Unrequited

I have been struggling for a while with wanting a relationship with someone who probably does not want a relationship with me, or at the very least, has a different understanding of the meaning of relationship than I do. “Relationship” and “someone” being vague, I suppose I ought to define my terms better, but I used those terms on purpose. Someone who has acted as a mentor in my life, who has seen things about me before I have seen them, and believed in me when it seemed no one else did. I don’t want a friendship in a shallow sense of smiling when we see each other. And she is more to me than a vague acquaintance or co-worker.

The conundrum is caring in a deep way for someone who seems to only care for you in a superficial manner. And because you care deeply, you can’t seem to help but long for reciprocation – for the other to understand you, value you, respect you, maybe even be proud of you. Yet, again, because you care deeply, you can also see the other truths: a home life that was always manipulative, and continues to be; lies to placate being the way to restore peace; co-dependent relationships giving a sense of stability because someone needs you and that makes you feel safe; a desperate need for predictability and control; and someone who’s values and ethics are completely different from yours — with a far lower value on honesty, and a far higher value on entertainment.

Fourteen hundred miniature rejections every day. If she hadn’t been so meaningful and pivotal in my life, it wouldn’t matter so much. I keep waiting for it to stop hurting so much, but it never does. I keep praying for her to understand the true meaning of love, and instead I see her “helping” me, but with her only true motivation being hurting someone else she has deemed even lower on the totem pole, and in need of being punished. It’s grievous in the truest sense of the word.

What I want is to be as meaningful in her life as she has been in mine. What I am getting is that I am not entertaining enough to be valid in her life. I get put-up with at best. The blatant favoritism she shows toward others smarts terribly, because they visibly treat her badly. But she knows they need her. So it is a safe relationship, where she won’t ever really be rejected.

It is frustrating for me to be able to see so many different layers of broken, and yet still be hurt. And yet still hope that, maybe today, she will value my presence. Of course she doesn’t. I am only valued in that I am useful, and I am only useful right now as a tool for her to flog someone else with, a role I don’t want. It is an exhausting situation for me, and I keep waiting for it to “resolve,” like a partial-chord with so much hanging tension.

But it doesn’t, and then I get angry with God. Somehow I have decided that it’s His job to make everything resolve while I watch, and His shortcomings on that account clearly show His lack of interest in me and my life, and point clearly toward nothing. ever. changing.

I keep praying He will show her what real love is. Because I want to be proven wrong. But also I am angry at myself for still wanting her approval today, even though I didn’t have it yesterday, and likely will never have it. I feel like I should be able to let it go and move on, but instead, there is that smarting again. And again. And again. Right when I am least ready for it, another slap in the face.

Reluctantly, I recall Jesus being betrayed by Judas, by His friend who ate with Him, traveled with Him, said he valued Jesus more than anything but didn’t mean it. I recall the Israelites turning again and again from the One who wanted a meaningful relationship with them. I remember, even, Adam and Eve, hiding in the garden, because they decided they didn’t value their relationship with God as much as other stuff. It’s not like I can really throw a convincing fit that God doesn’t understand what it’s like to be rejected every day, while the object of our meaningful affection instead courts the superficial and unhealthy relationships that give them more of a fleeting thrill, sense of control and false honor.

Still, I struggle with the sense of feeling like it’s pretty dumb to set up situations where you get to care about a person who won’t reciprocate to the same level. The temptation is not to try to learn from it (learn what? besides what being unrequited feels like?), but rather to want to leave: fine, then. Be that way. Be twisted and messed up, and not value me. I can leave, and then you can have your pretty little twisted up life to yourself. On an independent, humanistic level, this makes sense. Only, that’s not what God does at all. And if we are supposed to be little Christ followers, it makes sense only that we must imitate God. And that would seem to indicate continuing to show up in this woman’s life, only to continue to be rejected, possibly endlessly.

So then I want to demand the why. Why do I have to put up with this nonsense? What’s the pay-off? When will she finally come to her senses? Ad nauseam.  Having very little understanding of the ‘why,’ I mostly feel endlessly trapped. I find myself looking for a way to force resolution myself: me stop caring. Get her to care. Get her to stop pretending to care, when obviously she doesn’t really. Of no surprise to anyone, I’m entirely unsuccessful in any of those endeavors. And I am left to mope that I’m seeing very little of either my power or God’s.

Why God has put me here, I really don’t know. But my deepest hope’s desire, and so my continued prayer, is that He would be pleased to demonstrate His power, by teaching her what real love is. Through me or just in front of my eyes. But please hurry. This is a heavy burden to have pressed on my shoulders and it makes it hard to breathe.

o hope

I feel like I am being sucked into one of those places where I just don’t know what the point is any more.

You try to help people get better, but they don’t want to get better, or never get all the way better, or it comes and it goes, or they’re back for something else, or you can’t figure out how to help them, or — you know what? We still all die anyway.

Write paperwork that no one reads. Go to work with co-workers who couldn’t care less you fell off the face of the earth. Collect a paycheck with little more motivation than paying bills. Go to bed tired. Wake up tired. Do it all over again and again, with nothing but a slogging sense of endurance.

Why? For what? I can grasp around some philosophical and ideological reasonings, but no real concrete substance of why.

Ironically, one of the reasons I first got interested in this field was because, even if everything else went wrong, at least I would still be doing something meaningful: alleviating suffering and taking care of human beings. Never mind all the people who don’t seem to want to get better, the people beyond any of my helping, and the somewhat appalling sense of something close to selling oneself on a street corner: being paid to care. Not in a deep meaningful sense of community building and relationship growing. People coming in who you honestly truly cannot stand, and yet pasting on a terse little smile and a professional voice, and listen to them go on and on in the most objectionable way — not because you actually care, but just because you can’t kick them out on the grounds of being unpleasant to be around.

I sometimes find myself thinking that if I was working to — support my own house and land, or if I had my own family, or if I had energy enough to be passionate and involved in some of my (many) other interests — then the why of it would ease up. But I don’t really think that’s true. I’ve seen too many people with their own property, and their own families struggle with the why, and to my shame, too many people with health much more limited than I still find a way to be passionate and involved.

I feel a terrible loss of agency, and I tell myself fiercely, “Good!” I need humility, need patience, need to look to the hand of my Master. But somehow I feel like I am losing things I need to lose without also gaining things I need to gain, leaving me completely barren.

I tell myself I have a job, a good job. Many people don’t have that. I have food and clothes. I have mother and father and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins. I have a grandmother. I have a few close friends. What else do you want? I rebuke myself sternly. What else do you really need? Would anything really satiate you, anything really make you happy?

I am angry at myself for trying to tell me I have no right to be unhappy with my circumstance, as though I ought to be content in that which is clearly lacking. Here I can see, to my shame, my arguing with the Potter that He doesn’t know what He is doing. But still, I protest. Where’s the plot? Where’s the fruit? Where’s the hope? Where’s the direction?

How many people, I scold, have spent their whole lives longing for a fraction of what I have? Well, yeah? How many people have more than I have? I know my defiance is helping exactly nothing at all, but still, it is there. Why should I not want more next year than I have this year? Just because I’ll always be wanting a little more seems no reason for complacency, for settling. Justifying my anger, justifying my dissatisfaction, justifying my victimhood. If there were more progress, I wouldn’t be so resentful.

For a while, I could play the game of just-beyond. If I could just get through this class –! If I could just get through this semester –! If I could just get through this degree –! If I could just–! But now that’s run out. Welcome to the stale American dream of slogging. I tried my hardest to make the best of the journey, but now the journey has stalled at something that looked like a destination. And while I furiously lecture about how a new plot point should be right here, how I can’t do the same thing over and over without seeing some kind of fruit, how a course to a new destination needs to be set, I don’t see any way forward, or any direction or any path. Or any point.

And I know that people talk about the grass being greener, that satisfaction is an illusion and if we can’t find peace in the present, we never will in the future either, and so on. But the thing is, that’s a double edged sword. If the grass isn’t green now, how will it ever get greener? If there’s no peace or satisfaction and there never will be — what’s the point? Why get out of bed to go to work? Deeply ingrained duty and responsibility and the illusion that there is no choice can carry you quite a ways, but they don’t carry you on in joy, or in hope. Instead it brings with it the keening wail of “how long?”

I know that I cannot run on anger. But I also know that I cannot run without hope. And when mornings run into evenings and days blur into smudgy memories I feel grateful only to have made through. . .either the well of hope is not deep enough, or the rope on my bucket is just too short to reach it.

And I can think of a lot of things to hope about, for hope deferred, for later, for when-this-is-all-done. But I can’t find a whole lot of meaning or purpose or hope for – tomorrow. For the day after tomorrow. For next month. For why I am here. And the prayers that I pray seem to bounce and rattle and never really drive home.

There is something to be said, I know, for endurance. For faith without sight. But there is a lot to be said for hope, too, and hard to stand and watch it crumble into little more than an intellectual construct with little light to offer on cold days and short nights. Hope was supposed to burn.

 

Stars in the black, black night

I had a hard December, following a strong of hard months, years. I finally had a two day reprieve, and in the space I had to breathe, I said in my head,

“That was hard.”

And instantly was the response, one part words I have said over and over to my patients and all the parts from God,

“Yes. It was supposed to be hard. If it’s not hard, then you don’t get stronger; and then it is a waste of time.”

It gave me a little hope, a very little hope. That maybe it wasn’t for nothing, that maybe it would bear fruit, that maybe it wasn’t pointless suffering, that maybe there was a plan.

But in my two day reprieve, I also saw the thumb screws being tightened down on someone I care for, and to the best of my knowledge, has a ways to go before she has a reprieve. And I know of no way to help her.

And I am still left with that hole. What’s the point? What for? Why all the pain for no reason? People talk about alleviating the suffering of mankind, but the true suffering of mankind is the suffering that cannot be relieved.

It is technically and philosophically easy to say that suffering has a purpose. But when you are in suffering, it is far harder—in part because you don’t get the suffering and the fruit at the same time. When the fruit comes, even if it is sweet or sustaining, it comes long after the bitterness and pain. There’s no spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down; there’s just begging for mercy.

So what do you do when someone is begging for mercy beside you? The obvious answer is beg along side of them — for mercy for you both. But there is also a reason we all tend to ask for “practical implications.” There are lists out there for what to do when people are going through hard times. . .being there, “holding space,” offering practical solutions of what you could do to help, not avoiding conversations about the thing, etc. And sometimes those lists are helpful, and sometimes they just shine the light on the other problem: it hurts us to see others suffering, and we would like to know how to alleviate  our own distress. Sitting quietly with someone while they sob does very little to comfort us.

When you walk on the other side of the road, it is mostly to protect you from the mess of human suffering. It is easier to bless, be warm and filled, than to drink down suffering with others. Because sometimes, it’s not even about not wanting to “do” something about it, or physical risk or sacrifice. It’s the internal pain of confronting the fact there is un-savable pain and suffering in this world: it’s broken, it sucks, and there is nothing you can do to fix it. Looking away feels preferable.

The saving that we want is for more than just the current moment; we want the world to be fixed such that there is no longer meaningless, pointless, stupid suffering. Not just her. Her and her and him and everyone. But when God gives justice and judgement, He also gives grace and blessing. And though the world has been judged, and cries out for redemption, still He sends blessing: rain, sun, food. And, I hope I am not too rash in suggesting, His people to carry His light, and to serve as beacons for people to find, not the relief from the suffering they are currently in, but rather the suffering that is yet to come. Do not, He says, put your light under a basket, safe and protected and secure, but bring it out into the darkness.

The very reason that we most want to look away is the very reason we must move closer to suffering.

And the practical application of that, if I may, is that when we know why we must do what we must do, and who sends us to do it, we have greater courage and strength and comfort to carry out the hard and unpleasant tasks that need to be done. I am moving toward this person and this suffering, not because I have the answers, can fix things, know what I’m doing, am more capable than they are, or like suffering. But because God said, “You have My light, and I am sending you into this world, and you need to trust that I will have My light be seen in you. I’m at work and will be at work, and I told you that, so you need to believe it.”

I think I just said a lot of stupid words to a person I don’t think I can help, who has some heavy burden laid on her that she cannot/will not even explain. Her suffering is so palpable it makes my heart hurt, like a physical sensation inside of my chest, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing I can do. If my confidence is in me doing the right thing, this is a hopeless situation.

God have mercy; God stay true to Your promise to put Your light into Your people as You send them into the world, and let me be faithful to Your spirit. There is no hope unless You are the one at work; and let me find comfort in knowing Your work is being accomplished — in me, through me, beside me, around me, and toward the world. Bless us still.

I Cry Out

December 2008. Almost a full decade ago. Sure, let’s go for a whole decade. 2007. From then, till now. The things that have happened, the things that have changed, the things that haven’t. 22 through 32.

I was still being a “full-time sister.” My youngest sibling was 5. I organized the berry picking trips, made all the bread and pickles, ran the vegetable garden in all it’s sad un-glory, cut the hair of 9 brothers, helped care for my aging grandparents, taught myself pattern drafting for sewing, handquilted and learned to knit socks, cleaned house for a neighbor, and basically, was slowly losing my mind. This made sense when I was 16 and my mom was in the hospital for a month on strict bedrest, and I tried to keep the small but very full household running. . .but it had been making less and less sense with every passing day. 5 year olds don’t need their diapers changed. 7 year olds don’t need help dressing. 9 year olds don’t need to be watched to keep them from running out into the road. I knew this had to end, something had to change, but I didn’t know what, didn’t know how, and no idea how to start.

Guys, I just wanted life to make sense. I just wanted it to be meaningful. I just wanted to know that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing.

 

3 jobs

3 degrees

7 clinical rotations

6 moves (2 of which were cross-country), plus about 10 weeks of being essentially homeless, sleeping on couches and never being quite sure where I was spending the night next week.

20 lbs on, off, on, off and on again

3 close compatriots married off, plus a sibling

3 grandparents died

1 life-threatening illness that no one can satisfactorily explain

3 friends divorced in one year, and one more almost did that year, too

1 aunt and 2 family friends died

A family acquaintance accused of murder now living on bail in my family’s house

A tornado through my aunt and uncles property

My brother and his wife having multiple miscarriages. Also, a friend miscarrying

Also, my brother and his wife in their third trimester, and more friend babies than I can count

2 cars

2 car accident plus breaking down in the middle of South Carolina mountains full of wild fires

Cooking for 14 to cooking for 1

never having my own room and never having a space to think and yet being alone to being two days of long travel away from anyone who even knew my name, and being alone and then back again to no space at all.

being white knuckled with stress and terror just driving to my grandparents to driving across the country and staying in a random stranger’s house

the majority of my fertile years

friendships tentatively forged, now distanced by miles; friendship that used to be close now waning even as the space between contracts once again.

 

. . . and back to living with most of my family. A different house. My youngest sibling is 15 now. My commute is 40 minutes. I don’t know how to take care of my body or what I can eat. I feel lost, like a fractured dream, where everything feels both real and wrong. Some things feel so familiar, yet so disconnected. Superficial and fake, but with a hidden meaning somewhere. I feel almost more disassociated from my body than I ever have before.

You guys, I’m tired. And confused. And somehow no closer to find that elusive thing called meaning. I feel like an indentured servant, perpetually. Almost all of my somedays have never happened, and so much time has passed by that I struggle to hold on to any hope that my somedays will ever happen. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I thought I just had to survive, get through to the other side, and then everything would sort itself out and make sense. Only now I’ve gotten through to the other side, hung on and survived, and nothing makes any more sense. And in some ways, I feel like I’m running out of the hanging on, the trust that somehow things will coalesce and make sense. Slogging through only works when you see the end in sight, and I can’t imagine any end anymore.

And I don’t even know who or how to talk about the things that burden me any more, I don’t even know how to talk to myself. Yesterday, as I flushed, I thought, “well, there goes one more uterine lining down the drain. I wish I could be the one to decide whether I wanted to keep it or get rid of it.” And then I stood there in the bathroom running through name after name and trying to decide if there was anyone on earth I could actually say that to. (In the end, I just had a quiet internal conversation about how we talk about how important it is to preserve a person’s choice – their autonomy – and yet there are so many things, like age, that feel like a loss of autonomy because you have no choice – that is, you are mortal, and low in power.)

I’m so frustrated to have gone through so many years, so many things, and still be struggling with so much of the very same things. Other times I suppose that probably one of the consequences of staying so busy you forget how to breathe is that you never really deal with all the deep-down struggles, and so they just resurface uglier than ever whenever you do happen to manage to come up through the water. And I’m somehow saddened that now, unbidden — this never happened before, ever — I find myself considering over and over how maybe one of the main points of this life is just to get us so wearied of it all that we are looking forward to leaving the tabernacle for the permanent dwelling. That it’s like my mom, complaining that the third trimester is there to make you look forward to labor, and just being done. That maybe this life isn’t about finding joy and rejuvenation, it’s just about pouring yourself out until there literally is nothing more to pour and the drink offering is found to be an acceptable sacrifice.

I don’t know any more how to ask for the things that I’ve asked and asked and asked for, and never heard an answer.  And I feel like I’m just getting better at slapping a smile on my face and not sharing what’s inside, or just withdrawing moodily. Because what can anyone offer? Humiliating pity or a belittling assurance? We all know that there isn’t really any answer. That’s why “questioning the meaning of life” is such a cliche. It’s something everyone struggles with, no one really has the answer for, and all of us are at least a little tiny bit afraid of.

Maybe we should be more quick to share the tears that brim and roll, and less inclined to lock away and hide. Maybe there is a fellowship in sorrow as much or more than in joy. But in the moment, when you’ve had more than you can bear, it’s too much to try to also manage the response of others, whatever they may be. When one more breath is an effort, so is one more thought, one more sound, one more word, one more expression, one more silence. So the grieving is silent, but no less powerful.

o, my life! what are you? not what i expected. not what i hoped. not what i thought. not what i meant. but what i was given. and that is something, even if it is not any of those other things. . . something to be respected, something to be treasured, something to be held. but still. . . a burden at times a heavy one pressing down hard. the third trimester, the drink offering, the prayer in the garden, the bitter gall that gives you the strength to call out, “my god, my god. . .”

 

 

 

I lift up my eyes

Faith in God is as much or more about trusting Him with our past as it is trusting Him with our future.

I’m paraphrasing someone, and alas, I don’t remember who, but I do remember the thought, because it rang deeply true with me. In culture today, there is a strong current of “Hakuna Matata.” Your past doesn’t matter. Only who you are today matters. Even in “christian pop” songs, this theme prevails.

But experientially, that’s baloney. Experientially, who you are today is a direct result of the past. Decisions that were made or not made or out of your influence entirely live you — with children, or childless. Married or not. Penniless or with a few dollars in your pocket. Crippled from injury and disease or running a marathon. There are choices you don’t get to make now, choices you HAVE to make now, because of your past.

And it changes how you translate everything that happens to you. The context of your past imprints itself on how you perceive and react to every little thing — the weight of an unkind or careless word; the instability of a work place; walking up a flight of stairs, even.

No matter how much you endeavor to live in the present, you keep smashing into the past. And then you have to ask, “Why, God?”

How am I supposed to trust You with my future when I can’t understand why You gave me that past?

How am I supposed to trust You with my future, when my past still hurts so much?

How am I supposed to trust you to give me good things in my future, when I have been praying for good things endlessly for years with seemingly no answer?

How am I supposed to trust that You will use me to do good works in the future, when I sit here looking bleakly at the past and feeling like I’ve never been used to bear any good fruit yet?

You can’t trust God with the future without trusting Him with the past. Because if deep down inside you believe Him to have been incompetent or uncaring in the past, why should you think Him to behave any differently in the future? But hindsight being 20/20 is a myth. The past is still as clear as mud. And it being in the past doesn’t mean it’s good.

The thing is, we can’t go back and change the past. So if it’s uncomfortable, if it’s painful. . .avoiding it seems like the safest thing. It stinks, we can’t fix it, let’s just move on. But I’d guess that an awful, awful lot of having trouble trusting God with the future is actually having trouble trusting God with the past.

I trust God — with the things that I feel secure He has helped me through in the past. Cars breaking down, for example. Always felt very taken care of; don’t have too terribly much emotional trauma with the idea of it happening again. The stuff that God has always seemed to be far away and very quiet about? I struggle so hard to trust Him at all. It’s not the future I’m struggling with. It’s the past. Why, God? Why did you do the things You did? Why am I winding up where I’m winding up now?

I don’t need to put my past behind me and move on to the future. I need to put the future on hold, and slog through the past until I’m not scared that God is hiding from me. I need to seek God out in the past, just as much or more as I keep trying to find Him in the future.

God is good. Even in the past. Let us seek Him.

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. . .

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!”

 

Oh, year.

There are a lot of people ringing in the new year, and large portion of them are bemoaning that 2016 wasn’t a good year. I feel a little like protesting – it’s not the year’s fault. The seasons still changed nicely. I’m pretty sure we still made it around the sun. Isn’t that what a year is?

And I know I am inclined to be optimistic about these things. Facebook just reminded me about a truly inspirational new years post I made 3 years ago, chipper enough that I wondered what the heck my 2013 had been like to inspire such words out of me. Plus also, I am a little bit cynical, and I think a lot of people are saying it was a bad year just because they didn’t like the way the election went, and you have to admit it was pretty horrible on all grounds, but that doesn’t mean that nothing else happened the whole year long.

Yet I must confess: 2016 was a hard year for me. Some people say a little wiser, and I suppose – and most definitely do hope – that is true. A little more broken, I am sure. Kinder? Maybe. But hard? Yes.

And there were a lot of hard things, and in a lot of different ways. But mostly because 2016 was The Year of the Sickness.

Mostly recently, I have been struggling with coming to the dreadful realization that I Am Sick. Not was. For the longest time I have been trying to ask things like “am I sick, or is it just hard to be homeless?” “am I sick or is it the winter?” “am I sick, or is this something else?” It was a better of a hammer blow when I suddenly realized not or, but rather and. Sick, and homeless, and tired, and stressed. And sick. Not or.

There was a brief month or two this summer when I didn’t feel sick; in fact, I felt awesome. Like when I was a teenager. Or maybe younger. And that made me stop and think. How long has this been building? How long have I been sick and thinking it was normal? When it’s all you’ve ever known, what do you have to compare it too? I don’t know what brought it on to boiling point, to spilling over the top and over everything. I do know that I can’t avoid it. I’ve tried, but even when kept at bay, it is still simmering just under the surface.

I have found, speaking of the new year, that actually doing things depends solely on motivations. Not on plans, and not on wants. You can want a thing until you’re blue in the face, and never really put the work into it. You can plan the most perfect plan, but never be able execute it. But when you are motivated, truly convicted within your soul, it doesn’t matter if you have a crummy plan or no plan at all, or even how much you might feel the thing is pleasant.

Take going to graduate school, for instance. I didn’t really want to, I just became fully convinced that it was the thing I was supposed to do. Fully convinced. Utterly planless, away I went. Sometimes things didn’t work out until the very last minute, like applying to school hours before they closed the deadline for accepting admissions, or finding a new room to rent on the day my previous lease ended.

Other things, I have “wanted” to do for years, decades, even. Or planed, with really ornate plans. And these things haven’t fruited, or if they have, it has been in stilted, stunted and half-formed manners.

So the question isn’t what do you want out of the new year, or what do you plan for the new year, but what are you utterly convicted to do?

For me, I have two things:

  1. Graduate. I am so sick of going to school that I would do nearly anything to stay on track and graduate this spring. And I proved that last January and February and March and April and May and June: showing up for classes nearly out of my mind with sickness, propping myself up with special chairs and pillows and finding a place to lay down for the 20 minutes in between, sometimes barely able to keep my eyes open and sometimes shifting restlessly in pain. But I showed up, and I did the work. I’m not quite sure how, but I think largely it was from a pure desperation to be done with school. The end is almost in sight now, and my eyes are fixed on it like a hunting dog on a rabbit.
  2. Figure out how to manage my sickness. And I don’t even know what that means, for certain, except that I am pretty sure it means social isolation. But I’m past the planning and past the wanting, and I just Have To Do This.

It might seem strange to think that figuring out how to take care of your malfunctioning body would be part and parcel with social isolation, but it is. Because it means eating differently. And there is truth that fellowship is found in sharing meals. And the people around you – they won’t eat radically different, just because you discover that you have to now. And sometimes it seems like – it would just be easier to not be around people at all, than to be with them while they eat in a manner that you no longer can.

This sounds so very melodramatic. There are millions of people with all sorts of food allergies or diabetes or other dietary restrictions, and they survive just fine. But the hard part of 2017 is the finding out. I know that if I radically strip my diet, my body is much happier. But I don’t know what it is that I’m stripping or adding in or doing differently that is bringing relief to my body. I don’t know what I can’t eat. I don’t know what I can eat.

That means, 2017 is the year of turning myself into a science experiment. And I don’t want to. There is nothing appealing about experimenting on yourself, to the isolation with interactions with family and friends. But the alternative is that this goes on. That I keep making myself miserable, with no clear idea of why.

And it scares me, because I don’t have any idea what the outcome will be – one ingredient, a host of restrictions, a stringent diet for the rest of my life? And I don’t know what it means as it affects my future. If I really find that it is more than an ingredient and is truly a way of life, what does that mean – about many things? About what you do when you go to social engagements like weddings and friend’s houses and people offering to take you out to eat. About how affordable your food may or may not be. About living with other people or living by yourself.

And it’s that last one that really gets me. Because I am so tired of being homeless. I’ve been tossed about, over and over. I want to get grounded. And there is some hope in the idea of rest: whatever else the future holds, after I graduate, I will go and stay with my family for, at the very least, some while. So I can rest while I figure out what comes next. So I can stay put for a while, with people I know and love, and with trees and dirt and air.

But if I can’t eat anything that rest of my family eats, what kind of torture will it be to sit down with everyone else to eat, and to not eat? To not eat homemade ice cream, or brownies warm from the oven, or pizza just pulled off the stones or even the ambrosial homemade pesto? Every day a battle of refusing fellowship by making my own food and trying to ignore the proclamations of delight from a host of feasting family?

It’s not much to look forward to; neither is living alone. I need answers, I need to take care of my body. . .but it’s not really what I want. And what I really want is not something that can be planned for. (Like having my own family, for instance, but I think I harp on that rather often enough.)

Mostly, I don’t feel like I have a lot to offer 2017. I feel like 2017 is a salvage year, when you mostly try to pick up all of the pieces and figure out how they fit together now. Maybe in 2018, I’ll be back to being full of optimism and plans for the future and grand schemes, but for now. . .I just want to stop hurting. I want to stay in one place. I want to have the autonomy to make some choices about how I spend my days. I want what I am going through now to be over. May I be granted that grace.