baseball….anything team.

 

I was quiet. At age 18, my youth group leader looked at me across the kitchen, and said, “Olivia. You need to accept that you will never be a leader. You are just too quiet.”

 

I was ugly. Growing up, my parents always reminded me that my bright greenish grey eyes were pretty. To every one else, however, they were unrecognizable under a cloud of huge glasses and belly fat.

 

There were things I was good at too.

 

I was determined. My parents say that if I wanted to do something, I had no need for a cheering squad or pep talk. NO ONE could stop me until I accomplished it.

 

Determination is a good thing UNTIL you become determined to become everything you are not.

 

Quiet? Those who observe me leading on stage now are surprised when they find out I am an introvert who needs few friends and requires hours of alone time to function.

 

Ugly? Anorexia as a teen finally got me to an acceptable size. Laser eye surgery forever removed my dependency on thick-lensed glasses.

 

Weak? In 2008 I became a certified group fitness spinning instructor. I watched my high school’s former Barbies and Kens nearly collapse in a pool of their own sweat on spin bikes during my classes. But who was I fooling?

 

Last week, I stood in front of my husband, my children, and a few friends to blow out 39 candles on a red velvet birthday cake.  I have 39 years of trying to be strong. 39 years of overlooking my strengths while trying to improve my weaknesses. Countless years of worrying about how many calories are in a piece of cake and if my belly with exponentially grow by morning.

 

39 years old and red velvet cake!

39 years old and red velvet cake!

So, this week I quit Crossfit. I joined it three years ago because I needed to try one of the hardest workouts out there to, once again, prove my strength. Although I did well, I could not keep up with those designed from birth to be elite athletes.

 

I admired their physical power so much that I ignored my own voice. I often dreaded going, hated the handstand push-ups, never mastered the rope climb and, after a bad injury, feared jumping repeatedly on to a sharply-cornered wooden box. 

 

In the last few weeks, I finally asked myself the question: am I weak or was I NOT created for this?

 

I wrote the painful email to my Cross Fit gym that, in many ways, accepted me into their family and trained me with excellence. It was time to quit for two good reasons:

#1. I have an expensive dream—one that costs $35,000 to be exact. My husband and I need to make sacrifices in our spending to accomplish that dream. Although I still value exercising four to five times a week, I have found a more affordable venue.

Saving to start this program in January 2019!

Saving to start this program in January 2019!

 

#2. I was created for something different.

 

What if I was never designed to impress people with my front squat max? Never created to reach the stars as an astronaut? What if a position that allowed me to lead a great company from a huge corner office {with a great, breath-taking view} left me completely unfulfilled?

 

Since the time I was a child, I learned to silence a different purpose that repeatedly arose. Taking my strengths for granted, I tried every possible angle to squeeze my incredibly flat feet into someone else's high heels.

 

Sometimes things that are perceived as weaknesses are strengths in super-hero disguises.

 

 

 

I cried easily because I was made a storyteller.  The emotions I feel deeply allow me to sing, write and speak of the one great story we all experience in life.

 

I was quiet so that I could listen to the whispers of the world. When my voice finally did ring out on a public stage, people were so surprised; they listened.

 

I was slow because I was never meant to hurriedly run from accomplishment to accomplishment. I was designed to walk and gain energy by observing ocean waves, autumn leaves and to listen to the greatest Muse of all stories.

 

The world called me ugly so that I could discover where genuine beauty comes from. 

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Unlike those elite heroes of the Cross Fit world, I was never created to be the physical defender of a nation or to show God’s magnificence through my Olympic strength. Many of my fellow Cross Fitters were. They have found a place that feels like home to them.

 

I exist for something else. Possibly, YOU exist for something else.

One of my greatest take-aways after completing a two day Paterson Life Plan last week. "I exist to..."

One of my greatest take-aways after completing a two day Paterson Life Plan last week. "I exist to..."

 

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