Why I’m Opening Another Online Business (Or, the Lunacy of Hope)

Two months ago, I was on the way home from the thrift store. I had just picked up a long maroon corduroy coat because I couldn’t be parted with it. On the way home, I began imagining the cuffs trimmed with velvet, black lace on the back. And in between thoughts of, “I didn’t need this coat to begin with!” and “Another project?” the little thought slipped into my mind… “Hey! I could sell that!”

Thus GaslightEmporium was born.

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The maroon coat that started it all. (Model: Rachel Hammons)

Two months later, I’ve just launched a second Etsy shop. With uncalled-for optimism, I’ve laid out money for over fifty items at local thrift stores, spent countless hours hand-stitching embellishments onto them while watching my favorite shows, paid $150 for a professional photography session, and launched a second Etsy shop.

This, on my busiest school year yet, the same year that my school opened to 6-8th grade as well as 9-12th. I’m so busy with my classes that at the beginning of the school year, in favor of preserving sanity, I canceled almost all of my fixed evening activities to free up that time for lesson prep.

Oh, yeah, and I’m still running that art business and going to conventions and selling it and all that.

I needed another Etsy shop like I needed a hole in my head. Why and wherefore? And shouldn’t I be investing that time in, you know, things for the kingdom of God, like, say, my local Awana club or something at church?

Why, in the name of common sense?

It’s not because I love embellishing clothing items (although I do). Or because I’ve turned my back on serving God (quite the contrary!). Or even because I couldn’t make ends meet.

It’s because I have books I want to write. Stories, that ooze out of me whether I want them to or not, that have been begging to be written for more than ten years. Stories that, if I want to let myself be as grand and pompous about it as I was in college, I feel “called” to write.

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I call this item the “Writer’s Coat.” Maybe it’s a bit symbolic.

I know, opening another business seems somewhat counterproductive in that department. Now I’m sewing in those snatches of time that I could be writing.

But, you see, I had an epiphany several months back. I realized that the quantity of writing, the pacing I needed at this point, required larger blocks of time. There comes a moment when you step back after having written “in your spare time” for the last ten years, and you realize that you have frighteningly little to show for your efforts. In short, you realize that things have to change if you want to arrive at your longed-for destination.

And I decided what I wanted. I wanted my summers. And in that embellished maroon jacket, I saw a possible ticket to a summer off.

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Why not turn a jacket into a steampunk-y vest?

I’m a teacher, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I get summers off. My Christian school is in a small town and is itself very small. I get paid enough to live off during the school year, but not enough to cover my summers. For the last three summers, I’ve worked 40 plus hours a week at a local camp and conference center. I’ve been scrubbing toilets and hauling garbage to support my teaching habit.

When put that way, it sounds shockingly unfair. Either that, or I sound like I’m complaining. Really, neither is true. I work with fantastic folks at both school and camp, and I honestly don’t mind the work at all. Somebody’s got to do it, after all! Why not me?

I wouldn’t mind at all, if there weren’t other things I wanted– even needed– to do. If there weren’t stories shut up in my bones like fire, burning to get out. And, for the first two summers, I actually got some writing done after work. But I’m not getting any younger, and this summer most evenings I’d be too tired. Or just as soon as I hit a good writing rhythm, I’d realize that I really needed to go to bed if I wanted to survive to the weekend. I didn’t get much done. And it felt awful.

I don’t want to do it again. I want my summer this year. I want it to write.

I did the math. I know I’ve got to save at least $6000 if I want to have my summer free, which is an astronomical sum. I don’t think I ever saved that much at once even when I was paying graduate school bills. It’s utterly ridiculous. Ludicrous.

But dreams ARE ludicrous. And the people who achieve their dreams are ludicrous people who refuse to let the odds dictate their efforts.

So I dove in feet-first. I even have business cards.

Here’s to ludicrous dreams and my even more ludicrous self. Here’s to the chance at a summer to write.

Particularly, here’s to GaslightEmporium.

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Here’s me modeling one of my favorite tops in the shop. It’s actually made up of parts from three different tops.

 

 

 

 

Note: You can visit my new shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/GaslightEmporium or like my page on Facebook  (https://www.facebook.com/GaslightEmporium) to see works in progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Turkey, with a Side of Perspective

Thanksgiving was in full swing upstairs, but I had slipped downstairs for a moment to breathe. My cat Oliver, who had come to my parents’ with me for the weekend, rubbed up against me and started purring. I picked him up and squeezed him, as if squeezing my silent, furry friend could ease the pain inside me.

I felt unutterably sad about the tension between my dad and me. I felt sad that he had said nothing about the Thanksgiving card I had left on his desk. I so desperately want a good relationship with my parents, but I want that relationship to be one that allows us to talk as adults, back and forth. I want to be able to be honest about what I think without being condemned, and so far I have seen no progress in that direction. And here, at my family’s, we were celebrating thankfulness, and I could only seem to think about how my recent efforts at openness with my dad had failed or been misinterpreted or ignored. Not that I had always handle everything well– I fail as much as anyone– but I had been trying harder than usual, it hadn’t been working, and it hurt.

But as I hugged Oliver, suddenly I remembered that this was not the first Thanksgiving when I had excused myself momentarily from the family gathering because the atmosphere of happy thankfulness had become oppressive. And when I remembered the circumstances, I smiled in spite of myself.

I had probably been about fifteen or sixteen, and we were at my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving– you know, the long table and the cousins and the whole nine yards. It was all very happy and wholesome, and we had just gone through that yearly rite-of-passage where we all went around the table and said what we were thankful for.

I don’t remember what I said– something trite and expected, probably– but I do vividly remember excusing myself shortly thereafter and going into one of the bedrooms and throwing myself headlong on the bed, the quilt pressing up against my cheeks as I ground my body into the mattress in silent agony over the charade I’d just been through and the emptiness I saw in my own soul.

You see, I was in the middle of one of the darkest chapters of my short life, although I was doing a mighty fine job of hiding it from everybody around me. As a young person who’d grown up in the Christian church and been raised by very Christian parents in a very Christian way, I had been wondering for the last several years whether or not any of it was real. And I was terrified that it might not be, and yet afraid of the condemnation that would come should I ask the questions that were tearing me up.

Hence the inner agony. My life might not have any point to it, there might not even be a God or any hope for forgiveness or purpose, and I’d just stuffed my face with turkey and pretended to thank Him for it. I was desperate for answers and sick of the charade, and the agony of all of it was shredding me inside.

Over the next several years, my own inquiries and the guidance of several wise adults pointed me toward satisfying answers to my questions. My parents’ faith has now become my own. I believe with all of my heart in God and His plan, even if I will never have all the answers to why the things happen in life that happen. God held onto me. I was His, I am His now, and I will be His for eternity.

But I still remember that day with the vividness of a photograph, of a frozen moment in time. I remember it as one saves a relic. It’s a reminder of how lost I was then, and how found I am now.

This was what I thought of, there in the basement, as I hugged Oliver and took cool breaths of air in the solitude of the basement. And yes, I smiled at the memory.

It was the comparison of the two that made me smile. Because, what is a conflict with my dad in view of the destiny of my soul? The one question, the important question, was answered. And the answers I found are the answers to everything else, to every other desolate moment I might have.

I don’t know how things will get worked out with my dad. I hope for peace, for understanding, for a trust-based adult relationship, but I may not find what I seek. There’s bound to be a lot of unpleasantness ahead. But I can make it through that unpleasantness, because, well, I know Who’s holding onto me. I know that He exists. I know that He has a purpose for everything, and I know He is my Savior.

Not that it eases the pain. Just last night– after this epiphany, mind you– I was crying in a corner of the couch after nearly everyone was in bed, texting a friend about all the ugliness I felt. But that’s life sometimes. It stinks, and no amount of pious-sounding words will fix how much it stinks and hurts.

But there is hope. And there is purpose. As the Sunday-school song says, “this I know,” beyond shaking.

Nothing like a little perspective to put you fully into the spirit for Thanksgiving. Carefully I set Oliver down and headed back upstairs into the warmth of the kitchen and the laughter of my family.

Like Cold Water

I didn’t realize just how intensely the events of last week (narrated earlier) had affected me until Friday night, when I went over to my friend Nicole’s house to chat and watch a movie. During a time we’d have normally been relaxing and chatting, she was relaxing and chatting, and I was answering in monosyllables. I felt like I could hardly move; I stared straight ahead; and, most telling of all, I’d drawn my legs up instead of stretching out on the recliner.

That moment when I feel safest when I’m as compact as I can make my nearly 6’frame– that moment, my friends, is a dangerous moment. Because, if you poke me with a stick, there is no telling whether I will run screaming from the room, run screaming at you, or just stare blankly at you and the stick as if I’ve never seen such a thing before.

What proceeded, though, over the next few days, was nothing short of astounding.

It’s hard to say at what point it started. But somewhere back toward the middle of that week, I kept getting texts. And messages. And little comments from people who I didn’t think even noticed that all was not all right. One of my students texted me a link to a song that spoke directly to where I was at. I got to spend a portion of Saturday with a dear friend who not only gave me hugs but also washed the dinner dishes for me and shared a Doctor Who episode that specifically addressed finding hope at the point where there seemed to be none (the 50th anniversary special, in case anyone was wondering). I mean, there were lines in that episode that seemed eerily written for me. A favorite Facebook page posted a meme with one of my favorite quotes from Lord of the Rings: that moment when Aragorn looks in hopeless eyes at Helm’s Deep and reminds the fighters, “There is always hope.” Friends– friends whom I usually looked after, not the other way around– were checking in with me because they were worried about me.

I didn’t understand it. On one hand, I was downright uncomfortable with all the attention. On the other hand, I was beginning to have no delusions about my own weakness and the fact that these people were actually helping.

But it all reached a head on Sunday.

I was on my way to church, and I got a text message. I checked it, and it was my mentor from student teaching last year– a woman I literally have not seen in months. “You are especially in our prayers this morning,” it read. WHAT. This was going beyond “I have a problem that people must be able to see.” This was getting downright weird.

But things didn’t get better. They got worse. Anyone who’s dealt with something similar will understand what I mean when I say that sometimes, when I am low like this, waves of inner blackness will come, for no explainable reason, and fighting them off is exhausting if not impossible. I don’t think I could tell you much about the church service, honestly, because it was mostly engulfed in one such wave. I made it home, though, things a little abated although not necessarily better.

Shortly thereafter, my phone rang. It was one of my best friends, whom I was more or less expecting. We talk most Sunday afternoons. Our conversations are usually a glorious mix of elaborate story crafting, sci-fi-tinged theological wonderings, rants about the world’s stupidity, and the occasional Hannibal joke.

I hate it when, instead, they turn into me sobbing my heart out into my friend’s ear. Never mind that she’s done that a few times, too. It just feels wrong, coming from me. It’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I’m supposed to be.

But there we were. And then something happened that I very much hope I will never forget. I don’t see how I ever could, anyway.

“You know, Erika,” she said. “I was thinking about you this week, and about all the stuff that’s been happening the last year or so. I was thinking about it, and I actually wrote some stuff about it.” She sounded embarrassed. “I wrote a poem, actually. And I won’t read it to you. I won’t read it to anyone, but let me see if I can just tell you the gist of what I was thinking. You’re going to make it. It will all be okay.”

“Well, of course I will,” I said. “If we look to eternity, we’ve all got a happy ending.”

“I had that one thrown in my face a few too many times to find it comforting. But you can think it if it helps; it’s true. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you, in this life, in this situation. It will be okay.”

Before I go any further, one fact requires explanation. My friend just doesn’t say this sort of thing. Any cynicism I may display, I learned from her. She is one of the most cynical, pessimistic people I know–and what makes her pessimism stick in one’s mind is that it’s based on cold, hard, indisputable facts. She’s had more than the usual human share of grief and maltreatment, herself. Her outlook on life and humanity is bleak but justifiably so. She is, in fact, so consistently right about impending disaster that I have taken to just taking her at her word, no questions asked.

This, then, was the person who 1) wrote a poem about MY situation and 2) was now telling me that things were going to work out with the school. It was almost too much for me to process.

“Why do you say that?” I finally managed, quietly.

“Because I know you,” she said. “Because of who you are.”

I wanted to argue, to protest, to demand an explanation. But really, I knew what she was saying. It didn’t require an explanation. I just didn’t believe it. It seemed like such a strange reason to hope, a reason grounded in the one thing I really had no confidence whatsoever in, in the thing I felt was crumbling. Because of who I was?

“I watched a movie last week that you should watch,” she was continuing. “A Western. Tombstone. The best part of the movie was Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday character. I’ll send it to you. You should see it. He reminds me of you.”

The movie arrived at the speed of a digital document, and I watched it almost as soon as it arrived. And without spoiling a rather excellent piece of filmmaking for those who haven’t seen it, Doc Holliday was easily the coolest character in the whole story. He’s a drunkard and a gambler, but he’s got this sense of humor that stuns his enemies, and, even better, he’s casually deadly with a gun and has no objections to shooting up anyone or anything that gets in his way. All the while, might I add, he is suffering from a worsening lung disease.

I was enjoying his character immensely, but having some difficulty understanding my friend’s comparison until a scene where another character demands, incredulously, to know why he just keeps fighting. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend!” he declares.

Nice one. I get it now, I thought.

But it didn’t end there. No spoilers, but that character just kept on going. He kept on fighting. It was ridiculous. It was beautiful. And by the time the movie was over, I was so overwhelmed at being compared to this character that I felt the need to call my friend and just sort it out.

At this point, I should probably mention that my student decided to come back to the school. The initial source of panic, the tipping point, was unexpectedly resolved Sunday night. I got a text from her simply saying that she would be back in school on Monday.

I could almost taste my relief. And I recalled my post about the scarcity of miracles, and I smiled. Take that, odds. Maybe you are in my favor.

I would love to say that life swung upward permanently. But the fact is that by the time I actually got to talk to my friend again about the movie, I had had another very difficult day, and what I had hoped would be an enjoyable discussion of the movie turned into another impassioned round of tears. It took an Evanescence sing-along and a long Facebook chat with another friend before I was at peace enough to sleep that night. No, I would not say that things have gotten easier, even though that particular hurdle has been crossed.

But I know one thing. I know that, no matter how close to exploding or getting engulfed I might feel, it will work out. My pessimistic friend told me so. And she is always right.

The moral of the story: A pessimist wields a power of comfort that an optimist can’t even touch. Optimists, at their best, are relying on an unquenchable scaly hope. An honest pessimist, on the other hand, cannot help but say what they see. And if they see hope, hope there must really be indeed.

So, keep that in mind, pessimists. Your day may come to do what no optimist can. Because, like cold water in a dry and weary land is optimism from a pessimist.

Hope is the Thing With Scales

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “That perches in the soul– and sings the music without words– and never stops– at all–”

I think mine doesn’t have feathers. I think it has scales. Scales made out of the same stuff they use to make blast shields in sci-fi movies.

Because like those stupid bugs that you can grind into the carpet and they still somehow live, I cannot seem to stop hoping that the worst of things will work out. Even if, for a day, I am convinced that there is no point and things are finally hopeless, the slightest touch, the slightest breath of promise, however far-fetched and foolish it might seem, revives my hope, and up it springs, tormenting me once again.

Yes, I say tormenting. And I know I’m being melodramatic, but I’m allowed to be. I’ve had a hideous week, and I can’t seem to give up hope.

That sounds like a wonderful thing, and, deep down, I suppose it is. But sometimes it would just be such a relief to actually be able to throw one’s hands up over a situation and walk away, heart at peace because there actually, truly is no hope. But no. Like one of those tough-shelled bugs, my hope only appears to die. Then it reappears to throw me back into the game.

And I’m not talking a gentleman’s game. More like the Hunger Games.

Allow me to provide a little background before I once again continue philosophizing. I teach at a minuscule Christian school. We had enough students–and just enough students– to run a full program this year. After putting more effort than I really had to give into promotional work last year, we still ended up with fewer students than we had last year. But we still had enough to run a program. Then, last week, one of our full-time students pulled out for “personal reasons.” And it was a student I’d personally connected with and spent a lot of love and tears on.

I cried so much Tuesday that my eyelids were puffy for two straight days. I do not exaggerate.

Tuesday I was convinced that the school could not survive. I finally began to consider the possibility that the promotional efforts had been in vain and maybe I should start looking for another job next school year. Maybe it was time to just give up. After all, what else could I do? I’d already tried.

But of course, the next day, our administrator and I tossed the situation back and forth, and he encouraged me to keep up the promotional work. And that night, I chatted with the student, who admitted that she might want to return at some point.

So, you see, hope is alive and well.

And it’s so very annoying.

Because, you see, there really is no good reason for it. My student could just as well decide to stay out of our school. I might not have any more luck getting our information out to churches that have already slammed the door on me once or twice. And if we don’t get any more students this year, who knows where my last couple of paychecks are going to come from? Hope is ridiculous.

But without it, nothing impossible would ever be attempted. And it’s true that every now and then, once in a blue moon, one chance in a thousand, something impossible actually does happen. Hope lives because miracles do sometimes happen. And on the off chance that this school will be one of them, I will act on my hope.

Pain and disappointment, here we come. All because that stupid scaly thing in my soul won’t die.

Of X-Men and New Beginnings

The last few days have not exactly been the easiest.

Oh, they haven’t been horrible. I think most teachers will probably confess to not particularly enjoying the first week of school. But it hasn’t been the lack of prep time, or the odd shifting from my high school teaching job to my new 4-5th grade TA job and back again to the high school job, and it certainly hasn’t been student misbehaviors. The hardest thing has been coming back to my little, tiny Christian school, facing classrooms with literally half the students in them than I had last year, and having to put on a happy face that I do not feel about the situation.

My students look at me, and I can see it in their eyes–the strangeness of having so many fewer students, when all last year we complained about how the lunchroom was so small and talked about plans to bring in new students. A few will mention it. The others simply shift around awkwardly. Then they look at me, and I smile brightly back at them and reassure them that school this year is going to be wonderful, that we often have students join us partway through the school year, that they are here, and that is what matters.

And I mean it. But it hurts my heart to see the effort I put toward school promotion this year seem to have had no effect whatsoever. It hurts to have to continue to be positive about it, because, if I’m not, I’m not sure who will be.

Switching gears a little. Tonight I finally got to see “X-Men: Days of Future Past” with a friend.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Wolverine goes back in time to prevent something horrible from happening. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) In the process, he runs back into one of my new heroes, Professor X. But things have gone horribly wrong. The school is all but empty, and Professor X has sunk into alcoholism and self-medicating, even to the point of stunting his powers because it makes him “feel too much.”

Of course the empty school struck an instant chord, and when somebody mentioned that the last time they’d used the tool Cerebro was “to find students for the school,” I leaned over and drily whispered to my friend, “It’s like NWCHS.” My friend bumped my shoulder reassuringly and the movie continued.

Wolverine, whose gifts do not exactly lie in the realm of subtle persuasion, is in a tight spot as he tries to convince Professor X to pick up the pieces of his life. It takes past Professor X talking to present Professor X to get there (It did actually make a tremendous amount of sense). As part of this exchange, though, Professor X has to wade through all the pain and loneliness that is Wolverine’s history. Wolverine redirects his focus so he can find his younger self–then, before it is all over, Wolverine charges him to find the future students and teachers whose stories he’d seen.

“I’ll do my best,” says Professor X, looking a little worried.

“Your best is good enough,” says Wolverine.

And with that, Professor X– and Miss Heins– suddenly receive the bolstering we need to keep going.

My best is good enough. The enormity of the task is not my problem. It’s God’s. And I am simply His servant. My best is good enough. And, exactly like Professor X, my “best” is not nearly as much about saving a school as it is about the individuals who have gone through that school. Imperfect, hurting, beautiful individuals, not unlike Wolverine and Storm and Rogue and the others– individuals whose stories have held pain and problems and will continue to hold pain and problems, but who have been given hope. They have been given a chance to be part of a tiny community that grows and aches and stretches and smiles together. And many of them have been given hope in various ways. I even dare to think that some of them would look back on their time so far and see the pain and the joy and the late nights of homework and, like Wolverine, not mind having it stay just that way because they can see the value in it.

Professor X reminded his future self that he had to hold out hope to these people. Then he turned, promised to do his best, and was reminded by one of his own students that his best was good enough. And it was.

On second thought, maybe I can put on that happy face I need to put on. Maybe it doesn’t need to be an act. All I need to offer is hope, and all I need to do is my best. I think, between God and me, we can pull that off.

Of Candle-Lighting

It was just another night of plugging away at schoolwork, and I was half-listening to Nightwish’s album Imaginaerum, loaned to me by a thoughtful student. “Last Ride of the Day,” appropriately one of the last songs, was pounding away as I worked. In the midst of the triumphant refrain, these lines caught my ear:

“It’s hard to light a candle, easy to curse the dark instead…”

 I paused and looked up the lyrics to make sure I’d heard right. The song goes on to wholeheartedly support seizing the beauty and joy of the moment despite the dark.

That simple line of poetry, and its sense in the context of the song, has remained with me all week. It could be the title of this chapter in my life.

Five or six years ago, I didn’t feel an affinity with lyrics from Nightwish or Evanescence. I didn’t write stories where characters were broken at the end and stayed broken. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the Hunger Games trilogy. And I absolutely never, ever wore black. Ever.

 But that was before I supported one of my very best friends through months of brokenness and rejection at the hands of nearly everyone around her, starting with her fiancée. That was before another best friend was pushed to physical and mental limits by her job. That was before my grandmother and another dear friend died. That was before I made a new friend who suffers from depression and a schizophrenic mother. This was before I knew the meaning of the financial worry of living on one’s own on a miniscule paycheck—and trying to finish graduate school. It was before I had students of my own, with their deep hurts and sorrows and loves and losses. It was back when school shootings were just something abstract, before my imagination took me into every home of every parent and child affected.

“It’s hard to light a candle, easy to curse the dark instead.”

But that was also before I understood my personal mission in life. My mission involves candle-lighting. And if one’s really going to light candles with any sense of urgency, one has to see the dark.

Perhaps I should clarify “personal mission.” I believe with all my heart that the Bible teaches that we were each created with our own personalities and gifts (which are enlarged and enhanced by our unique experiences) in order to fulfill a specific God-given role, in His “church” (if you’re using the language of 1 Corinthians 12), or His Great Story (if you’re using my favorite metaphor). And in this story, every character counts. There are no secondary characters. My “personal mission” is my role as a character in the story. And it’s not something I’m being dragged into, kicking and screaming. It’s something I was made for. “That,” as Gandalf says, “is an encouraging thought.”

Like I said, I understand and have accepted my mission. It is, quite simply, to love people. To love a few specific people—who God always deliberately brings across my path—with enough intensity and for a long enough time that they are helped, and enabled to better achieve their own missions.

These people tend to share one characteristic: they have been hurt.

If I still lived in my little “happy bubble” I grew up in, if life was still about nothing deeper than fall leaves and family Christmases, I would be stunted. I would completely miss these people or at least avoid them. I would be more than a little afraid of them. I would be mistaking sadness for evil. I would be “cursing the dark.”

But instead, I shed a few tears—then smile, pick up my candle, and feel around for the matches.