Shauna Niequist’s books are favorites around here. Shauna is a well-loved speaker and author, and our university students and staff flock to any events with her name on the marquee. I distinctly remember that during my interview for this position, back in 2010, our (then only) female campus pastor stopped in to meet me, and after hearing my responses to some interview questions, left the office and came back with a copy of Shauna’s second book, “Bittersweet”, telling me that she thinks I would love it.
And I did.
I read “Bittersweet” first, followed immediately by her first book, “Cold Tangerines.” As a 22-year-old, I got lost in the richness of her details and the delightfully personal stories of life and faith and food. I’d never read anything like Shauna’s writing before, and found myself underlining great quotes and sticky-note-ing her best lines all over my mirror. My life may have lacked direction in that season, but I was joyously unaware of that fact, and instead reveled in the diction and descriptions of an intentionally celebratory life. I was just taking my first steps into adulthood – paying rent in a house I shared with other single gals, taking a bigger-time job than I’d had before, handling several bills I’d previously depended on my parents for, and realizing that things like aluminum foil and paprika and paper towels don’t magically appear in the house without someone going out and purchasing them with those hard-earned part-time dollars. I poured out Shauna’s words like colorful sprinkles onto my very-new-and-still-interesting-to-me-life but while she was oft-quoted in my life, was not re-read. Her books lived on my bookshelf like well-loved sweaters in California, where weather never requires their emergence.
It’s been 4 years now, and the uncertainties of this season of my 26-year-old life brought me to these old friends.
There’s a lot to be said about the changes that take place in adolescence, and this extended adolescence that is your 20-something years. One thing for certain is that, a lot changes in those years, and it’s usually the things that we don’t expect to change that are the first things to go.
Reading Shauna’s books at 26 is a very different experience than it was at 22.
So, here I am, 26, and in the midst of a long summer at work, changes in personnel, contemplating moves and changes for myself, and wondering what these pages will hold for me this time around. I started with “Cold Tangerines”, and read it in about a week on my lunch breaks. I found a cozy spot on a couch on Cougar Walk, and enjoyed the shade from an umbrella as I worked my way through her first book and its focus on “celebrating the extraordinary nature of everyday life”.
“Cold Tangerines” was a challenge for me in a very different way than I’d expected. I struggled in anxiety and restlessness to think through her lens of joy – so much so that that it was discouraging, actually. I asked myself when I became so disillusioned and cynical of the little delights of life. I realized how many experiences she writes about that read differently to me now, at 26 – the richness of cooking and eating with friends, the foreign idea of motherhood in the lives of those around me bringing excitement and uncertainty, her deep love and commitment to her brother, even when he was away, and lastly, the grief and emptiness of losing someone close to you. I resonated with such different stories of hers than I did the last time, now having tasted loss and heartache and depth of joy in such different ways. “Cold Tangerines” was a peppery tea, difficult to swallow, but still warmed my own experiences with the community of knowing they are not alone.
One of my favorite treasures in Shauna’s writing and speaking, are her easy analogies, that seem to effortlessly tie together life in words. I’ve come back to this comparison over and over again, remembering that the hardest part of my life is not the experiences or challenges, but my own accompanying expectations for how to handle them “correctly”. Almost always, it’s me having a problem with my old house self, and I need to remember that God graciously doesn’t measure things the same way I do. Here, in a favorite bite of her first book, she compares her own heart and mind to the rickety walls and rooms of the “old house”:
“The person having a problem with the house, clearly, is me. And it’s not about the house. It’s about me. I can’t handle any more things that are not quite right in my life, because I feel like that’s all I’ve got. I feel like every single part of my life has bumps and bruises and broken pieces…I want to be all shiny and new, all put together, and I just can’t get there. The things I try to forget don’t go away, and the mistakes I’ve made don’t go away, and I’m a lot like my old house, cracked and mismatched and patched over. On my worst days, I start to believe that what God wants is perfection. That God is a new-house God. That everything has to work jut right, with no cracks in the plaster and no loose tiles. That I need to be completely fixed up. I always think that God’s kind of people are squeaky-clean people whose garages don’t leak, but really a lot of the people God uses to do amazing things are people who don’t necessarily have it all together….I practice believing that, bottom line, God loves me as-is, even if I never do get my act together. ” (CT, 38-39)
After I finished “Cold Tangerines”, I immediately opened Shauna’s second book, “Bittersweet”, and over the span of a month, I read and re-read her “Learning to Swim” chapter, and couldn’t convince myself to move on in the book. It was as if I couldn’t take another step until I’d swallowed the current bite, and her words about trusting God and letting His waves carry you were too much for me to take.
“I learned about waves when I was little, swimming in Lake Michigan, in navy blue water under a clear sky, and the most important thing I learned was this: if you try to stand and face the wave, it will smash you to bits, but if you trust the water, and let it carry you, there’s nothing sweeter. And a couple decades later, that’s what I’m learning to be true about life, too. If you dig in and fight the change you’re facing, it will indeed smash you to bits. It will hold you under, drag you across the rough sand, scare and confuse you…But if you can find it within yourself, in the wildest of seasons, just for a moment, to trust in the goodness of God, who made it all and holds it all together, you’ll find yourself drawn along to a whole new place, and there’s truly nothing sweeter. Unclench your fists, unlock your knees and also the door to your heart, take a deep breath, and let God do his work in you.”
As I journeyed through the rest of the book (it sure is hard to follow that), I found the tender image of accepting the bitter and the sweet of life never anchoring so deeply within my own experiences as in this season. So much change happened in my own heart and life as I continued to read, clearly not just coincidentally. As I read Shauna’s words about the deep fellowship she finds around the table with her weekly dinner group of friends, I watched my small group of 5 years say their goodbyes and close our doors. As I read her words about motherhood and expectations, I sat across the table from a pregnant friend in the midst of deep perinatal depression. As I read her words about the deep sweetness of wedding day and marriage, I sat with a friend who has watched his marriage disintegrate before his eyes. And, as I was reminded of her encouragement to “always say something“, I sat on a bench with a friend in a brutal season and reminded her quietly of all the truths she had forgotten about who she really is as a child of God. Life is not easy, not in this season or in many others, I believe. But in walking from this season to others in the future, I will continue to carry Shauna’s words with me….“When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.”
And guess what? TODAY Shauna Niequist announced that there is a NEW book in the making! You can read about it here, looking forward to “Present Over Perfect” in 2016!