What My Sister Taught Me

I’m firmly convinced our genius is at least partially coded into our childhood play. Want to get an idea of how those first graders will change their world? No need to read their spelling words. Just show up at recess.

But I don’t know about all that yet, because it’s 1985 and we’ve got the day ahead of us, no plans but the Barbie world. We huddle over the pile of pink goodness ready to piece out what belongs to whom today. I’m eight and it’s my big sister’s turn to pick first.

myquillyn and emily

I study her choices carefully – the pink cabinet, the blue and pink pillows, the cushy sofa. These three must be the top items in the pile since she chose them first. I end up with a lopsided table I don’t know what to do with. Barf me out.

Days later, it’s my turn to pick first. I know just what to do! Pink cabinet, blue and pink pillows, cushy sofa. Yes!

I look up at her after my clean sweep, unable to hide my victory smile since I obviously just chose all the best stuff. Instead of reacting, she ignores me, and picks the table with the uneven top. Wait, is she trying to psych me out?

What is this? No anger? No you just got all the good stuff lecture? Not only that, she just chose the worst thing in the pile.  The worst thing!

How am I supposed to know how to make my Barbie house beautiful if my teacher keeps picking different furniture?! How am I supposed to know the best stuff if she keeps changing her mind on what the best stuff is? I am having a total cow.

Look at her over there in her corner, busy setting up her awesome space. I lean to one side to watch her work and notice she has that crooked table looking just fine, using it as some kind of loft-like bed for Skipper. I look back at my first-pick choices and they don’t look so great now.

I vow to choose the lopsided table next time. But next time always comes and no matter how I try to catalogue and then copy her choices, it makes no difference. It didn’t matter what she has to work with. She will make it look great, no matter how imperfect the pile.

And while it may on the surface seem like an older sister’s evil plan to make her little sister crazy, I think it simply comes down to this: her gift is that she sees differently.

The Nester's House

That feeling of discontentment, of missing out, of not having something vital I needed to make beauty showed up during those long days of play. I blamed it on the lopsided table and my lack of first pick, but these weren’t my problem.

My problem was I didn’t yet know how to trust my own ideas, couldn’t see beyond the obvious, and wasn’t willing to take a little risk.

My sister had eyes to see the usefulness in the mess and the beauty in the lopsided. Part of her art, even back then, was her eyes could see potential.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned I can have those eyes, too.

Myquillyn didn’t immediately apply this to her real life. But it was always in her, this ability to somehow see beyond the obvious and envision something no one else could.

The Nesting Place

What my eight-year-old self would’ve have done to get my hands on some kind of guidelines for how to have a Barbie house I loved. If only she could have written down her secrets!

Well now she has. And the best part is, her secrets aren’t as secret as you think.

She finally wrote a book is for all the little sisters of the world who doubt they have what it takes to make home (or life) beautiful, waiting for permission and courage to create, take risks, and be ourselves.

Over the years I’ve learned these things from her, valuable lessons practiced in my own home that spill over into everyday life.

The Nesting Place Contentment

She didn’t teach me the best color to paint my walls. She taught me it’s okay to paint my walls the wrong color.

She didn’t teach me where to put my furniture. She taught me it’s okay to move my furniture around.

She didn’t teach me the right way to hang a curtain. She taught me there isn’t only one right way to hang a curtain.

She didn’t lecture me on the latest trends. She taught me how to discover what my own trends are, that’s it’s okay if they’re different from others, and it’s okay when they change.

She didn’t point out what’s wrong with my house. She taught me how every house has a silver lining and home is wherever we are.

homeShe taught me that my house isn’t just about a house. It’s about trusting yourself, making mistakes, trying new things, inviting others in. It’s about community and communion, healing and wholeness, memories and tradition, love and loveliness and hope.

The Nester's House

I truly believe what I said before, that hints of our personal genius hide in our childhood play, what I also like to call our art. I’m so glad my sister had the courage to hold on to hers, to listen to what makes her come alive, to ignore the naysayers who said she was doing it all wrong.

You have a genius art too, and it doesn’t have to be the e equals mc squared kind. It might be the relational kind, the insightful kind, or the kind that moves in the midst of fear. Whatever it is for you, it’s evidence that you are made in the image of God and the first step to uncovering that could simply be finding freedom in your own home.

The Nesting Place

This lovely book – The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful – is finally available everywhere today! Get yourself a copy, your mom a copy, and don’t forget your little sister.

Love you, Sister Girl. So happy you said yes to writing this book. I don’t know how people get on in the world without a big sister to teach them things. I’m so thankful for all you’ve taught me.

nesting place

When Your Soul Has a Bad Idea

One day last week I’m struggling through those old kinds of struggles that never seem to fully go away – self-acceptance, over-thinking, fear. My mind cycles through them as they sit on the Lazy Susan of my soul. Pick one up, turn the wheel, put it back again.

When Your Soul Has a Bad Idea - Chatting at the Sky

So the Susan is spinning at the rate of the world and I pick a book from my desk to read a bit before I began my own writing. Just as I do, some powerfully loud thoughts come rushing into my mind – doubt, quitting, unbelief. In the span of one second, I imagine what it would be like to be the kind of writer like the one who wrote the book in my hand. Thoughts of straight up copying her work barrel to the forefront of my mind.

My first response is shock – I would never do that! My second response is shame – How could I even think that?

Shock and shame are my most natural and immediate responses when my soul has a bad idea. But the more I think about it, the more I realize this is not the holy response, but the arrogant one. My shock and shame response is a better indicator of the condition of my own soul than having the bad thought in the first place. This is the response of a woman who generally thinks she can handle life on her own, a woman who doesn’t think she needs redemption. And so when her soul has a bad idea, she can’t believe it.

It’s true, I don’t copy other people’s work. At least, I haven’t yet. But I could. So could you.

What to do when unwelcome thoughts push their way in? Worry about what a terrible person I am? Wring my hands over the terrible thoughts I have?

Please. Thinking about stealing someone else’s work is a glitter rainbow compared to some of the other thoughts that fly through my head. That feels terrifying to admit but also strangely relieving.

Shock and shame keep my head a clean distance from my heart. That is a dangerous place to live. I don’t want this kind of disconnected life.

The answer isn’t to shame myself into better thinking. That never works.

Instead, the answer for me is two-fold. First, stop being shocked by my own capacity for terrible thoughts.

Until I stop being shocked, I will continue to gasp and gawk at every foul thought that comes into my mind. I will constantly point to some imaginary version of myself who never has stupid thoughts and then return back to my real self and the incongruence between the two will bring only dizziness, discouragement and hopelessness. My soul simply can’t survive the whiplash.

So first, refuse to be shocked. And second, turn toward love. Not the kind of self-love that cheers you can do it, you’re amazing! Listen, I’ve seen The Help, I know the quote – You is smart. You is kind. You is important. Yes. You is. We are.

But we also have an insane capacity for crazy, for jealousy, for selfishness, hoarding, back-stabbing, criticism, revenge, and procrastination. The answer to dealing with the shocking thoughts that come into my mind isn’t to try to stop having bad thoughts. The answer for me is to refuse to be shocked in the first place and instead, be loved. Be small. Belong to Christ. 

I want to learn to keep company with my weakness even as I practice walking in the New Way of Christ.

I want to continually accept my capacity for sin, but embrace my potential for health, restoration, love, wonder, and mystery.

I want to remember I am capable of making bad choices while also bearing in mind that the Spirit of God chose to make his home in me.

I want to always see my ability to choose the old, but rejoice in my freedom not to.

I want to be aware of the darkness, but identify with the light.

Refuse to be shocked, but insist upon turning toward grace, forgiveness, renewal, and belief.

Refuse to be shocked, but receive the gift of acceptance.

Refuse to be shocked. And begin again.

Why I Want to Know You and Also Avoid You

“‘You have come from dust, and to dust you will return.’ In other words, ‘You are going to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.’”

- Mark Roberts, on Ash Wednesday for Patheos

ash wednesdayWe got our first desktop computer during my senior year of high school. We were living in Detroit and Dad set the computer up on his brown L-shaped desk in his study. I sat at that computer for hours late into the night, but I wasn’t surfing the web – no, no. In fact, when a guy at my school that year mentioned something about one of our favorite bands having a ‘web page’ I was all, What on earth is that? You can’t have a page on a computer. Duh.

It was 1994.

Instead, what I was doing on the computer was typing all of my thoughts and ideas and dreams into a document I had saved there under the file name “emily.” (Sneaky. And also secure.)

I typed out all of my innermost and then printed out each entry, slid the page into a plastic protector, and collected them all in a white two-inch binder with a cool title page I made from super rad clip art.binderThat next year I took the binder to college with me, continuing to add to it as well as read from it when I wanted to remember. My roommate, Faith, asked me about the binder one day, wondering if I ever expected or wanted someone else to read the words I wrote in it. Maybe she thought the only reason why her quiet-ish roommate would have a diary the size of our Western Civ. textbook is if she intended on sharing the words with the world one day.

Her question surprised me. I didn’t write to be read, I wrote because writing helped me know what I thought about things. But her asking made me think about it and a small part of me, secret and hidden, liked the idea of sharing what I wrote with someone.

It felt like somewhere deep within, sharing the writing would be the most honest thing I could do. It represented what was most alive within me, and to imagine sharing that with someone else was a compelling thought. Risky, impossible, crazy. But compelling.

My desire to be known was stirred.

“Much of our isolation is self-chosen . . . This self-reliance has many attractions. It gives us a sense of power, it allows us to move quickly, it offers us the satisfaction of being our own boss, and it praises many rewards and prizes. However, the underside of this self-reliance is loneliness, isolation and a constant fear of not making it in life.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Here and Now

On the right-hand corner of my desk, right next to the books I’m currently reading, sits a small envelope holder. This is where I keep notes friends have written. I didn’t plan for it to become a prominent place, but every time I’ve received a note from someone in the actual mail, there it goes, right on my desk where I can see it everyday, a reminder of my inability to do this on my own – this living and working and moving through life.

on my deskFor the past several months I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography of faith, The Seven Storey Mountain. (It’s a long book, but I’m also a slow reader.) He writes in fascinating detail of the time he spent as a student at Columbia in New York, indulging in all of the things young students in the late 1930s could indulge in, resulting in “confusion and misery.”

“Yet, strangely enough, it was on this big factory of a campus that the Holy Ghost was waiting to show me the light, in His own light. And one of the chief means He used, and through which he operated, was human friendship.” – Thomas Merton

Sharing life and friendship with a few peers at Columbia was in important part of a long journey Merton was on toward finding faith. When I read those words, I thought of the role human friendship has played in my own life, how I have both craved and feared vulnerability, how I have sought connection but also denied my need for it.

Nothing causes me to face my own humanity, frailty, and weakness than when I am in communion with others. Nothing causes me to see myself as I really am, to admit I’m not as great as I think, or to face my perceived entitlements than when I am in the midst of other people.

I am easy to live with in a room by myself. Lord, I don’t want to live in a room by myself. Except for when I do.

To know and be known is both compelling and repulsive to me. Do I even know what that means? Truly? I don’t know if I do.

Today on Ash Wednesday, I acknowledge my hopelessness apart from Christ, my anxiety outside of his presence, my certain death if not for his sacrifice.

I acknowledge I have come from dust and will return to dust again. But more than dying one day in the future, I have already died with Christ. I acknowledge my need to de-tatch from the obsessions and addictions that convince me my old man is still alive and re-attach to Christ as my only hope.

I also acknowledge that the way God moves on earth is through the hands and eyes and feet of people – both the ones I’m naturally drawn to and the ones who get on my nerves.

I am hopeless without Him.

I am hopeless without them.

“No matter how sad, wounded, neurotic, or needy we are, that may be exactly what some other person needs us to be at that time. We don’t know the ways we comfort and save each other, not only in spite of our wounds, but also in some cases, because of them.”

-Heather King, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux

I did not grow up in a church that observed Ash Wednesday. In the past few years, I’ve started to learn a little more and have found the Lenten season of deeper reflection to lead into an even more meaningful celebration of the resurrection at Easter.

For further reading:

the importance of looking beneath

Chances are, since you are human, something annoys you right now. I don’t know what it is, but it is annoying or frustrating or stressful or some maddening combination of all three.


Sometimes those everyday annoyances are just that – annoying. This is me, in all my big-self glory, being selfish and ridiculous and I just need to get over myself.

I do need to get over myself, but it is also possible that I may need to look into myself – to take a little time to peek beneath that minor annoyance and see where the root of it really comes from.

This can be difficult for me, because I have to be willing to face whatever I see there – when I’m bothered/ annoyed/rejected/frustrated is it really because of this surface thing that is rubbing me wrong?

Or is there something deeper going on, some need I am insisting someone else meet, some expectation I’m placing on the backs of those I love, a burden they were never meant to carry?

I’m sharing an example of this about this over at (in)courage today. Join me?

for when you think you want control

“This is the second time in my life where I cannot control an outcome. The first time was the disease, [the second time is] now.”

Lance Armstrong,  in his interview with Oprah Winfrey

Lance ArmstrongLast May when Phillip Phillips won American Idol, he didn’t jump up and down or make number one signs in the air or fall to his knees and make a big scene. Instead, he humbly sang his song until about mid-way through when his emotions twisted up his throat and he had to stop singing and just put down his head.

Phillip Phillips seemed like a man who knew that the outcome of that competition was completely out of his hands. He looked genuinely shocked to discover himself as the winner.

I heard a quote where someone said the human soul wasn’t made for fame – watching Phillip win was visible proof of that statement for me. 

Last night in a two hour interview with Oprah, Lance Armstrong finally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. He said every time he won a tour, he knew he was going to win. He orchestrated it to be so.

Oprah said, “Fame magnifies whoever you really are.” I think she’s right.

Lance Armstrong said he was a guy who expected to always get what he wanted.

He was a controller of outcomes in every area of his life.

Except when he got cancer.

And when he got caught.

Did you watch Part 1 of the interview?

how one brush equals six pots filled with miracles

Brushes are good for throwing. They fit right in your hand, perfect to squeeze in the angry moments. And you can close your bathroom door and just throw that brush against the tile as hard as you want to.

The brush might dent or break, but you won’t care so much about that in the moment. It’s just nice to throw something, to make a loud noise, to lose control for a bit of time. Assuming you ever had control in the first place.

Phones are good for throwing, too. Not iPhones – too expensive. But for those of us who still have landlines, those cordless phones are the best. I kicked that habit about six years ago when, in a fit of stubborn frustration, I threw the phone across the room. When I finally went to rescue it, two of the numbers were stuck pushed in. It was unfortunate if I ever needed a 5. Or a pound sign.

I don’t throw phones anymore.

In John 2, I read about the couple who invited Jesus to their wedding. His friends and his mama, too. I know the whole point of the story is the wine in the water pots, but I just can’t help imagining what sort of friend Jesus was to the bride and groom. Did he cry when they made their promises? Did he and the groom shake hands, exchange looks, embrace?

What did he think when he watched the bride?

Did he think of his church? Of you?

Of me? Was I holding a brush?

Yesterday was a brush-throwing kind of day. I don’t throw them at people so don’t go worrying for anyone’s safety. But sometimes slamming a brush into the sink is better than slamming my head into the wall. I’ve decided to call it a celebration for Lysa TerKeurst’s book release week. She wrote a book called Unglued and let’s just say I was.

Sometimes I forget freedom, the abundance of my gifts, the everyday graces, the beauty of acceptance. Sometimes I throw brushes, pout, worry over things seven miles outside my circle of perceived control.

I forget the six pots filled with dusty water, the ones that held nearly thirty gallons each. I forget the twinkle in Mary’s eyes when she told the servants, Do whatever he tells you. And the water filled up to the brim worked invisible miracles inside those stone pots. And the master of the banquet was impressed as  the rich wine graced his lips. He drank down the miracle, satisfied.

Imagine if he knew where it had come from.

It was Jesus’ first miracle. Only his mother and a handful of servants knew about it. It wasn’t life or death. It wasn’t world peace or starvation or anything dangerous at all. Running out of wine at a wedding was more of a brush-throwing kind of moment. But Jesus still saw the need and worked a secret miracle to meet it.

I am desperate for twinkling eyes, for thirty gallon water pots, for believing in things I can’t see, for cups filled with secret miracles.

when full rooms make your knees shake

The room is packed to the corners with women, every round table nearly full with familiar faces. She introduces me quickly and I stand at the microphone, perusing the room.

Those girls were at our wedding. That one back there volunteers in our youth group. This one works at my kid’s school. There’s our pastor’s wife, my mother-in-law, the women who drove from Raleigh. There’s some friends who go to a different church, some girls I went to college with, a few women who work at LifeWay, college students home for summer. Surely they can’t be ready to graduate? Aren’t they still 16?

I begin to talk the way I do, hands moving too much, eyebrows raised to the ceiling, open. I am nothing if not open. And that is why I will later come home and close up in a ball, tightly sealed, quiet.

My hands shake remembering. I knew it would be a bit more difficult to speak in a room full of women I know. But I wasn’t prepared for the emotion of it. I didn’t cry, although a few times I felt like I might. It was a little like heaven, all those women gathered in one place, women I knew or used to know. Women I wished I knew better.

It also felt like something else, something of fear and self-awareness, of hiding under a big round table. Something of running away.

Three weeks ago I stood in front of a room filled with writers and speakers and strangers. I had fun there, felt sure of my calling there, spoke words and didn’t replay them.

But last week when I shared stories with a room made up of friends at my very own church in my very own neighborhood, well. I haven’t yet recovered. Being in the right place doesn’t always feel that great. Sometimes it feels terrifying, unsure, small. But small is a gift I haven’t stopped giving thanks for. I have tasted the miracles that come from weakness, from inadequacy, from a hard leaning into a source outside of myself.

This morning I read in the book of John, right there in the beginning, how the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I know this Word is Jesus, that the Father was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Him and through Him. And then John 1:16 sings truth in black and white, lifts off the page and colors my whole kitchen with light.

“For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.”

We aren’t the only ones who lean. This word grace means favor. A kindness. God, freely extending Himself to us, giving Himself away, leaning toward us. He leans toward us. 

I would still prefer to speak to a room filled with strangers. Isn’t it obvious why? It is easier to manage their opinions, to control what they see, to stay distant. To speak among friends is to risk rejection, fingers pointing, exposure. But this risk is worth it if we want to grow in community and be challenged to live what we say we believe. Is Christ really sufficient? Have you really received His fullness? Does grace really multiply?

My earthly eyes see full rooms that push me to my introverted knees. The Spirit begs me to see a different kind of full — fullness of heart, fullness of spirits made one with God, fullness of Emmanuel. We are not alone. Grace upon grace.

I close my Bible, consider the gifts, stare out the window three minutes too long. The words fullness and lean are still on my mind. I don’t have neat conclusions. I will carry these words with me into the day.

when your normal is someone else’s weird

If you start on I-40 in California and keep driving east, lots of days later you’ll end up in Wilmington, North Carolina. A few years ago, I traveled with my friend Alisa to Wilmington. We didn’t start in California, but that’s where she’s from. I remember her being excited about finally making it to the other end of I-40 and seeing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

When we arrived in Wilmington, we drove straight to the beach. As we got out of her car and reached the sand, Alisa said out loud but kind of to herself, Wow, you really do have grass on your beaches. It wasn’t a big deal of a thing and I’m not even sure she was talking to me. But her words come to mind every time I see tall grass on sand. To me, it’s normal. But I carry California Alisa’s comment in my pocket and remember that my normal is someone else’s weird.
Next week I’ll be traveling to California for the first time. I won’t be driving 1-40, but it will be my first legit trip there. When I traveled with Compassion to the Philippines last year, our team met up at LAX so I got to see California from the air. But that doesn’t seem to count.

While there, I’ll be speaking at a retreat for a group of women in Carlsbad I absolutely can’t wait to meet. We’ll talk about grace and Jesus – two of my most favorite things. And also? I would really like to find an In-N-Out Burger because that just seems like something that needs to happen.

Preparing to travel and speak and get the kids calendars in order so my mom and mother-in-law know what to do while The Man and I are away, I’ve realized my capacity for thoughtful writing is about as deep as Cookie Monster. And also me want a cookie. I leave you with a few bullet points because everyone likes a bullet point.

  • I really liked this post by Mary Carver: It’s All McDonald’s @ Giving Up on Perfect
  • My April e-letter will go out next week. I’ll share links to stuff, write a blog post just for subscribers and maybe something else I haven’t thought of yet. Who wants a cookie? Subscribe to the monthly newsletter here.
  • I changed my twitter name to @emilypfreeman because that’s my name.
  • Speaking of Compassion, their next trip is May 6-11. They’ll be traveling to Tanzania this time and my sister will be going with them. Check out the rest of the team and follow their trip.
  • I got the page proofs for my second book, Graceful {For Young Women} which gets me all over again excited.
  • So there is no grass on the beach in California? Really? What is something you have learned is normal to you but weird to everyone else?

for when you’re not cut out for this

I hang up the phone and see I’m still shaking. That did not go well. More radio interviews line up every Monday in February. I’m not cut out for this. I try to distract myself with email and the laundry, but I can’t ignore my shaking hands and the sweat under my armpits, turning my pink shirt darker pink. Finally I sit, and try to reason it away. You’ve done countless interviews by now, why do you still get so nervous?

But I do and I wish I could talk myself out of it. The interview has been over for a full 15 minutes and I consider this blessed life I’m so thankful for but didn’t quite plan on, exactly. There’s no such thing as just a writer. You need to be a communicator in all aspects of the word – writing, speaking, sweat-less interviews. It makes me dizzy sometimes.

I’m not cut out for this. And even as I say it, as I say it, I hear the Lord whisper, No, you are not cut out. You have been placed in. He really said that, sure as the way I stumbled and uh’d my way through that interview. He reminded me I have been placed into Him. No, not cut out.

I am connected, sure, safe. If I’m looking to be cut out for something, confident on my own terms, standing on my own platform, unwilling to die? Life can be scary and tasks, daunting. God takes great delight in finding us in places where we don’t feel cut out to succeed. And that is where he sends his invitation of remembrance – that shaky, sweaty mess is a reminder that I am desperate to depend on a source other than myself. Success takes on a different shape there. It looks a lot like rest and feels a lot like freedom.

Have you found yourself in a role you don’t feel cut out for lately?

when saying you’re sorry is a bad idea

Have you ever met someone who apologizes for everything? At first it is endearing and you think, Oh, look how thoughtful she is being of me! She is sorry she was late. But then you look at your phone and realize she is five minutes early. And she’s apologizing for it. And you realize that her definition of late is showing up two minutes past early. Before the night is over you have counted her apologies to the point where you can no longer focus on what she is saying because you’re waiting for her to apologize for it.

It’s exhausting to listen to her, until I realize I do it, too. I want to apologize for writing a non-fiction book because I know they aren’t as fun to read as fiction. I apologize for getting emotional when people pray for me. I’m not really sorry, but it’s what comes out of my mouth when it happens. I don’t know why I’m crying, I hear myself say, I’m so sorry. I’m being ridiculous.

When guests come over, have you ever heard yourself pointing out the mess to them and apologizing for all the imperfections even though you know that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful?

When the dinner dishes still sit in the sink from dinner two nights ago, do you hear yourself apologize to your husband for it, almost like you want to point out the flaws first before he gets a chance to do it?

The thing is, he never would. I completely accept your flaws but I am strictly opposed to my own. What I’m really saying is, Attention everyone! I have a very important announcement to make – I am a human being and I am ever so sorry about that.

We apologize for being emotional.

We apologize for being inarticulate.

We apologize for not having answers.

And in the doing, we sorry our way out of making art.

But these apologies aren’t really apologies, are they? A God-led sorry leads to healing, not hiding. Apologies said in true humility and repentance are intended to draw people closer to God and each other. A true sorry is said with an open hand, not a clenched fist. A true sorry is not about me. But sorry is a bad idea when it is used to cover up our beautiful, vulnerable, fragile humanity.

So what if we did the opposite? What if instead of brushing our emotions aside and apologizing for the brokenness, we invited a few people into it? What if instead of pointing out the mess on the floor, we welcomed them to sit with us among it? Perhaps we would finally see that we were made for greater things than this. We are living in the midst of provision, abundance, skill. Giftedness. We were made by design and on purpose by an unapologetic God. Dare to receive His making of you. And don’t forget to say thank you.