Chapter 1: You Can’t Walk Through Walls
Here are a few things you should know about me: I don’t have a master’s degree in anything. I haven’t saved someone from a burning building recently (or ever). I had a chicken named Pickle (I say had because she was recently escorted to chicken heaven, thanks to the not-so-friendly neighborhood owl). My favorite talent is that I can clap with one hand (which makes me look a little ridiculous flapping my hand around). Quite honestly, I’m a pretty average human being.
I just want to make sure we’re on the same page, because there have been far too many times I’ve opened a book thinking the author puts her pants on differently than I do—as if she’s a fancy-pants lady instead of an ordinary, imperfect human like me. Why do we do that? Why do we see people’s names on book covers or their faces on TV or become followers of their social media and then get some weird idea in our heads that they’re better than we are?
I’ve done it, and I’m sure you have too. So let me just set your expectations here. I’m not trying to be your pastor or your professor or your counselor. I’m your pal. We put our pants on the same way. And I hope you feel as though you’re sitting on the floor eating pizza with me in our pajamas and not as though I’m talking at you from a pulpit.
Just to paint the scene, I’m currently sitting at my kitchen table wearing mismatched socks and an oversize T-shirt, and I could really use a shower. (Sometimes when you get on a writing roll, you just accept the troll look for the day and go into your cave.) It’s not exactly glamorous over here.
That’s my whole point, though. Who says we have to be glamorous to show up and do what we’re made to do? Who says we’ve got to have a cool story to step into something bigger than ourselves? That narrative stops right here. Maybe if we quit assuming our talents are lame or our stories are boring or we have to be impressive to be impactful and instead just look a little deeper, we’ll find something more powerful than what meets the eye.
That said, even if you are cooler than I am and you have saved somebody from a burning building or won a Nobel Peace Prize, I still think we’ll be friends. I believe we can have different experiences and still ultimately struggle with the same core issues: insecurities, unmet expectations, and the pressure to prove ourselves. I’ve been so wrapped up in labels and perceived expectations that I nearly lost myself. If any of this resonates with you, pop a squat and let’s have a two-hundred-plus-page chat.
Now that we’ve found some common ground in our mutual humanness, I want to start at the beginning of my story, with some of my earliest and most treasured memories.
One particular memory is so vivid that I can almost smell the corn tortillas searing on the stove and hear Nana’s thick Hispanic accent. Though decades have passed, I still remember the games I’d play with my grandma in her tiny one-bedroom apartment. I loved those times when it was just the two of us, when she’d make my favorite food and we’d giggle and play games until all hours of the night. (Bedtime never existed during sleepovers at Nana’s house.)
As I played with my dolls on the floor one evening, Nana reached for a roll of masking tape, ripped off a long piece, and stuck it to the fuzzy brown carpet next to me. She placed another and another, until several long pieces formed a lopsided square around my six-year-old self. Then she tossed the remainder of the roll to the side.
“Ta-da!” she said. “Es una casa, mi Jordan preciosa!” (“It’s a house, my precious Jordan!”) A gap, an empty space on one side, marked the doorway to get in and out of our imaginary house. Stepping over the cockeyed lines of tape that marked pretend walls wouldn’t do. Why? Because you can’t walk through walls.
I’m always amazed when I realize these simple, seemingly insignificant childhood games we played had powerful lessons tucked inside. Doors are essential in life. Doors are the only way we allow others in and the only way we step out. They’re also the only way we move beyond the little walls we tend to build around ourselves in an effort to avoid vulnerability or possible betrayal. Perhaps in our most simple and unobserved experiences, such as mine with Nana, we learn more about the purpose tucked deep inside us than in the milestones and moments we publicize on social media.
This was just one of many make-believe games Nana and I played together. In our enchanted world, such as that imaginary house made of tape, I had a sanctuary in which to dream. I had a safe place to be anything I could imagine, and I loved it.
This is where my childhood nickname, Sparkles, originated. I admit that’s a horrendously embarrassing nickname. But it was oddly accurate. I wanted to sparkle, to shine, to be beautiful, and to be seen. Don’t we all?
Nana and I often switched roles when we played make-believe. Sometimes she pretended to be the child so I could be the grandma. Other times she was the customer so I could be the chef. This time, though, she was the patient and I was the nurse.
“Knock, knock,” she said. I reached out my arm and acted as if I were opening a door, welcoming her into my clinic. She extended her leg dramatically as she moved through the doorway—the gap in the tape. I knew what was coming.
“Big step!” we said together.
“Big step” was our thing, our own little tradition. Nana encouraged me when I was a toddler simply by coming alongside me, taking my hand, and showing me how to take a big step. The big step became part of nearly every game we played together. We didn’t do anything without taking big, fearless steps. Together we’d each peel our toes off the floor, simultaneously stretch out our right legs, and say, “Big step!”
As our toes hit a new place on the floor ahead of us, we celebrated, often dancing to a silly tune Nana made up on the spot. Other times we’d give each other a high five, and sometimes, when Mom wasn’t looking, Nana would sneak me some of my favorite candy, gummy bears, as if to say, Well done, little one.
Even into my adolescent years, sweet Nana whispered that phrase whenever I felt afraid, unsure, or insecure. When I was nervous about playing the part of an Oompa Loompa in the middle school play Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, she slipped her weathered hand into mine, which had been painted orange, and gave me a wink as if to remind me: big step.
Before I ever really understood the depth of what she was teaching me, Nana dared me to dream, to be bold in pursuing the ground God lays right before me, and to take fearless steps with purpose before I figured anything else out.
One big step. That’s all it took to give me the courage and boldness to step out a little farther and walk a little taller as a young girl. I still believe that’s all it takes for you and me—one big step. At first glance this idea might seem cliché—silly, even. But I think we often forget that every big step in life is really just a series of tiny movements and small decisions that add up, becoming the very thing that allows us to move from living in insecurity to living out our destiny.
One Last Big Step
Several years later, Nana got really sick. She’d been ill for a while when I found her one Tuesday afternoon banging her hands violently on a wall, lost and confused and trying to escape her nursing home—the place that kept her safe. Turns out you really can’t walk through walls, even if you want to. I wrapped my arms around her to calm her, but she didn’t recognize me. A nurse came to the rescue. I gulped, and with a lump in my throat, I fought back tears. Nana had always been a safe place for me when I felt afraid as a little girl. But now, when I tried to be a safe place for her, when I tried to wrap her in a protective embrace and be her refuge when she felt afraid, she didn’t know me.
As Nana would say, Oh my stars.
We finally calmed Nana and got her seated. Alzheimer’s was winning the battle for her mind, and somehow it was managing to break my spirit too. Then the nurse handed me a plastic cup of peaches and asked whether I’d like to help feed my grandmother.
Seriously? No, I don’t want to feed her. She’s supposed to feed me! I wanted to respond.
But I didn’t say anything. I kindly accepted the plastic cup of preserved fruit and asked Nana to open her mouth, just as she had asked me to do many years ago. My mind was swirling. Is this real life? What is happening? What do you do when one of your very best friends, one of your childhood heroes, the one who pretended to be sick and broken so you could pretend to nurse her back to health, becomes truly sick and broken? How do you handle it when the roles you played in that imaginary house of tape become reality? How do you cope with the disappointment when you hope she’ll recognize your face but she doesn’t?
I didn’t know. My seventeen-year-old heart didn’t have a clue. I searched every square inch of myself and came up without an answer worth more than that old roll of tape. Maybe you know how it is with brokenness like this. The kind we can’t seem to control—the downward spiral of shame, sickness, or pain.
We stare into cups of peaches, searching for answers, hoping for a break from the breaking, wishing that somehow the damage will be reversed, and wondering where on God’s green earth that light at the end of the tunnel is.
About a year later, I had just settled in for my first year at Indiana University when Mom called to tell me Nana had taken a turn for the worse. She didn’t have much time left, and it was time to say goodbye.
Goodbye—a send-off, a word used when parting ways. How is it that the word we use when ending a phone call is the same one we whisper when we’re about to be separated from someone who’s slipping into eternity—a separation marked by the reality that we won’t be able to just call each other back? When we’re about to be divided by walls we can’t leave a gap in, as we could with tape on the floor? Nana was about to take a big step into eternity, but this time I couldn’t hold her hand the whole way.
I packed a bag, locked my college dorm room, hopped into the car Nana had passed down to me, and cried mascara-filled tears onto the steering wheel as I raced home. Somehow I managed to drive despite my blurred vision.
When I arrived at the nursing home, I found my mom sitting by Nana’s side. I plopped down next to her and leaned over to kiss the pale skin on Nana’s forehead, knowing this would be the last time. Within a few hours Nana took that big step into eternity, leaving the rest of us behind. The heart that had given so much light and love to my own young heart had no beats left. Mom’s eyes filled with tears as I hugged her tight.
She squeezed back as if to wring the sadness out of both of us. Bearing burdens is just like that—leaning in, letting someone else’s pain seep from her heart into ours. It means becoming a shelter for someone, often when our own heart is barely beating. But there’s comfort in that. A purpose in it.
Purpose. There’s profound purpose in simply meeting other people right where they are, in stepping into, not away from, their struggles and sharing them. Sometimes we can be so quick to offer consoling words and dry someone else’s tears, when really the best thing we can do is let the tears flow and even absorb them. Bearing burdens doesn’t mean fixing them. It means not allowing the other person to bear the load alone.
We sat there, Mom and I, waterworks and all. I wanted nothing more than to find a roll of masking tape and wrap it around my heart to keep it from falling apart. And maybe that’s what I began to do. Maybe that’s what we all do sometimes.
The Walls Were Only Make-Believe
When all the visiting, sharing, laughter, and tears surrounding Nana’s funeral ended, I traveled back to campus and attempted to make the transition to college life and learn all that comes with adulting for the first time. That’s a challenge in and of itself.
In the middle of an awkward transitional season, losing Nana added a curveball I wasn’t prepared for. So I spent the subsequent months trying to wrap my life in the things I thought would hold me together, in what I thought would keep me strong and secure when I felt as though I were falling apart. Academic accomplishments. A boyfriend. Leadership positions and résumé boosters. The whole nine yards.
It was like a strategy to distract myself from mourning. I thought if I filled my life with enough good things, covering up the internal feelings of insecurity with external Band-Aids, perhaps the sadness would somehow go away. I reasoned that the image I built up on the outside would somehow make me all better inside.
Over time I became the girl who kept up with the crowd on Friday night and still aced a test at eight o’clock on Monday morning, all while juggling eight billion extracurricular activities, clocking in at a part-time job, and training for a half marathon. I mean, why not?
You know, I used to hear the word labels and immediately think of negative things. Except when I look back at that season, it’s obvious that reputation management and image maintenance are nothing more than sticking a bunch of labels and titles on ourselves that we assume others will perceive as positive. Labels such as “the smart girl” or “the put-together girl” or “the grad student” can give a sense of confidence because of how others perceive us. However, they also create pressure to live up to the perceived expectations that come with those labels. If you’re “the smart girl,” you’d better not get a B on that test. If you’re “the fit girl,” you’d better not eat that cake. Whatever the word or label is, trying to live up to what we believe that ought to look like creates a lot of pressure. Of course, I didn’t know that at that time. I thought looking strong meant being strong (spoiler alert: that’s not always true).
Those labels I lived behind were like those lines of tape I played inside as a little girl. Behind them I could hide from the world and keep my insecurities a secret.
But those tape walls had never really kept me safe. They were just tape. They were only make-believe, after all. And perhaps the same is true for labels we live behind and boxes we get stuck inside. Maybe they’re just made up in our own minds.