Sometimes I think my creative life would be easier if I’d wanted to be a painter or a musician when I was younger. Perhaps my parents would have paid for lessons and I would have developed a sense of discipline while growing up. As it was, the only discipline I ever stuck with was the athletic kind; the problem there was that I didn’t have much natural talent, so I gave it up before it ever took hold.
My parents were disciplined enough to work and keep our house in order, and they both spent a lot of time in Bible study, but I don’t remember seeing much creative discipline modeled at home. Perhaps it sounds like I’m blaming them for my inability to sit and write for two hours every day, but the thing I remember most about my childhood is how chaotic it was, and I know that in the midst of all that uncertainty, we didn’t have much energy left over for creativity.
The chaos in our family didn’t come from abuse, addiction, or cruelty, but from the fact that our address was always changing. And all the repeated relocation made life feel unpredictable and out of control, no matter how much love my parents showed me. Mom and Dad were perpetually “driven by the wind, and tossed,” bringing to mind a katydid that once landed on the corner of my windshield when I was driving home from Nashville. We looked at each other for a good long while before I was able to stop and set her free, and the whole time her red eyes were clearly asking for help.
Still, it’s a bit disingenuous for me to complain about my nomadic childhood because I know all those moves made me who I am today. And I kinda like who I am today—most of the time.
Here’s what I know for sure is true: I was made for the beach. Or a lake. Perhaps a really large river would work. Any place I can float about for hours on end, one that has enough space for my mind to wander and enough movement for my heart to be still. Yes, my favorite thing to do as a child was to sit and think, or take a walk and daydream. And even now, my deepest desire in the world is to have a whole day with absolutely nothing to do. That might sound like laziness, but I don’t think it is. Mary Oliver calls it a hunger for eternity, and says that it’s the poets and the artists among us who feel this craving more acutely than the rest.
However, becoming a beach bum was not a major I could choose in college, so instead, I got married. I was only twenty-one when it happened, so we can blame it on youth, plus the aforementioned childhood I was longing to escape. Two seconds later I became a mom, and it only took me seven more years and two miscarriages to discover that I was also a writer.
Again I fear it sounds like I’m complaining, but I have no regrets. I wouldn’t change a single thing in the last twenty years—well, maybe just a couple of things from this past year, but that’s another story for another time. What I’m trying to say right now is that motherhood, and all of its lovely and difficult trappings, helped me see who I really am. That I’m the kind of person who likes not having a schedule to keep, or a list of boxes to check. Who’s brought to tears by the moonrise, or a really beautiful tree. The kind of traveler who doesn’t mind getting lost, the kind of human who wants to be more than do.
I was sixteen when I first saw the movie Jurassic Park, and I longed to be the blonde paleontologist in khaki shorts and a white tank top. Not because of her beauty, or the adventure she was caught up in, but because she got to wear the same outfit everyday—and it was always weather appropriate. She looked comfortable to me. Her clothes were decided by function rather than fashion, because she didn’t have time to waste on silly decisions about clothes. She never seemed to decide anything, she just acted. She followed the trail of dinosaur bones wherever it led her.
Because having to make decisions all the time frustrates me. Decisions seem to be about the future, or the past, and having to make them takes me out of the present I so long to inhabit. Because I’m the kind of girl who’d be fine with wearing the same set of clothes every day. The kind of writer who gets so caught up in her own thoughts she sometimes forgets to eat. You might even say I’m the kind of bug who gets so caught up in flying that she ends up on the windshield of a crazy driver in Nashville. But, man, what a story she’ll have to tell some day—when she finally makes it home.
Lately I’ve begun to think of Knoxville, Tennessee as my home, even though I’m not from here. But the fact that I’ve now lived here twice as long as anywhere else I ever lived makes it feel like home. And for the past eight years I’ve been working, in a very undisciplined way, on a book, more specifically a memoir, called Hidden in Shadow. I finally published that book, last week, and if you’d like to read more of my chaotic story, you can go buy a copy here.
To give you more of an idea what the book is about, here's the brief description my publisher wrote for the back of the book:
Janna Barber was a preacher’s kid. She grew up surrounded by people who taught her to ignore and suppress negative emotions. She graduated high school, went to college, found a husband, and started a family. That's when she found herself suffering through profound sadness. Depression, multiple miscarriages, and an inexplicable anger weighed her down as she trudged through those shadows, searching for a light she could not find.
It was through her grief and lamentations that Janna learned that to experience the light of hope and joy, we must be willing to walk through the shadows. With warmth, wit, and humor, Janna invites readers to examine their own grief and see if it might be transformed into something good.
But don't just take his word for it, here's what one of my readers had to say about the book:
"Even if your journey doesn’t look the same, you’ll connect to her authenticity and walk away with a deeper appreciation for the gift that is the practice of lament. For anyone who has navigated grief, loss, and uncertainty, this book will lend comfort to your soul."
So if you haven't finished your Christmas shopping yet, perhaps you'll add my little book to your list. May the stories inside it bring much needed closure to a long, red-eyed year.