The last time I went to a conference I was 21 years old and immortal. It was the KC/ACTF college theatre conference. I got fifty bucks for winning the undergraduate scholarly papers contest. Then I got drunk and did sixteen pirouettes in the parking lot. And then we went to Denny’s to steal ashtrays.

I don’t what happened to that girl. Man. She was a riot.

This past weekend I went to a conference again. Thirteen years later. Different. (Very different.) But when my friend Cultural Savage met me in person, he said, “You’re more punk rock than I thought you would be.”

I said, “No kidding. I’m more punk rock than I thought I would be. It’s been a while since I checked.”

And I looked at myself in the mirror, then. Away from my kids for the first time in two years. And I thought…I might be able to see that old self, peeking out.

I love that girl. Spinning in that parking lot.

I love the way she survived. I love the way she kept her zest for life. I love the way she overcame.

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I can see her peeking through, these days. But for a long time she was buried. Under a different girl in a different parking lot. 29 years old this time, and weighted down, not by age or death, but by the other end of life. Walking out of a rehearsal I couldn’t handle, a creative life that had bottomed out. Pregnant and the mother of an 18-month-old, and walking out of my dream job.

Broken and empty. Throwing it away.

But the truth is…I love that girl, too. I love the way she tried to make sense of out her new life, of service and servitude. I love the way she attacked the ego and reordered everything — absolutely everything — around potty stops and cleaning upturned faces and picking up the toys again and again.

I love the way she reached into her past. And into religion. And into isolation. I love the way she realized she didn’t have the resources she needed to be the parent and wife she wanted to be. And she found a way to go deeper, searching for a way to make it work.

I love the way she survived. I love the way she kept her zest for life. I love the way she overcame.

And I forgive her, for strangling that other girl she used to be.

//

Now we’ve gone and we’ve come back, and there’s another girl in another parking lot — a church parking lot, this time, in Idaho — and that day I was holding a three-week-old and sobbing for the loss. Sobbing for the compromises, and the expectation of compromises. The realization that while the gospel may be an open door, a church itself can be an iron gate.

“You are welcome, here. You are SO welcome, here. But don’t bring that girl who got drunk and did sixteen pirouettes in the parking lot. Don’t bring the rebel. Don’t bring the rabble rouser. Don’t bring the one who stirs the pot.”

And I am the girl who ran away again, from all the parking lots, and prayed under a tree in the woods for a clean cut between the flesh and the spirit. Prayed the strength to answer shame and condemnation with compassion, and to find the resources to believe that belonging is not incompatible with freedom.

I REALLY love that girl.

I love them all. And this is my love letter to them all.

I love the girl who died, and I love the girl who killed, and I love the girl who grieved the loss. And I love the girl who grew her feet right into the ground because that was the only way we could figure out to be whole. The only way we could figure out how to stick it all back together and be all the people that we are.

And I’m looking in the mirror now, and welcoming another day of overcoming. We’re a kind of punk rock girl at a Christian writer’s conference. And we’re telling the truth. We’re not ashamed. We’re becoming whole.

I love the way we survived. I love the way we kept our zest for life. I love the way we overcame.

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This is for a link-up with Story Sessions. There are a bunch of other posts on this prompt “The Girls We Once Were.” I’m late to join because I was away all weekend…but I made it just in time!

image by Jamie Bonilla