I pulled into the parking lot and before I even unbuckled my seatbelt, I grabbed my phone, clicked the Regions app and surveyed my bank account. This was summer 2015. A time between acting contracts where I was bouncing around from one odd part-time job to the next and money was so tight that I had to be certain I could afford the overpriced beverage I was about to purchase at this particularly hipster East Nashville coffee shop. I’ll give you a brief snapshot of the girl I was when I walked into that coffee shop that day… In one word, she is unrecognizable from the girl I am today. But perhaps the best word I could use to describe her would be lost.
This girl’s self worth was tangled up in a mess of toxic relationships, broken promises, impulsivity, and hidden truths. This girl ran from her past, lashed out erratically, and became quite good at blending in. She felt displaced, but she had grown accustomed to that feeling from a childhood of being the perpetual new girl. As desperately as she tried to be the extroverted, life of the party, she couldn’t silence the feelings of “not good enough” that always bubbled to the surface with every new social encounter… so she had no choice but to burn bridges as soon as an interaction left a bad taste in her mouth. She had something to prove. She had something to run from. She probably just spontaneously quit another job. She probably just drank enough to keep up with everyone else and slept over at cast member’s house the night before. She woke up in a daze, with little to no responsibility to tend to. She was too old to act this way, but too young to care. She spent her money on booze and clothes she didn’t feel quite right in. She wasted the day and made mistakes by night. She was counting the days until her escape, when she would finally leave this city that disappointed her and the people that might have an inkling of her story. This girl didn’t treat herself with respect. This girl didn’t think she deserved respect. Living on the hope that someone would text her, follow her on Instagram, friend her on Facebook, include her in some capacity, she wasted her daylight hours scrolling through social media attempting to take note of and absorb whatever it was that made her peers so happy, so popular, so normal. At first glance this girl seemed to flutter through the theatre community like a social butterfly– eager to audition, driven to perform, and thriving off planning twice weekly outings with her cast mates .. She was determined to embody the perfect ingenues that she played on stage. She blurred the lines between reality and pretend, choosing to accept a script over the harsh ordinariness of her everyday. She couldn’t find the words to say it, but she was profoundly unhappy.
Satisfied that I was able to use the $20.00 I made that morning from babysitting to fund this New Friend date, I climbed out of the car and smoothed my hair as a walked to the entrance. I distinctly remember thinking, “She’s going to see right through me” as I opened the door and scanned the cafe. “She’s going to know right away that I’m a mess.” I was a month out from moving to upstate New York to begin a new acting contract and I’d be lying if a part of me wasn’t also thinking, “What’s the point in making a new friend?” I don’t think I’ve ever shared this with her, but I almost didn’t show up. I was so embarrassed by the person I was and so tired of trying to “make it work” in Nashville, that I felt safer giving up and just waiting out the next four weeks in the comfortable isolation of my parent’s house. But I did show up. For some reason, I was moved to drive to the coffee shop, walk in, and greet Carson as she waved me over to her table.
I liked Carson instantly. I ordered a coffee soda because I had no idea what it was and proceeded to take a photo of it and upload it directly to Instagram… and she totally didn’t mind that I obviously wasn’t trendy enough to occupy the space we were in. She was a fellow artist, but she was more the kind I was trying to be, not the kind I actually was. She didn’t seem to care about attention or lead roles, she cared about the process of creation. I could tell from the conversation rabbit holes we wondered into that she was bursting with ideas and I was only just getting a glimpse at the creative force that empowered this woman. I remember wondering if I could pull off mismatched earrings like the ones she was wearing. I remember wishing I had a pen and paper so I could write down all the awesome book and play recommendations she was referring to. But mostly, I remember regretting that I was just now meeting this light of a human when I had a mere four weeks left in Nashville.
Then… something happened that threw me for a loop. We were in the middle of a conversation about anxiety and depression–two unfortunate familiar friends of mine–when I discovered the cross tattoo she had on her wrist. I guess it was the fact that I was leaving town anyway? Or maybe it was the fact that Carson made me feel safe enough to ask such a bold question, but I looked at her and looked back at that cross on her wrist and said something to the effect of, “So… you’re a… Christian? And you struggle with anxiety? How does that work?” Until that point I thought Christians were a privileged group of people that assumed they were better than me because they probably were better than me. I assumed they had never been tempted by the typical peer pressures of drugs, sex, and alcohol that most other people indulge in or at least experiment with. A Christian doesn’t lie. A Christian doesn’t make decisions based on their own self interest. A Christian doesn’t have anxiety or depression… how could they? Don’t they rely on God or something like that? Aren’t they too happy because they’re filled with the knowledge that they are such good people to worry about anything? And wait a minute– this girl sitting across from me seemed normal. No, more than normal– she seemed interesting and cool. She was a feminist, she was a go-getter, she seemed to identity with the light and the dark… and she was a Christian? I was overwhelmed by how drastically all of these things mismatched with my (limited) view of what a Christian was.
I was wrong. And if you’ve read “Let’s Talk About God”, you’ll know that this is a common judgement of mine… I always think that other people are “better than me” in some capacity and I always think everyone else is more deserving of happiness. I couldn’t be more wrong.
What happened next was the beginning of a new way of life for me, one that I can’t imagine going any other way… Carson and I became friends. She invited me to her church. I showed up once, I sat beside her, listened to the message and openly wept. I started to attended regularly and then I even found myself showing up on the Sundays that she couldn’t attend. When she wasn’t there, I sat by myself but I didn’t feel alone. I bought a bible. I read and I read. My mind was blown. My world was rocked. I couldn’t believe that another life apart from the unfilled half-life I was living actually existed. I could have meaningful relationships with others. I could love the way God loves, I could start over without shame of my past and I could forgive myself. I could do all of these things and still be me, but more than that, I could be the person I always wanted to be– I could be happy. I found so much happiness in the promise of Jesus. I barely knew anything at all other than the bible stories you grow up hearing on children’s programming like Veggie Tales, but I felt like I knew God’s love. It didn’t take long– I was in and I was in love.
I wish I could tell you one exact moment, quote a particular sermon or recite a specific verse that changed my perspective on Christianity. I guess, for me at least, it wasn’t a Christian thing, but a Jesus thing. The organized religion and the label was less important, I just wanted to know more about this Jesus dude. If anything, it was Carson’s demonstration as a flawed but utterly worthy artistic human that gave me the hope that I had a welcome seat at the table, so to speak. Perhaps I really could show up before God as I was, without fixing or changing a thing. Perhaps if I pray, someone is listening. Perhaps there is hope in tomorrow because there actually is a promise of a greater, sweeter, eternity– more serene and gratifying than anything we could ever possibly imagine here on Earth. But perhaps the most shocking realization of all? Perhaps I could learn to love and respect myself… after all, the bible says that I am a child of God and created in His image. Would that not make me deserving of respect, especially from myself? When I began to regard myself with grace and kindness, I found that I wasn’t ashamed of who I was anymore. It was like I had woken up for the first time and really seen the world in all its intricate splendor.
When I decided to walk with Jesus, I made a lot of radical changes. I didn’t see this as a major sacrifice because the way Jesus lived was radical. Dying on the cross for our sins was radical. It just made sense to me. I stopped hanging in the old circles I was hanging in before. I stopped drinking, stopped going out and staying up until early hours of the morning. I started making meaningful friendships instead of making out with so-called “friends” that were more like strangers, just to earn a moment’s worth of affection. I started asking myself questions about who I wanted to be, what I wanted to be known for and where I was going. I got baptized. I made a renewed virginity pledge. I got my own cross tattoo. I started saying no to the things that were tearing me down and yes to the things that were giving me life. I brought my parents to church and we started a dialogue about God that was brand new to all of us. I began to realize that instead of being set aside, I was set apart. All of this change was easy, until it wasn’t. It’s not so easy to go against the grain. I made a lot of mistakes. Several. Tons. In fact, I slipped in and out of relationship with Jesus a few times and after about a year and a half into Christian life, I abandon my promises and entered into an unhealthy relationship that derailed me for the better part of two years. (You can read about that in my post, “The Closed Door”). But you know what? My relationship with Jesus is all the stronger for those times when I’ve faltered.
As for Carson, well, I moved to New York at end of the summer in 2015 and then she moved to Texas before I had a chance to come back to Nashville and visit the following Christmas. I haven’t seen Carson in person since the day I was baptized, just a few days before I moved to New York. Carson and I have had some phone dates over the years– life is very different for both of us now. We are two scattered-brained individuals that become exceptionally wrapped up in whatever artistic project we’re pursuing and the people we’re with, who also aren’t the best with long distance communication. We keep up with each other on social media and shoot each other the odd, “I miss you. I’m proud of you” text every so often. I always vow that I’ll get better at reaching out and sometimes I know I must sound like a broken record. But even if our lives have gone in separate directions, even though we live hours away from each other, I think about Carson every. Damn. Day. I think about how that one coffee date quite literally changed my life. I’ve failed, I’ve messed up and I’ve circled back to where I started with my faith walk, but the fact remains that it never would have started if it weren’t for Carson. For that, I will be forever grateful… and forever putting reminders in my phone to give that girl a random call and budget for a flight to Dallas.