Travel Mugs and Sacred Play

My first stop after checking in at the ticket counter was Starbucks. I stared at the travel mugs, not particularly thrilled with what I saw.

Option 1: Plastic insulated tumbler in traditional holiday red and white. Initially, this cup grabbed my attention with its sparkling red letters and crisp white background. “Let’s Merry”. A closer look left me disenchanted, the skating fox and modern peace bird didn’t resonate.

Option 2: Large black plastic tumbler with silver triangles strewn across the sides. I didn’t even bother to pick this up for a closer look.

Option 3: White Ceramic tumbler with the words “Fa la la” repeated over and over again. I held the cool ceramic in my hand and thought to myself, “how impractical, a breakable travel mug, very silly.”

I put it down on the shelf and began telling myself that styro-foam cups all week would be just fine. I grabbed the handle of my suitcase and began to walk away. Then I thought, “No. Styrofoam will not be just fine.”

I turned back and took the ceramic mug off the shelf and made my way to the counter, where I was greeted by three grinning employees who had watched this whole thing play out and found it all quite amusing.

This trip felt extravagant, not the destination, but the purpose. I was traveling to a retreat center for a “Women’s Recovery Week” offered by The Allender Center. The cost was significant, more than I had ever spent for any kind of retreat. It had been hard to name that I wanted, and needed, to do this expensive thing. It pushed against an internal commitment I had to be low maintenance. And so, the breakable mug seemed in keeping with an emerging theme of letting my needs matter.

For five days I sat in a small group and then alone with a therapist to do the hard work of engaging my story of sexual abuse more intentionally. I had already spent a fair amount of time in similar settings and I thought I knew what part of my story needed more attention. I was surprised when Dan Allender landed in a different place, a younger place with a far more innocent part of me.

I had framed the scenes with my grandfather as insignificant, particularly compared with what seemed to me the greater violence that I experienced in college. But Dan saw it differently, and with laser precision he placed a light on the beginning of my cruelty towards my own heart. The more attention he paid to the innocent ten year old girl the more resistant I became; resistant to remembering her and resistant to feeling the damage done to her. Her innocence felt undoing to me, her curiosity and hunger for connection, her playfulness, her desire to be enjoyed by her grandfather.

Those scenes I had deemed insignificant were in fact the most important.

There is an ache to recovering innocence, to remembering it and embracing it.

The place of innocence inside of me is full of desire and hope. It is where I feel most deeply my love for my husband, children, and dear friends. It is where I have a wide eyed hope for all that could be and where I feel my desire for more. There is something both full and empty when I am in touch with my innocent, younger self. Staying in touch with her produces a higher awareness of vulnerability that comes from knowing the reality of disappointment and pain and that I will feel them unless I stay hard and cruel to my heart.

Thus the dilemma in Starbucks, where the innocent sense of fun and whimsy attached to the “fa la la” ceramic mug collides with my resistance to risking the vulnerability of it breaking and my subsequent posture of it being “impractical” so I just won’t buy it.

The moment I chose to buy that travel mug feels playfully sacred, almost as if Jesus himself was standing there nudging and elbowing me to buy it. I can picture his brown eyes sparkling a bit as he smiles and winks at me from near the cash register as they bag my frivolous purchase.

That week in the room where I met with my therapist a nativity scene sat on the coffee table between us, and the lights on a Christmas tree twinkled nearby. We talked about hope and vulnerability and the ache they bring. The ache that is attached to waiting, wondering, hoping and not knowing if what I ache for will come during my lifetime. She asked me to consider that the arc of my story is one of a living advent, where the cry of my heart remains “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

I traveled back home changed and changing. Christmas has not been the same for me since that week. I enter it more tenderly, more aware of the ache, more in touch with my innocence, and with greater anticipation for how Jesus will playfully come again for me during this season of Advent.


DSC_0512Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 30 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastors wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.