Island-Building

When I was twelve, my family and I watched an island being formed.

The lava field on Hawaii’s Big Island looked like the surface of the moon. The black rock, brittle as glass, clawed at our shoes in a landscape where nothing lived. We stopped where the rock turned to a river: a slow ooze of hot lava, glowing dull red beneath its dark crust, hot enough to catch the tips of our walking sticks on fire. We watched it wriggle past our feet to the edge of a cliff, where it plunged into the sea in a waterfall of fire. There, beneath the waves, it was hardening, invisibly adding to the foundations of the Big Island.

Seven months into this freelancing adventure, I’m beginning to think about the cumulative effects of choices. The choices I make today don’t stand alone: they’re built on the choices I made yesterday and last month and last year. To move home after graduation. To pass up jumping for an immediate 9-to-5 job. To take seriously the gift of writing God has given me. All together, these choices start to form something: the new piece of land I am becoming.

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” It is our cumulative, grace-guided choices that determine the people we will become. Making the right choices is easier when you have a precedent on which to build. It’s less difficult to see where you’re going next time you take a leap of faith.

But building a new island is difficult when you don’t know what you’re aiming for. When setting out in a new direction, the first choice (do I trust? Do I risk? Do I sacrifice?) is the scariest. Even the best of role models can’t project what results our choices will have. So when we decide to follow God’s call, to writing, knitting, homeschooling, ministry, or something else off the beaten path, it can feel like shooting off a cliff in a stream of hot lava, wondering if we’re actually going to build something new or just get swept away in the tide.

But, once again, when the first layer is laid, the next is easier–you’ve set yourself a standard to live up to.

A friend of mine demonstrated this a few weeks ago. She interviewed for two positions, the first less desirable than the second. After the first interview went well, she accepted a job offer there. Then, suddenly, she was offered a job at the second company. Instead of bailing out on her commitment to  #1, she turned down a desirable position in order to stick to her word.

Career-builders might scoff at her brave choice. But success is more than a ladder. In choosing to demonstrate integrity, my friend sacrificed immediate gain–but set a precedent for future choices and added another layer onto her island of character. When jobs vaporize and companies fail, that rock still stands.

Of course, there’s also a second way. It’s so natural that many people, especially those in my age group, opt for this one. It’s the easy way out. When faced with a tough choice to land a great job or keep your word, to indulge yourself or honor your family, to beat the established path or trust God to lead you in His way–many people just “go with their gut” and push the long-term implications out of mind. Like Scarlett O’Hara in the wonderful Gone with the Wind, we say “I’ll think about that later.”

But Rhett (always wise) comes back to her and says, “It’s hard to salvage jettisoned cargo and, if it is retrieved, it’s usually irreparably damaged. And I fear that when you can afford to fish up the honor and virtue and kindness you’ve thrown overboard, you’ll find they have suffered.” (ch. 43). It’s hard to go back once you’ve set a precedent of taking the easy way.

So what kind of an island are you building? If the choices we make today set a precedent, do you dare to take the leap, making choices based on vision, hope, faith? Will you start building from a blueprint you can’t see?

If No One Were Looking…

One of my New Year’s goals is almost complete. I’m on page 1191 of Gone with the Wind (only 257 pages to go–the full length of many a smaller book).

Anyway, it’s wonderful. For all that it’s satirized or pegged as a “Civil War novel,” it’s about much more than hoop skirts and Confederate uniforms. It’s about a land, a people, and a way of life that passed away forever with the first shots of the Civil War. It’s about people sinking and swimming, learning to survive when their world turns upside-down. Also, it’s about Rhett Butler.

Not just the highly attractive love interest of the story, Rhett Butler also tells the truth to the spoiled, self-deceived Scarlett O’Hara. Both of them have the hearts of rascals–looking for personal profit and success, even if it means stepping on other people to get it. The only difference between them is that Scarlett tries to hide her inner pragmatist behind the wide skirts and courtly manners of a genteel Georgian lady, while Rhett lives his life openly, no matter who is watching.

At one point, Rhett and Scarlett end up dancing together in a candlelit ballroom. Rhett is doing just what he feels like doing, while Scarlett is acutely aware of the many watching eyes, all judging her by their complex labyrinth of Southern manners. She calculates her actions based on their approval or censure, while Rhett lives the same way before every audience–a form of integrity, wholeness, in spite of his other moral failings.

They have this brief conversation in Chapter 9:

Scarlett: “Captain Butler, you must not hold me so tightly. Everybody is looking.”

Rhett: “If no one were looking, would you care?” 

Which, I think, is an interesting jumping-off point for a conversation:

What do you and I do in our lives to please the audience? Where does that exhausting performance for approval stop? What would you do differently if nobody were looking? Can we start living now as if no one were looking? 

I’d love to hear your opinion! Happy Monday!

Rhinestones and Diamonds

I am blessed to have some of the world’s finest girls as my friends. They volunteer with the deaf, they start small businesses, they cook up exotic dishes with unpronounceable names. They’re going to graduate school, writing books, getting internships around the world. But not only are they energetic and talented; they are kind, loyal, dedicated, and faith-full people as well. They won’t tell you about the time they spend behind the scenes, supporting tired parents, making cupcakes for church events, encouraging their coworkers, starting conversations with the “fringe kids” on campus. They are the quiet gems in their communities, and I am honored to know them.

But here’s a mystery. Most of them spent a lonely Valentine’s Day this last week. I know that most of them came home that night to reheated leftovers, a movie by themselves, maybe some homework or e-mail. Why? While there’s certainly nothing wrong with singleness by choice, many of these girls haven’t even been offered the choice. In a world where their initiative and servanthood is exceptional, why on earth weren’t these young women of character, intelligence, and sincerity asked out to dinner by every available man on February 14?

A couple of weeks ago, I needed to clean a few pairs of earrings. I love shiny things, but I am a writer; thus, my jewelry is made mostly of tinfoil and rhinestones. To my chagrin, the Internet informed me that it is difficult or impossible to clean rhinestone jewelry. It comes down to the difference between rhinestones and diamonds.

Rhinestones, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, are imitation diamonds made from crystal, glass, or acrylic. They get their glitter from a reflective backing that refracts the light, creating sparkles and rainbows. They can be cheaply mass-produced, which makes them attractive options for impoverished English majors (and people looking for ridiculous stilettos):


This budget glitz is all fine and dandy as long as its reflective backing doesn’t get wet. Water washes away the glitter, revealing rhinestones for the plastic they are underneath.

Diamonds’ scintillating coruscation (dictionary break!), by contrast, will never wear out or wash away, no matter what they go through. That’s because their legendary luminescence comes from within one of the world’s strongest crystal structures, used for grinding metal tools or containing high-pressure lab experiments when it’s not perched atop engagement rings. Peerlessly beautiful and virtually unbreakable. I guess you get what you pay for.  

So if diamonds are where the real value lies, why is it rhinestones are so much more plentiful? And in higher demand? And for that matter, why were many of the best girls I know single on Valentine’s Day?

Cost, I think, is the answer.

It’s definitely easier to be a rhinestone than a diamond. A nice haircut and new heels are far less expensive than a heart of integrity and sacrifice. Developing those is back-breaking work that will take every day of your life and constant prayer to build. And when just a little lipstick and a flirtatious smile seem to garner instant attention and admiration, why go the distance to become a diamond on the inside?

Key word here is seem. To seem is to have one thing going on the outside and another on the inside, a double life—the opposite of integrity, being one person within and without. As women, are we all about the fragile falsehood of appearance? Are we nothing more than painted paper masks? Or can we say, with Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I know not seems…I have that within which passes show” (I.2)?

So if it’s more costly to be a diamond, why do the boys so often choose the rhinestones? This question is even asked in the 1936 novel Gone with the Wind (which I have at last begun reading; only 1,215 pages to go!): 

Scarlett: “Why is it a girl has to be so silly to catch a husband?”

Mammy: “Ah specs it’s kase gempmums doan know whut dey wants. Dey jus’ knows whut dey thinks dey wants.” 


Cost again. It’s far easier—and seems more attractive—to accept the first girl who waltzes into your arms than to labor to win a woman who has a strong character and developed beliefs.

But rhinestone beauty washes away under pressure. I know for a fact that life will throw you curveballs (if it hasn’t already). When you lose your job, when a family member is diagnosed with cancer, when you have to make a hard choice between the easy thing and the right thing, which do you want supporting you: glitter-backed acrylic, or the world’s hardest rock (which also happens to be one of its most beautiful)?

I have met these women: those who choose God’s will even when it means laying down their own, who believe in His big-picture plan and are willing to wait for it, who sacrifice for their families, who show kindness to strangers. They may not always have time for makeup, but they make time to listen to friends in need. They practice the discipline of putting others’ good before their own and seize singleness as an opportunity to serve God. They are beautiful even through suffering, through service, through sacrifice. This is the kind of beauty that withstands hell and high water. Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. 

Men, I’m not going to lie to you. You’re not going to win the heart of a woman like that easily. It takes a lot of work and prayer to become a person worth having—believe me, these women know. But set your sights high, because their value is beyond price. Diamonds, as the ad says, are forever. No water, no hardship, no struggle can wash away the radiance that comes from within such jewels. No amount of bad hair days or wrinkles can ever touch their beauty. Time cannot tarnish them; no storm can shake them. Many women do noble things, but such diamonds surpass them all. 

So here’s to the diamonds, the ladies who are of such great beauty in God’s sight. Here’s to the single women who choose to spend their time giving, laughing, discovering instead of wallowing in self-pity. Here’s to you who keep on serving even when nobody sees; who keep on praying even when God doesn’t instantly say yes. To you who reject a superficial life of mask-wearing and take the hard road of integrity: your worth is far above rubies. 

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Who are the diamonds you know? What makes them so special?