Womanhood

I am outside on the porch, cussing the people who decided to set load-bearing posts on top of floor boards, my own ignorance in construction, the project-creep that continually blossoms before me, and my complete weakness in wielding a hammer in tight and awkward spaces between joists.

My sister is inside, sweeping the floor in the kitchen. Later, she’ll be trying to figure out a simple sewing project, the kind I made when I was about a third of her age. Where was her interest to learn sewing back when I would have given my eye-teeth for a sewing buddy? She is willowy and dreamy; she is an artist–she paints. She is sweet. Anyone who knows her, even in passing, will tell you how sweet she is. She has large, large eyes, and a scant amount of practicality that she barely knows how to wield. Indecisiveness is her bane.

My other sister is upstairs. She has feet like a hobbit, wide and thick soled (but still very ticklish when I have to wake her up in the morning). She has two very long braids that dangle to her waist, and yes, of course, freckles across her nose. She reads Shakespeare for fun, even though she’s not old enough to get a learner’s permit to drive. Right now, she’s perched on the edge of her bunk (the bottom one), writing a multi-page letter to someone in jail, but later she’ll go on an hour long walk in the woods. She’ll enjoy that walk all the more if it happens to be pouring rain; she loves the feel of rain pelting down on her. It can be hard to understand her when she talks, if she can barely keep the laugh out of her voice.

I started out in resentment that my sisters are not me. Why am I out here, cussing the porch by myself? Why doesn’t anyone else around here care about taking care of maintaining the house? Rapidly, I realize they don’t even know how to help if they wanted to. Why not? Ugly rants about the older children having to do more work than the younger children spring to mind, but that’s not true, either. I must have been only five, possibly younger, when I first started following Dad around when he did repairs, keeping track of his tools and anticipating what he would need next. If I wasn’t helping my brothers with their construction projects, I was surely watching. My sisters found that stuff boring.

Well, I found it boring to spend endless time sketching clouds and learning the names of their different forms, like my one sister did. And I had not enough patience for sitting for hours in the chicken yard training chickens to sit on my lap, or slogging through translating Shakespeare like my other sister. So I am the one out on the porch, learning through trial and error how to make home repairs.

Still, the resentment lingers around the edges. When I was her age—No. No, that way lies madness. I am not my sisters, and my sisters are not me. I chose the things that interested me, and the things that interested me most often did leave me covered in dirt and sweat, and my brothers granting me the dubious compliments that I would “grow up to be a man yet.” They take pictures of me wielding equipment larger than I am. But they also mock my interests in fiber arts, and refer to my short and stocky build as being troll-like.

But these same hands that are wielding a hammer and a chisel–these hands also cup babies, and bake cakes, and comfort suffering people. And I hear the defense and protest in my own voice–I am a woman. I am. I have worked long and hard to understand what that means, and still I’m not really sure.

I know it’s not about gender stereotypes or cultural expectations. I know that if I were as delicate as my sister with the large eyes, I wouldn’t feel more a woman. I know that if I were able to grow my hair as long and a thick as my other sister, I wouldn’t feel more a woman. And I also know with great vehemence that I do not want to be a man, that there are fundamental differences between us that I both cannot and do not want to bridge. I used to think my brimming with emotions was one of those differences, but I’ve found that even among women I feel more things, and feel them more deeply.

When I look in the mirror now, I do see a woman–I didn’t for the longest time. That awkward girl. I’m not sure what changed, or how to describe it, because I feel like it’s mostly in the eyes. Those eyes, there’s things behind them. I’m not sure I could quite say they’ve lost their innocence, because in so many ways I think in the context of my peers, I still radiate so much innocence it makes them uncomfortable. People still apologize abashedly for swearing in front of me, embarrassed because my lack of swearing is so conspicuous to them.

I tell myself stories, trying on different roles of “woman.” Some themes emerge. Some gentle longings for my future wax stronger. Still, the concept seems like a design made of smoke; the harder I grasp to understand it, the more elusively it slips away. Why do I feel the need to define it? Why do I feel uneasy that I might not have achieved it? Societies across geography and time have defined it a million different ways, but I’m not looking to fill a tintype of idealized perfection.

I guess I just stumble over the fact that He made us Man and Woman. The distinctness and delineation of the difference, yet without explanation, makes me wonder what the point was. Why two? Why not, say, six, or nine or fifteen? What was wrong with one? And if two is better, if we aren’t meant to be alone, then why are so many of us so alone? People complain about babies not coming with instruction manuals, but I grew up with a baby on my hip. I’ve taken care of plenty of babies. You get experience. But there’s only one me; and me came without an instruction manual, too. I don’t really expect that there can be a neat little dissection of all the little ins and outs of our personalities and life trajectories. . .but it would seem that there should at least be common expectations of being human, being a woman.

I have seen enough of life to know there isn’t one “right” way. That we reflect our Maker more like a kaleidescope than a mirror. And I strongly suspect my questions are less of questions, and more of a confusion of life being so much different than I assumed of course it would be by the time I was this age. And when life fails to live up to our expectations, we invariably go looking for what we did wrong or what we could do to fix it.

But some of it is not that. Some of it is that I still feel like a stranger inside of my own body, a feeling that my time of sickness only intensified. I am me. My body is this thing I’m inside of, driving around. How do you take care of this thing? Never mind basic house maintenance, the human body is a good deal more complicated than most people would lead you to believe, and I’m in a profession of taking care of bodies.

Some of it is feeling like, since the the things that I’m doing seem to be echoing hollow, I must be missing something about basic existence. And since I feel fairly confident that I am fulfilling the basic necessities of “human,” my “missing something” must be just a little higher up the chain.

And some of it is the empty feeling of being unable to connect with my “peers.” The people I’m supposed to feel most akin to seem like such foreign entities to me. I don’t want to mimic them. And I know I’m not one of those people who will ever be “popular” or one of the “in crowd.” But part of you wonders if maybe everyone else has figured out something about life that you haven’t.

And part of it is the sacredness. I feel like I have grasped at least some of the sacredness of humanity. And I believe there is a sacredness to being created as separate entities. But it becomes harder to understand when the differences created by God get all mixed up into the differences created by social constructs and twisted influences, half of which you drink down without realizing that’s what you’re doing. When you become startled by realizing you’re mad that other people aren’t like you or wondering if you should be more like other people — and yet, recognizing inherently that the differences are important, and valuable, and that none of us can be All of The Things, and so we must all find different pieces and roles to fill.

And I hesitate to post this, because it’s such a politicized topic. People have strong opinions and ideologies, to the point it can be difficult to actually communicate what one is thinking without  people jumping on to say what someone should be thinking or really are thinking but don’t realize it, or what is so wrong about their thoughts. But in some ways, I also feel like it’s all the more important to speak; because when those who are hesitant stay quiet behind those who are loud, it leads to a feeling of being alone, of no one knowing what it is they’re feeling like, of being lost. And I simply cannot imagine that there is no one else in the world who wonders what it means to be a woman, without fighting it, without chasing the world’s explanations, without having an agenda or a point of arrival, but simply in observation. We are different. All of us. Men from women, and women from women. And it’s not an accident or a problem. But what does it mean?

Maybe it is one of those things that is so simple that we are the ones that complicate it. Maybe “different” is enough of an answer. The quiet agitation inside me says the intent runs deeper than that. But the part of me that has seen at least a bit of life says that the thought is one that must be experienced to be known, not determined by logic or reasoned out. But I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question isn’t out there, murmured in the background of our existence: what does it mean to be a woman?

Mr. Rochester is a Creep

Maturity is a hard thing to assess in yourself, and is made more complicated by the fact we don’t mature equally in all things. Maturity in responsibility and action, for example, is quite different from maturity in relationships. Maturity with managing money is far different than the maturity to understand the societal systems in the world.

One of the things I have struggled with is the mild addiction to being useful. As with anything, we can speculate all we like on the root of such things. . .I used to blame it on my particular parameters of my upbringing, until I read “Grace for the Good Girl,” and the author had been raised in a wholly different situation and yet seemed at time to speak thoughts right out of my head. I suppose, on a most simplistic level, feeling useful makes us feel more secure. People don’t get rid of, or treat poorly, or forget about, useful things. People value useful things. Being useful seems like a good, safe, meaningful choice.

Ultimately, of course, it’s drinking poison. Any love you earn (or think you are earning, or feel like you are earning) can be withdrawn the moment you stop being useful. And in the mean time, after the initial rush of pleasure at succeeding at being useful, it breeds all kinds of resentment and hurt and loneliness, and a raw inability to connect with people on a real level.

It frustrates me to no end that it is exceedingly difficult to see maturity in relationships modeled in anything. It would be amusing to see if you could get a “5 stages of maturity” in relationships, as a corollary to the 5 stages of grief. . . although the biggest corollary is probably just that it’s been found that the 5 stages of grief are largely not stages nor limited to 5. But off the cuff, it’s not that hard to start scribbling up a list.

There’s the “rescue me!” and it’s equally destructive cousin “I’ll rescue you!” How many stupid, disastrous tales have been told like this? It’s easy to take pot-shots at Cinderella and Snow White, but how about Jane Eyre? I like Jane Eyre, don’t get me wrong, and in many ways she was very responsible and mature and what have you. But she was out to rescue Mr. Rochester, to reform him, to save him from his blackened ways. Oh, heavens. Jane got to live happily every after, since that’s what her author wanted, but how many abusive tales can you start with that “save him” line?

Having long had to hoist myself and my own responsibility, I rarely recall looking for anyone to “rescue me!” But I clearly recall telling myself a good many lots tons of stories of “I’ll rescue you!” Horribly romantic and terribly stupid, it really appeals to the nurturing core of many of us–someone damaged and hurt and broken, and then redeemed and restored and healed by the saintly little woman who tends to him so sweetly and gently and faithfully. We’re just so good we melt the badness right out of them. No, we don’t. Life doesn’t work that way. But we’d like it to. We want it to.

I would guess that next on the list is the painful pairing of “I want someone to be useful to me/to be useful to someone.” Although it seems strangely even more twisted, and harder to ferret out. I don’t think I’ve often fallen into the trap of trying to keep someone around just because they’re useful, but I’ve nearly drowned many times in the black well of wanting to be useful, as I’ve mentioned above. There are more sad stories than I care to try to remember of children who felt their mothers only wanted them as long as they were useful, or their fathers. I would suppose spouses, but if you look around at the fairy tales, it’s mostly parents or step-parents or adoptive parents.

I think this is because there is an inherent power differential here. I mean, there is in the first example, too, but someone needing to be saved is an assumption of weakness. Someone needing to be served is an assumption of power. To be useful, someone has to set the bar of what constitutes being useful enough.

I don’t know what draws us to this. I know that I know I’m good at being useful, and that there is a satisfaction and a certain amount of pride in that. I don’t know why I tell myself stories about girl-winning-guy by means of usefulness. Why would it be a life goal, or a relationship goal, to be “useful”? Like a toaster. Or an adjustable wrench.

Perhaps this is where the thought comes in, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Maybe we think we won’t get anything better, so let’s go with this. But I find it terribly sad and still confusing, even though this is a place I still keep stumbling. Why do I need to be so useful? Why? For Pete’s sake, what do I think will happen if I don’t? Do I really think no one will want me around if I’m just “normal helpful” not “so helpful”? I can’t figure it out. But I do know that when I fall into the trap of “affection by means of usefulness” that I am always and continually smarting under the power differential. It’s not a healthy place to be.

There is also the “I want you/I can make you want me” pairing. Somehow, this one terrifies me the most, with no rational reason for that ranking. I know it exists, and that for some people it’s a drug, and maybe that’s the reason of my fear. I’m also afraid of ever getting drunk, and the lack of control that people who swear all the time seem to have. In my mind, raw lust equals lack of control, and being out of control of myself seems like a terrifying idea. Bad things happen when people lose control. All the more terrifying, then, that so many fairy tales (Disney or otherwise) are based off of nothing more than physical attraction.

The word “control freak” would not have been invented if fear of losing control were always a good thing. And the flip side to this issue, for me at least, is the strange conviction that “no one would ever look at me like that, anyhow.” This might sound more familiar as countless tales (most recently, I over heard it on Downton Abbey playing in the background) have this charming set up where the girl thinks she is too plain to be noticed and the boy thinks she is the most beautiful creature ever blessed with the breath of life. For every girl who thinks she is too plain to be looked at, there’s a death trap of falling for whoever insists otherwise, despite other completely unredeemable qualities. Insisting you are physically unattractive is not really a safe action either.

I guess with all of that, it might sound as thought I’ve bounced from one unstable and destructive relationship to the next, but no, not really. More the opposite, of prickling like a porcupine in defense and never letting anyone close. It’s just, as I see people all around me, all beside me, struggling to understand relationships, I feel more and more that we’re often shown all sorts of dysfunctional and destructive relationships passed off as “normal” and “healthy” and rarely are shown any sort of mature, respectful, mutually beneficial teamwork — something that is not about “winning” but is instead about building with each other.

One of the few examples I can pull up easily is the relationship of Wolverine and Jubilee in the first X-Men movie, were they just took care of each other. But that “doesn’t count” because it wasn’t good enough for Wolverine, who kept chasing the hot body (to his own misery). And I guess that’s the point. We all figure the hot guy won’t be happy without a hot girl, and the ordinary girl is just that — ordinary. Of course.

But why all these horrible cliches and stereotypes? Why is it that we think that fairy tales of princess and princes are more believable than functional, loving relationships? Do we know so little about functional relationships that we’re even incapable of writing them? We know there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, but we’re so ready to accept terrible relationships as paragons. If any of my friends were hanging out with a Mr. Rochester type, I’d be telling them to get out now, and stop deluding themselves. Mr. Rochester is a creep, not a paragon of true love. Why can’t we imagine a paragon, even if we know we can’t achieve it? Why do we have to keep offering up really lousy things as though they were things to be chased after?

Maybe we don’t. I don’t know. I know the stories I’ve told myself have changed. And they’re getting harder and harder to tell myself, because when you grow-up out of the cliches, things are harder to imagine. It’s harder to imagine what a good team-mate would look like, because first you have to be able to honest with yourself about your own weakness are that you need help with, and honest with yourself about what strengths you have and how they actually should be used to help others.

It’s hard to grow out of wondering if you’ll ever be beautiful in someone else’s eyes, and into recognizing that you need encouragement to be brave enough to do the hard but right things. It’s hard to grow out of padding your relationship resume with how well you bake and the way you can handle minor home repairs, and instead understand that part of what I have to offer is really more about sitting down and having hard conversations. But the stories are about beauty and baking favorite cakes, not being too cowardly to do what is right and having to have hard conversations to clear up assumptions and hurts and miscommunications and differing priorities and values. And then somehow we wind up thinking we’re broken when we wind up having tearful conversations instead of baking sweets and singing.

It just makes maturity so much harder when no one wants to talk about what it is, and that turns maturity itself into a mystery. It’s hard, yes, but does it have to be a mystery on top of everything else? Maybe this is just something we need to talk about more, instead of leaving unsaid and left to nothing but speculation. Maybe we need more encouragement in what maturity is and how to move forward into it.

That is something

It’s a rather common experience to feel like everything is black and white, clear cut and concrete, when you are younger, and as you age, you begin to understand more of the complexities and confusions of a deeper understanding of life. I am finding myself mucking around in quite a bit of that, so much so that I feel like I have to question almost everything I once thought was plain. A friend of mine recently asked what love even is, and I felt horrible that I had no kind of answer. It’s something that I’m struggling with, too.

That seems so horrible to me, because it seems like, I don’t know, if that’s not a basic need, what is? Shouldn’t everyone be able to experience and know a basic definition of love? But it seems to me that love is yet one more mystery, and not always in the Princess Bride kind of wonderful mystery of untold depths of enjoyment and delight.

I’ve seen things called love that were not love, and things called not love that were, and most confusing of all is this thing called the love of God. If John can say in all honesty that God is love, and that God loves us, then it can only make ones head and heart hurt trying to understand this thing called love, and why people all experience life so differently. If you and I are both beloved saints of God, then why is one of us given the answers to a prayer or a longing for love and the other not?

The only answer I have is no answer at all: that love is a mystery. That there is so much our finite minds can’t truly comprehend. I’m near-sighted, and there’s much that I simply cannot see. And as much as we try to reduce complicated things into things that we can understand, I’m more and more convinced that the complicated things are simply too much to be reduced to human terms, and there absolutely no satisfaction in that.

Job called for a mediator and demanded and answer and was told he couldn’t handle an answer and went and put his hand over his mouth. And the biggest piece of confusion for me has always been how that can possibly be a satisfying ending to the story, how that could possibly justify all the suffering and mistreatment that came to Job. And why God deemed that it was a sufficient answer for us as human beings, instead of making us capable of understanding.

Paul said the clay can’t question the maker who forms it, and sometimes that makes me shy about asking questions like this. But as best as I understand it, if you are seeking to understand and know your maker, you will invariably wind up with questions of “why?” and “how?” and “what is this?” What does it say about God that life is the way life is? The hard part is staying curious instead of falling into judgment. It’s very easy to go from “why?” to “this is not fair, and God is wrong.” If you truly understand your own incapability, then it becomes fairly obvious the stupidity involved in judging God – like a child who thinks it’s parent is mean for not letting them walk barefoot on broken glass. But when life feels very unfair, the aching hole of “why?” is very hard to keep from falling into.

I know that the answer of action is the same: acknowledging that that God is who He says He is. That He cannot lie, that He is love, that He works all things for our good, that He is faithful, that He knows, that He is holy and perfect.

But the “why?” is still there. And though there is no satisfying answer for it, I don’t think we’re wrong to ask it. Jesus, hanging on the cross: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

And God didn’t answer. But the veil tore. Or maybe that was God’s answer. Come here, and I’ll tell you.

So much of this life is the waiting to be made whole. So much of this life is finding out again and again how broken we are. With death, with abuse, with lies, with disappointment, with insufficiency, with just plain emptiness. What do we have left to offer each other, in this time of now?

I don’t know. At one point I thought it would be clear cut, a list of “10 things we have left to offer each other.” Now, I wonder, because our desire to offer is different than our ability to offer, and our ability to offer is different than our ability to convince others to receive or reciprocate.

If there is anything that I still think I do know, though, it’s that we have to keep trying. That we’re never released from the obligations to seek God, to love, and I think to ask hard questions and admit we don’t have the answers. Even if the only answer behind any of those actions can only be boiled down to, “Because God said it was pleasing to Him that we do.” It’s a hard place to be, but I think a true place to be, and that is something.

It’s a Pity to be Human

I’m holding the door open for the cat. It’s raining out, but the handmixer is running, and she hates the sound of it. Caught between two miserablenesses, she hesitates at the door, her ears laid back. I feel sorry for her and her miserablenesses, so I just stand there with the door open, watching her.

One of my brothers pushes past me, suddenly shoving his hand at her face, as though to scare her off the threshold so the door could be closed. She flattens herself to the ground, but doesn’t move.

“She wants to come in, but hates the sound of the mixer,” I explain, annoyed. I was busy feeling sorry for her, and he has no respect for my pity.

“Oh.”

But the ‘oh’ belies no understanding of the situations, because moments later, he steps past me and my open door, stands behind that cat, and nudges her through the door with his foot. Forced to chose one of the miseries, the cat dashes through the kitchen trying to escape the sound of the motor.

I am like the cat. I try to go outside to avoid the sound of the motors, and the people who are being morning people. It continues to rain, so I have to sit on the porch. Then a morning person comes out to be cheerful at me, and another brother comes out to start another motor (the ice cream maker), and my mom comes out, too, so she can offer helpful motherly advice.

“So much for my plot to escape the sound of motors,” I sigh, as the ice cream maker kicks on.

“Well, you can go someplace else,” my mom informs me. “The mixer isn’t running in the kitchen any more.”

“I know,” I say.

“The screened porch is cleared off now,” she continues to push.

“I know,” I repeat, irritably. I know. I helped clean it. The day I was practically doubled over with abdominal pain. You didn’t help clean it.

I am trying to escape the motors, and the rain. And also, I would like some pity, but these cheerful morning people have none.

***

Last night, my grandma came over, and asked me if I had a glowing halo. I stared at her at first, and then tried to cover my confusion by claiming full body luminescence. She was referring to the fact that I had just been awarded my doctorate degree, a fact so roundly ignored by people in this house that I had almost forgotten about it myself. My dad made a few jokes about it. One brother threatened to call me doctor, but I said he could only call me “doctor” while singing “Put the Lime in the Coconut.” He said it would be worth it to memorize the lyrics, but we both knew he wouldn’t. Mostly, two of my brothers will put in sly jabs wherever they can about how I would have to chose the degree with the most amount of school debt and the lowest salary.

Some of my family came up for graduation, but it mostly made the family dysfunction that much more apparent. A small handful of people, most of whom came along only because there was someone else to come along with, and a vague sense of guilt that they should want to be there. They spent hours upon hours sitting in a car, waiting through boring lists of names of people none of us knew, and cramming themselves back into the car. I got to see their miserable faces for a few moments, and I say miserable not as an adjective of the quality of their faces but of the expressions they were wearing.

Then I went to my friend’s graduation party, and sat quietly in the sunlight, watching her face light up again and again in the presence of her family and her friends. I watched her husband and her sister, dripping with pride and happiness. In the end, I walked myself back to my car a few blocks away, alone in a city that was both familiar and completely impartial to me.

***

This is normal to me. Not easy, but normal. Aside from precious isolated incidents, my memories of school, right from the beginning of my associate’s degree, are largely one bleak swath of loneliness. Of not fitting in with my classmates, and so always being the odd and awkward one in any group. Of my family not understanding why I would do such a thing, and only the more so once I moved a state away. The example set to me has always been, “if you move away, you’re the one making that choice; so you’re only getting the consequences of your decisions if it means you lose connection with people.”

I can’t say I really did any better with my brothers that went away to college. It seems far off, and your own life seems busy, and what do you say, anyway, when you’re a family of introverts who mostly socialize by sitting quietly in the same room? But I can’t say it’s an attitude I want to propagate.

This morning, my second attempt to get photos taken of me for graduation announcements fell through. And all though it hurt, I realized the feeling of a twisting knife wasn’t really about photos, or even about my imagined plans for my own little declaration of completion. It is more the pining to be understood, the pining to be celebrated, the pining to be noticed, the pining to have life go as I think it should rather than the way it predictably does. No, I don’t have a husband glowing with pride and happiness, taking pictures of me at my graduation party. No, taking pictures and sending out announcements is really no substitute at all. But it was something, and I didn’t want to have to fight for that something. Any more than I wanted to fight my family to come up and be miserable while they watched me walk across a stage and shake hands with a stranger.

***

The life we imagine doesn’t have us pausing hunched on the threshold between the rain and the tormenting motor. The life we imagine has a multitude of choices, some more pleasant than others, and always with the tantalizing assumption that if we’re very clever about dashing through the wet drops from the grey skies — well, that we’ll strike upon that golden scenario that is all smiles and no painful wincing. The life we imagine takes all of the best pieces we’ve seen from all the happiest lives, and mashes them together in this strange yet pastoral scene we tell ourselves is actually achievable.

The lives that we do have are pieces of joy and contentment that are beyond words, splintered apart by hurts internal and external, and wrapped up in painful obliviousness to what we are doing to others and even what it is that we ourselves need. And whether we like it or not, our brokenness is our humanness. We cannot escape the brokenness without superseding our mortal forms. Some mornings the pain seems more searing than other mornings, making our breath catch and our eyes unfocus in a lame attempt to ward off tears. But always it is there.

Maybe it’s faulty advice, but it is my advice: Don’t be ashamed of pity. Of giving it to others, of accepting it yourself, or even occasionally allowing the self-pity to wash over all of your raw places and then drip slowly away. You can even pity the cat sometimes. It’s okay.

You and your soul

Do you think I’m a good judge of character?

I do.

I don’t know really how we can know such things about ourselves. But especially since I’ve gotten into a career where I see so very many different kinds of people, from all different walks of life, I feel like I can get a pretty good measure of a person by a first impression. Not a complete dossier, of course. But I’ve had the hair on the back of my neck rise up in wordless warning, with no tangible reason for it. I’ve pried recalcitrant people out of their shells. And I’ve been perfectly at ease around people that society would have you to believe ought to be scorned.

But you really do have to trust me as a judge of character, at least to a certain point. Because sometimes there are just random things that happen to me, where if you trust my sense of character, are just are just a really good story. And if you don’t, the whole story goes from novel-worthy to really kind of skeevy and a little unsettling.

So I went for a walk. I didn’t even really want to, but when I have too many emotions, I need to walk. Preferably over lots of hills. It’s sort of like getting mad and hitting things, except without the violence. And of course there’s no hills here, but still I’m charging down the sidewalk, storming around the park. And some random dude is like, “Hi!”

Seriously? He looks like a college aged guy, out walking himself.

“Do you like to talk while you walk or think to yourself?”

Well, I inform him apologetically, I like to think to myself. Walking is how I sort through the day and get my emotions out.

It turns out it wasn’t really a question, because he tags along anyhow. So earnest about being encouraging and trying to ask me what’s on my mind and cheer me on through it. And if I am a terrible judge of character, then he is just rude and annoying and won’t get a hint. But in my judge of character, he is just pretty crazy, and I kind of just want to laugh at him. He is strange in his own way, but not ill-intentioned.

So I tell him about missing home, about being far from anyone who knows me. And he admits he feels the same way, even though he grew up here. He asks me how many siblings I have, and then he asks me how many have died. And the whole conversation is this strange mix of serious and surreal. He insists on walking on the the side closer to the road, so he’d be hit first. He complains his friends have become cops and he can’t talk to them anymore. He confesses several of his siblings have died and his uncle committed suicide. He chivalrously steps between me and annoying barking dog. He tries to slow me down from walking too fast, talking too fast–he’s the one with the energy drink. He complains that people are suspicious of everyone now, even people walking you home.

And I just want to laugh. It’s broad daylight on a busy street. We’re almost to my residence. There is nothing he can take from me. If I am any judge of character, dude has had a rough, sad life and is tired of people pretending they can’t see each other. Tired of people not even trying to be kind. Maybe–maybe–he would like tears from me and the chance to comfort me like a hero. But I already know he won’t get that, and I think he can tell that’s not who I am. But still he will walk me home, so I won’t get run over by a car. And we continue our random and bizarre conversation, about chickens and goats, and brothers who have too much money and won’t talk to you anymore and would you just slow down and chill out.

And then I say, I’m sorry to end our conversation, but this is the house I’m staying at. So he gives me a casual hug good-bye, and I hug him back. Because this is all so silly. And we both know it. And so he stops and turns,–no, wait–and puts the crowning finish on it all by kissing my hand goodbye. And I would really laugh at him, if he didn’t already know he was being silly, but he already knows. So we wave good-bye as random friends, and I go into the house and he keeps walking off toward the college.

We are still sad. But we can still smile.

There is no reason for it, for any of it. For the heartache of this world and it’s loneliness and it’s brokenness. For the walking and talking with strangers. For walking on the left. But we don’t have to hurt each other, either. We can still be polite. We can still be kind. And sometimes the kindest thing we can do is not pull back. To not be offended by the broken offerings of kindness, to not refuse that a person could have any worth to offer you anything.

You see me walking with a burden, and I–I see you walking with a burden. And we are both already broken enough, and don’t need any more breaking. So kiss my hand; I’ll not pull away. Go in peace, you and your soul.

How much it hurts

I just want to wail, over and over, “I just want to go home, I just want to go home!”

I ran a little experiment and tried to post about what things are like for me right now on my family public blog. I just feel like a lot of my writing over here is of good quality, and I keep thinking I should go back to writing where my family can see it.

But the whole reason I started this one was because so much of what I’m feeling is emotionally complex enough I can’t be blunt and honest about it with my family. And there it is again. I started trying to write the first sentence I started this post with, over there, and I couldn’t do it.

Because it seems too melodramatic, and I find myself trying to tone it down for them. Because it is true, but if I said it to them, it would make people too upset. There’s nothing they can do to help me. So I share, but somehow I can only share so much. Maybe just because I have learned how terribly uncomfortable tears make them feel, and so I find myself trying to spare them of that? Because it’s not that I don’t want them to know I’m homesick. I just don’t want them to know that I’m finding tears rolling down my cheeks nearly every day now.

I can’t do this.

I want to go home.

I can’t do this, but I have to.

I want to go home.

I want to go home.

I want to go home. . .

What do you say?

You know what they say: Love Wins.

And if you are anything like me, “they” make you very frustrated and sad, because that’s jut a feel-good cop out that refuses to look at what love is. First of all, love is verb. People want to think it’s a noun, and I’ll dig around at that thought a bit more later, but the consideration of love as a noun is usually an attempt to avoid the difficult questions.

Love Wins. Love of what? Love of others? Love of nature? Love of self? Don’t try to squirm out of this – if you don’t confront that love is a verb, you are trying to pretend that those above choices will never be in conflict and that is demonstrably false. One of the most painful examples I have seen of Love Wins is people trying to use it to justify infidelity. It’s okay that I left the person I promised to love forever, because I love this other person, and Love Wins. Yes, that is “love winning” but that’s love of self winning. By dropping the direct object of “love,” it makes it sound very pious but is actually deeply deceiving.

The idea is, any action goes, as long as it’s in the name of love, because love wins. There’s no condemnation with love. But that’s still avoiding. Love of what? Love of whom? Because the object of your love is the object of your worship. There is One who claims the noun of Love — God. And that’s exactly what it means: the love of God, the love through God, the love toward God: the worship of God.

That’s the love that made the only innocent and holy man take on the full wrath and judgment of God. Love of God. I’ve seen a lot of people say Jesus did that because He loved us, but I don’t believe that to be it at all. He did it because He loved God, more than He loved us or Himself. Love is so very often what leads to self-denial, the exact opposite of how most people are attempting to use the slogan Love Wins.

Love Wins. Do you not understand what hard things this means in the real life? If there is one who wrongs, and one who has been wronged, who do you love? And is it really for you to judge about wrongs and wronged? And this question requires that one be worthy of love. Is that love? How do you love awful things? People like to use Hitler as an example of all that is wrong in this world — so do we love Hitler? Have we judged that Hitler is not worthy of love? If we get to decide who is worthy of love, is that Love Winning?

The only way I can see for Love Wins to make any sense at all is to appeal to authority: what you love. If what you are really saying is Love for Self Wins, you justify your actions by yourself and what benefits or harms you. If what you are really saying is Love for Dogs Win, well, heaven help you, you are appealing to the authority of dogs for your actions. And if what you are trying to say is the Love of God Wins, then you have do this other thing: submit to the authority of God, even when it means self-denial.

That is what Jesus was called to do. And I think that is what we are called to do. I don’t think it’s easy, nor is it always pleasant or feel good. And in all honesty, I don’t think it is often easy to understand. But when you are caught in the struggles of understanding what the loving thing to do is in this messed up situation, the only way to make any sense out of anything is to admit that you do not have the authority to decide what love is. Only God does. Or whatever you have decided to worship as your god.

If love was easy to understand, or love was easy to do, there would be a whole lot more “love” in the world. Let us not do ourselves the disservice of pretending that the struggles of loving in this broken word can be distilled down to a catchy, dismissive slogan that requires not heartache or difficulty self reflection, or brutal examination of all that you believe and worship.

I was listening to someone tell me the other day of her raw heart ache and her feelings of not being worthy of love, and how she felt badly betrayed and mistreated by her most recent lover, who had rapidly moved on to someone else to love — better and more gently than he’d ever loved her.

And sitting there listening to her pain and her grief, I kept wondering what love was. Love, in that moment, it seemed to me, was just hearing her, and recognizing her hurt. So that was what I endeavored to do. But all the while, my mind churned. You keep going from lover to lover and you think you will ever feel “worthy of love”? You think love is both something we must be worthy of and something that is still worth it, as conditional as you seem to understand it to be? In light of eternity, is true love rebuking you — painful in the moment, but so life giving in the long run? What would the apostle Paul say? Probably something starting with “brethren and countrymen–” and I’m just not feeling the brethren and countrymen thing right now. What would Jesus say? How the heck can I know? Sometimes He rebuked and sometimes He said, “do not rebuke her.”

Love Wins? Love Wins what? No, truly, what is love winning? You can’t even remotely pretend that love makes this world okay. This world is coming apart at its seams, has been, will be, and cannot be patched back together with love. Love can be a balm in this world, a comfort, a refuge sometimes, but what does it win? And I say this in all seriousness, because if you are going to die for love, you had sure better know what it is you are winning. And if you don’t think love is something you’ll ever be called on to die for, what makes you so sure it’s winning? How do you expect to actually make a difference against darkness and hurt and hate if you aren’t going to have to sacrifice for it? Plenty of people have died in the name of love. (Jesus, for example, comes to mind.) You can’t love and be safe and not do hard things.

Love Wins. It’s called, “sticking two verbs together and pretending it makes a sentence.” It doesn’t. It’s a slogan to hide behind, but doesn’t actually do anything in the way of guidance or illumination of how to deal with the hardness and the brokenness of life, and the confusion we all face when we come face to face with the command to love and the ugliness of the fallen world.

I don’t have an answer back, and that makes some people angry. Don’t just criticize. Keep your mouth shut unless you have a solution to offer. But people, you’re missing a step. Don’t you open your mouth and pretend to offer a solution when it’s a solution you haven’t vetted. If you won’t do the work of vetting your own offering, don’t be surprised or offended when other people are testing it and trying it. Love Wins is a feel-good farce designed to belay guilt, accountability or authority. It’s the childhood chant of “I’m right, you’re wrong, ha, ha, ha” without actually having meaning or depth behind it.

Love is supposed to be sacred, so playing “love” is supposed to be the trump card. If you don’t agree with me, you’re just a hater. No, I’m not. I’m someone who’s desperately trying to love, who finds that all sorts of different definitions and objects of love are completely contradictory or antithetical to each other. Love Wins is not a solution to someone struggling to understand how to love guilty, condemned people who have done horrible things. Love Wins is not a solution to understanding how people can say they love you, and love someone who has wronged you, hurt you, torn you apart, and ripped your life to shreds. Love Wins doesn’t help you understand when you are loving someone, and when you are enabling them more and more into their own self destruction and destruction of others. Love Wins doesn’t bring people back from the dead or end suffering. Love Wins has never helped me figure out Love or Winning, and in all honesty, I’ve never seen it used as more than sickening expression of “I’ve Got Mine!”

Do I believe in Love? Yes, but it’s not pretty and neat. I believe in the love and the authority of God. I don’t believe I’m worthy of love. I believe it is only the judicial act carried out against the innocent Son of God that satisfies a holy and just God to love, but as such, I don’t need to be afraid of losing that love. Because I never claimed it by my own action or merit anyhow; I was declared worthy by One in authority, and His declaration and intent stands. I can’t accept that love without also accepting that authority, and that means my measuring stick for love is not my own: sometimes, I’m called to love when I don’t want to, when I want to wash my hands of the whole situation. Sometimes, I’m called to not love when I want to, like when I want to love myself more than any kind of self-sacrificing love. I don’t get to say, “well, I don’t think that aspect of God is very loving,” because I don’t get to define love, because I don’t have the power to love. Not even as I think I should love.

I’m twisted, I’m broken, I’m weak. My love is tainted and fragile and without power. That means the only love I really have to offer is the love that God gives me, and that must therefore be defined by His authority. That really is all I have to offer you. Do I believe love will win? Yes, but winning is defined by God’s terms, not ours. And God was pretty blunt about saying that won’t be how we expected it or valued or how would have done it ourselves. So, no, I don’t really know what that means. I don’t know if I’ll be seeing my great-grandmother again. I don’t know what happens to people who seem to have broken other people by their inability to even understand what love is. I don’t know what the fullness of God’s love looks like; I only know I don’t have the authority to define God or His attributes. It is He that has created me, not I that have created Him. Love wins, in that love remains after this world has passed away. Love wins, in that it is Love that has sought to redeem us. Love wins, in that it is God who wields the love. Love wins, in that we can’t really commandeer it, and it will always be beyond our definition and power, as we echo faintly of what we’ve heard.

If I have to pare it down to a scant sentence, I cannot say Love Wins. I can only say, the Love of God will Win.

“God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Know Me

It used to be, when someone told me I was sensitive, I was frustrated and, well, hurt. Sensitive seemed like a bad word, an insult, and something that made me immediately defensive. I’m not sensitive — you’re just INsensitive!

I still think it can be hurled like an insult. Almost anything can, if you use right derisive tone of voice and a condescending glance. But after a few years of relative isolation and feeling unknown, I am now finding a new response to “sensitive” — relief.

Oh, good. You know. You understand. You see me. You recognize that this is an area to be careful around, just a a finger that has just been smashed in a door jam is sensitive and needs a little extra protection.

I am home sick. Literally, almost to the point of nauseousness. There are other things contributing, too, but the homesickness is more intense than it’s every been, and the tears hover very near the surface. I keep trying to explain away my problems, rationalize my situation, talk a good stiff upper lip into myself, drag myself through these next several weeks.

“And also, the landscape was more homelike. You are strongly affected by such things.”

Yes.

More than yes. Absolutely, completely dead-on.

My surroundings must take care of me. And if they don’t, I have to change them. I cannot, unfortunately, change the landscape of the biggest mountain range on the continent. And so I feel oppressed. I’m not speaking in hyperbole. I do not just feel uncomfortable, or out of place, or disconcerted. I feel, literally, oppressed.

I am sad. I hide in my room. Even though there is sunshine and fresh air outside. It is not okay. And I can’t fix it. I can only endure.

When Waking Up Doesn’t Fix the Problem

I have been staring at this computer screen, trying to get something out of it, and of course, getting nothing. I either need to get away from the screen or make something out of it myself, and my difficulty getting away makes me realize that I am actually avoiding dealing. So deal I ought.

The problem with the perpetual use of hyperbole is that it leaves you with no words at all when exceptional and extraordinary things happen. Those two adjectives are most frequently used as positive exclamation, but please recognize that they most certainly do not have to be.

How about when two people you know are arrested on charges of murdering their own son?

I can’t even.

See, people usually say, “That sweater is so cute, I can’t even!” You can’t even what? You can’t even come up with enough use of the English language to denote your happiness with it? How unfortunate.

How about you can’t even stop thinking about it? Can’t even figure out what you think or feel? Can’t even imagine something so horrible, but can’t even shut of the part of your brain that tries to play images of things in an attempt to process them. Can’t even stop talking about it, but can’t even figure out what I’m trying to say. Can’t even bear to read the reporting on it, but can’t even stop trying to figure out what is going on, as if in someway any of this could make sense.

Once, maybe about 7 years ago, something similar happened. A horrible shooting event in my home town at a civic center. And when it first happened, I confess to my shame I rolled my eyes at how the news stations tried to bring as much drama and fear-mongering into it as possible. How the media makes such a big deal out of these things, when more people are dying by the minute by things no one wants to talk about.

Partly, those things are true. Partly, I think, they are one of our coping mechanisms to try to keep the horrible things at bay. Rationalize, distance, talk about in cold clinical terms. It is only when those horrible things break through into our own personal circles that we have to face the reality of how devastatingly broken and unrepairable this world is. That did happen to me, 7 years ago. Unbeknownst to me at the time of my scoffing, one of the people killed that day was someone I knew. Not knew well; maybe even more so knew of. But the event ceased to be impersonal, and suddenly it was horrifying.

We know there are horrible things going on all around us. But we like the illusion that those things only happen to Other People. Maybe, in the backs of our minds, to Other People Who Probably Deserved It. We don’t like to admit that, and maybe we know it isn’t really true. But still, this idea that if we live our life right, horrible things won’t happen to us. That if we keep our nose down, make good choices, and be, you know, generally “good people,” then our lives won’t turn into living nightmares.

It’s a lie. A lie we try to use to comfort ourselves, but nothing we say or do will ever be able to influence the horror of suddenly losing a parent to car accident. The truth is, death is in the world. Some of us fight to hold it back, to delay it – but we never can prevent death. And death is in the world because sin is in the world, and that is rampant.

People say, “Look at all the beauty in the world!” Yes, there is beauty. There is beauty. But even the beauty in this world is a decaying beauty. It is corrupted. There are the tombs, and there are the white-washed tombs. We can turn a blind eye, pretend the horrible things happening Over There won’t ever catch us. We can be shocked when the horror breaks open in front of us. We can build our dreams and fantasy worlds as fast as we can, but we can never escape sin and death and horror.

And all the coping mechanisms of this world, all the ones I have found or heard of anyway, keep going for the rationalization, the clinicalization of the horror, to build a wall between you and it, to wash your own life of the horror and turn your backs on the ones being buried in it. But it doesn’t go away. The world is still steeped in it. You might be able to cram the monster down for a little bit, but it will be back. You can’t build a life bullet-proof to horror.

I know of no earthly balm. Creation itself is groaning for the redemption of humankind. The justice of this world will not stop the horror. The mercy of this world will not stop the horror. There are those who would wade out and try to stem the tide of death and pain and hatred and abuse and torture and need and desperation. But no one is strong enough for it; the horror takes you down, one way or another. The careers of paramedics are short, for example, because there are too many horrible things and too many limits to our powers to fight back. We can’t be good enough to stop the horror. We can’t fix it.

You’re not supposed to say “no earthly balm.” You’re supposed to say, “Help is available!” You’re supposed to say, “But, counseling!” You’re supposed to say nice things about healing and being made stronger. And about being a warrior who overcomes hurt and fear. You’re supposed to say, “It will be okay.”

But it won’t.

There’s no way to make horror okay.

And if you think there is, I deeply question whether horror has yet broken in to your own safe little circle.

I have been struggling with the concepts of mercy and justice. They seem to be entirely opposed, do they not? Both right and true, and yet a paradox of existence. Which do you long for? If you have been wronged, justice. If you have wronged, mercy. Which of us has not been in both places? But what if it is a wrong, but not against you? Do you have any right to ask for justice? Or for mercy?

The only place where I see them coming together is in redemption.

When you redeem a soda can, it’s not that you’re getting free money. It’s that someone already paid for it. And when there is redemption of souls, it’s not that mercy is being poured out without cost or consequence. It’s that justice was paid by someone else: the innocent Son of God, who bore the just wrath of God against sin and corruption and horror.

But when you redeem a soda can, you give it up. It will be made new again for a purpose, but first it will be destroyed. If a soul is redeemed, it is given up. Life is no longer ours to live for ourselves. Our bodies will be destroyed, but will be made new again for a purpose. And that’s the only way I can see mercy and justice for this world: redemption, which will only come through destruction and being made new. You can’t have the justice without the destruction, and you can’t have the mercy without being made new.

This is the hope: not that tomorrow, I will wake up and there will be no more horror in the world or in MY world. But that someday, there will be redemption. There will be justice and mercy. There will be destruction and being made new.

Well,then what of today?

And every time I ask about today, I hear, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial, in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’. . .exhort one another daily, while it is still called ‘Today.'”

So Today is the time of trial and wilderness and forebearance. Not that Justice will never be, and not that Mercy will never be. But like the beauty, the corrupted beauty, the justice and mercy of this time is only an echo, only a foreshadowing, and never enough to satisfy. Never enough justice and never enough mercy, because now is not the fullness of redemption, of destruction and being made new. The hope for today is not that it IS the rest, but that a rest does exist and is coming, and we have something to hold onto in the midst of the horror: all things made new.

We can’t make the horror okay, because inside of us all is a piece of the horror. Trying to make the horror okay now denies the truth. But the truth is not that we are good enough or can be good enough to escape the horror or defeat the horror. The hope, the joy, the desire is really for our own redemption, when the horror will be purged out from inside of us and we will be made new.

So today is the time of bearing the burdens and the heartache and the trial and the wilderness. And by bearing I don’t mean fixing, or moving beyond. I mean holding fast to the living God, in spite of all the terrible, horrible and wretched things of this world. It is because of God’s great patience that we exist, that we will find Him when we seek Him. And His patience is still working out, as long as it is still called Today. And this calls for endurance and faithfulness. And recognizing that we don’t get to be done with the horror, not in the world or in our world.

We can’t fix the horror. We can’t make the horror go away. We can’t be safe from the horror.We can only cry out with creation, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

 

Importance

Last night I listened to two people talking, and realized we were practically from different planets. She was raised with nannies — the first was from a town of only 300 people, can you imagine? (yes. . .yes, I can). The rest were from England. Of course. Don’t worry, she then became an au pair herself in France, 45 minutes outside of Paris, for 2 years.  Mummy dearest has bright red nails and an accent, and can’t imagine living in a small town for even two weeks, is a bonafide work-a-holic, and is considering getting a second home in Hilton Head, or if her brother buys a boat, anyway.

It makes my brain cramp. Because our lives are so different, yet we’re still just people. It’s not that their lives are charmed. Tales of divorce, counseling, drinking, endless streams of intimate relationships ending in broken hearts, longing for reconciliation, loneliness, and endless activity to avoid accidental self-reflection.

It leaves you thinking a little, what do they have that I don’t? Anything can happen in life. And then you realize, oh, yeah. What they have that I don’t have is money. I can’t just go home and buy a new car. I can’t just eat grass fed beef because it’s better for me.

It’s not that I’m without privilege. I do have privilege. I don’t have to start working the second I’m done with school, because I have family I can stay with, who will shelter and feed me. They have before, and likely will again, lend me the money to buy a car, which will be a far better deal than taking out a loan from traditional sources.

I just always wonder how far to push those resources. Because for a certain while, it makes sense, and after another certain while, it feels like taking advantage of someone. And it’s also a struggle, because it comes with a certain lack of identity. And both of those things eat at me.

I’m not saying I have to pull myself up by my own boot straps in order to be legitimate, although certainly there are temptations to be that way. But you don’t take things without giving things, and the more “support” you take, the more “autonomy” you give away. You have less and less control over living situation and environment, what you eat, who visits and when. It is further complicated by the thing about being alone vs being around people who care about you.

So this morning I started thinking about things like, how much money saved up is enough money? Is it better to rent or buy? How terrifying to buy. And things like, good glory, the amount of debt I have for my schooling could buy me 3 great American dreams. And that opens up the whole struggle I have about the school debt: when you know you will likely never pay it off, do you try? The pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps says yes, but it’s hard to convince yourself that in light of canceling any other aspirations for life.

I like life binary. I like right and wrong. Be simple and clear cut. It makes me so highly annoyed when I find out life is complex and confusing, and without straightforward answers. You might not get a diagnosis; you might just be stuck managing your symptoms. You might not get your dream lifestyle, but wind up living 15 different versions of making do, longing, and scheming to try again. You might get your education, but always wonder if it was worth it, or if it should have been went about in another way. (Right now I don’t think that, but ask me when I’m confronted with making payments.)

When it all comes down to it, I sometimes think I just want to stop being confused by life. I want someone to say, “this choice is the right choice, this choice is the wrong choice.” Armed with irrefutable conviction, I could then accept the consequences and carry on. But there is a niggling part of me I keep fighting with, the part of me that says, you can do a lot of the things you want, if only you had the guts to take the risks. And the risk adverse part of me says, “risk is stupid.”

I’m sick of doing what I’m supposed to do, and want to be reckless and do my own thing. But that is at war with the part of me that says conventional wisdom is both conventional and wise for a reason. There’s no good reason to not work for 2 to 3 years.

But I want to be in control. I don’t want to be riding on the waves of societies expectations and  social systems. I want to be busy being me. And when I talk about it as a defiance of society and the world, I feel so holy and I think I should find courage to make risky decisions. Other times, I wonder if I’m just fighting God. I want to be in control. I don’t want to be told what to do with my life. I don’t want to do those hard things, I want to do MY hard things.

I mean, just for supposing. . .suppose I turned down lucrative full time employment, in hopes of finding something part time? That’s a luxury only achievable by support of others. If I took full advantage of that support, and defiant risk in the face of all that’s responsible adulthood, I could do that. But I feel like I owe my support better than that. I feel like I owe my support a faster pay back than a part time job, too. And I’m not sure which is worse, feeling like your life is being ruled by money or emotions, but having it ruled by both at once sure does stink.

So while I try to resign myself to the idea of seeking full time employment. . .I also find myself looking for the silver lining. How fast could I save it up if I stayed with the support system? Could I outright buy a place I would want to own, and skip renting or mortgages? Would I feel too guilty not spending more toward school loans? Would I be able to save that much while paying back borrowed money for a vehicle? Could I manage the relative lack of autonomy for another two or three years?

And behind it all is the persistent longing that my life could be defined by more than my job. The one area where I feel like I have no control at all. I pray about it a lot. But I still have so little idea of what God has planned or why He has it planned. I don’t know why we wander, and I don’t know why we so often have to wander alone. I feel sad about where I am, but also certain, in some part of me, that God is good and gives good things.

Is that enough? I don’t know. But I think it’s the most important.