Today I interview Michelle Van Loon about her new book If Only: Letting Go of Regret.
The book launches on July 1. This interview is part of her blog tour.
I only met Michelle once IRL — for the briefest of hugs — but I often read her blog — it’s called Pilgrim’s Road Trip, so how could I not! I am frequently struck by Michelle’s authenticity. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her book.
Ruth: Regret is a very personal topic. Why did you decide to write this book? Was there a particular event that was the genesis of this project?
Michelle: It seemed as though I kept having variations of the same conversation with dozens of people who were smack-dab in the middle of their transition into midlife. They would say things like “I wish I could re-do my kids’ childhood now that they’re leaving the nest”, “I should have finished college”, “What a mistake it was when I married/divorced”, or “If only I would have spent more time with my parents while they were still here.” Spiritual growth at midlife includes coming to terms with the fact that there are no real do-overs in life. I also realized that these deep regret had the seeds of spiritual growth and potential for maturity sown into them, but few of us seemed to have the tools for processing those regrets well. In the church, we create space for confession of sin during many worship services, but rarely deal with regret in a meaningful way. The unintended message from this is that we should be able to move on once we’ve confessed. I was dealing with my own life list entitled “If Only”, and discovered that God could redeem and repurpose my regrets if I was willing to go beyond simply acknowledging that they existed. My own experience and those conversations with my midlife peers sparked my writing, but I realized that the topic had universal appeal. We all have regrets.
Ruth: The topic of regret applies to both men and women, but you often address a woman’s experience. I found this to be affirming. Did you intend for the audience to be mainly female, and if so, how do you hope the book gets used?
Michelle: You’re right – regret is an equal-opportunity “employer” in terms of gender! However, I did imagine I’d be speaking to women with this book, and wrote with a female audience in mind.
Ruth: Your writing style is fun. It doesn’t belabor a point and often uses a fresh image or turn of phrase. I suspect that you write many words that are edited away to achieve this. As a fellow writer, I want to ask: What’s your writing process, overall?
Michelle: Only a fellow writer would recognize that I wrote many words, deleted most of them, rewrote some of them, then deleted three-quarters of the new crop of words. I wish I could turn off my internal editor to spin out a lousy-but-functional first draft, but those lovely times of “flow” are very rare for me. I write at an excruciatingly slow pace, and surf the internet too much as a master procrastinator at the beginning of every writing project. That endorphin-releasing flow happens for me when I’m editing a second or third draft.
Ruth: You cover many biblical stories which are quite familiar, for example: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, David and Bathsheba, Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery. You do a good job of quickly setting the context of these stories. As a preacher, I know how shaping it is to live with a text in our heads. So let me ask: Which of these stories has the most resonance in your own life at the moment, and why?
Michelle: Great question, Ruth! I love how God’s Word reads each one of us. Whenever I walk around with a passage for a few days meditating on it, that passage is my new favorite. But if I had to select just one story from If Only that continues to resonate with me, it would have to be the account of the prodigal sons in Luke 15:11-32. I can be like the rebel son and the goody-two shoes son; I want to be like the father in the parable. I want to reflect the kind of love my heavenly Father has for me to the prodigals of both kinds he has placed in my life.
Ruth: Two phrases recur throughout the book: the Holiness of God, and our Divided Heart. Would you say these are pivotal ideas for you? I’m curious if there’s some connection between them, or perhaps a story you’d like to share?
Michelle: I have had a prayer partner named Meg for over a decade. We once lived in neighboring towns and could meet for prayer. For the last several years, we meet by phone most Friday mornings. We began to realize during the course of our conversations with one another and with God how compartmentalized and fragmented parts of our lives were. Those compartments were a handy coping mechanism, at least for me. I could keep painful childhood experiences in one slot, a bad break-up in another one. And it worked for me, as it does for so many of us. But what was I supposed to do now that the Holy Spirit showed me the contours of those compartments? Meg and I began praying Ps. 86:11 (“Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”) out of simple conviction that those compartments were hampering our respective maturity – and likely harboring sin, too. God has been answering that prayer – in his wholehearted purity, in his unfailing mercy, in his truth-telling love. The book is the fruit of some of what God has taught me as Meg and I have continued to pray that prayer.
Ruth: This book is deeply personal. In chapter nine you talk about your own mother, and her spiritual legacy, in a way that is very honest. Since your relationship was conflicted, that must have been difficult to write. What is it that you hope readers will take away from that section in particular?
Michelle: I don’t think I could have written that story one moment earlier in my life than last year, to tell you the truth. But I knew it was time to share this story, as it created a template for regret in my life that shadowed so much of the way I’d learned to live. So many families have secrets, and the effects of those secrets echo for generations. They keep us from experiencing the flourishing life Jesus promised to those who followed him. I hope readers will consider their own family stories, and the way in which shame and regret have shaped those stories. I also hope readers can discover the way in which God is at work in their lives, rescripting and repurposing past regret into new life.
Ruth: The last question seems rather obvious: Do you have any regrets about writing this book?
Michelle: Not a single one! I am praying that If Only can encourage readers to face their regrets and discover that God has been there with them, every messy step of the way.