Tag Archives: giving

All or Not At All

As I am

As I am

All or not at all.

—James Joyce

What breeds hesitation in you? What holds back a hand that wants to knock, a smile that wants to break wide and warm the room, a foot that picks up, wanting to walk straight across the room to the hurt in another?

If I am holding back, I can be certain that fear is forming the shackles. Looking down at a heart half-beating, at lungs half-breathing, I know it is fear of losing that keeps my heart and lungs stilled, unfulfilled. I cannot begin to question how I become little more than living dead when the habit of my life has been to still that which stirs, silence that which needs so much to sing right out loud.

I have spent the last year digging through ashes, fighting through flood, and learning, seeking, searching, just what it means to love.  I have come again and again to a single answer— love is giving your life away.

And what if in the daily fold of laundry, the stirring of little more than cereal in a bowl, what if no grand heroic gesture can be found to make? No bullet to take, no sacrifice other than my comfort, the exposure of my own insecurities…what then?

If my offer is quiet, if my offer is not dramatic diving, but awkward reaching, unsure, always unsure, what then? Is it even worth the offer, to stretch rusted joints to offer little more than an empty hand to hold? Ashamed at what little I have to offer, but desperate to reach, can I get past the pounding heart if it means I have loved?

I have made an unintentional collection this year of quotes, Bible verses, song lyrics, and encouraging words from friends, and they are serving as a rampart in time of doubt. This quote by Joyce beats like a mantra whenever I have begun to question, to be tempted to listen to the lie of “too much,” and “not enough.”

As I am, as I am, all or not at all…

“Too much” was always my biggest fear. I’ve been handed those words before. I feel too much, think too deep, ask too many questions, get too lost in my own imagination. “Too” is possibly our favorite distancer. I take a step forward, and suddenly I am too close.

But if our great example of love is one who sacrificed himself—came and died and no one rolled their eyes and said, “Jesus, it’s just too much, you’re making people feel awkward”— then how can I possibly reach a point where I love too much? It is a lie. It is a fallacy created to silence truth, and that truth is simply this: we were created to love, and to be loved. We love because he first loved us, and his offer is perfect, his offer is what we should be willing to copy.

But we are taught that we must hide our tarnish, and the best way to hide is distance, don’t show or share too much. Isn’t it important that we hide ourselves well, as if nothing more than a shiny shell was the goal? I have for so long attempted to dance along the fractured fault lines of social convention, following rules never written down, created to keep us out of each other’s lives. How foolish of me to be surprised to find myself at the bottom of a pit when an earthquake hits.

Once in a job interview I was asked what my financial goals were. The nice man laughed when I said to give. To give without blinking, to earn much and live on little, and give. But how can I possibly know that someone’s cup is empty if I am not close enough to peek inside? Can I give too much? Can’t this just be my life, to give?

All or not at all.

This is a great balancer, as I am, and all or not all when I am tempted to the weight of defeat, when the desire to give burns deep but still feet are stamped and accusations are thrown that I just do not give or love enough. It is like a secret I have circled around, and have just now managed to unlock, because the fact is, if I choose to love as I am, all or not at all, I must allow an honest look at the love offered. If as I am, and all of my all is just not enough, then what is my recourse? What can keep me from despair when the voices would have me buckle under “not enough?”

Did I give? Yes. The temptation is to prove the love, buy into the game of gesture, grand or small, become my own attorney and argue my case before the court.

Truth is, I’m not much for arguing. Instead I work. Harder, longer, tiring myself to the bone, to prove. I can’t help but think that anyone who asks for proof will never be satisfied in my offer.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh put it best when she wrote to an angry friend these words:

I think probably it is just as well that you are disillusioned about me. It is a terrible burden you put on people, to dream them up into something they never were or could be and then throw them out for not living up to your dream!

All or not at all.

All I have, not all I have, plus what I must tack on to meet another’s expectations.

All I am, not all I am minus what another doesn’t find acceptable.

It is an offer. All or not at all. If I imagine life as a great banquet table, and I am holding all I have to offer on a platter, waiting to serve, what are my choices? If I hold onto it for fear my offer would be found somehow wanting, well, it would rot right in my hands.

So I dish out, serving after serving. Some poke at my offer and smile polite smiles, but never take a bite. Some wrinkle their noses and push the plate away. I try to keep my heart from breaking and I want to snatch it back, run, pretend it never happened. After that I look again with doubt at what I have to offer. This is it. All or not at all.

I try again, because “all” does not equal a scared clutching to my chest of what I have arrived with. I try, until I see that first satisfied smile, where all I have offered has met a need, filled a heart and maybe just a corner of the empty that causes the ache this world lives under. I no longer want to be living or loving to the tune of anyone else’s approval, and I am stripping down from all I have tacked on, and all that’s been added to me.

I offer. As I am, as I am, all or not at all.


Three Things I am Missing


Carol hard at work.

I have spent the many years since college wasting as much time, energy, and effort on how to craft my craft as some people spend on trends in diet and exercise.  I have amassed piles of books and spent hundreds on accompanying journals.

The point of any of these plans and exercises, it seems, is to trick yourself into being productive. But I was not so easily fooled, and surprise, surprise, none of these things was in fact getting my book written. It turns out that, as a grown up, and an individual, I had to figure out through pure trial and error what worked best for me. I’m still learning, because as it also turns out, I am still learning a lot about myself. Let’s hear it for adulthood!

In my continual quest for propulsion, I have decided to start asking some other creative types I know some questions about their work. This endeavor requires that I push past the deep levels of social anxiety that usually wire my jaw shut before I can start much of a conversation with anyone. Growing up. I am growing up. Sigh.

The first person I thought of was my friend Carol. Carol welcomed me to our church before we even knew if it would be our church, and hers was a face I looked forward to seeing again when it was settled we would be moving to Vermont. She has been a friend in the deepest sense of the word, praying with me, challenging me, letting me pray for her.

Carol is a painter, and the walls of her home are graced with works of her own. I asked Carol if I could talk to her about her painting sometime, and she invited me to come one Wednesday morning to talk to her and two other ladies, Patty and Arlene, that get together to paint each week.

This would require a level of bravery I usually avoid having to summon. (Strangers! At a strange house!) (Social anxiety is dumb.)

I had already put my foot in the water. No sense not jumping in now.

They paint in Patty’s kitchen, where they had classical music playing in the background, and candles lit.

Patty and Carol were roommates in their twenties, when they took an art class together for something to do. Arlene has never had a class, but heard of how the ladies meet and thought it might be something she would like to do.

For both Patty and Carol the pursuit of painting waned during their career years, and still sometimes there are obligations that can get in the way. In the summer months, they play golf together, and perhaps seek out some galleries to go to.

Patty’s Gift.

When I asked why they painted, they all answered with two reasons: to give gifts of their work, and for a kind of therapy. Patty and Arlene both are pleased to see their children staking claims on the paintings they have kept for themselves.

Patty is working on a painting of three owls, of which she intends to paint three paintings, for her and two other close friends that travelled together to Cape Cod and all fell in love with a similar painting of three owls.

I watched Arlene as she put down one painting and picked up a blank canvas. She asked Carol some advice on a good background color, then chose her brush, found a color, and began to paint.

Did they find inspiration in any other art forms? I asked.

They agreed that music was an inspiration, though Carol shared that when she was at home she liked to paint in silence. She finds that silence evokes a relaxation, making her able to reach her inner spirit. If she paints with music, it is for a specific purpose, like meditation, or worship.

They kept painting as we spoke, though they confessed feeling a bit shy with me there.

I am grateful to them for opening up to me. I discovered through talking with them three things that are missing from my own craft:


Have I ever imagined that the words I write could be a gift to someone? Not until I began this blog did I have the feeling I might let someone other than myself down if I didn’t write. How else could I use this gift of mine to bless others?


What of retreat, of a place to relax into myself? I have too long used my calling to write to burn a streak of guilt through me. It is where I feel most myself, though, putting down words. What level of self-neglect takes something instinctive, intrinsic, and turns it to poison?

Arlene shares the inspiration for her next project.
Arlene shares the inspiration for her next project.

The image of Arlene starting a new painting has stuck with me. Just picking up a blank canvas, and starting anew. I lose myself in a flurry of insecurity that takes me a good fifteen to twenty minutes to break through before I write. Each time. I expect, nearly require, atmospheric perfection, in household silence, on which I spackle a smooth layer of just the right music. I must have the right amount of time to do just what I want, or I don’t find I have good focus as I keep one eye on the clock.

It’s a dichotomy of knowing how my brain works best, and giving in to excuses for not working.


And what of joy? Even if it is hard work, any chance to create is nothing short of a shining blessing from above. I must throw off the notion that this should be anything other than the breathless but satisfying heartache of the wildest romance. There is imperfection, perhaps timidity, and even silence, but it is knowing that I am more myself here than anywhere that will call me back, and keep me here.


What have you let go of in your creative pursuit? Have you turned it into work, forsaking the joy you once found in it? How can you get the pleasure of creating back?


To Carol, Patty, and Arlene, the sweet ladies who were willing to share their special gifts with me, thank you.