Redefining Us

Redefining Us

written and workshopped at the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio, Session 1, 2015.

Part 1: What I Learned About Me At IYWS

I crease, just barely, under the pressure. From the outside, perhaps it’s the tiny wrinkle between my brows, or the weakened dimple by my smile, or the collapsing strands of hair from my wayward knot.

The dorms overflow with people like me. A common thread ties us together, but often we seem to tug and pull in opposite directions. The majority of the crowd pulls one way, and I ease along, afraid of the fray, casting my gaze from side to side. Away? To stay? To breathe?

Uncountable hours of talking and walking and laughing and thinking and scribbling on the work of those around me. Of reading aloud, of carrying a wobbling plate of food through the cafeteria, of searching for a seat or a group or a conversation or even just a smile.

People, words, people. People, everywhere, bumping down halls and sidewalks with notebooks in hand.


The people here are writers. They’re literate, well-read, opinionated. They know not only the meaning of “metaphor,” but of “diction” and “syntax” and “tricolon” and “in media res.” They discuss motivation and theme and allusions in ways I’ve never thought of. They write pieces I would never write, choose words I’ve never heard of. My own words seem to crawl out, pale-faced and ill.

I can’t quite find the right words here. I can’t quite find the right words to love these people. To love me. On the inside I am always shoving down: shoving down myself and my dreams and my doubts. If I open up these pieces of myself, spill them out, I fear I will become a crumbling edifice, a collapsed tower—a monument of failure to gawk at. So, like many, I bury it all inside and hold up a glassy smile.

– – –

These words are for me. This time, this breathing, this is for me.

The last thing I truly did for me was go to that doctor’s office and ask for help.

I didn’t do it because someone made me. I didn’t do it because I felt guilty for hurting others, or because I felt I needed to be a “better” person somehow.

I did it because I was tired, broken, and yearning to be whole.

Last year, I watched my grandmother choose to go to rehab for alcoholism. I listened to her do it for my mom, for not disappointing us, for the sake of being “better.” She was making poor choices—she knew this. Her health was declining steadily—she knew this, too. We all saw her hands quivering, her judgment withering. Here was a chance, and she chose to take it.

And I watched as she chose to come home weeks early. I listened to her do it because she wasn’t “good” enough for my mom, and my mom somehow wasn’t good enough for her. But the truth is she had been fighting for all the wrong reasons and she couldn’t see that she alone was worth fighting for. So she gave up on herself.

I cried and I asked her if she didn’t want to see me grow up.

If she had only made her choices because she knew her worth, if she had chosen rehab for her and her alone, she would have stayed.

She’s worth staying, but she doesn’t know it.

I want her to know she’s worth it to me, that I want her at my graduation and my wedding and the birthdays of my children.

More than that, I want to be worth it to her.

– – –

I talked to that doctor because I am worth it. I am worth the sweating and the shaking and the crumpled tissues and the fumbled words. I am worth the hour and a half I spent in that office. I am worth the scheduled therapy appointment. I am worth the listening and the talking. I am worth the words and the time.

And I have to keep choosing that. Not for anyone else, not to earn something or be something. For me.

I have words, too. So many words. I will not let my words die. I will not let myself die more every day. I will not let these moments die—and I will not slip away.

I believe in love: that every human heart is worth loving and loved more than we could ever know. I believe that each one of us has innate value, that there is purpose in our everyday lives, that there is meaning in our feelings and words and actions. I believe that in fear there can be trust, in devastation there can be hope, and in death there can be life.

The swarming crowds sing, “Succeed, succeed!” They call for me to be strong, to be a bold and fearless woman with brazen guts and an impenetrable heart.

But that is not me. I’m not the invincible woman made iconic by our culture. I am a weakened, worn girl with a soft heart and broken pieces of herself she can’t quite fix. I am a girl with more questions than answers. I am bowed beneath the weight I carry, struggling to breathe through the panic and the pain. My heart is constantly staring at the brink of death. It stutters hourly, an arrhythmia, a twinging reminder that I am mortal.

But this is the miracle. I am still standing. I am still breathing. I am still hoping. I am still surrendering daily to a God who promises that I am worth it.

To me, every day is a miracle. Every single heartbeat is a miracle. It says that I refuse to give up. I refuse to give up on hoping that things will get better, that good will come out of bad, that loving the people around me does make a difference.

And I refuse to give up on me.


Part 2: What I Learned About Others At IYWS


Our words are different. Our ways are different. But our worth is the same.

Whether you see it or not, your words soak into my pores. There are words I’ve never spoken—words that start with “f”. There are words that make me shift beneath their awkward weight—words like “homosexuality.” Words that leave an ache deep in me for you, for how you have suffered at the hands of those who don’t know how to love you, for how lost you must sometimes feel—words like “pride.”

There is so much in your words that I have dismissed and ignored before, sloughed off my skin like crumbling smog. “Liberal,” “Californian,” “queer,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “agnostic,” “athiest,” “Catholic,” “Jewish,” “psychiatrist,” “Wiccan.” Words I have mocked and scorned. Words I never truly absorbed, never truly saw.

Words I now see as both beautiful and tragic.

These words are part of you. Part of your heart. Part of your scars. Your heart is beautiful, but I ache for the part of you that bleeds.

On Facebook, a meme scrolls by labelling “Bruce Jenner”, tearing down that precious human being: a meme that I once would have smirked at, perhaps allowed a giggle, an affirmation.

Now my eyes sting. They sting for you. And they sting for me. Regret for all the cruel things I have approved of or spoken—things I once saw as a seal of my “righteousness”. Not just to you, but to anyone different—the homosexuals, the Democrats, the liberals, the hippies, the Catholics, the Californians, the Massholes, the, the, the.

A drumbeat of titles that hide the true person. A word composed of simple letters, simple sounds, that can somehow define a person… destroy a person.

You’re not a “gay.” You’re a person. You’re not a “Democrat.” You’re a person. You’re not a “Catholic.” You’re a person.

My grandmother’s not an “alcoholic.” She’s a person.

I’m a person—not “OCD,” not a “homeschooler,” not a “Christian.”

Yes, even Christian can be a label. “I’m a Christian” can define a human just like you as a religious freak or judgmental goody-two-shoes or hypocritical sermonizer.

Have you noticed how we say it, even with mental disorders?

“I’m OCD.”

Not “I have obsessive-compulsive disorder.” I am obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I am a Christian.

I. am. a.

How about, simply, I am Christ’s and I am loved and I am worth it?

– – –

The words these people proclaim, the song they sing, is one they view as a grand march—perhaps even a battle cry. A celebration of justice and equality and love. To them, it’s about being true to themselves. Protecting the disadvantaged.

Protecting their own self-worth.

From who?

From us. The ones who disagree, and label, and threaten their identities by brandishing our “righteousness” and their sins.

You do realize that holding up a weapon only makes the other person draw out a sword or shield, right?…

Perhaps this is a truth they know more than we do. Because so often we are the ones who draw swords, who use our beliefs to condemn them, the very people we believe God created and loves so much…

But—wait—do you see it? Do you see what I said?

They and we.

Since when did the us, people, become two divided forces with swords drawn?

Since when did we force on them the crown of thorns, the mockery, that Jesus took for all of us?

The battle we fight was never against people in the first place. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…

And if it is, we’re missing the point.

– – –

I watched an interview with a former lesbian once.

I say “former” because this woman, Professor Rosaria Butterfield, became a Christian and decided that homosexual behavior was not honoring to God. But instead of ostracizing all the people she no longer agreed with, she stood in the center of the battle lines. She became a bridge.

Her words of wisdom to the people standing in the middle, loving from the most vulnerable, difficult place on the battlefield?

“You’re a bridge. Bridges get walked on.”

Being a bridge is not apathetic or deceitful or hypocritical. Being a bridge is loving the people God made—all of them. All of us. Christians, Catholics, Jews, Wiccans, atheists, heterosexuals, and homosexuals. It’s reaching out, having a conversation, spending time over coffee or over Skype. It’s listening, praying for God’s love in their life, reminding them how valuable they are and how much you want the best for them. It’s loving, and loving means you don’t draw your sword and attack another person’s behavior. It means you open up your heart. As Jamie Tworkowski says, “Love [is] the patient telling of another person’s worth.”

Being a bridge means you are the open heart, the patient teller, the road to hope and truth: you are the stable path and you get stepped on.

If nothing else, I hope I have done that this week. Little things add up: a smile in the hall, chatting with the cafeteria staff, asking someone’s name, holding an awkward conversation with humble grace. I have aimed to do that this week. And I have aimed to listen: to listen to the cursing, to listen to the opinions and thoughts and choices of people different than me.

I don’t know how to bring the light in otherwise. This is the only way I know to tell them they are worth it. They are worth my time and my love.

Because somebody has to be the bridge if there is ever going to be an “us”.

A Letter to Myself: For When You Want to Give Up

A Letter to Myself: For When You Want to Give Up

Tori, my dear:

I need you to take a deep breath.

Just—pause everything for a second, okay? I know it’s all spinning and heaving right now. I know it’s hard to see and hard to breathe, hard to do anything other than curl up into a ball with your hands over your ears and scream.

This is worth it. I promise. Just take a breath.

I called you my dear because you are dear to me. You are dear to so many people around you, and to God, but first and foremost right now, you are dear to me.

Sure, I didn’t exactly choose you. This mind and body has been yours—mine—from day one. And there are so many things I didn’t choose, things you pick apart if you get the chance.

You’re quick to see all the things you don’t want—all the things you label “un-want-able.” Physical things, like your nose, which you’re certain is too long. Mental things—like how you always have to check your rearview mirror to make sure that you ran over a pothole and not a child. Even habits, like slouching or rubbing your nose or checking the contents of your purse just one more time.

Photo credit to Lauren

And of course there are always a million silly, awkward things you say and do that you question or regret later.

But guess what? You are still dear to me.

Yeah, so you might not like your nose, but I still like you. Yeah, so your OCD shifts, stops and starts, the way you think, and sometimes you wonder if it’s everything you are—but it’s not, and even if it is? I still like you.

Yeah, maybe you aren’t always super attractive—but who cares? I mean, seriously. Does it matter more what that guy behind the register or across the street thinks of you based on your body, or does it matter more what you think of you based on your heart?

You know what I think of you?

I think that you’re beautiful and quirky and special. I don’t think it matters a whit that you don’t dress like everyone else. I think it’s awesome that you sometimes choose to wear makeup because you can and sometimes you don’t because you don’t want to see anyone else differently. And your hair is always exciting, ponytail, headband, “doorknob” bun, or messy waves.

Even with all my hair pinned up in curls… my grandma ‘do.

I look at you and I say, wow. She’s brave to just be her.

And just by being you, my dear, you make a difference every day.

I know that sometimes it all gets blurred. But I don’t feel brave. But I don’t even know who I am.

First of all, you’re not the only one who feels that way. Lots of people put on faces so you think they’ve got it all together—but you’re not the only one who’s a bit of a mess deep down. And if you’re willing to live a messy life, people will be drawn to it. So have some grace for yourself, okay? You’ll be giving grace to others in the process.

Second… every day that you are alive, you are simply brave for living. It’s hard to be alive. There’s so much to do, so many choices to make, and so many burdens you put on yourself. And there’s a lot going on behind those beautiful eyes.

Photo credit to Bryan Powers

You aren’t empty, no matter how empty you feel—you’re brimming with ideas and doubts and beliefs and thoughts and passions and hopes and dreams and emotions and stories and loves. It’s all part of what makes you you, but don’t forget that it doesn’t end there.

It’s not just one emotion that defines you, or one dream, or one failure. You’re a whole lot more than that. You’re a beautiful work of art that God’s been painting for the past sixteen years. And he’s not finished yet. There’s more painting to be done, and you’re brave for sticking around, even though you can’t quite see or understand the whole picture.

So this all-consuming emotion, this emptiness, this anger or panic or depression—it’s really hard right now, and you can’t see a way out. But it’s blinding you to the bigger picture—that there will be more emotions: joy, hope, love. Stick around to feel them.

So this love fell apart, and you’re still loving even though you’re broken time and time again, and you’re just about ready to shut down from all of it because if he doesn’t love me, why should I love me? But there will be more loves. There will be more people who love you. There already are people who love you.

Don’t settle and don’t shut yourself away. Love yourself—treat yourself, encourage yourself, respect yourself, laugh at yourself, enjoy your time with you—and you won’t find yourself needing to beg for love from half-hearted people. Make yourself a priority—stick around just to be with you—and you’ll see that there are people who are willing to do that, too. And you won’t settle for anything less.

But how can I love me? you ask. I know other people love me, but they don’t see the deepest, darkest places, the thoughts and emotions I keep hidden.

That isn’t all of you, my dear. You’re an artist, a dreamer, a writer, a lover. You’re a passionate person with a heart for the broken. You’re imperfect and that’s part of what makes you beautiful.

And I know about your doubts. I know that right now, you only talk to God to tell him how far away he feels—and you don’t even do that often, because it makes you feel more alone. I know you hardly believe he’s there in the first place. I know you’re exhausted, and I know that sometimes, you wonder if all Christians are delusional.

You’re only sixteen. It’s okay to have questions. You’re a tiny person with a short life on a huge planet. That doesn’t make you less important, it doesn’t make your problems insignificant, it doesn’t mean you can’t have impact—but just remember some things are bigger than you can see or understand, and that’s okay. I’m okay with the fact that you doubt. Believe it or not, it’s helping you become the gracious, understanding, empathetic person you are. Instead of letting it harden you, let it open you up—to others and their questions, even to yourself.

And even if you still have questions when you’re fifty, sixty, seventy—I will still love you. Because it’s not about being the strongest Christian with the biggest faith—it’s about being you and loving you as you bravely face all the very real questions and heartache of this earth. So be willing to let go a little.

Maybe you don’t need to reason through the apologetics of faith so much as you just need to step back and see who God is.

See the ever-changing blue of the sky veiled by the lace of clouds, hear the laughter in a child’s throat, let the music of the rain stir you to dance and to sink deep into sleep. Remember that your God is one who paints and laughs and creates music. Remember that he is the Word and the Life.

Copyright Bold Bright Beautiful Photography

Remember that he loves to see you living. He loves to see you craft words from your heart, like he does from his. He loves to see you dance and laugh and fall in love. He loves watching your bare feet skitter across the grass, he loves the wispy, wild curl of your hair behind your ear, he loves to see you squealing and laughing and hugging friends. He loves to see you beaming despite your sweat from the stage and your smeared makeup. He loves you at the end of a full day as you sink into your unmade bed in a room practically drowning in dirty clothes and paper cuttings and receipts and books.

Photo credit to Bryan Powers
Photo credit to Caleb

This is life, and he loves to see you live.

And don’t forget, he loves you just as much when you cry—because he is a God who cries and mourns. His heart breaks when yours does. He doesn’t condemn you for asking questions or for feeling empty or weepy or angry. He hears your thoughts, he knows your heart, and when you are suffering, all he wants to do is scoop you up into his arms.

I don’t know why you can’t feel his arms. But I think that if you go sit outside under the sky for a little while, you will feel this burden on your shoulders begin to lift.

So go. Take a breath and then just… release it. Begin to let go of all the expectations and worries that weren’t yours to carry in the first place.

Lay in the grass and watch the clouds tiptoe in their breathtaking awe of the sun. Swing and let your feet touch the sky. Enjoy the taste of coffee and chocolate. Curl up in bed and sleep for a while. Take a breath.

Because life isn’t dragging you to this place or that place, screaming at you to get it all done, to be all right for once. Life is this gentle rhythm, life is the quiet song of your pulse saying, I am alive, I am here, I am right now, and this is enough.

If you skin breaks—the blood will show and remind you that though there is pain, there is healing.

If your heart breaks—these quiet breaths, this stillness, will remind you that though this hurts, there is more under the sky for you to seek and rejoice over and love. Because you are more than this pain. You are a lifetime of beauty and discovery. You are the hands and feet; you are the glory of God in a real and precious human soul. This is you, this is how he made you, this is who you are. How could that ever not be enough?

So don’t give up. Sometimes, you have to choose peace, despite all the screaming voices. Sometimes, you have to choose to love yourself, despite all those that have left you behind.

And on the other side of this—you will find a life you couldn’t see moments before, blinded by your fear.

I promise you—it will be worth it. Because you are worth it.

And The Light Floods In {GRACE}

And The Light Floods In {GRACE}

DISCLAIMER: I post honest reflections like this because I think that someone will find them relatable and be able to see hope in their situation. Some of you may be concerned about me, or even just tired of consistently “dark” posts. Yes, I have been going through a tough time, and I believe I struggle with anxiety and some depression. But if you read to the end, you will see hope and growth. It’s one step at a time, and the best thing that you can do for me or anyone else you’re concerned for is to just keep loving us and allowing us to be happy when we’re happy and sad when we’re sad. There is grace here, and I want to share that with you. Thank you!

– – –

Can I just… say… the words? The words I have silenced, the words I have crushed for shame?

I… am… hurt.

I open up this dark chasm in my chest to you and grimace as the light flicks around, exposing my bloody heart.

Will you rummage and grind and leave me too?

I have closed up, in silence, so that even though I bleed alone, at least I will not bleed worse for someone else’s lack of love.

Can anyone really love me, battered, broken, empty?

Can you see what I see in myself and not walk away?

I have thought of walking away. I have thought of a million things, felt the blood harden and crust me over on the inside, pounded against this cage of bones trying to find an escape.

I can’t help but think now:

if you really saw me—you would not love me.

Even I don’t love me.

I don’t want to trap you in here. I don’t want to bleed on you or scare you with my shadows. But I don’t know what to do.

How long can I cry for help before everyone gives up hope that I will ever see the light?

This, this is my battle. I am hurt and I have condemned myself for it, shut myself up, stifled the anger like hiding a raging fire behind a curtain, denied myself and hurt myself and lost myself, and now some days I can’t even stand to look in the mirror, can’t recognize the girl I see.


I thought I was carrying my cross.

But the truth is, even Jesus needed a man’s help to carry the weight of that cross.

My sweet, broken Jesus.

Jesus, don’t you see what men have done to me, what I have done to me? Don’t you see the bitter gates I have barred to keep you out?

I am terrified to let you in.

What if you don’t show up? Then no one really sees me, so no one really loves me.

What if you walk away? Then the only one who really saw me walked away, so no one really loves me.


Yet you see me through the bars, and you whisper, “I see you on a swing…”

And I’m startled, my hand slips, and… the gates, rusty, creak open.

– – –

Six words can rock a world. That’s what happened in that prayer circle: close living room, dim, a cluster of heartbeats and breath wrapped around me, warm hands on my back and shoulders, supporting me.

Weak. I am weak and they circle around to hold me up.

He will set you free tonight, they say, and a man I’ve never met before rests his hand on my head and comes to Jesus and says, “I see you on a swing.”

I choke and cry.

The sunlight’s been out the past few days, so my worn feet have danced in crusty pebbled sand, carried me to the swingset, stretched up to the sky.

This bright yellow swing is my refuge, my escape, my brief lapse of freedom. It has been ever since I was a child, and even these past couple years when my troubled mind needed the song of the blue sky.

I touch the sky and for a moment I am free.

Jesus sees it, sees me, and he whispers through this stranger, this brother: I see you. Free. And this is what I want for you.

If you will only let me in… I promise I will love you.

Just let me give you grace.

And it’s true what they say: “Grace is… this jolting, blazing, dangerous love that pierces all of humanity’s pitch black… It’s what everyone groping around lost in the dark has to know: turn towards Grace and you turn on all the lights.” – Ann Voskamp


If I let him in, his grace is going to flood this whole place, every wound, every scar.

I pause, hold my breath. Does it hurt him to see it? Will he turn away, unable to take it—me?

There is no hiding now, no running. All my excuses have drained away. My heart is too heavy and my eyes meet his with a brokenhearted desperation.

Will you love me or will you walk away?

And he just whispers one word: Come.

– – –

There is pain in me I can no longer deny, wounds I cannot heal, and burdens that hurt too much to shoulder.

Yet he calls to me, Come. He is pierced with my wounds, marred with my scars, and smeared with my blood… and I just know: No wound will ever make him leave my side.

And he bears the pain so that I can be free.

This is what grace means—

Because he is burdened, I can dance. Because he claims my pain as his own, I don’t have to wrap it up and hide it in shame.

My pain, my wounds—Jesus holds them. I am free to grieve or laugh, break apart or worship.

He doesn’t love me more when I worship or when I am happy or when I forgive. He loves me just as much when I scream in bitter anger or cry in confused panic.

This is why I’m okay. I am not okay because I am strong or because I am good or because I am liked. I’m okay because of grace.

Because of grace, it’s okay if I am broken. I’m okay. It’s okay if I am weak. It’s okay if I need help. It’s okay if I speak up. It’s okay if I hurt and rage and beg and question and wander.

“Don’t only turn up the praise songs but turn to Lamentations and Job and be a place of lament and tenderly unveil the God who does just that — who wears the scars of the singe. A God who bares His scars and reaches through the fire to grab us, “Come — Escape into Me.”

Nobody had told me that —

that one of the ways to get strong again is to set the words free.” – Ann Voskamp

And I have to ask—if I’m not free to make bad choices, am I really free to choose to follow Christ?

Because he loves me, he breaks with me. He does not condemn me as I do myself. He simply stays and says, I love you anyway, and I am willing to do whatever it takes to fight for you when you can’t. I will walk with you down these paths no matter where you go.

Remember my tremendous grace and how much I love you: then you will love me back and follow me. And I will lead you down a path where you can be free.

Not free from sadness—but free to be sad. Not free from anger—but free to be angry. Not free from pain—but free to feel pain. Not free from questions—but free to ask.

And because of this grace I give to all of you, every piece of you, you will rejoice and give thanks and praise my name.

– – –


I have this hope like a light I carry close to my chest. I’m here in this mind, in this situation, in this hurt and anger and struggle—but the word “failure” is not branded on me.

Instead, grace lets gentle light set my shadows free, and I am seen. Not just in my past—but in my today. In all my broken, beautiful todays.

My pain is real, and I’m not denying it or hiding it.

But my Jesus is real too. And for once, “grace” doesn’t mean wanting to change me—

it simply means He loves me.