What we don’t know that we know

Sometimes people surprise the truth out of me.

One time was when, as I was struggling a mystery illness and frustrated by the lack of answers, one of my professors turned around and asked me, “But what do you think? What do you think is at the root of it all?”

I blurted out an answer I had never thought of, never considered, never reasoned — and to this day I still think it’s best explanation for what I went through.

It happened again the other day, I think. A friend asked me, if I quit my current job, what would I do?

Without hesitation, I was shocked to hear myself say, “A sabbatical.”

I’d never considered that, on purpose and deliberately. But as soon as I heard myself saying it, I knew it was the truth. I don’t have a baby to rise up inside of me, but my heart did. Yes. Please, yes. It’s been about a decade of working hard and being broken and I just want to rest and I’m over-due. Isn’t it supposed to be every seven years?

What, I wonder, do most people think of when they hear sabbatical? It seems most people I hear use the term sabbatical in a more modern concept always seem to travel during their sabbatical. I would guess they feel the need to escape the places and people that come with an undercurrent of responsibility. For me, I want to get away from mankind and closer to God, and the best way I have found to do that is to get closer to God’s creation. Truly, closer.

Lay on the ground. Sleep in the sun and the dew. Get wet and cold. Eat food from the ground. Singing with your own voice.

Does that not sound entirely comfortable? I am not sure that a sabbatical is supposed to be entirely comfortable — perhaps a vacation is. But a sabbatical, I think, is supposed to be life giving. And while sleeping on the clay ground doesn’t sound comfortable, you would be surprised to know how my breathing deepens and slows just thinking about it. God, and His creation, runs at an entirely different frequency and rhythm than the rest of the world, and my aching soul cries out for it.

I don’t want to tell people how seriously I think about quitting my job. It feels like a failure. It feels like not trying hard enough. It feels like saying, “you all go on ahead being adults; I quit.” But also, not thinking about quitting just feels like an exercise in delusion and denial. But if I quit, what next?

If I let go of the taut reins of “realistic” and “responsible” and “feasible” and “reasonable” and listen to thing I can best call my heart’s cry, rapidly I am thinking about buying a plot of completely undeveloped land, and living on it. Something like 5 to 10 acres that haven’t been used in long enough that it is mostly woods, with some clearings, and obviously there is a fickle stream. Preferable said land butts up close to state land. I want to save lots of money and NOT spend it all on the land, because that’s probably the money I’ll be living on a for a while, and besides, you have to save money to drill a well at some point probably, but for now my mind is already tracing rabbit trails of what containers would do well for hauling and storing water, what kind of cooler chests would keep wild animals out, the reality that I would probably still have to have a phone of some sort, and could I squeeze out three seasons if I built the equivalent of a wooden tent?

Around this part, I start rebuking myself for romanticized pipe dreams that everyone has, and no one lives, because hello, there are serious flaws with these types of things. But I wonder — why does everyone have them, if not because the life around is killing us from the inside out and we all know it?

It’s not like I think I would live out there forever. It could always be the sabbatical land. The largely undeveloped (I still think a well would have to happen at some point) fleeing-place, the land of refuge when this broken and ill world wears me (or others) down to the point that withdrawal must happen. I figure after a year or two, I would get it out of my system for a while and make another attempt at re-entry into society. Not that I would never leave the sabbatical land — how else would I take voice lessons, and pottery lessons, and learn how to swim, and mushrooming lessons, and unload pictures off my camera, and get more milk because how is a person supposed to live without milk, and see my family and friends, and get more books from the library, and more canvas to paint? Maybe, if reality intruded too much, I could even do some per diem work on the side, just to keep my cursed world skills and connections from rusting too much. But after that, after resting and restoring and learning and creating and Not Trying, maybe after that I could work a part time job and try again to find a rhythm and a balance that I could sustain. Where I didn’t cry my way home, didn’t wake up praying that this was a weekend not a weekday.

I’ve analyzed the problem from every angle I can imagine, and the root cause I come up with is: me. I’m too introverted to make this current course ever be successful. I can get about half-way through the week, and then I am peopled out and faking it, and by Friday I am gritting my teeth and hating it, and then on the weekend I want to just huddle and hide and not see anyone, because how else will I regroup enough to face Monday?

I tell myself if I can just make it to three years, I will have more options, more flexibility, more ways I can approach life. But if I push myself to three years, there will be no option left but to rest and leach out the miserableness. Some days, many days, I don’t even know if I can last that long, only then I go look at the prices of land and scare myself silly, and wonder what land is really worth, and if I’m crazy or if this is really the way the compass is pointing. Sometimes I think there’s no other possible way, and stopping my ears up to it is the greatest foolishness.

But the joy I feel at the idea of sabbatical is not without sadness: I thought I could do this, and I can’t. I wanted a family of my own, and I don’t have it. How meaningful can this time be, if the relationships won’t be lasting and I’m just trying to grit my teeth and save up money? There is a sense of loss, of mourning, of failure, of not being good enough, of (paradoxically) being rejected, of not being able to join with others, of not meeting standards. I want to run away and hide, but I know that act itself is so radical that it will push me so far from the socially accepted bounds of inclusion that few people will be able to relate to me.  I don’t want to be isolated; but I do want to be alive. I’m not sure that I have the courage and fortitude necessary to make the scandalous choices that bring me closer to being alive.

All I can think is that maybe this will flame out after the winter. Maybe things will be more clear after the spring comes. But deep inside, I do know I already spoke the truth, and I am just scared to act on it.

Advertisements

Bodies

Bodies.

We have such trouble finding any peace in them, even though they are our only real homes while on this earth.

Mine has been giving me troubles for a few years now, long enough that I have discovered a distance between self and body that I didn’t really understand could exist, previously.

When you discover that your body is a “thing” itself, and is not actually your own Self, the next discovery is a temptation to change it. I don’t like this; this is not actually me; how can this be changed? And if you are distanced enough from yourself, you don’t think about changing yourself; you think about how you can change the organism that you are riding around it.

The benefit of being this detached in this way is that it allows for a small amount of objectivity rather than emotional fervor. Why do we have bodies, anyhow? What are they for? Why do we care what they are like? What’s the point? What do we even know about bodies, and how do we decide what is valuable about them?

I’m not normally a list-y kind of person, but I am finding sometimes it is useful to strip down to the bare essentials, no puns intended.

  1. God made these bodies, and He put us in them. I think this packs a whole lot that needs unpacking to really fully understand it, and could be picked apart for quite some time. Maybe a whole book.
  2. He did a bang-up job. We still don’t understand half the mysteries of the human body. What we do know is incredibly complex, highly attuned, and strikingly resilient. We take these features for granted almost every minute of every day.
  3. When we find ourselves lacking, we look for things to blame. I didn’t say this was a mature, healthy or godly practice. I just pointed out that we do, and it takes great awareness and concentration to turn from it. If there’s no one to blame but ourselves, often our bodies are the things getting the blame. Even if the thing we are resenting is lack of omnipotence, still, it’s our body’s fault for being limited and mortal. This makes me squirmy, because of how often I do this.
  4. God sees the inside. Human beings definitely see the outside. Often, the changes we want or the things we value have to do either with what we perceive, or (not to be too meta) what we perceive others will perceive. There’s a reason we talk about things like dressing for power, attraction or even “dressing to kill.” And this dressing extends even to our bodies. When the bodies are in disrepair, we feel closer to worthless. When our bodies are highly functioning, we feel the glory. We both perceive ourselves differently, and perceive that others relate to us differently as well.
  5. We don’t want to take responsibility for our bodies. When we say, “the body God gave me,” it’s usually a phrase of giving up or excusing. We tend to feel like our bodies owe us something instead of us being responsible to care for our bodies. The caregiving of our bodies is work, but we want our bodies to work for us, not the other way around. But, if you circle back to Thing Number One, God made these bodies and put us in them. That doesn’t belay encouragement for letting the temple crumble and paying no mind to the landscaping.
  6. Our bodies are formed by the lives we live. You don’t get a 20 year old’s body when you are 80 for a reason. Our bodies are shaped not only by physical injuries, but also by the griefs, joys, labors, priorities and the people in our lives. You can’t divorce your body from your life, and trying to causes a lot of strange things. Like fad diets trying to undo the damage high stress, mish-mashed priorities, and binge eating to put a little salve on grief. The life and the body go together (see again Point One), and what happens with one affects the other.
  7. Damage is fast. Healing takes so much time, and an incredible amount of energy. When we finally concede to admit our body is broken, we want it fixed Now. We have little patience for healing. There is so much beautiful grace in how our bodies were made to heal (see: List Item Two), but we don’t want to accept either how long it takes (current estimations are at least 3 times as long as you were dysfunctional) or how excessively much energy it takes. Instead of marveling at the grace, we often stew in potent (impotent?) impatience. Though our bodies are blessed with grace, we don’t accept it, because it’s not in the form we wanted it in. Narrow-minded, much?
  8. You don’t get to chose. Despite what a lot of catch-phrases would have you to believe, you don’t get to chose. Only God does. Once you see enough freak accidents, enough un-diagnosable illnesses, enough obscure genetic malformations — gradually you have to come to terms with the fact that you don’t get to chose all that happens to your body. The body (see again: There’s a Reason I Put It on the Top of the List) is a sacrifice to God. Not to you.
  9. It will pass. Although God did put us in these bodies, the bodies were cursed and this isn’t a permanent state. It will take constant care to keep the bodies from composting, and regardless of effort: it will eventually pass. Often times people will say that they’re not afraid of dying, but what they really mean is that they aren’t afraid of death. The process of the body failing, falling apart, and kicking you out can be quite excruciating. When people say that they don’t like being old, what they really mean is they don’t like their body failing. As with all of our existence here, there is the tension of holding loosely. Yes, taking care of it, owning it, living in it . . . but also being aware that that you will need to give it up. No amount of effort will keep you young or immortal.
  10. There is no winning. I feel as though this is mostly a re-cap of all the previous statements, so I suppose it is good as an end-cap: There are some deep seated inclinations that if we work hard enough at trying to fix the organism, we win. We feel better, we have more power, we’re in control, we met our goals, we’ll be able to keep it that way, we’ll be able to do what we want, our bodies will behave, we can stop trying so much. Not only is none of that true, none of that is the point. When our thinking is sliding toward winning, we’ve lost sight of the First Thing on the List. What is the point of having a body? Circle back to Thing One, and realize how much thinking you have to do on that first point alone.

 

Last night it was a full moon; as far as my minimal poking around can tell, it was the Moon of Get Ready, Winter is Coming, by various names. In the winter, after the holidays, with the the new year . . . many of us are thinking about our bodies, how well they are functioning or not functioning, what they are looking like or not looking like. I think it’s good to go into that with perspective — not dour depression and hopelessness and not saccharine platitudes and unrealistic expectations; rather, a complete reframing of the matter at hand.

Why?

Defined by whom for what?

Enneagram.

So popular, so famous, so trendy, and, so far, the most complex and therefore accurate personality test I’ve stumbled over.

For me, the use of these are very limited and often result in little more than ego stroking or justification of one’s reactions to unpleasant stimuli. Somehow, I can’t resist taking them, always wondering how people see me, I guess, a preoccupation I’ve had for too long and still can’t let go of. Yet I rarely remember the results, because it doesn’t challenge my understanding of myself or how I should approach my life. Accordingly, I can’t really tell you if I consistently get the same results, even if I’ve taken the same test many times throughout the years.

Today I stumbled on my Enneagram results, because although of all the Types, Type 4 did not seem too off base, I resented what was described as their fundamental struggle — their basic fear or basic desire: That they have no identity. Worse than that, they basically said that the fact that Fours are swamped in too many shifting emotions is the root of what leads them to feel as though they have no stable identity.

I don’t want this to be true of me. But I think that it does ring true. This means that I have to grapple with it, the first time I think a personality test has actually done that for me.

I’ve long wondered whether  I was just a product of my environment, or if I were actually a stable entity of my own. I wish I felt like I had my own defined sense of style, my own home environment. In “real life” I am too busy keeping my head above the water, and those things don’t come together, but I always want them to. I have wanted to have a well defined role, except that I hate being defined as one thing, and I am much more complex than that. One of my biggest stumbling blocks is that it seems like there is no direction to my life, no arcing story line, no actual cohesion. In fiction, everything is so much more neat, or so it seems to me, since I don’t understand the context in which the Author is writing.

The thing is, I don’t think it’s healthy to spend your life looking for “an identity.” That’ s not what I think life is “supposed” to be about. Don’t judge yourself, they say. Accept yourself as you really are. The problem is, when all you see is fractured tiny pieces of nonsense, and no idea how any of the pieces go together, well, nothing is big enough to hold on to long enough to accept. That’s how it feels, anyhow.

Do I think that getting good at something would give me peace? No. Or a relationship, or a home, or defined sense of style? No, of course not. But do I envy the people who seem to have a strong arc, a strong sense of who they are, what they want, and the path that they are on? Yeah, I do. Well, would you like a different set of life problems? As we say in health care, would you like to die of cancer, dementia, or frailty and falls? No one ever said it was going to be pretty.

And I can’t escape the dogging feeling of needing permission to do what I need to do. What I most want permission for is permission to be weak. To stop trying to force myself to be responsible, dutiful, reasonable and hard working. To stop trying to go along with society’s expectations. And yet one of the things I most resent is when it seems like my identity is slipping into that of Invalid.

So what do I do? I read the blog of Christian woman with bi-polar disease, and I marvel at how much of it seems to apply to me. Not the symptom descriptions; the coping with life descriptions. The “actually, I can’t work full time, I am an artist, and it’s ok to go to bed early.”

It’s hard for me to say, “I can’t help you today, I don’t feel well.” But I don’t feel well. But couldmake myself do it? I mean, I could. I’m not dead yet. I have several people in my life who view not “making yourself” as laziness, as lack of commitment, as being weak, of having no discipline, not sticking to things.  So I want someone to say, you don’t look like you feel well. Because apparently I want someone to validate how I feel or otherwise it’s not the truth? But otherwise I’m fighting this guilt that I’m giving up too easily, have no will power or perseverance, no grit. This was not how the war was won.

I guess I am trying to shift my mindset to what I have experienced to be true, but it takes energy to fight all the voices (people, society, habits, previously held stances) that scorn that mindset. It’s hard to leave things behind.

But if my life is a novel. . .I’m beginning to suspect that I’m not the Heroine. Or that I have to learn how to write a different kind of Heroine. Because I’m not strong. I’m tired. I’m not the center of the story; I want to hide and to heal. I don’t make the world go round; I struggle to get through each normal boring day. I’m not leading anyone anywhere doing anything, although sometimes I remember to put tremendous effort into small actions to Not Be Part of the Problem.

“Not Quitting” is offered up as the gold standard; but maybe yeah, do quit? Not life. But maybe what life is described as. Where do we get this stuff from, and why do we believe it? I understand why some people want to take the path of minimalism and strip everything right down and see what still holds. So much garbage and so hard to see what is real hard truth buried in it all. We’re all dying, in that none of us live forever, but that’s not as clarifying as one would think it would be. Maybe, for some of us, quitting certain things takes more courage and bravery than Keep Going.

If none of this makes much sense to you, that’s ok. It’s the muddled meanderings of someone feeling feverish and sick, but not so feverish and sick that she can’t make herself go to work tomorrow. Not all introspection is either healthy or conclusive.

 

Some people, apparently, get paid to write

Maybe I am a writer. Maybe I am supposed to be a writer. This is a strange thing to me, not part of what I thought was “me.”

One of the first things I read when I was sick was the journal by May Sarton that a patient had given me, Evelyn Klie. And I was intensely jealous. This woman actually made her living by writing? Like actually food and housing and heating and clothes? And then Emily P. Freeman talked about scheduling two days just two write and I was kind of in shock. It seemed like scheduling two days to eat ice cream. Wait – again, this is her job. She actually gets paid to do this. How can this be?

I realize that I have always thought writing was a thing I did just for me. Just me. Hence, the ice cream comparison. It seems – no, not frivolous. Self-indulgent? A luxury? I mean, certainly beneficial in small doses, but the idea that it could be considered a monetarily productive activity seems like foolishness to me. I get manufacturing. I get even health care, despite my recent frustration where I compare it to prostitution where we’ll only care for you if you have money. But I don’t understand being paid for art. I’ve never had the luxury of paying for art myself – creating it, even, is hard to convince myself to pay for the supplies. A spiral bound notebook can still be purchased for less than a dollar at the right time of year (return to school) and pens are handed out for free, and I can easily convince myself I’m not wasting much to fill them endlessly. But to be paid for my thoughts, words, ideas? Who has that kind of money?

But I guess people do. I guess technically it is a legitimate source of income. You would think that since I have several family members who have been paid for their words, published in actual print and in digital form, this wouldn’t come as such a shock to me.

But I always put my writing on par with my talking, and people tell me I talk so fast, and I feel like that devalues it – I talk and talk or write and write, and it’s just cheap. Stuff comes out, rarely planned, and probably not worth much. Who would pay for it?

The sneaky voice inside says, ah, but if you got to schedule two whole days just to write (!!), you could be deliberate. Intentional. Edit. Craft. Plan. You know, do it I on purpose, not just barf words out all over the place and see what came out. And do it well.

But it’s one thing to talk to yourself, and another thing to find an audience. The world is full of people talking to themselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that, and that by itself is a useful and valuable thing, and I do not in any way suggest that’s a waste. But there is an honest difference between writing to yourself and writing to your audience, and no matter what some well-intentioned people might have you to believe, your audience is never “everyone.” It just cannot be. So you have to do several things when you sit down to write:

  1. Figure out what you want to say.
  2. Figure out who you want to say it to.
  3. Figure out how to get what you are trying to say to the people who you are trying to say it to.

 

If you stop at the first number, you’re still really just talking to yourself. And that’s fine, but then you aren’t going to get paid to be a writer, or an artist of any sort, really. Note that I did not say you wouldn’t be an artist; I said you wouldn’t get paid to be one. And that’s the crux, is it not? Is this a thing you want to privately cultivate, or something to be monetized?

I cannot ever imagine myself getting paid to sing. Volunteer to sing in public, yes. I have done that already. You would be surprised how low that bar can be. I would love to be able to sing acapella and duets and to just sound lovely. But my innate music-ness is so low, that I cannot see myself being one of the fortunate few to be able to actually be paid to grace people with their presence. Non.

But writing? I circle around that like a carrion beast. But then fly off afraid of a larger predator. But then come back, because maybe not.

I know I can write. I don’t feel angry and disgruntled at the idea of doing for money the way I do when people suggest I sew or knit for money. Those things are valuable only in their sentiment, and no one, in the age of mass production, will pay what truly went into them, and it leaves me angry. That’s a home business I don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.

Writing is different. The idea that someone actually read and appreciated the words seems like reward enough, and being paid for it on top of it an exciting bonus. And/or a mythological fairytale. But that means:

  1. Yes, you really do want to share writing, and not just talk to yourself. Also,
  2. Nope, you really would not mind being paid to do it.

 

I highly doubt I would ever be in the position to live, house, food, heating and clothes, off of income from writing or other art. But it does very much appeal to me how you can write when it is necessary to write, but the fruit of it comes later. That would at first glance seem to be a dissuasion, at least to most reasonable people, but I truly loathe the grind of having to show up a precise number of hours at precise times, the same every week, in order to get any money. Maybe the body and soul of some people does in fact work that way, but mine seems to follow more the varying cycles found in most of nature. Some days are rainy. Some are sunny. Some days the wind blows with gale force; some days the humidity stifles. To be most alive, I feel as though I need to honor the rising and falling, the stilling and swelling of my body and soul, and grinding through the unrelenting factory of the modern industrial age (including industrialized health care!! As though caring for human beings made in the image of God was simply piece work to by cranked out by the hour!), saps the strength out of me daily.

I know that there are days with writing where it is very hard, where picking the dirt out of your toenails seems like an impending distraction compared to trying to actually place words where they belong. That, to me, is the comfort of the fruit coming later, or the comfort I imagine, seeing as I’ve never had the privilege of being paid for my letters. Though today is hard, the past struggles are still paying off and tiding you over until the next labor is over.

But perhaps I do over-romanticize. I hear a good deal of writers complain about deadlines. Always deadlines! Always missing them! And all I can think is, and what of my over 7 years of college? What of being kept to a clock with another person sitting for you out in the waiting room, endlessly? It’s hard for me to take the complaint of deadlines seriously. Raging self- doubt? That’s my constant companion already. When you cannot take any of the complaints of a profession seriously, I would suspect it is a good sign your glasses are at least a bit rosy.

I still marvel that anyone can actually do that. Get paid to be an artist, enough to make a living. Or even half a living. I see that I am over-using the word ‘actually’, but I am truly having trouble grasping it. It’s never been a thing that I have been able to consider to be a real enough possibility to ‘actually’ reflect upon it.

Of the three things I defined above, I feel like the largest obstacle for me is attempting to grasp the audience I am trying to reach. I think the first and third things would still require a lot of work and effort, but I feel like I know how one would go about doing things like that, or places to start, or rocks to look under, or strings to untie. But I keep getting stuck on: who would actually want to hear what I have to say about anything? Fiction, nonfiction, spiritual, non-spiritual – I have a lot to say, sure. But who would want to hear it?

People say trite things about having family and friends read things, but I can tell you already, whatever I write, my family is most definitely not my target audience, and I know my friends well enough I would write them each something different. Writing to strangers is, well, strange. I don’t know them or what they need. Then you kind of wind up defining your audience by what you want to write, and that feels like a bit of an eyeroll. And not particularly honest, because if you don’t have an audience, you don’t have a payroll. But then there’s the trouble of finding the line between finding enough of an audience to get paid and being a complete commercial sell-out and no longer actually getting paid to be an artist.

This whole post seems stupid, but on the other hand, thinking about being a writer does seem to be a necessary first step to becoming one, although one has to be careful not to get bogged down there. The majority of writing advice seems to come down to: write.

 

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. . .”

 

 

 

Disasters all around

I see things through the filter of disaster.

If this turns into a dystopian society, will I still find this career meaningful?

If the house burns down with all my belongings in it, will I still be pleased with how I spent my money? (Note to self: also, get a good metal box for car title, etc.)

When we go hiking for 10 miles with a pack on my back, I think, isn’t it good that if we had to flee for our lives on foot, we are physically capable of doing so?

How many people could I put up, if there was a displaced people needing to be put up?

I could say it was the pessimistic genes I inherited. I could say that even reading history in grade school and high school, I was astute enough to notice that civilizations ebb and flow. Hard times followed by peaceful times followed by hard times. And if life seems like it’s been too good for too long, there must be a terrible disaster just around the corner.

But I think in a more honest inspection, I want my Joesph moment. Not that I want to be sold by my siblings into slavery and prisoned unjustly for decades. No; I just want my moment where I can say, “Now it all makes sense. Everything that happened to me was preparing me for this time.”

I tell myself, well, this is silly. Every moment is preparing you for every moment. God works a complex enough work that all of the things are interwoven and interconnected and nothing stands alone.

But the vanities of vanities sneak up on me, and I’m left struggling again to find some sore of theme or plot arc or resolution upon which I can hang some semblance of meaning. I know that in the big picture, it’s not about this life at all. But right now, I’m in the little picture, and I want to know that this is a deliberate drawing, not a mindless doodle or a dishonorable scribble.

And disasters in life are somewhat of a purifying fire. The irritating situations, the relatively minor miscommunication, the I-should-really-exercise-more-consistently, the I-guess-I’m-supposed-to-think-about-what-happens-when-I-grow-old-even-though-I-don’t-know-what-I-want-for-next-year-next-month-next-week. . .it all pales in the face of an honest to goodness disaster where basic human needs and immediate safety are paramount. The first world guilt that we could always be doing better — someone else assuredly is — narrows down to, essentially, decency: was I kind? did I try? Am I turning my back and hardening my heart, or am I doing what ought to be done even through the pain?

Romanticizing disaster? A little. I know enough of disaster to know how quickly it breaks me beyond tears, how rapidly I crumble under the weight of it. But I also know enough about disaster to have tasted some of the truth, and it changes you: the perfect little suburban home with the perfect little suburban life is ashes in my mouth. I don’t want it. I can dream up the perfect little rural life, and it’s far, far more tantalizing. . . but perhaps instead like eating just the frosting off the cake. You might think you want it, but really, it makes you sick.

I don’t want to live in a constant state of disaster. But I do wonder, I do take note, and I do uncomfortably shift. Waiting for disaster to come has a safe passiveness to it; you can’t prepare, because it could be anything. You just hold this glowy ideal in your head that your hour to shine is coming. But what if maybe I’m not supposed to wait for disaster to come to me; what if I’m supposed to acknowledge that there is disaster all around, and what if I’m supposed to rally out to meet it instead of quietly letting that be someone else’s problem?

The need is endless; we can’t drain the ocean. This I know. But I was talking to an elderly friend the other day, and we were talking about the change in culture. Health care now vs health care when the doctor came to your house. Customer service now vs then. Even how now the facility where I work is full of “SIP” rooms – shelter in place. Better to have a plan if there is an active shooter. And I said to her that the sad thing was, there was no way to fight back, to say we don’t like this and we want it to be different.

But I wondered later if that was truthful. Is there no way, or is it just hard and risky and exhausting? What if it means not washing your hands of disaster, because it hasn’t come to your doorstep yet, and what if it means putting yourself on the line? Not the wearing of t-shirts or the buying of “socially comfortable” products. But instead, using up your precious time off to go show up where it is needed to have a person, a human being, being present? What if it means taking a part time job instead of a full time job, making your future that much more insecure, in order to help those who don’t know what compassion means? What if it means showing up in the yuck, not giving graciously and comfortably from your bounty?

What if? Not definitely yes. Because when you’re already struggling for meaning, it’s wise to caution yourself against drastic courses of action, just as with not making major life decision from a place of acute grief. Life can’t always be someone else’s problem. But neither can it be something we do for our own glory or piety: the suffering of others is not about our own personal narrative.

It’s foolish to wish disaster into your life for the sake of it’s clarifying influence. At the same time, if you’ve sipped from that cup and have that awareness of what is really important in life, is it wise to ignore that? I don’t have an answer. All I have is the awareness that this line of thought is not a passing moment of guilt or idealism, but a deep undercurrent spanning decades. Maybe, in this time of life, it is a fire best left banked. But in the background, it is still there: I’m waiting for a disaster with my name on it, whether it comes for me, or I come for it.

 

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?

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.

Music That Rings True

Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,
See him dying on the tree
‘Tis the Christ by man rejected,
yes, my soul, ’tis He, ’tis He
Tis the long Expected prophet
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord
By His Son God has now spoken
Tis the true and faithful Word

Sometimes we have to say things. Out loud. We might all know them, we might all think we believe them, but it is almost in the saying of them that they become real.

Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting His distress;
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.

And so often I catch myself thinking, “It’s not fair!” But I don’t think that phrase means what I think it means.

Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
‘Tis the WORD, the LORD’S ANOINTED,
Son of Man and Son of God.

We were speaking of sin and righteousness this afternoon–the excuses we make for sin, and the severity of God’s righteousness. It is one thing to feel offended that God’s righteousness is too much for us to bear; it’s another to consider what that means for God.

Here we have a firm foundation;
Here the refuge of the lost;
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation,
His the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded,
Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded
Who on Him their hope have built.

But I feel confounded. I feel confounded all the time.

While singing is often when I am most meditating on and speaking the truth. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, as people tend to hold up as “godly examples” spending much time in prayer or reading the Bible. And those things are important. But it is one thing for me to read that He is a Good, Good Father, and it is another thing for me to affirm it out loud.

I’m scared, sometimes by the smallest and silliest of things. I’m scared when it seems like I’ve lost my voice for writing. I’m scared, when I see my own bars I’ve set that I just can’t clear. I’m scared by relationships that seem to be drifting further and further apart. I’m scared by my perceived inability to make a real difference in anything, and that fear is invincible to the comments of others. I’m scared of my apparent invisibility as I move through life.

But those things don’t really matter. I mean, of course they do; but they don’t. They’re so fleeting. Their relative weight is so small. What do I have to offer? Nothing, really. What does He have to offer? Everything, really.

still looking

I’m just so tired I want to puke, that’s all.

Tired of change, tired of growing, tired of waiting, tired of showing up, tired of not knowing, and also, just plain tired. When you wake up aching with your shoulders by your ears, you know you aren’t really sleeping well.

I just keep wondering what God is going to do with any of this. Having I been changing–growing–transforming, even? Yeah. But into what? That I don’t know. 7 years ago I drove white knuckled into the nearest city to volunteer, driven by a sheer desperation to do what I needed to do, even though finding my way in strange places, in the dark (no GPS in those days, and driving itself was usually enough to make me white-knuckled) was quite the painful stretch for me. And now I’ve dragged myself half-across the country, by myself. I keep showing up and faking it, which takes tremendous effort nearly every day, but, you know, when do you get to arrive?

When do you get to sigh, and stretch out, and relax, and maybe enjoy a few moments of bliss? When do you get to say, “Ah-ha! That’s what that was all about!” When do you get to snuggle up to someone you love and say, “Our work has been hard, but what beautiful things have been wrought.”

I’m afraid of the answer being, “Not in this lifetime, sweet-cheeks.” I feel like I have been pushed and pushed and pushed and am still being pushed, and yet I have no clue about the pay-off. Here I am, a stranger once again, and I still keep wondering, Why? Why am I here? Why am I a stranger again? What do I have to learn, or what do I have to give? Why does it never seem to end?

People say really sappy things like, “you’re what keeps me going!” That’s grand and all, but what if you don’t have someone to keep you going? Flying solo means there’s no co-pilot if you need to take a potty break, or a tearful meltdown, or even just to stop and smell the roses a bit. And it’s like being the raven sent out looking for land after the flood; you have to keep flying 24/7, but you aren’t really sure what you’re looking for or even if it exists. What if you just keep going because being lost and staying put is the only thing that feels worse than being lost and wandering around in circles?

And traditionally, this is where I’m told (even if just by myself) to man up and stop whining and remember that everyone else has a rough life, too. In their own ways, and with their own struggles and with their own doubts and fears. Although I suppose that’s an equally valid reason to NOT shut-up: struggling through life is a valid experience that everyone goes through, and there’s no need to pretend it’s all fluffy clouds and spun-sugar roses.

So, ow. This hurts. I’m still not quite sure if I’m a caterpillar being turned into a butterfly, or a caterpillar being turned into a . . . really mashed-up caterpillar. If this is all a refining, then where’s the gold, people?