Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Diary of a Recovering Rodeo Queen

Howdy, Ya'll!

It's that time of year again. The fair's in town, the smell of livestock mingling indelicately with the odor of deep-fried everything. Bright rides lighting up the West Texas night sky (yea assonance!). Funnel cakes. Bar-b-cue. Really good lemonade. Laughing children. Bellowing cattle. And the rodeo. My rodeo. It's that time of year when my secret love for leather jackets and skirts, for lambskin dresses with matching belts and boots, for fringe and jewelry and RHINESTONES, for dyed Wranglers, big belt buckles, for make up and hahairspray and color coordination all boil to the top. Hi. My name is Shanna, and I'm a recovering rodeo queen.

It all started some seven years ago when I encouraged to run for the West Texas Fair and Rodeo Teen title. I can't remember what made me want it. Me, a plain jane, t-shirt and jeans, no make-up, low maintenance kind of girl. But it was a good experience. Helped me to stop being so shy. Still, when the year was over, I all but swore that I'd never do it again. I thought I'd had enough. Except that every year when the rodeo rolled into town, I would go watch the pageant and miss it. A lot. So I decided to run for the Queen title four years after my inititiation into the world of rodeo royalty. And it was another good year, good experience. But I hung up my crown and banner at the end of it readily. I thought.

But the truth is that there is something deep down inside of me that still loves the idea of being a rodeo queen. Still loves the clothes and the introductions at rodeos and riding in parades. So, being the obsessive person that I am, I've thought about why that is. And thought and thought about it. And here's what I think. I felt like just about the best version of myself as a rodeo queen. I looked put together, fully coordinated, nice. Like a girl. I was important, in some measure, and you could tell by my banner and crown. I wasn't shy. And I was pretty good at it. So I was thinking that maybe that's why so many athletes seem to always long for the glory days after their careers are over. Or soldiers, or whoever. Maybe they felt like the best version of themselveses in the midst of all that, and when it's gone they spend years recovering, missing it and wishing for it. For that feeling again. Even if it was hard and they were ready to hang it up when the time came. Maybe that's why people like Michael Jordan retire and come back. And retire and come back. Because it isn't easy to feel like you've seen your best, and it got left on the court or in the arena or on the field.

But here's the thing. There wasn't anything special behind that crown and banner execpt me. So that best me is still in here somewhere. It was always there. Being a rodeo queen was just a catalyst that helped me find it. And that's true for everyone. Everyone has a best version. Not everyone finds it. And that is something of a tragedy because God wants the best for us. He created it for us. He created our personal best and He wants us to realize that fully. On and off the court. With and without the banner. And what better way to glorify and honor God than by being our very best selves that He created and calls us to be. Not that we have to be the our best all the time, but that wouldn't be a shame if we only ever catch glimpses of it in sports or as a rodeo queen, or whatever.

And honestly, I have a suspicion that most of us have never seen our best best. Because our best is that part of us that comes alive when we are living in Christ. It's that part of us that lights up in His Holy Presence, when our spirits dance with the Holy Spirit and never miss a step. When we're living the life that He intended for us.

So this is me hanging up my crown. I don't need it anymore. I need to learn to live in Christ. And to let those things that I liked so much about myself as a rodeo queen shine through anyway. So if you know anyone who needs some rodeo queen clothes, I've got some for sale.

And as I'm finally giving it up, it's nice to think that maybe the best is yet to come.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Gryffindor House

In the magical world of Harry Potter, students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are divided into four houses based on their personal attributes and characteristics. Ravenclaw houses the cleverest students, Hufflepuff takes the kindest students, and Slytherin welcomes the most devious and ruthless students. But my favorite house, the one that I would want to be in if I were a character from J.K. Rowling's imagination, is Gryffindor, home to the bravest students. Not because I think that I am exceptionally brave, but because I want to be. I have a deep appreciation for courage. I think we all do. We all seem to love stories of heroism, like soldiers who battle our enemies, or people who battle life-threatening illness or life-altering injuries. We love stories of cowboys who ain't afraid of nothin and princes who face down the dragon to rescue the princess in the tower. We admire the quiet courage of people like Mother Theresa who live among the very least and give all they have to care for them. Or of kids who refuse to fall into the destructive lifestyle that their parents have lived out before them. We even love courageous animals, like Lassie. And I think that the reason that bravery appeals to us so deeply is because it takes a great amount of courage to live. Like Bilbo says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," and it is. You just never know what might happen when you are outside of the safety of your home. And as some of our nation's gulf coast states have learned this week, you're not always safe inside you home either. In a moment, you can loose everything you have and love. You never know what might be around the corner to disrupt or dismantle your life. And everything we do in life takes some amount of courage. Like loving people, and trusting people, and caring about people. And living a life of faith really takes courage. Trusting in a God whose face we can't see and whose voice echoes not in our ears but in our hearts, and who we don't really understand all the time is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. Because the life that faith leads us into is no spring picnic. Jesus told us that we would be pesecuted because of Him. That we would have trouble in this world. Because the way of Christ is not the way of the world. Perhaps my favorite statement of faith in the Bible is in Daniel 3:17-18, where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego tell King Nebuchadnezzar that, "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, o king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, o king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." I love this not because of the first part. It's not that hard to say that God is able to save us from any tragedy. The hard part, the part that takes courage, is saying that even if He does not save us or spare us, we will still be faithful to Him. And it takes a lot of faith to say that too. Here's the way I see it-- it takes courage to have faith, but through your faith the Lord replenishes that store tenfold. And that's what makes us able to stand up and say, "I know my God is able. . .but even if He does not." And that's what makes us able to live-- really live and have life it's very fullest, not merely suffering the slings and arrows, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet's famous soliloquy. Because faith gives us the courage to step out of our doors and be swept away to wherever the road may take us. To rise above our fear of pain and loss and really love and really trust and really care.

E.E. Cummings once wrote that, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." And as I find myself (seemingly suddenly) at an age when I should be grown up, I know that this is true. That it takes courage and faith to become who it is that God has created and called me to be. That it takes courage to make the choice to listen to His still small voice whispering, telling me who I am. Those of you familiar with the Potter books know that Harry chose to be in Gryffindor House, where virtue and bravery would be honored and fostered, rather than Slytherin House, where power and winning are encouraged above all things. Harry chose the House that would grow him into who he ought to be, and who he wanted to be. It's a choice that we all have to make at some point. To allow ourselves to be lured by what is important in this world, or to become who it is that God intends for us. I hope it's a choice that I've made with courage.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Big Thing

I am accustomed to natural disasters happening far away, but Hurricane Katrina's aftermath it's not far away. It's really close, and people that I know are affected by it. This is one of those Worse Things that happen. But for the people in the states and cities hit, it's not a national disaster. It's a deeply personal tragedy. I realize that the meteorological folks name hurricanes for a reason, and I realize that it's probably easier to name them with human names than to make up something else, but it seems to me a bit innapropriate to personify something so horribly inhuman. I can't imagine how devastating it must be to loose your entire house and absolutely everything in it. Or to wait in worry to contact family who might be dead. How would you even begin to pick up the pieces? I just pray for peace for the people, and for hope.

Hey, Jeremy Jackson--Mom told me that your family is okay. I'm so glad to hear it. I'll keep praying for ya'll.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A Summer Without Horses (well...almost)

When I got Tigger, my first horse, I thought he was perfect. I loved him because he was my peace machine. He made all of my troubles back in the real world seem so fake. And I wanted everyone to know how amazing he was. I thought that if I worked hard enough and good enough and wanted it bad enough, I could make him into a champion. It didn't matter much what kind of champion. I wanted to prove to the world that my horse was a diamond in the rough, and that I had what it took to make him shine. And I worked really hard, though not always good, and I wanted it more than anything else. When I got my next horse, June Bug, I had the same notion. And for the past sevenish years, I've worked really hard, and I've given up doing a lot of things that normal kids do (like school functions, or extracurricular activities, or, you know, dating. I think guys can smell the horses on me and run the other direction.) But I never really regretted missing anything on account of horses because I wanted it more than anything. Over the years, I realized that my little horses weren't really world champion caliber, and my dream became less about them and more about learning and gaining the experience that I would need to find an apprenticeship with a professional horse trainer, so that I could become a professional horse trainer. And I thought that if I worked hard enough and wanted it bad enough that things would just work out for me. I've worked hard enough, but to this point, I haven't worked smart enough. I haven't made good connections, and I haven't gained enough experience showing horses. These things are, of course, remediable, and early this year I set out with big plans to show as much as possible. And I went to a couple of shows and I remembered just how much I love showing horses. And I also realized that outside of 4-H, it costs a lot of money to show horses (average of $200 for a weekend), but it's worth it to me, and necessary for my dream, and winning a class often at least covers the expense (or so I've read). But I also realized, for the first time, how very inadequate my horses are. And, also for the first time (with horses anyway), my obsessive mind could not figure a way to improve my situation. Because what I need costs around $10,000 more than I could even conceivably afford (or, since I'm not actually working at the moment, what I could talk Daddy into). So, for the first time in sevenish years, I became unsure of myself as a horseman, and I became unsure of my dreams. That coupled with my impending college graduation and total lack of any non-equine related ambition left me in a bit of a panic, and that left me pretty down. So I hardly rode at all this summer. I read and watched movies and television and went to Spanish class and played with my puppy and hung out with friends. I fed my horses and took care of them, and got to know the new vet at Dr. Dearing's office because of the various ways that my horses found to injure themselves this summer. And I rode sometimes, especially Soldier who is only two and has yet to prove himself one way or the other. But there was no joy for me in riding Tigger and June Bug because feelings of failure, frustration, and foolishness (yea alliteration!) overwhelmed me. And I kept feeling like if I could just afford to get a better horse, if I could just figure out how to get the money for it, then I could really make things work. But that's not the way things work for me. It never has been with horses. I've earned what I've got, and I've worked hard for it. I've always felt a stab of jealousy toward the people in the horse industry who have never had to pay their dues, who have always had the money to get great horses and work with top trainers. But I wonder at what point I lost sight of the incredible blessing that those three horses asleep in my barn are? When did I forget that having horses and riding horses and even showing horses is not just about having the perfect horse and winning? When I was young and only able to ride on Saturdays, I remember crying genuinely if I had to miss a week of doing what I loved to do more than anything. After I got Tigger I remember going nearly stir crazy when the rain would keep me off of him for more than a few days. How did I forget those days? I've been telling myself for a couple of weeks now that it's time for me to quit feeling sorry for myself and get back in the saddle. A lot. Five or six days a week, like normal. Two or three horses a day. Yesterday I finally went out to ride my old friend Tigger, my patient teacher. We didn't work hard, but as I rode him down the road to cool him down, heading west into a very beautiful and very simple sunset like we've done a thousand times, I thought about how far this horse has come. He bucked me off more times than I care to recall when I was training him, he spent several years refusing to get into the trailer without fighting like a heavyweight champ, sometimes he was crazy, and we almost lost him to West Nile virus one year. But he was almost always willing to dance my little dances and play my little games. He always worked as hard as I did. And he's a good horse by anyone's standards. He might not be a world champion, but he's good-minded and well behaved. And just because I don't win at the horse shows doesn't mean that I won't learn what I need to. So Tigger and I are going to give it another go. Because I remember now that I love a challenge anyway. And that developing my art and following my passion make it worthwhile. And that sometimes you just have to do the very best you can with what you have, because that's what living a life of faith is about. You do the best you can with what you've got and you pray for God to honor that.

So I'm gonna work really hard, and I'll want it really bad, and maybe one of these days I'll knock everybody's socks off. But for now, I'm going to thank the Lord for what I've got, and I'm going to do the very best I can with what I have. And on days when the sunset is really beautiful, you might catch me and Tigger heading west down the road out where the world is real and all my troubles and worries are engulfed by a sea of wheat and the sound of birds and a lonely cricket, and the four beat rhythm of Tigger's movement carrying me to that peaceful place that I never want to forget again.

(By the way--I would be happy to accept donations for that new horse I need if anyone could spare a couple thousand. Or, you know, anything at all.)

Monday, August 22, 2005

The God of All Things
Last Spring I read a novel for my World Lit class called The God of Small Things by a rather remarkable Indian woman named Arundhati Roy. The novel, which is not for the faint of heart or for people who like to feel happy when they read, is beautifully devastating, an unforgettable combination of poetically appealing prose and the horrible tragedies of a painfully disintegrating family and the unmerciful caste system of India. In truth, I am haunted by the images and language of this novel, and the one in particular is that which the both the novel's and this blog's titles are derived. Roy writes:

''[...] in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds
of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could
never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil
dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving,
ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God
howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and
contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own
temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became
resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much. Nothing much
mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never
important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country
that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of
peace, Worse Things kept happening. So Small God laughed a hollow laugh,
and skipped away cheerfully. Like a rich boy in shorts. He whistled,
kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative
smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people's eyes and became an
exasperating expression." (p. 20)

Of course, after reading the novel, you know that Small God hides inside people and creates an abscess. And of course, Roy isn't referring to God Almighty. But there were many things that struck me about this passage. Here in America, we who are so far from the kind of suffering that is known daily in countries like India, we who are so far removed from the horrors of war and poverty and injustice, we can so often become wrapped up in our personal sufferings that we think nothing of the general problems of our nation and our world except as it affects our personal state of being. I think that is one of our greatest weaknesses, and that we should never mistake "small god" for "big god," as Roy put it. Because if we do, we stop caring about the poor and oppressed, the very people that Jesus commands us to care for. And we allow our nation to become a place where the individual is valued above the people for whom, by whom, and of whom our government was created, and where freedoms and rights of the individual take precedence over the freedom and rights of the nation.

That said, I also was reminded of the importance of personal suffering. Being concerned with larger suffering does not inoculate us against our own private pain, and as the writer of Ecclesiates explains, "there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (ch.3 v.4). It seems to me that to deny ourselves weeping is to deny ourselves some of the sweetness of laughing and to deny our mourning is to miss some of the rhythm of the dance. And as a friend recently pointed out, Christ suffered greatly. He was a man of constant sorrows, and if we never know suffering of our own we may never know Him fully, never be able to "share in His sufferings" as Paul wrote (Romans 8:17). I think that we have a right to our suffering, small though it may be. We have a right to see it through to the end of it's season. Because it grows us. Makes us stronger. And it unites us with other human beings. Not everyone is happy, but as Michael Stipe of R.E.M. wrote, "Everybody hurts sometimes." But mostly, I think we're entitled to our small sorrows because God is the God of small things. He cares deeply about us as individuals. Jesus said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs on your heard are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows" (Matthew10:29-31). He knows what it is to suffer, and is with us in our sufferings. Even our small sufferings. I was recently introduced to a song by Natalie Grant called "Held," which I highly recommend. The chorus says, "This is what it is to be held, how it feels when the sacred is torn from your life and you survive. This is what it means to be loved and to know that the promise was when everything fell you'd be held," and that moved me so much because God never promised us an easy life. In fact He promised us a hard one, but He also promised to hold us, to stay with us, and send us His very Spirit. This is the God who is unwilling that one should perish. This is the God who would leave the ninety-nine for the one. This is the God of small things. And this is also the God of big things. This is my God.

So, these postings are my small things. My small sorrows and my small joys. My small dreams and my small fears. The small lessons that I learn. And maybe a few big things sometimes. It is small me standing utterly amazed that I matter to a very big God.

And I hope that somewhere in my words, you will find a small blessing.