A few years ago there was a new space opened downtown, just two blocks from where I work.  It was a space for community – for people to gather and talk and do life together. They had coffee and sold local items and over the noon hour every Wednesday there was a yoga class. I had been to yoga a handful of times in my life prior to being invited to this class so I was mildly interested, but I mostly showed up to support my friend who helped organize it. I didn’t know it then but Wednesdays at noon over the next year would begin to change my whole life.

Isabel Thalken Photography

Isabel Thalken Photography

I was in a hard place and that's just a nicer way to say that my sinful choices left me sad and alone. I was struggling with discontentment and wanting change but doing nothing to go after it. You know this – I’ve told you this over and over again. They are the dark years. In fact, I’ve labeled those journals “The Missed Years” because I really feel like I missed so much life I could have been living. I had headaches almost every day. I constantly wondered if I was going to die for one reason or another – none of them logical, of course. I just had these rolling thoughts about how God must not be giving me what I wanted because I was going to die soon and who needs a husband if you’re going to die, you know? So this was the internal war I battled while on the outside I was “fine.” 

So my friend invited me to go to yoga and after the first class I wasn't sure I wanted to continue. I only had an hour break for lunch and in that little window of time I had to change for class, run over with my mat and my big duffel bag, leave a little early so I could change back to my work clothes, and go back to my desk feeling a little sweaty and really rushed. Needless to say, I didn't know if it was worth the hassle. But I kept going. In fact, I hardly missed a week. I started to realize that despite the rush I always felt good when I left class. I felt like my skin was glowing (and not just from sweat), my body had worked hard and stretched its limits, and my mind felt clearer and more free. I felt like that hour of my life was a safe-haven with no distractions, no thoughts of impending doom, nothing holding me back.

Kelsey was our instructor and let me tell you what she told us. She said we need to root down in order to rise up and that’s what we were doing in our yoga practice - rooting down to who we were and where we were - taking time to be quiet and reflect - so we could rise up and face whatever we needed to out in the world. She always told us to release whatever wasn’t serving us anymore. Do you need to hear that today? Let go of what no longer serves you. Maybe this is a relationship. Maybe this is a job. Maybe this is an extracurricular activity. Maybe it is a pervading thought. Don't take this selfishly in that everything and everyone in your life should serve you. My mom was always quick to remind us, "You're here to serve, not be served." And that's true. But I think we allow things into our lives and let them drop anchor in our hearts - things like anger and bitterness, or we make bad decisions and keep beating ourselves up or we stay in cycles of shame and defeat, or we make commitments that end up running us ragged and then we resent them. I have always felt bad for letting things go but I was reading "Love Does" by Bob Goff and he reminds often that we need more practice letting things go and I agree. You’re free to quit things if you want to quit them. Don’t overwork yourself with things that don’t ultimately matter. My inner soul chaos was shouting for that kind of freedom. And every week when we laid down in savasana and closed our eyes, I felt like I could really connect with where my mind was and what my heart was truly feeling. What thoughts are taking up too much of your brain space? What do you need to get rid of? How can you de-clutter your heart today? 

Isabel Thalken Photography

Isabel Thalken Photography

We're bombarded with information every single day. Our phones are constantly telling us what's going on and what we're missing and what we should be doing instead of what we're actually doing. We're always connected. But that hour each week gave me a reason to disconnect - to unplug and stop worrying. I could release all the inner turmoil I felt. My cramped desk posture was released into long, stretching motions that let me get the most length from my lanky arms and legs. I felt like I had more space in my body and I know that sounds weird but if you’ve ever left a yoga class, you know what I’m talking about – you have more space in all your joints and limbs.

Maybe this is causing some anxiety for some of you. “Isn’t she a Christian? Do Christians do yoga?” I don’t know what the controversy is/was around Christians and yoga but if it’s anything like Christians and dancing used to be, then get your life together and stop worrying about that. Christians have had an awful lot of dumb stuff attached to their legalistic hearts and that will always be a battle but if you think God doesn’t like a joyful noise and dancing, then I guess you haven’t spent too much time in Psalms. I think it’s all about where your heart is at and yoga can be an intentional time of reflection and gratitude and you know what, God calls us to both of those things. Spend your last few minutes of savasana praying if you want to – that’s what I did. I spoke praises to God for the gift of the class, the gift of Kelsey, the gift of being able to even move my body in those kinds of ways because there’s something really beautiful about the balance and strength it takes to complete a yoga practice. 

Isabel Thalken Photography

Isabel Thalken Photography

Kelsey told us all each week, “Your practice is enough,” and for a girl really struggling with some worth issues at the time, gosh, her words were like salve to a wound. Yoga isn't about comparison. It doesn't matter what the person next to you can do or what positions they can hold, and that was like water to my thirsty soul that just constantly compared itself to others in every aspect of life. Yoga gave me something that was mine – my own practice, my own limits. I used to hold myself to all sorts of ridiculous standards and timelines. I felt behind at everything in life and like everyone was moving on without me. They were, to some extent, but my attitude was a big reason for where I found myself. My yoga practice, and being under Kelsey’s graceful instruction, left me understanding gratitude in a new way. My daily headaches were gone. My body felt longer and leaner. My head was more clear – no longer drowning in toxic shame. 

Another thing our teacher used to say was, “Honor where you are,” and that was something I had never considered. I didn’t have to meet anyone else’s expectations or standards. I could listen to my own body and what it could do and be thankful for just that. There were no outside influences. No one pushing me further than I wanted to go. It made my body and my mind feel stronger - confident - and I needed more confidence in this insecure little heart. It didn’t happen overnight. It happened over the course of the next year, slowly but surely. I felt more capable. More alive. I had something that was my own, and maybe that seems silly but for a girl who was giving herself away to everyone at a moment’s notice, this thing that was mine felt really good.

Isabel Thalken Photography

Isabel Thalken Photography

What happened when I came to my mat gradually started to translate to who I was off the mat as well. My gratitude overflowed into other areas of my life. I let go of some things – some relationships, some thoughts that weren’t serving me, and to be honest, they never did in the first place. How often we let negative thoughts invade our space and take over our days. Do you ever make a mistake and automatically think something like, "You idiot," or "You're so dumb." Instead of these phrases, I've tried to catch myself and remind, “You’re not dumb. It was just a mistake.” It sounds kind of ridiculous but, you guys, how often we beat ourselves up for ridiculous reasons and we don’t even realize it. Be gentle with yourself.  Be patient. Yoga taught me that also.

Isabel Thalken Photography

Isabel Thalken Photography

The change in my heart and my life isn't solely because I went to yoga. God was simultaneously chipping away at my hard heart in ways that only became evident over time. Looking back I can see it. I can see how each week, opening my heart to positivity and hope, letting the silence fill my bones, stretching my body and being thankful, taking the time to come to the mat, I can see how my heart changed through all of it. I don't know if this is an endorsement for yoga or for self-care or for unplugging and taking some time to be silent, but I think it's all three. When you allow space for change, for growth, for God to move, be certain that it will come, that he will stir your heart, and you will be changed. 

Root. Rise. 
Show up. Let Go. 
Trust. Liberate.
Be Still. Know.

Kelsey always reminded us of those things so I'm reminding you. It's amazing what can happen when you just take some time to be still.


The contentment challenge is getting harder, so I guess that's why it's called a challenge. But I'm sticking with it. This is part two on gratitude. Part one is here

Shortly after Thanksgiving last year, I heard a commercial on the radio for Verizon. In promotion of their holiday deal, they hijacked the word Thanksgiving and their slogan was Thanksgetting. Did you hear this ad? It’s both amazing and awful to me that someone approved this in their marketing department. I'm not calling for boycott or outrage, because if I was it would be over the fact that my data use counter suddenly spins faster than Clark Griswold's electricity meter at Christmas. But, hearing the ad did give me pause. I know I'm not alone in this because I searched the hashtag on Twitter and there are other people who disapproved. I'm not sure if we're upset because Verizon was wrong to appropriate the holiday that way or if it's because they really got it right and we don't like to be called out like that. Sure, we like to think we're thankful people and life is a Norman Rockwell painting at the Thanksgiving table. But, are we? I mean, the gravy hasn’t even congealed in the boat before we’re supposed to scramble out of the house, jumping over grandmas and small children to go get that great deal. On the other hand, as if we aren’t already so self-absorbed and self-indulgent, the slogan took the only holiday about giving thanks and turned it into another reason to think about ourselves. We don't need additional reminders that the question constantly hanging over a lot of our actions and decisions is, "What's in it for me?" 

Thanksgetting: Just another reminder to keep it all about you. You're the boss. What can you get out of this? 

My sister and her family moved into a new house last summer. She did a great job of packing up as much as she could prior to moving day - boxes were labeled and stacked in the garage, the truck and trailer were ready, and we all seemed to be as prepared as we could have been. I know some people move often. They have it watered down to a simple solution of gathering boxes and hiring movers and, “What? Moving day? Oh, yeah, that again.” Military families know this well. My family, on the other hand, likes to move as little as possible. Both sets of grandparents have been in their houses for over fifty years. Fifty years, you guys.  My parents, prior to their own moving this summer, were in their house for twenty years. This is a thing younger generations know nothing of – staying in places for this long. Putting down roots. But for my family, moving is just not something we do. We cozy up in our space and make it our own. We stay. And every time someone does lose their mind and move, we’re reminded of why we don’t do this and why moving companies are so lucrative.

Well, on moving day I had a bad attitude. It didn’t start bad, but began to avalanche pretty quickly after the first load and unload was complete and it was clear we had, at the very least, another round of the whole process. You know what you should really give away before you move? Books. I mean, there’s a reason the Kindle is so popular. Another thing you need to set down and back away from when it comes to moving is the thought, I think I can make it fit. It does not fit. Even if it does fit, it will make the box too heavy to lift or carry from the truck to the house. Trust me. It doesn’t fit.

Anyway, there was somewhere else I wanted to be – it was a hot summer Saturday. My friends were together and my FOMO (fear of missing out) was off the charts. It wasn’t long before they started to notice I was annoyed. I was hot and tired and over it – all of the lifting and carrying and back and forth and sweating my face off.  I was somehow acting like moving was everyone else’s favorite thing to do. Like they all got to sit in the front seat, watching the DVD player, while I was relegated to the backseat of the station wagon looking at where we had been – there’s kind of that thrill in the beginning but then you just start to feel woozy and want to get out.

So I’m carrying a box down the side of the house again and I'm thinking of all the places I could be instead, the things I could be doing, how much time this was taking and how late it was getting and, "Oh my word, you guys, where does this go?" and then somehow it just hits me. In the yucky stuff, the stuff we don’t want to do, the stuff that hurts and the stuff that’s hard, the days that are long and boring and you're thinking, "What am I even doing? What is my life?", even in that there’s something to be thankful for if we're open to it. Isn’t that what I had just learned leading up to my 30th birthday? It's amazing how quickly lessons flee to the corners of our minds when just months ago they were shining revelations. Well, let me tell you what I needed in those moments – a heaping pile of joy.

Legs to walk 
Arms to carry

I started an internal list of things in those exact moments that I could be grateful for instead of continuing to spiral into the black hole of self-pity. I was physically able to carry boxes and walk down the stairs. I had no pain. I was not ill. I could see. We take those things for granted because we just expect that when we wake up every single morning our bodies will function how they were designed to function. Our brains will convert the images our eyes take in. Our lungs will breathe. Our toes will create a balance that holds up this whole gangly frame.  I don't know if you know this or not, but those things don’t come with a guarantee. All it took for my otherwise healthy aunt was one stroke at 15 years old to change the way her body has worked for the rest of her life. I'm not trying to freak you out, but if you're well today, that's reason enough to be glad.

A family that needs me
Not moving in the rain

There are people in the world who face the immensity of spending their days alone. Maybe it's you. Whether it's because of life circumstances or job circumstances or whatever, you don’t have people to walk this journey with you right now - to step into the hard places. You don’t have the tribe of friends who will show up anytime, day or night.  It makes me sad to think people could be left to celebrate the good and feel the sorrow on their own. If you even have one single person to share your joys and sadness, text them or call them and say thank you for always showing up. We need more of that. Showing up and saying thank you.

My organized sister
Celebrating a new season

I kept my list running, my bad attitude seeping out of the bottoms of my feet with every step. There in the middle of the sweat dripping, legs tired, repetitive back and forth of moving, I kept coming up with reasons to be thankful. You might be thinking, "Wow, easy for you to say. Moving is one thing, but you aren't dealing with ______."  I'll be the first to say that I'm abundantly grateful to be in a really good season, but that doesn't mean I've always been here or that I'll stay here. There will be other days to discuss the way I battled anxiety for years, the way 2009 broke my whole heart and the way my life circumstances felt, for a little while, like one long, running example of how God must hate me. We all walk through the ugly in one way or another. No one is exempt. But I think that's why it's so important, when life is good, to be thankful and celebrate instead of let it slip away marked by anger and complaint.

I'm not always in a good mood. My family can vouch for that. I don't always do the right thing and I don't always make mental lists to talk myself out of a bad attitude. But, if you think of it, try to stop yourself in the midst of complaining next time to find at least one good thing about all of it. And remind me to do it, too. Maybe I've said the same thing 12 different ways now, but I want to start 2016 with the right mindset. I guess I just hope we’re not the people of thanksgetting and more and more shift our thinking back toward thanksgiving. And it's easy to be thankful for the good things, to feel fuzzy feelings of gratefulness when we're on that vacation and get the promotion. We easily slap #blessed on our good days. But if we don’t know the mundane, if we don't know how to find joy in the ordinary, we will lose our ability to recognize and appreciate the extravagant. 


Since I started my contentment challenge, which has been going pretty well so far, I decided to do a two part post on gratitude and being thankful for what we have been given. This is part one. 

I turned thirty just over a year ago and it was kind of a big deal for me. My friends will tell you this. In the weeks leading up to the big day, I often fluctuated between wanting to celebrate and wanting to cry. I couldn't even get the word thirty to roll off my tongue. Thirty felt grown up. Thirty felt like a serious business suit - a pencil skirt with Louboutins, when you're used to wearing jeans and a pair of Toms with a hole at the toe. Your twenties still feel young. The world gives you permission to be figuring things out – you're graduating college, settling into a job, finding a place to live, wading through relationships. They urge you not to take yourself too seriously. Make mistakes, they say. Learn. Adventure. Grow. But as you inch closer to thirty, people kind of expect you to have it together. Or maybe I just expected myself to have it together.

As I navigated my twenties (navigated is a loose term, as it was more of a blind stumble) I imagined thirty would be like reaching some kind of adult life pinnacle. My ideas of 30 when I was 20, 23, 27, were turning out to be just that - ideas, dreams. I had all of these expectations for myself because the thirty-somethings I knew were married, often with kids, usually with a house – sometimes in the process of building a whole house – and pretty settled into their lives. When it came to those life choices and circumstances, I was not on the same page. I was basically scrambling to find the page, hoping the teacher didn't ask me to read aloud. I felt like I was behind. Can I just have another go at 28 and 29, please? I haven't done enough yet! I haven't had enough time! 

Maybe you find yourself feeling entirely opposite. You're approaching twenty or thirty or forty feeling like life has, for the most part, just worked out. You found the spouse and he/she is obviously the BEST in the whole world, or at least in your Facebook post. You have the kids or the dog or both. You built the house. Your career took off, or it didn't but you feel okay with where you're sitting. But, you're bored. You feel stuck in the mundane and you're slugging it out. Somehow getting everything we think we want doesn't usher in unending happiness. It doesn't deliver the goods the way we dream it will. So, then what?

In the spring prior to my birthday, I was in a Bible study and we went through the book, A Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. If you’ve never read it, I recommend it. Ann is a beautiful, poetic writer who really picks at the heart of where we find our joy and contentment. This isn't about happiness. We're talking a deep-in-your-heart joy. I was struck at the time that she was actually able to come up with 1,000 separate things to write down - 1,000 separate gifts she had been given. On the verge of thirty, with almost nothing in my life going according to my plans, I felt like I had maybe five things to be thankful for and that was if I rounded up. 

I had seen other people hit 3-0 with a lot of celebration and excitement. My sister’s husband threw her a surprise party. Another friend’s husband put together a book of notes from all the people in her life who loved her. With no joy for 30 and no plans to celebrate, I determined I wanted to make thirty significant anyway.  So I decided to spend the thirty days before my thirtieth birthday writing down thirty things each day for which I could be grateful. In her book, Ann writes, Being joyful isn't what makes you grateful. Being grateful is what makes you joyful. That punched me in the guts. I needed a fresh word on joy because I was feeling everything but joyful leading up to thirty. I was feeling left behind. Forgotten. Not enough. My dreams had shattered over and over. I was throwing myself a spectacular pity party.

So, I went to work on my list each night. For the first week, it was a challenge. I’d get stuck around number twelve and wonder what else there was to be thankful for that day, or in my life as a whole. Midway through this 30 day challenge, I journaled about my progress: 

I can write all the things I'm grateful for up to 900 or 9,000 but I still feel the weight of, "This isn't how it's supposed to be. This isn't what I dreamed and this is never what I wanted."

Clearly it was going well. But, as the month went on, I found myself thinking throughout the day, “Yes, this makes the list" or "Definitely writing that down." Knowing that I would write something down each night made me more conscious of every moment as a gift. That text message from my mom? Gift. A smile from a stranger? Gift. Rain? Gift. The smell of my sweet nieces/nephews after a bath. Baptizing Kaely and Abby. Learning hard work from parents/grandparents. Seeing a counselor. Learning to wakeboard. Sweet friends who understand. The watercolor sky. Gift, gift, gift.

As people with plans and dreams and expectations that often go unmet, we tend to be easily irritated and our default position is one of complaining and discontent. This is mostly because we like to be the point and if we're not, or if life isn't going how we thought it might, we're mad - mad at others, mad at God, mad at ourselves. But if we truly believe that there is someone who orchestrates our days, then nothing is happenstance. None of those unfulfilled dreams go unnoticed. Nothing is mistake. I recently read the book, Anything by Jennie Allen and in it she wrote, You have to thank God for the seemingly good and the seemingly bad because really, we don't know the difference [until we get to heaven].” So if we view it all as gift instead of good or bad, we not only have a better outlook but we are that much closer to joy. I realize this is more difficult when the bad is a heavy, heartbreaking grief. I know because I have felt it. In that, the only salve for your wounds I can offer is the promise of Psalm 30:5. And it may feel like a very long night, but the promise is joy on the other side.

I was told recently that I seem more relaxed than I used to be and I would say it's because I stopped trying to control. Grasping for control spins you around and around – constantly searching and striving and never really getting there - until you're left puking off the side of the merry-go-round. I was so concerned with getting there - reaching those self-imposed or even society-imposed benchmarks and milestones - that I didn't know how to enjoy anything.  I woke up every day trudging through, waiting for the day my life could really start, the day when all those dreams came true, so I missed a lot of good gifts and missed out on a lot of joy.

I finished my thirty lists of thirty things and on my 30th birthday, I wrote in my journal:

It's snowing this morning. I lit my favorite candle, made breakfast and coffee. It's so quiet I can hear the clock over my desk ticking. My house is quieter than I thought it would be on my 30th birthday. Smaller. Emptier. No babies crying for mommy. No one to kiss my face and say good morning. My life is not bad. It is different. Because of all the choices I have made in my given circumstances that have led me to sitting here alone... And that is okay. I can choose joy. 

For the record, my friends put together an amazing brunch for my 30th birthday and I have never felt more special or loved than I did that day. It was more than I could have ever known to ask for on any list. I really think that’s why I enjoyed 30 (and, so far, 31) so much – because I learned to be grateful. I learned to find joy in the every day and 30 became the most life-giving, heart-stretching, laughter-filled, best year of my entire life.

All around you, every day, in the small and the extraordinary there is a gift. Don't wait for life to start when _____ finally happens. You'll miss the joy of today and today is a pretty good day. Joy awaits.