I didn’t grow up saying the Lord’s Prayer, either in church on Sundays or on my own. I knew it, of course –-I could recite it if called upon to do so—but it was not a part of my spiritual life until about a year ago when I started reading morning prayers from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer on a regular basis. Each morning’s liturgy includes a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
For the past few weeks we’ve been attending an Anglican church here in Columbia and the Lord’s Prayer has a place in the Anglican liturgy as well.
“Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name,” we pray. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.”
And then, “Give us this day our daily bread,” And this is where I get stuck.
About two months ago I wrote this post about provision. I wrote about how I wanted to whine and complain about all of the unknowns in my life, but when I took a break from whining, I really could see God’s hand and his provision in the way the pieces were coming together for us as we prepared to move.
I clung to those signs of provision. I strapped them on like a life preserver, protecting me from all that was still unknown. We arrived in Columbia buoyed by the things we did know – we had a great condo lined up, Jonathan was starting classes right away, and I had 4 or 5 freelance jobs in the pipeline ready for me to pursue. There were still a lot of questions, but these things gave us confidence that everything would fall together in the end. Instead, things fell apart.
A week after moving into our condo (and painting and decorating and getting it set up the way I’d imagined in our months of kooky Korean wallpaper and windowless rooms) we got a call from our landlord. The condo had been listed for sale for several months before they leased it to us and someone who had viewed it previously had put an offer on it. Just one week into our one-year lease they were asking if we could please move out. We did some negotiating and came to an agreement that feels fair to us, but this still means we will have to find a new place and move out of our beautiful condo within the next three months.
Before arriving in Columbia, we decided that I would take the month of September to try to make freelance writing work as my primary source of income. If things weren’t coming together by the end of September then I’d have to take whatever random job I could get. I had worked diligently for the past five months in Korea to make connections and pursue opportunities. I even took a contract job back in April for a company who paid me abysmally and juggled working for them with teaching full-time in an attempt to gain the experience I needed to work for a better company I’d been in contact with. I worked every connection I could think of and came to Columbia with 4 or 5 solid leads. I figured even if they didn’t all pan out, a few of them would, and this would be a great foundation to build on. We arrived and I started making phone calls, “I’m here now and available! What do you have for me?” And one by one the doors closed.
Now we are more than halfway through September and I’ve managed to scrounge up a grand total of 4 hours of consistent work/week. (Which would be spectacular if only I made $100/hr). I spend most of my days looking for and applying to jobs (freelance, part-time, and a few full-time) and while I’ve had several prospects, so far nothing has panned out. The more desperate I become the less picky I am about what I apply for and the more I feel like I am just whoring myself out for jobs I don’t even want. Each day that passes I struggle more and more with feelings of worthlessness and I end most days heavy with discouragement and with fear. I reach the end of another unsuccessful day and I am bombarded with the fear that I will not be able to provide. That we will run out of money. That my husband will have to drop out of his program –the one thing he’s ever been really passionate about– because I have failed him.
It’s hard not to feel like I was wrong about provision. Like I wanted to see God’s hand in this so badly that I squinted until I could convince myself it was there. It’s hard to feel like I can trust him when he seems to be all about taking things away.
And yet. Within a week of arriving here I was invited to join a women’s Bible study led by the friend who helped us so much with finding our place here. I went to meet people, even though the phrase “Women’s Bible Study” usually makes me want to throw up a little. And what I found was a group of women who are willing to be real.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had five separate women from that group text me, call me, take me out for coffee, or invite me to their homes. They have sent me leads on jobs and a new place to live. And last week when I arrived at the church they had brought bags of groceries from their own homes to help fill my pantry. If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is.
It struck me this week that this phrase I pray so often, “daily bread,” is, well, daily. It is not “Give us this day everything we need for the next five years,” or even, “Give us this day enough bread to last for the next month.” It is asking God for enough for today. And it is coming back to Him, needy, each new day.
So while I can’t always seem to muster up the faith to believe that God will provide an income and a new place to live, or even a final resolution to this ear infection I’ve had off and on since July, maybe all that is required of me is enough faith for just one day.
I’m not a very “together” person and honestly, I’ve never tried to pretend that I am. I don’t have a problem admitting that I mess things up sometimes. But lately it’s felt like all the time.
There are dozens of things I know I’m not very good at. I don’t like failing at those things, but in a way, my expectations of myself aren’t very high. I’m prepared to deal with these failures. It’s so much more discouraging to find you’ve failed at something you like to think you’re good at. And I’ve been failing like a boss.
You know how sometimes you pray for patience and then God gives you lots of trying circumstances as opportunities for you to practice? And (if you’re like me) you’re like, “Yeah, not cool, God. Not what I meant.” I feel like that’s what’s happened to me lately.
At the beginning of the year I said, “Ok, God, I want this year to be about learning wholeheartedness. I want to live with intention, to connect, to be compassionate, and to live a life that isn’t ruled by shame.” And I feel like God said, “Ok, well here’s some anxiety, and here’s some loneliness, and here’s a heaping spoonful of shame. Go ahead and practice wholeheartedness. Sucker.”
Yeah…Thanks, but no thanks.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what Brené Brown calls “shame resilience.” This is the ability to accept that you’ve made a mistake without letting it affect your sense of worthiness. It’s the ability to lean into those feelings of vulnerability and silence what Brown calls your “shame gremlins” by practicing self- compassion. This is how we can admit to our mistakes and learn from them without letting our mistakes define us.
I have been lonely lately. Not, “I have no one to hang out with” lonely. More like I don’t feel a strong sense of connectedness and belonging. This has made me self-focused and self-centered. I’ve spent more time feeling sorry for myself, thinking about what I wish I was getting from others instead of about what I could be giving. And this has led to some pretty epic fails on my part.
My shame gremlin sounds like a meaner version of Mushu from Mulan. (Hashtag Disney4Eva). “Dishonor! Dishonor on your whole family. Dishonor on you. Dishonor on your cow…” except more like, “This is why you’re lonely. Because you don’t deserve love and belonging. Because you suck.”
Yesterday I let my shame gremlin overwhelm me. It was one of those days when I went to bed at 8:00 simply because I couldn’t bear being conscious any longer. I woke up this morning feeling about the same and frankly, I don’t feel much better now, but I’m going to try to practice shame resilience. And I’m going to start by extending grace.
The thing about grace is, it’s always there for me if I just let myself receive it. The only thing standing between me and grace is my shame. I inked this word, “GRACE,” onto my body because I wanted it to mark me, but I still have trouble letting it pierce my heart.
When you’re not very good at something, the only way to get better is by practicing. So I’m practicing. I’m practicing extending grace. I’m saying, “It’s OK that you really messed up, here. You are already forgiven. You don’t have to beat yourself up about it. You can grow and you can learn from it. This does not affect your value or your worth.”
I’m still feeling pretty crappy. But that gremlin sounds a little quieter now. He’s still talking, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen.
It’s Christmas Eve and I’m sitting at my desk at work trying to say something meaningful about incarnation and hope and glory, but all I can think of is how much I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be at work and I don’t want to be in Korea.
For twenty Christmases I’ve spent Christmas Eve in the holy hush of a candlelight communion service. I’ve worn snowman socks to bed and slept with my sisters on piles of blankets on the floor upstairs so we would wake up together on Christmas morning. For twenty Christmases I’ve been the one who woke up first in the pale gray hours, too full of excitement to fall back asleep. I’ve watched my parents and siblings opening twenty years of Christmas presents, each carefully chosen and wrapped by hand. The memories of these Christmases are joyful and sweet.
This year I will spend Christmas Eve huddled over a space heater in an apartment that’s always cold, 6,000 miles from my family. I will climb into bed and tuck my shoulders beneath my husband’s arms, draping his body across my back like a cape to protect me from the cold and from my sadness. I will close my eyes and try to pray for joy and wonder to return, but mostly I will pray for sleep. I will pray to wake in the morning and find that Christmas has come anyway. I will pray for gratitude for the Christmases I’ve shared with my family and for gratitude for the Christmas I am sharing with my husband today. I will pray that Christmas morning can still be beautiful and miraculous. And I will pray that I will have the eyes to see it.
Growing up my family didn’t celebrate Advent in any traditional sense. We always attended non-denominational churches that lacked any sort of liturgical traditions. We never used an Advent calendar or lit the appropriate candles on Sundays, though we did set up a nativity scene where the baby Jesus remained conspicuously absent until Christmas morning when me or one of my siblings got to unwrap the Christ-in-manger figurine and place him between his expectant parents who had been kneeling in awe of an empty space for weeks.
Even without Advent traditions the Christmas season was always full of excitement and anticipation for me. There was something mystical and magical about the lights and decorations, familiar tastes and smells and the chance to sing Christmas carols during regular church services. But, like many people, after adolescence hit, some of the glitter started to rub off. I remember feeling a sort of let-down that for some reason even though I enjoyed Christmas, it just didn’t feel as magical as it used to. This continued year after year and despite my attempts to follow the advice of all Christmas movies everywhere to “Just believe,” I could never recapture the way I’d felt about Christmas as a six-year-old. Eventually I gave up hoping that Christmas could ever be as magical as it was back then.
I’ve noticed a lot of people this year posting blogs or statuses about feeling disappointed and discontented with the way Advent is turning out. People are angry about the injustice in the world, disappointed with circumstances in their own lives, or frustrated with their own busyness. All of this disillusionment seems to center on the idea that this is not how the Christmas season should be. I’ve seen a lot of comments along the lines of, “This is supposed to be a season of joy, a season of peace, a season of contentment and closeness to our families, a season of celebration.” Even those who don’t claim Christianity often consider this time of year a good time to remember the poor, to celebrate family, and to intentionally show more love and patience to others.
I think we may have gotten it wrong.
I don’t think Advent is primarily about peace and joy and all the other warm and fuzzies we think we’re meant to feel. I think Advent is about longing.
It is about longing for a world that is not broken. Longing for justice for Michael Brown. Longing for restored relationships with our families. Longing for a world where people cannot be bought and sold as commodities. Longing for comfort for the friend who has lost her child. Longing for rest from a world that is moving so fast we feel like if we pause for a moment we’ll get left behind. It is about longing for hope that we are not abandoned.
Most of us are very uncomfortable with longing. We live in an instant-gratification world, one where it is unacceptable for a need to go unmet or a wish to go unfulfilled, so when we feel emptiness in ourselves, we rush to fill it. Sometimes the desire to satiate longing manifests itself in materialism – the need for the next new thing. Sometimes it shows up in our relationships and we use and abuse other people in our desire to satisfy our longings.
My own attitude towards longing is usually, “How can I make this go away?” But I think we have two choices when it comes to longing – we can lament the discomfort we feel and try to make the feelings go away, or we can embrace those longings and let them change the way we live and love.
Maybe Christmas is the perfect time to bring awareness to the disparity between the world we live in and the world we long for.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
This is a song about mourning and emptiness and the longing of a people for rescue and restoration. But it is also a song about hope. Yes, we are mourning in exile now, but Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come.
Calling attention to the brokenness in the world doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. As long as we continue to deeply feel this disparity, there is hope. As long as we still have the image of what peace and joy could look like in the world – as long as we live every day to bring these things to our corner of the world, there is hope.
For Christians, it is the hope of the incarnation. It is the tangible promise of God with us. It is the belief that we are not abandoned. As long as we both pray and live “Thy Kingdom come,” there is hope.
If we’re looking for a perfect time of holiday cheer this season, we can be sure we won’t find it, but that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to disappointment and disillusionment the way I did when I outgrew my childhood belief in Christmas magic. We can embrace the longing and feel it deeply instead of trying to chase it away with other things or feeling guilty that we aren’t filled with peace and joy . And we can rejoice that Hope is still alive and let that longing and that hope change the way we live.
I recently found out that the hit count on my Relevant article back in June was over 1.6 million. The editor told me it was the second-biggest traffic day in the history of their website. That’s mind-boggling to me.
If you had asked me a year ago what I thought it would mean to have a piece get that much exposure, I would have assumed it would be my big break. That it would boost my blog, lead to freelance opportunities, help connect me to the right people. That it would be my open door into the world of professional writing and publishing. That it would bring me validation and satisfaction. It would reassure me that what I’m doing here isn’t pointless and that my story matters.
Do you want to know the truth?
It hasn’t done any of those things. For a few weeks I received a lot of emails and messages from people thanking me for my story. I got to write a few guest posts on the topic. But no one has offered me a job and I haven’t landed an agent. 1.6 million people read something I wrote and my blog still has fewer than 200 followers. (If that’s not discouraging, I don’t know what is). And as much as I would love to say I don’t care about any of that, in the world of professional writing ( by which I mean writing in some capacity that pays the bills) numbers are what matter. How many subscribers do you have? How many followers on Twitter?
All I’ve ever really wanted to do since I was in kindergarten is to be a writer. I’ve tried other things and I’ve cultivated other interests, but writing is the only thing that has consistently excited me. I’m under no illusions that I could make a career out of blogging, but I would love to have enough paid work as a writer to support my family while doing something I love. And, like most writers, I would love to write a book someday. But these past few months I’ve become more and more convinced that I am not cut out for what “being a writer” means today.
Being a successful writer is no longer about craft or talent or art. It’s not about having the deepest insights or the most profound observations to share. It’s often simply about who can shout the loudest. Like high school student council elections, success in the blogosphere is a popularity contest. It’s about who is the most provocative, who is the most visible on social media, who is the most aggressively self-promoting.
I admit that I’ve dipped my toe into that pool. This summer I (very reluctantly) got a Twitter account. I hate it. I almost deleted it within 30 minutes of registering. I’ve tried to network with other bloggers, to write and invite guest posts, to comment other places, to submit pieces to other publications. But pursuing self-promotion doesn’t feel right to me. Reading someone else’s posts and looking for ways to insert myself and my work into the comments goes against some of my core values of sincerity and authenticity. These are things I’m not willing to compromise on.
In my last “What I’m Into” post I confessed that I’d been reading like a chain-smoker, using other people’s words to try to hide from own. I’ve read a few posts about this struggle lately (here and here ). Honestly, I was a little shocked and disheartened. One of my friends is working on a book and has landed a really great agent. One has a completed manuscript she’s starting to send around. I look at them and think, “If only I had an agent…” or “If only I had a finished manuscript…” Perhaps they look at me and think, “If only I had a million-view article…” And yet, we seem to have hit a collective wall. We are all struggling to feel that what we are doing matters.
I confess that I frequently get angry with popular and successful writers whose blogs I find poorly written and uninspiring. I don’t believe in quantity over quality – in pushing points that don’t need to be made just to generate content. There are a million voices out there and there are many moments when I don’t think the world really needs mine. If all I’m doing is adding to the noise then I’d rather be silent.
I want my writing to be about creating something beautiful—about art and passion and sincere wrestling with (sometimes fragile) faith. I want it to be about telling truths and naming every day grace. I want it to matter.
I’ve been rolling a book idea around in my head for at least eight months. There are some stories I want to tell, but I am afraid. This stage I’m in as a writer is one where I carve off a chunk of my heart and fling it out into the world and watch it disappear into the distance without even the consolation of hearing an echo back to let me know I hit something.
I am afraid of failing, yes, but here is an uglier truth. I am also afraid of hard work. Or rather, I am afraid of hard work that goes unrecognized and unappreciated. I am afraid of 1.6 million people who say, “Your words don’t matter.”
I want to give up.
And yet, I can’t quite do it. I can’t completely walk away. Because this space has changed me. In some ways it is healing me. I’ve made friends here. I’ve found a tiny community of artists who are fighting to say something true. These people inspire me. And I’ve experienced moments of extraordinary grace from readers, some whom I’ve never even met in real life, who have sent encouraging emails and have shared their own stories, who have sent me articles and books that are dear to them, and even one who bought the most beautiful cook book I’ve ever seen and mailed it all the way to Korea.
Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
I’ve never been rich or famous, but I can tell you that as a writer, having an article go viral is not the answer. And it seems that having an agent or finishing a manuscript is not the answer. Satisfaction and conviction that this work is good and that it is worth doing has to come from somewhere else.
I don’t know what the next few months will look like here on the blog, but I’m committed to trying to figure this out. Should I write? Should I not write? What should I write? And why? And for whom? Hopefully I will find a way forward–a way to be able to do what I love without compromising the kind of person I want to be.
****EDIT: I just wanted to add a note letting you all know how much I appreciate all of the kind and supportive comments I’ve been receiving on this post and for all of the new followers. I am really overwhelmed by your generosity and support. Online interactions can sometimes be so negative and all of your kind words have really touched me. I may not be able to respond to each and every comment, but please know that I’ve read every word and I appreciate them. I know I’ll come back to them in moments of discouragement. I’ll be checking out a lot of your blogs over the weekend. There’s a phrase we use in Korea that means “Don’t give up! You can do it!” It more or less translates to “Fighting!” in English. So to all of my fellow writers, artists, and creators, “Fighting!”
Last August my husband and I packed up our apartment, stored our belongings, sold our cars, crammed everything we thought we couldn’t live without into 4 suitcases and took a one-way flight to South Korea. We were going to teach, something neither of us had any experience doing. We didn’t know anyone in Korea and we didn’t speak the language. The plan seemed foolproof.
After three years of marriage and three years of working dead-end jobs – watching friends finish graduate school, start the careers they dreamed of, and begin buying houses and starting families, I felt stuck. I felt stuck in spite of the fact that we had moved across the country, just to try something new. I felt stuck in spite of my changing jobs every summer since college, consistently growing to hate whatever my current job was and searching for something better. I felt stuck even though I loved North Carolina, lived within meters of my best friend, had two fantastic cats, and had been able to do some traveling each year. In spite of all of that, the disquiet inside of me was unrelenting.
And so, we struck out across the sea. To a continent neither of us had stepped foot on before. To a country I’d honestly never even considered visiting. We went in pursuit of adventure and new opportunities and a fuller life. I thought living abroad would mean an end to boredom. An end to feeling trapped in the tedium of the jobs I’d held before. An end to the monotony of the ordinary American life, and an end to unhappiness and discontentment.
It took only a few months for the newness to rub off and suddenly Korea was no longer a shiny and alluring dream to chase, but a somewhat dull and ever-present reality. The novelty of being immersed in a new culture gave way to the everyday challenges of being misunderstood and the frustration of feeling like a child again, unable to properly do something as basic as ordering food in a restaurant or answering the telephone. Every small aspect of life being just a little more complicated and a little more confusing than it should be soon became exhausting instead of thrilling. As the winter came and the weather became colder and grayer, I found myself, once again, struggling. Struggling to be positive. Struggling to pull myself out of bed and head to work in the morning. Struggling to care about blow-drying my hair and dressing nicely. Struggling to eat well instead of ordering McDonald’s delivery and lying in bed until it arrived. Struggling to connect with my husband instead of sinking into my own little Downton Abbey world at the end of each day. Struggling to go through the motions of another day that is as ordinary as daily life was at home, except that now ordinary includes not understanding half of what happens around me.
Although intellectually I always understood this, it wasn’t until we’d picked up and moved across the world that I fully realized that no matter where you are, the rituals of daily life just are mundane. Even in Korea I have responsibilities. I have to get up and go to work on time. I have to do the laundry and clean the apartment and cook dinner and buy groceries. Yes, there are new things for me to explore every weekend if I want to. Yes, I have a job that doesn’t feel as pointless and soul-sucking as my marketing job did. Yes, I have opportunities to travel and see new things I never dreamed I’d see. Those are the things that make this experience the best decision we’ve ever made. But in my day to day life I can find just as many things to complain about, just as many things that weigh me down or to make me unhappy as I did back home.
For years I have wrestled with discontentment. I have been the master of convincing myself (beyond all logic and in complete contradiction to the Apostle Paul’s assertion that he had learned “to be content in every circumstance”) that the reason I was discontent was because of one particular set of circumstances or another. That life would be better when the next thing came. That I would be better. I told myself I would be content once I went to college, had a boyfriend, graduated from college, got married, stopped nannying and found a real job, moved somewhere new, quit my new job, went back to school, lost weight, had more friends, took an exciting vacation, moved abroad…
Sometimes this was true. Going away to college made me infinitely happier than I was in high school. Getting married has been the richest and best experience of my life. Quitting my marketing job helped me realize that I am not cut out for a desk job. And moving to Korea and the travel we’ve been able to do since we came has made me feel alive in a way that nothing else ever has. But in the end none of those things were a permanent fix. Three weeks or four months or a year later, there was always something else for me to be dissatisfied with.
I’m not a “sad person.” I laugh easily, and often. But those who know me best can see that there is often an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with life and frustration with myself for being that way.
Because even though I have made change after change after change (and some of them have been wonderful) I have carried the root of the problem inside of me like a cancer. Living in Korea has objectively been a wonderful experience, but Korea doesn’t have the ability to make me happy. Because I brought pessimism and discontentment and a tendency towards depression here with me.
I understand the difference between happiness and joy. That happiness is temporary because it is affected by our circumstances, but joy is something you can possess even when you’re unhappy with your circumstances. But I also know that discontentment leaves very little room for joy. And for me, sometimes discontentment’s uglier cousin, depression, can fill up all the space inside of me until there isn’t any room for joy to grow.
Coming to Korea has changed me in some positive ways. I am no longer waiting for the next great thing. I no longer tell myself that I will be happier or more content when I reach the next milestone. I think of Korea, and this time living abroad, as our great adventure. I don’t in any way think life will be miserable after this, but I also feel that this may be the biggest and craziest thing we do. That there might not be a “bigger” thing after this. And I don’t want to live my life constantly looking forward to what’s ahead. I want to live a life that is full of wonder. I want to soak up beauty like a sponge and know wisdom’s voice. I want to know that things are real because I’ve seen them and touched them with my own hands. I want to be willing to give of myself with no thought to how tired it will make me. I want to learn to love the whole world. And I want to learn to love myself.
This is the life I want and yet, this winter has been dark, friends. Some days I’ve wanted to let it swallow me. To lay down in my bed and not get up again until spring. This isn’t because my life is horrible or even particularly difficult. This has nothing to do with my actual circumstances. This is because I am broken.
I’ve been depressed before. The scary kind of depressed. I’m not quite in that place. I’m not unhappy about my life– there are so many things that I am truly, deeply grateful for. I’m not incapable of feeling joy. There are many moments when I am deeply, wildly happy. The problem seems to lie in my inability to rest in that joy and let it color my more monotonous days. Many days I lack either the will or the skills to let those precious, joyful moments weigh heavier and count more than the gray sky and the sour smell of rotting kimchi on the street.
I wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the fight for joy wasn’t quite so hard. When I didn’t reach the end of each day exhausted from the energy it took for me just to smile, to be kind and to stay engaged that day. I’ve tried to change. I even tried to writing 1,000 Gifts like Saint Ann Voskamp and was pretty pissed off when I was not magically transformed by gratitude. (By the way, that is not a dig at Ann Voskamp who I think is wonderful person and whose book and blog you should read.) It’s possible that this is the result of chemicals in my brain or hormones in my body misfiring, keeping me unbalanced, my whole being in turmoil because of some rogue element. But even if that’s part of it, I know deep down it’s not the whole thing. I know there is a core to this problem that is spiritual. It is a disquiet that comes being dissatisfied with myself. From the questions I have been afraid to ask. The truths I’m not always sure I believe. The prayers I pray and the ones that I don’t want to.
Here in Korea, I have been given the gift of space and the time to do some of the deep work I need to do. To wade through the muck inside of me and to start giving a voice to the questions. To start expressing the doubts. To expose the darkness I see in myself. To admit how much it scares me. To see if Grace might intervene.
I want to live an extraordinary life. But I can’t do it when I’m crammed full of ugliness . So maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the next thing to come. Maybe it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. Maybe it’s time to beg Grace to show me how to carve out space for joy.
A few weeks ago I watched this video for the first time. I was a little late to the game with this one – the video had been circulating a few weeks previous, but for some reason, I hadn’t ever watched it. Until one afternoon, sitting at my desk, with my classroom full of hyper Korean kids (they’re not my class, they were just in my room). And it absolutely wrecked me. If you haven’t seen this video, watch it before you read the rest of this post.
“What is it specifically?” my mother asked when I sent her the link, weeping.
How to say, “It is everything”? It’s the words for what is wrong with me. With so many women that I know. It is the pain and the struggle of being a woman in a world that holds us to absurd standards. Expectations that fill us with righteous indignation because we know they are wrong, but still somehow leave us feeling unworthy that we don’t measure up.
This girl (her name is also Lily so it doesn’t really help to use her name in this case), is talking about traits and behaviors she saw modeled by and inherited from her mother. I don’t necessarily feel that I learned these from my mother, but from countless women who have come before me and surrounded me as I grew. These are my personal struggles, but they are the personal struggles of so many of us. We lead lives of violent inner turmoil, resenting and also being controlled by external images, expectations, and messages about our value that we have somehow internalized. These particular lines really shook me:
“And I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking, making space for the men in their lives, not knowing how to fill it up again when they leave…”
This made me think of my grandmother, who has lost herself in being my grandfather’s wife– a man who undoubtedly loves her, but also has her utterly convinced that she is dependent on him. That she couldn’t take care of herself if he weren’t around. She’s been schooled in her own incompetence all of her married life (and perhaps longer), even as she fixes his plate and irons his shirts. To any observer, it’s clear that she is entirely capable of self-sufficiency. She’s been made to feel less-than for the sake of his need to feel important – a strong leader in a household that no longer requires management. My grandparents are of a different generation, but still, I see the looks and hear the concerned murmurs from many younger people who look at my marriage and frown, unable to understand this relationship in which both of us lead and both of us serve.
“My brother never thinks before he speak, I have been taught to filter. ‘How can anyone have a relationship to food?’ he asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs. I want to say, ‘We come from difference, Jonas. You have been taught to grow out. I have been taught to grow in…I learned to absorb.’”
Up until these past few years of my life, I lived in such fear of displeasing others that I could rarely express my own opinion. In the worst cases, I was afraid to express my opinion because I didn’t really believe I was entitled to one. The concept of “Authority” has always been strong in my family/school/childhood church, but in me the concept never rang true. Somehow the lines got crossed in my mind. Rather than learning what it truly meant to respect authority, I learned how to repress myself. To subjugate myself under someone else and call this good.
“Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark – a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled. Deciding how many bites is too many, how much space she deserves to occupy.”
This makes me physically ache. For me, this isn’t about my mother – this has been the story of my own life. Possibly it started all the way back when I was 10 years old at summer camp and I overheard some boys behind me on the soccer field, “Hey, look! That girl’s butt jiggles when she runs!” Certainly it’s been my story since I was 15 or 16. Every day of my life. Frantically counting the calories. Obsessing over every bite that goes into my mouth and calling it “self-control.” Or not. Aggressively ignoring what I am eating. And later being consumed by a self-loathing that makes Hitler look like a saint. I don’t remember what it’s like to go through a day and not think about what I’ve eaten, what I’m going to eat, what I should be eating, what I shouldn’t have eaten, the size of my body, the way that I look, the way that my clothes fit, whether I can congratulate myself for having sufficient self-control or if I must shame myself into a better day tomorrow. I must force my unwilling body to run half marathons and then full marathons to prove I can be disciplined.
(I admit that there have been a few brief periods of my life when I had a short break from this – after the bout with salmonella that left me (unhealthy) but skinny, having lost 20 lbs in 10 days before my sophomore year of college. Right after I got married and found that the time I had spent worrying about my body pre-honeymoon was unnecessary because I was so unconditionally loved. And last spring after I lost 27 lbs and felt that I’d won a small victory over myself and my self-destructive habits. But that came crashing down quickly after moving to a country whose staple foods are rice, sodium, and all the meat is half fat.)
Unlike many girls, I didn’t learn to count my calories or call myself fat from my mother. From my mom I learned what I should be able to be – she has been thin for my whole life. She almost never indulges. She has always been able to say no to food with an ease that makes my all-consuming battle with it feel all the more humiliating . In my mother I saw modeled a self-control and a discipline that I simply lack. I felt that she was living proof that it was possible and I failed to measure up. Again and again and again. (And again today.)
“I asked 5 questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word, ‘Sorry.'”
This is me. This is me. This is me. I have spent so much time apologizing for things I have no business being sorry for. Why should anyone feel sorry for needing to ask a question? Or sorry that someone else’s expectations of them weren’t met. Sometimes I think these murmured apologies that season my conversation like salt from a shaker is really me apologizing for what I feel is the inconvenience of my existence. Like my being here at all is a burden. It makes me furious that anyone should be made to feel that way. And so I am angry. But also, I am sorry for being angry.
“I don’t know the capstone requirements for the sociology major because I spent the whole meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza.”
This made me laugh, even though it isn’t funny. I can’t tell you how many meetings, recitals, graduations, concerts, and events I’ve only been half-present for because there was a war being waged in my mind about the food. About what I could permit myself or not permit myself. My rationale behind it. “How much space do I deserve to occupy?”
Listening to Lily’s poem was like having words put on every inadequacy I have felt since I was a child and simultaneously exposing the inherently flawed basis of those inadequacies. I am angry at a world that has made me feel this way, but at the same time, this is so deeply ingrained that I don’t know how to shake it.
I shared these comments with my mother and she told me a story about herself – one she’d never told me before. The story of how 26-year-old her broke free from a life-long struggle for perfection. The struggle for a perfect body that made food her enemy and a perfect life that made her avoid confrontation by not having an opinion. The struggle to be perfectly likeable and agreeable that made her ignore her own wants and needs, pushing herself under a rug in order to please others (or often, let others stomp all over her). That at 26 (the age I am now except that she already had a 6 year old and a soft tangle of arms and legs and blue eyes that would be me in her belly) she realized that no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t change the way she felt about food or finances or keeping other people happy. And that instead of trying harder or trying to be more disciplined or more self-controlled (which inevitably leads to self-loathing), she learned to stop trying. She wrote to me, “I became humble. I had to become brutally honest with myself and admit to myself that I could not fix it/control it. I had no power over it and life had just become crazy. I realized that the ONLY person who could supernaturally ‘adjust’ me was God. But I had to let him.”
I was so thankful that my mom shared this with me. I wish I had known these things about her as a teenager and young adult (well, young-er adult). I think something many parents have been missing with my generation and possibly the current one is how valuable it is to let your children see and understand what it looks like to struggle well. Because no matter what you do, your children will struggle. And if all they’ve seen are the victories, they won’t know what to do when the time comes to struggle. It’s like the physics teacher I had in high school who was great at solving all the problems, but who couldn’t explain to me how to do them. Life is lived in the process so much more than in the conclusions.
I’ll finish this post, then, by sharing something about my process. Right now, I don’t understand what the heck it means to “Let go” of something. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard some form of “Let go and let God” in my lifetime. Most of the time it makes me want to scream. Because often it’s just code for, “I don’t know what to tell you, but this phrase is something ‘spiritual’ people say and so it sounds like a real thing.” You see, I’ve tried “letting go” in so many different situations. I’ve knelt with my arms stretched as far as they can reach or spread myself across the floor with my face pressed into rough carpet fibers, trying to find the correct posture, the arrangement of limbs that will accomplish this mysterious goal, chanting prayers over and over like a mantra, “I’m letting go. I’m giving this to you. I don’t want to carry this anymore. I can’t do it on my own. I’m letting go,” each iteration more soulful and heartfelt than the last, only to find that, in fact, this changes nothing. It simply makes me a failure at letting go. (Ha!)
I value my mother’s story. I believe her words were genuine and described a true transformative experience for her. But I admit that I have yet to figure out how to “stop trying.” So far I’ve tried it in the shower, at my desk, while running, in bed, at a temple and on a mountain. So far none of this insisting I am “letting go” has been successful. I am being a little sarcastic here – I know it’s not a magical ritual or formula. But I am admitting that I can’t seem to figure out how to do something that sounds as simple as doing nothing.
Women, so many of us are broken. But I believe (I have to believe) that we can be whole again. That we can live lives free and unashamed. That we can learn to turn our amazing capacity for love towards ourselves. I don’t know how yet, but I am hopeful we can learn together.
So, I know this isn’t a very kosher Christian thing to say, but I’m just gonna go ahead and say it – sometimes I feel really angry with God.
When we first arrived in Raleigh we didn’t know anyone except Christina (my college roommate), but we were so blessed to make friends relatively quickly through a couple we met at our church. They lead our community group and through their welcoming us in, we became friends with them as well as a group of other wonderful people.
One of the things I have loved most about Raleigh has been the sense of belonging we have felt from those who have welcomed us in and made us a part of their community. This was the first time in my adult life that I truly felt like I belonged where I was, that Jonathan and I had made friends with other couples who were in similar life-stages and we were, that people were involved in our lives and we were involved in theirs. A few months ago when we were considering moving again to pursue grad school opportunities, I was so torn between wanting to pursue opportunities and wanting to stay here in this place where I saw a potential future for us. And that future wasn’t based on the careers we have here (which are way out of our fields) or the educational opportunities we’ve found, but on the people we’ve come to love.
In case you are really confused, that isn’t the part that makes me angry. The part that’s made me angry is that God now seems to be taking these very good things away from us. Our sweet friends who lead our community group suddenly got a job opportunity in the Chicago area and are moving in the next month (ironically they are moving within a few miles of where we used to live before coming here.) A second couple in our group suddenly had to opportunity to buy a fantastic little house, but it is in Durham and they will likely be looking for a church/community closer to them. Another girl from our group has been given the amazing opportunity to move to Scotland and work with a church plant there. So essentially, in one fell swoop, most of our community has fallen apart. (If you are one of our few friends sticking around, we are so very grateful for you!!!) Intellectually, I recognize that all of these things are good for our friends and that my happiness about where these people live is probably not God’s main priority. Haha. Deep down I know that truly loving people means wanting God’s best for them, even if it doesn’t feel like the best thing for you, so on that level I do rejoice to see God providing exciting opportunities for my friends. But that doesn’t make me happy about the situation.
Please understand, I know that there are many, many worse things that can happen (and have happened) in life than all of your friends moving away. I’m really not trying to make the case that this is the worst thing ever. But it has brought up some real frustration for me that is connected to something a lot bigger than whether or not I have a lot of friends nearby. And maybe that is something you can relate to, whatever your particular disappointments have been.
This may seem like a bit of an over-reaction, but I’ve been really discouraged since finding out about all of these changes. It’s not that any one of these people was some ultimate source of happiness for us, but I did find a lot of fulfillment in belonging to this group of people and growing alongside them. It genuinely has helped me through the struggles of not having a job that I love and not knowing what we should be doing in the future to feel that these relationships were the thing God had clearly placed in front of me. I felt that even if I couldn’t see God’s hand in other areas, I could see it in these relationships and I took it as a confirmation that we were in the right place, doing the right thing, even when it was difficult. And now it feels like that small measure of peace and security is being taken away. Additionally, I feel like things are moving forward in so many of our friends lives and I feel stuck in so many ways. Directionless and without even a short-term goal.
Why is it that the things you want to stay the same are always changing while the things you wish would change seem stuck the way they are forever?
The whole experience has launched me (yet again) into that series of questions I can never seem to get away from. What am I doing here? What should I be doing? There are so many directions I thought my life might take and so far, it hasn’t taken any of those. I have never held a job that I really loved. In fact, I have a difficult time even thinking of a job I truly think I would love. Some days I just want to give up and resign myself to living a boring life moving from one uninspiring job to the next just to make enough money to live on, but that terrifies me more than anything. I can seriously think of nothing worse than living a life with no adventure.
I feel like I’ve been asking God the same questions year after year, and he never throws me a bone. Sometimes I just want to scream, why did you make me this way and give me all of these desires and then leave me with no guidance about what to do with that? If my life is meant to be spent moving from one uninspiring job to the next just to make enough money to live, why would you give me this deep desire for my life to be meaningful?
And I know what you are thinking… “Depends on what you think is meaningful,” so let me put it this way. I don’t want or need an impressive career, and I don’t think I need to move to Bangladesh. I just want to be able to look back at the end of a day or a week or even just a year and put my finger on moments that mattered. Things that had eternal significance. And instead I find myself plowing through my workday, desperate to get home where I can get away from the stress of my office to make dinner and read books and watch tv shows and fall into bed exhausted by 10:00.
God has been very good to us. He has provided for us. He has given us more than we need to survive. And most importantly, he has given us himself. Maybe it’s sinful for me to even be asking for more. But I want more. I want to know what in this whole wide world I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Because today it just feels like I’m wasting it.
So, that’s where I am at today. Though I’m genuinely excited to see these friends follow God’s leading, I’m sad to be losing them, and I’m feeling discouraged that God seems to be at work everywhere except in my life. And frankly, all of these feelings are making me really angry.
The good news is, I don’t think God’s freaking out that I’m mad at him. And I don’t think he’s surprised. I believe he knows me intimately. That he understands the way my mind works and what triggers my emotions. That he loves me in my brokenness and foolishness. But somehow, on a day like today, none of those things are particularly comforting to me. Mostly, they are just making me a little more angry.
This past weekend Jonathan and I took a mini-vacation up to Asheville, NC. We had never been to Asheville before, but had been talking about going for a while. About a month ago I sneakily researched and booked a cabin in the mountains a few miles north of Asheville. Then I sneakily requested time off for Friday afternoon and I sneakily packed all of our things. I got home around lunchtime on Friday and told Jonathan we were taking a trip! I was a little nervous about the cabin since I’d seen pictures of it on the internet, but obviously had never been there. Pictures can be deceiving. But it was absolutely lovely! See!
Welcome to Chestnut Cabin
The cabin was built in the early 1900’s, but the inside was fully renovated and there was a stocked kitchen and two little bedrooms and a nice living room where we could watch movies and everything. And the best part of all…our own giant hot tub in the back yard! It was the perfect location. It only took 5 minutes to get to a grocery store and 20 minutes to get to downtown Asheville, but the cabin was very secluded and quiet and peaceful. We had two gloriously bright and beautiful days and nights clear enough to see more stars than we’ve seen in a long time. Also the planet Mars. : )
This is the view from behind the house if you are standing up on the deck where the hot tub is.
We hung out in downtown Asheville on Saturday. It is a really unique city. Most cities you visit have some unique qualities, but more or less the same feel to them, but I can honestly say that Asheville is different. I have never seen so many hipsters in one place. It’s a small city, but there were street musicians everywhere, some sort of protest against nuclear power plants going on in a little park (after which the protesters marched single file through town silently except for a few people who were banging on pots or drums. I am positive that at least half of them had absolutely no idea why they were there), and people openly passing joints back and forth while waiting to cross the street. Asheville is one of those places where you feel obnoxiously preppy while wearing skinny jeans a plain blue sweater and Toms.
View from the front porch.
We had dinner Saturday night at this fantastic little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Nine Mile. I found it on Yelp and am so glad we picked it. It is in a really weird location in the middle of this historic neighborhood where the houses are old and enormous, but pretty run-down. You’re just driving down the street through this neighborhood and then there is randomly this one building on the residential street that has a little corner grocery store and this restaurant in it. It’s an interesting little restaurant, long and very narrow, with a purple tin ceiling and old wood floors. The atmosphere was great, pretty intimate and nice, but not fancy, and the food, which is Caribbean-inspired, was delicious! Jonathan had jerk chicken with a creamy mango-y sauce and veggies and I had mahi mahi with a banana mango relish over linguine with peppers and a coconut cream sauce. AMAZING.
OK, one more picture and then good-by cabin. 😦
Over the weekend we also had a lot of time for talking. We talked through (and over and around) lots of possibilities concerning me going to grad school. I got accepted to NC State to do a Master’s in cultural anthropology. It’s a two-year program, but it’s not funded (at least for the first year) And I would only be able to work part-time while going to school. Which means cutting my income at least in half and also taking out a loan to cover tuition which would be adding to a decent amount of student loans I already have from Wheaton. I was also still waiting to hear from Ohio State regarding an MA/PhD program I had applied to there and had some positive interactions with a professor in the program who seemed very interested in working with me.
After talking about all of the options for a while we landed on a possible solution to the dilemma of wanting to go to school and wanting to be able to afford it. We decided that if I got into Ohio State I could look into the possibility of deferring for a year and we could spend this next year working and saving as much as possible. That way we could enjoy another year in Raleigh (which we love), but still have a concrete plan for what we were doing next and something for me to really look forward to. Because the program is an MA/PhD I felt comfortable deferring for a year because after I was in I’d be in for good and wouldn’t have to worry about applying to PhD’s etc. And Jonathan felt good about this plan because he could continue to apply to Ohio State’s MFA program (the entire time I was doing my degree if necessary) because it is one of his favorite programs. And we both felt good about this plan because if our present income remains steady we should be able to save a little every month barring a huge crisis.
We thought, “We are geniuses! This is perfect plan” (at least, that’s what I thought.) We (I) started making all kinds of plans. I found a little house for us to rent next year that costs barely more than our apartment. I started planning a trip to visit Jonathan’s brother in South Africa next summer (where he is not yet 100% certain he will be.) Also potential side-trips from that trip (you know, long layovers in Europe, that kind of thing.) And also a mission trip this year to either Uganda or Romania (effectively spending all of the money we’d be “saving” during that year, I know.) I felt happy and peaceful and excited and thankful that God had finally given us an answer.
And then…we returned home. Away from the magical mountain cabin I discovered three forms of rejection from Ohio State waiting for me—one online and two hard copies, just in case I didn’t get it the first time….they really, really don’t want me.
I was beyond frustrated. Honestly, I am still really frustrated. I feel like all I want is to do the right thing—to pursue what I should pursue in a financially responsible way, and to be selfless in making sure whatever we decide doesn’t keep Jonathan from being able to pursue his goals as well. I mean…these are all good things. And yet, not matter which way I look at it, it seems like the sort of decision where somebody loses. Where something important is lost. If I don’t go to school I think I’ll regret it. If I go to school and it keeps Jonathan from being able to do what he wants, I’ll regret it. If I go to school and we end up tens of thousands of dollars further in debt, I will regret it. There just isn’t an easy solution. In fact, right now it feels like there isn’t a solution at all. And the days keep ticking by til April 15th, the day we have to officially make a decision. And I genuinely feel further away from a decision than I felt when we first started talking about it.
Last week in our community group we were discussing a sermon our pastor, Tyler had given about prayer and about Moses’s relationship with the Lord through prayer. The passage we focused on was from Exodus 33:12 where Moses says to the Lord, “You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favor with you.'” As I have gone through this week of frustration…of thinking I’ve finally found an answer and then discovering that I haven’t got a clue… of honestly deep frustration with God over his lack of a clear answer, I have been really impacted by the thought that God knows me by name. He knows me intimately…what I’m good at and what my desires are, my hopes and my fears. And it occurs to me that maybe the prayer I should be praying is not, “God, what should I do with my life? Should I go to grad school or not? What is the right answer to this question?” but rather, “God, teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” And somehow learn to trust that the God who knows me by name really does know what’s best for me. That I don’t have to try so hard to figure it out on my own. Even when God doesn’t seem particularly interested in telling me which way to go. 🙂 Jonathan put it this way—that instead of praying for God to tell us what the right decision is, perhaps we should pray that God would change our hearts to be the kind of people who make right decisions because we are directed by the Holy Spirit.
I will be honest. I am not completely comforted by this. And I haven’t been able to completely stop myself from trying to figure out solutions. But I do think there is truth here. And I know that, more than anything else, I need God to show me His ways.
Fall in North Carolina is glorious. For nearly three months if I sat up tall in my chair and looked through the pane of glass that makes up one wall of my cube, and through the open door of the executive’s office across from me and out through his window, I could see the rolling ribbons of saffron and rust and candy apple red trees running over the hills below us. And then, suddenly, in what felt like one afternoon, all of those precious jewels of leaves gave up and fell, leaving behind skeleton trees with their lonely, brittle branches.
This past weekend I celebrated my 24th birthday. Or rather, I observed it. It didn’t feel like much of a celebration. This was the first birthday I haven’t looked forward to. The first one I’ve secretly wished wouldn’t come. I know that in the grand scheme of things I am still very young, but to me, this birthday, this day when I pause to note the passage of time, to acknowledge the days of my life slipping away, I felt disappointed and somewhat afraid. Disappointed that life isn’t what I hoped it would be. Afraid that it never will be.
I live a small life. A life I could step out of at any moment leaving very little behind me. It often feels like a life lived on a stationary bike where I peddle myself into a sweaty exhaustion without having actually gone anywhere. If my 18-year-old self saw me now, she would think I was a complete loser.
Several months ago, my mom sent me this book:
When I first started reading it, I found it so difficult to digest I had to put it down for several weeks. This book is written by a woman whose words speak to my brokenness and to my discontentment and offer another way. I see the beauty of her ideas, and the transformation God brought about in her life. She speaks about being thankful, something I blogged about myself in my last post several months ago. And yet, I often hate this woman. If I were to write her a letter, it would probably look something like this:
Dear Ann Voskamp, you write about seizing the gifts of everyday life in spite of the monotony with such beauty and power. And you have had your share of hardships, so I appreciate your struggle. But you live on a farm with the wonderful sweet earth under your feet and you cook your meals out of food your family has grown themselves. You have the miracle of six beautiful children you spend your days raising and teaching and loving. And yet you’ve managed to maintain your career as a writer. You have an incredibly successful book and a blog that thousands of people read and you do pieces for several major publishers. You also advocate for Compassion International which means you both help the poor and get to travel to amazingly beautiful exotic locations to do so. Dear Ann Voskamp, you live the literal exact life I dream for myself on a daily basis. This is the life you chose. What do you really have to be so discontent with?!
Perhaps, somehow, as incomprehensible as it is to me, this isn’t the life Ann dreamed of. Or perhaps her message speaks more to the ways we in our sinfulness make ourselves miserable no matter how ideal our situation is. The ways in which, truthfully, even when we have everything we could ever wish for, we can still dare to be discontented.
I love North Carolina. I love the beauty of our surroundings. I love our colorful little apartment. I love our church and the friends we have made. I feel so good about this place we are in. I don’t think this is the wrong place. I think perhaps I am the wrong person.
Many of my blogs have to do with being discontent, with searching for contentment and recognizing that I must learn to be content where I am and to see the gifts God has for me each day, but right now that doesn’t seem like it will ever be enough. Because honestly, I want to be joyful where I am, but I don’t really want to be content where I am. Because I don’t want to stay here. And I’m afraid I will grow content in being purposeless. I don’t want to embrace a directionless life. I don’t want to turn 25 in a year still working a soulless job because I need the money, unable to get out of the rut.
I know the things that I love: words, reading and writing them, making people feel good about themselves, baking delicious things and giving them to people and that moment when they take a first bite and smile. Going to new countries and experiencing new cultures. Cuddling babies and the imaginations of small children. Making my home lovely, and sharing it with my sweet husband.
These are all of the things I dream of, and to me, they don’t seem like such outrageous things to want. And yet, just this weekend my computer got a virus and died forever and one of the cars broke and needed hundreds of dollars of repairs. And these things feel like something heavy is pressing down on me, making it difficult for my lungs to take in enough precious oxygen, let alone give life to dreams. So I push the dreams aside. I become responsible. I do the things that must be done to make ends meet. And I wait and I pray that one day I will become the right person. Because until then, I think I will always be discontent, even if I suddenly got everything I ever wanted.