I celebrated my birthday last weekend.

Oh, birthdays. What fun they are. I love ’em. Whether it’s mine or someone else’s. When we celebrated Jill’s birthday, she talked about her word for this year. (Jill’s the bomb. Have I mentioned that? She is DA BOMB.)

As my birthday approached, I began to think more about what my word had been for the past year. And I have to say, FULL keeps creeping to the surface of my thought palace.

(My Italian Rachel used the term “thought palace” last weekend, and I can’t get it out of my THOUGHT PALACE.)

Every year, I have these goals of where I want to be at my next birthday. Sometimes they’re just that I want to be nicer to everyone and to myself. Other ones are more extensive.

I want to run 5 miles like it’s no big deal.

I want to sell a book.

I want to have skin that glows from my daily green smoothies.

I want to know the lyrics to every Beatles song.

And every year, no matter if I reach these goals or not, I feel like I’m not quite there.

Ah, the mystical land of There. The Hilary who lives in There has her act together. She’s super stylish and has managed to walk in heels like they’re flip flops. (She does something similar with wearing lipstick like it’s chapstick.) She finally has thin arms and well, thin everything, quite frankly. She gives Leslie Knope-level gifts and knits and has read all of Hemingway and knows how to use a straightener as a curling iron without scorching her hair, hands, or forehead.

Every year, I think, “This is the year when I turn into the Hilary of There.” She’s who I’m meant to be, after all. She’s who I saw myself growing up to become.

And yet, every year, I don’t quite make it, and I’m stuck scrambling together a few goals for the next big push into this adult me. “This is it,” I say. “I know you thought last year was the year for conquering the whole contoured cheek thing, but this is actually it. Pop open the blush and ruler.”

But this year was new.

23 was lovely. I decorated my first apartment when I was 23. (I had previously only just lived there.)

I had these super lazy days with my friends where we ate cookies and talked writing, and our preferred method of exercise was laughing hysterically.

Wolf, I gained weight from those cookies. (Laughing was not the calorie burner I had hoped it would be.)

I searched for a job. Found a job. Did a job. Quit a job. Got a dream job.

I learned how to work for 8 hours and still get up and do things after it’s over. (This took months of my life.)

I freaked out over student loans, and then freaked out over how God provides.

I watched my oldest niece lose her first tooth! I snuggled those girls like the treasures they are.

I played Pandemic with my family, and I never realized how alike we all are. We don’t like to lose. (Also, Thad is a cheater.)

I gained friends. These aren’t just numbers either; we’re talking 3 quality individuals who I’m so blessed to have in my life.

Jill and I ate ginormous slices of watermelon at the pool in the middle of a workday. (Hashtag unemployment.)

I graduated with my MFA. Hooray!

I grew out a pixie. Hooray!

I laughed so so so so so much. Hooray!

The night before I turned 24, I hung out with wonderful friends. Rob made the most fantastic breakfast (for dinner) of all time. We ate waffles and played board games and laughed and talked, and I found myself thinking that I didn’t want to be There anymore. I want to be here.

I think if a younger Hilary could meet me right now, she’d actually like me. I’m not perfect, and I have goals. But I prefer the Hilary I am right at this moment to the lipstick-wearing fantasy I have in my head. I do my best, I love people, and I feel so loved. I’m completely done with the obsession over There. I want Here to be the best it can be because it’s the real deal.

Here feels so full of people and color and love. Here makes me hungry for what 24 holds. (I think it’s going to be pretty fantastic.)

Love Story

Malibu Sunrise

I’d like to tell you a love story. I hope that’s okay.

(It is.)

I grew up in Church. (Yes, it’s going in that direction.)

My dad was saved as a teenager after listening to a Billy Graham sermon. I find this funny and lovely.

My mom grew up in the church where she eventually married my dad. It was the little white church where we borrowed animated Bible story VHS tapes. It’s across the street from where my grandparents, Mom, and I all went for high school and middle school. Small towns, man.

My earliest “Bridget Jones moment” happened here. When I was six years old we had a “hillbilly” day at church. This seems like a weird activity to me now, but at the time, I was totally in to it. I wore old jeans and a flannel shirt that Mom tied in the front. She pulled my hair in to pigtails and painted freckles on my already-freckled cheeks.  Apparently there was a contest for the best outfit, and I was pulled out of Sunday school because gosh! I was the winner. (Note: Sunday school mostly consisted of me watching the nursery leader apply Band-Aids in the most fascinating way; this is the only thing I remember about her.) (Will I ever figure out how she did it?)

I was escorted to the front of the sanctuary, in front of our 200(?)-person congregation. Our pastor said some grown-up words. I smiled. People chuckled. At first I just thought that it was my killer costume. I mean, I was winning a McDonalds certificate for $10. (Hello!)

But then I got the feeling I wasn’t in on the joke. The pastor felt it too. He looked down at me, and his bewildered smile dropped before his uncontrollable laughter spilled out. “Well, she looks the part,” he said into the microphone.

I looked down at myself, thinking maybe my shirt was askew, and there it was: a patch of white cloth, the size of my fist, in full, bright display. My fly was open–underwear and humiliation on display.

Anyway, back to the love story. You might be surprised to learn that church—even with experiences like the great undies show-off of 1997—wasn’t my favorite.

We moved churches when I was 7ish. At this point I hadn’t yet learned how to make friends instantly. By instantly, I mean anything less than spending four years seeing someone every day. I literally had zero friends grades K-3 because I didn’t say a word in school. Yeah.

Now, at home I said my prayers and didn’t eat until after grace, and not to brag, but I was kind of a complete rule-follower at home and in school. The name “teacher’s pet” rings a bell. (It rings a bell because that’s what they called me, in case that wasn’t clear.)

For me, my relationship with God was always about doing the right thing, about being good enough. I used to have this Precious Moments Bible with an illustration of a big-headed baby hiding under a blanket that said, “You can’t hide from God.” I think that’s how I felt really. I can’t hide doing a bad thing from God, so I better be perfect.

I got baptized when I was 16. That was an older age in the Miller family. At the time I didn’t get that my parents were letting me take the initiative. I thought it was something they orchestrated, like a birthday party. “Well, it’s about time you were baptized, Hilary. What do you want on your cake?” This conversation never popped up. Imagine that.

At this point, I read my Bible sporadically at best. I talked to God mechanically and irregularly. But most of all, I felt disconnected from God. I gave my life to Him like one buys a car. You sign the papers because it’s what you’re told, but you’re not reading the details.

There were moments, little glimpses of something more, but it was like a light I could never catch. It felt like I couldn’t quite feel God.

This is how I lived through my college years. I had faith, a small amount of faith. I did what was right, but there was a large emptiness to everything I did. Anytime I slowed down, I wondered what it was all for. I wondered if this is what God wanted me to be doing. When I asked God for direction, I showed no patience. It was like I was holding an ice cream cone on a hot day. I had to say my prayer and get an answer before any dripped down my hand.

Then I came to California. That direction was completely orchestrated by God. I’m 100% sure of that. It’s the first time I felt like God was specifically leading me.

I went to a new church. Here’s where it gets good.

But first, kind of bad.

I became anxious. You know how I talked about needing to be around people for four years before I make friends? Well, maybe for a kid whose best friends continue to be her three siblings, that’s an okay amount of time. But for a young adult living on her own in a new state, four years is too long. I felt tremendous pressure to make an impression on everyone I met. I wanted to be all of the Hilary that I could be. I wanted them to know that I was funny and (typically) smart and that my hair wasn’t usually that bad. I was still stuck on the being perfect thing.

It got a little bit better over the next two years. Please re-read the last sentence: two years. Two freaking years of doing it my way and it got “a little bit better.”

Last summer/spring, I was finishing school, and I was really digging in to church. And I was praying more and reading more and worshiping more, but there was still a bit of a disconnect.

This was also a bit of a depressing time; I was desperate for a job, trying to enjoy the time I had in California because I could end up back in Indiana, and calling my mom twice a day. I would cry on the phone with her and then call her back to say that I was actually okay and not that upset. (Though I obviously was.)

My performance, my striving to be good enough, had run out.

I was burned out.

I was bummed out.

I was tremendously guilty about being bummed out.

And then.

And then.

And then!

I can remember the afternoon it changed. Someone I knew had gotten an interview at what would be a dream job for him. After months of applying for every job ever to pop up on every job list, shady career site, and social network, it felt like I wasn’t good enough. That finally, doing things my way wasn’t working. Where was my dream interview? Where was my success and my my my my MY MY MY…

I literally fell to the floor and cried out. “Not my way, but Yours.” Over and over I prayed this prayer. I was so upset and bitter and angry and heavy and done with “a little bit better,” and suddenly—as in instantly—as in miraculously—I was overcome with God’s presence. I was filled with peace. I kept thinking of Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

It struck me that God has a plan for my life. It’s not that I didn’t know this before. It’s not that I didn’t have faith before. But in this moment, I was overcome by the fact that the creator of the universe had a personal, perfect-timed plan for MY life. It had NOTHING to do with how well I did anything. Not talking in school? Didn’t matter. Making friends? Didn’t matter. Making sure people know I’m not a dummy? Having an open fly? Nope.

That’s not what God cares about. (I mean, I do think that He wants me to have friends because friends are an important part of life.) God cares about my heart. He wants to be there, not to see how well I do, but to walk beside me in the fight. He wants to be my answer, my way when there seems to be no way, and my way when I could go my own way. And the whole getting “a little bit better” thing? I didn’t want to settle for that. God doesn’t want me to settle for that.

My point of view was broken apart. A new thing came. You know how in The Princess Bride when Buttercup realizes that Westley is actually saying, “I love you,” every time he says, “As you wish”? I realized that everything good in my life, that every single day, God was telling me how much He loved me, and His love is unlike anything I could have ever imagined.

I got a job, by the way. It wasn’t my favorite, but you know what? I spent most of my time listening to worship music and praying. What a gift.

What a life-changing gift. (I also got a new job, and it pretty much rocks.)

No longer am I disconnected. I feel so connected. Not only do I feel connected, but I’m an overcomer. Anxiety? It has no place here.

And that emptiness? Gone.

And the depression coupled with the guilt? No more.

I’m not saying I don’t contend with these feelings, but I am saying that I know they’re lies. I know that God LOVES me NO MATTER WHAT. It has nothing to do with my attitude or intelligence or eating habits or how well I share His message with a stranger. It has nothing to do with my character and everything to do with His.

God doesn’t just want me to strive and be okay and have an okay time. “As long as I don’t make a fool of myself, it’s fine.” God wants to be present in it all, and His presence isn’t just okay. It isn’t just anything. He wants to tear down everything I think I know about doing life and show me His own way. It’s the best, most satisfying, most beautiful way. It’s not that things are perfect. They’re not, but I’m choosing to believe in the breakthroughs that have and will come. I’m choosing to let God in on the real stuff. When I accidentally show off my underwear, I want to laugh with Him about it. (And cry with Him about it.) I want to choose His way.

How can I not fall for someone like this? Someone who loves me right where I am and sees me as more than I am and wants to be my constant, my love, my therapist, my best friend, my answer, my Father, and my Savior.

So if I look like I’m in love and seem stupidly happy, it’s because I am, okay. I so am.