What’s new

Well, it’s been a bit. There are reasons for that, some of which I’ll discuss hereinafter.

I guess the biggest reason is that I spent the summer looking for a job. The whole issue of employers and social media is one that I’ve been perpetually uneasy with. I had an employer, back in the early days of Twitter and Facebook, who “encouraged” us to post promotional content about the company to our personal accounts. I navigated that by setting up dummy accounts and following/friending only work people so I wasn’t annoying everyone else in my life. That same employer fired a coworker for making a heavily veiled reference to work on a private social media account. Those experiences blurred lines between the personal and the professional that, at least for me, need to remain very distinct.

That said, I know it’s unrealistic to expect that prospective employers won’t search for my online presence, especially when many of the jobs I applied for were in communications and marketing (which, although it is not a passion, is unfortunately the field with most of my experience and credentials and samples). So I decided to take a break from blogging. I didn’t take down the blog, because I hoped my story might still provide connection or encouragement for others in similar situations, but I did make some of the more recent, more angsty posts private, and I thought I had effectively hidden the site itself from anyone except fellow WordPress users.

So it was jarring, in one interview, when someone said, “I’ve been on your website and seen your social media posts.” I didn’t dare ask if they meant my blog or if they’d found an old website or even a site by someone else with my name. But I was rattled. There’s a lot of very personal reflection here, and it’s one thing to make that available to strangers on the Internet and to friends who know me well, but another to realize this might be someone’s first impression of me in a professional context. Yet I chafe at the idea of having to take it all down.

I still am not sure how to resolve this issue/dilemma/question. When I started the blog, I was thinking my next move would be to seminary or perhaps to a position where my story would be relevant in a role working with others in similar situations. I am not currently pursuing that avenue for reasons that, again, I will explain later in this post. And in the meantime…

Rufus has discovered the joy of eviscerating stuffed toys. And yes, when he runs around with that giant spider in his mouth, he does resemble Cthulhu.

In the meantime, I had several interviews throughout the summer, but nothing panned out. So I ended up where I didn’t want to be, back in Colorado with my parents.

And I found a job at a thrift store, where not only does no one care that I have a blog or a(n increasingly limited) social media presence, no one even knows my last name to search for me online if they were so inclined. The thrift store supports a nonprofit that does valuable work in the local community, so the “meaningful impact” box on my list of job requirements is checked even though I’m not directly involved in those initiatives. The coworkers are a pretty good bunch. It’s hard physical work, so I’m getting back into shape and shedding the COVID stress pounds without needing a gym membership. And I’ve gotten more unsolicited positive feedback in a month at the thrift store than I did in seven years of teaching, which I think says less about my abilities as a teacher than about the general environment of higher ed. At any rate, I feel valued, seen, appreciated, and supported at work, and that’s a welcome change.

Beyond that, I’m doing some freelance book editing (which is the kind of editing I enjoy) and will be starting a contract position that I’m excited about — again, for an organization that does very meaningful work. Last month I went on a retreat and met some good people, got to experience sound therapy (which I will definitely try again), and drew and painted for what I realized was the first time in four or five years — at least since all the stuff at the church started. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve signed up for a couple of painting classes. The dogs have a fenced yard, and “cousin” Kodiak taught Copper how to play fetch, which is his new favorite thing ever.

Pure joy

I have a few contacts through the UCC church here, and they have been faithful in checking in with me for lunches and coffees and talks. I haven’t made it to actual church yet. I was going to go last week but ended up sobbing all day instead. How can I ever trust people in a church again? How can I trust them — even if they claim they love me — to not bail the second I need something more complicated than a card or a meal train or meal tree or whatever the heck it’s called? Not that they ever even did that for me at the old church, not even when I was having trouble paying for food because I had to spend so much on counseling to deal with the shit going on in the church. Yes, I’m still bitter. No, I have not figured out how to forgive.

Which I guess leads me to the vacuum at the center of my life. I cannot, right now, believe that God is good or trustworthy or that God loves me. Too much has gone wrong or just not-right. There were too many things that came into my head as clearly worded promises, during times I prayed — even after I prayed for discernment and wisdom and trust and not to be deceived — that have proven false. Every time I felt bathed in love and warmth and peace, those feelings were linked to specific promises. And not one of those promises has come true. Some of them might still; other doors have closed definitively. So I’m left wondering if all of it, every last drop of peace and love, was a lie.

I thought I had realized a purpose. I thought I could use my life to give hope to other people. But I can’t do that when I have no hope myself. And right now I don’t. Between what happened with the church in Statesboro and COVID lockdown and another situation I can’t write about yet, every shred of hope or faith I had was destroyed. I have no sense of God’s presence or whether I’ve ever experienced it or whether what I perceived as God was just an illusion of my desperately seeking mind and heart. I miss, terribly, that sense of communion with God, but if I experienced it today I wouldn’t trust that it was authentic and not just my brain playing tricks on me again.

I also have always thought writing was my purpose, my calling, and one of the priorities for this season was going to be writing. But as I embarked on this period, I had a deeply painful conversation with someone very close who said they didn’t believe I could ever succeed at writing or that it was a calling or that being a writer was “realistic.” Although part of me wants to prove them wrong, most of me believes them and feels like writing is futile just like everything else I’ve tried. Like trying to find any purpose or meaning or fulfillment in my life is always going to be futile. I feel cursed. I don’t know where I go from here. Even the things that are okay — the job, the painting classes, the dogs — just feel like ways to fill empty hours until I can die and be finished with this epic disappointment of a life. I think about death almost every day.

Ultimately, I’m as deeply alone and lonely as I’ve ever been — maybe even more — and I cannot trust a God who forced me to walk through COVID quarantine and the subsequent months alone. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve experienced but I think it was the hardest, and it broke me. I can’t be a good enough student to figure out what God is supposedly trying to teach me. I can’t be good enough to earn or deserve anyone’s love or approval or acceptance or loyalty. There will always be people lining up to tell me everything I’m doing wrong. And I’m so exhausted with trying and so tired of existing with the lacks and absences and betrayals.

View from the retreat center

Disappointments and doubts

Yesterday I was supposed to go to Florida to visit a friend I haven’t seen in 14 months. But my car keeps randomly decelerating and the mechanic can’t figure out why, and I’m not keen on breaking down in 95-degree heat, especially with two dogs. So instead of Florida, I’m going back to the garage later today (for the fourth time this week). That’s one thing.

The next thing: Yesterday I decided to eat my lunch outside, under a tree. I think maybe ants fell out of the tree? At any rate, I ended up with bites on the back of my neck, on my upper arm, on two fingers (making it fun to type), and on my toes. I have at least 14 of them.

And there has been a major disappointment, a breaking of what I believed were three years of promises from God about something really important to me. Now I don’t trust anything: not the words, not the feelings of peace and love. Nor that there is a plan for my life that holds anything but more betrayal, broken faith, and isolation. I don’t know when or if I will be able to pray again. This has been desolation, anguish, sleepless nights, and I can’t wrap my brain around it.

There are some bright spots. I’ve been to the garage so many times because the mechanic is trying to identify and fix the actual problem, not do a bunch of unnecessary and expensive repairs. In fact, he’s put a lot of effort into figuring out the issue and hasn’t charged me for his time or even for some of the repairs he’s tried. Frustrated as I am about the car, I’m beyond grateful that he is so honest and is putting in such a good-faith effort.

I acquired the ant bites while I was eating lunch across the field from the garage, and when I returned, I mentioned the bites. And the very kind woman who runs the office immediately offered me rubbing alcohol. I think that helped neutralize the venom, because I feel human today, which is not the norm for the day after fire ants do their stinger dance on my skin.

Last night, when I mentioned to a friend that I couldn’t find my Benadryl cream (purchased a year ago after two fire-ant encounters within three hours), she informed me that a DoorDash driver was headed my way with Benadryl. She will kill me for saying so, but I think DoorDash is her love language. Between that and the rubbing alcohol, not all of the bites have blistered, and most of the swelling is already gone.

So I am thankful for the small ways people are caring for me. But this week is tough. Nothing is going the way I planned, which is the story of my life so much that I barely make plans at all anymore — but then I feel caught unprepared. I’m trying, as I have spent my adult life trying, to figure out how to live in this space of disappointment and confusion and doubt. I keep hoping someday life will be good. But it never really is.

A blessing

A few weeks ago something happened that I didn’t write about immediately, for several reasons. But now I want to share it, not least so I can remind myself.

As I drove down the highway that afternoon, enjoying the lush greenness of the grass and trees, savoring the brilliant blue sky, singing at the top of my lungs to classic rock, I had the sudden realization that I felt whole.

Months ago, my aunt had said to me, “What God wants is for you to feel whole.” I thought that sounded wonderful, but I didn’t see how it would ever happen. And the sense of wholeness hasn’t lasted: Most days I still feel fractured, splintered, holding on with white knuckles that are sweaty and slipping, certain that I’m about to lose my grip and at any second I’ll fall. But in the moment I knew exactly what she meant. I didn’t feel happy or fulfilled, necessarily, but like I was enough, complete. Like nothing was missing from my soul.

Later that day, I stopped by a thrift store, where I immediately strolled over to the books, because I’m me.

Also because I’m me, there are a half-dozen series I’m actively collecting so I can read them in order. I have lists on my phone of the titles I need. (Hey, I have never claimed not to be a total nerd. But that’s cool now, right?) So I walked to the first shelf, and there were pristine books from two of the series. Books that I realized, when I checked my phone, fit some of the gaps on my shelves. The store didn’t have everything I wanted, and they had a couple of titles that I already own, but it was still a pretty exciting discovery.

And that, to me, is the joy of thrifting: You walk into a store with no idea of what you will find, and sometimes what you find is perfect.

I continued to shop, accumulating a stack that included, in the final tally, books from four different series I was seeking, as well as a Christian title that had been on my wish list for months.

I browsed for a bit, then went to check out. A woman was bagging items and loading them into her cart, so I waited a few minutes before I finally worked up the nerve to ask if she had already paid. She laughed and apologized and commended my patience. I told her if I went home, I’d have to clean my place, so it was in my best interest to stall. We chatted for a few minutes — nothing earth-shattering, just how much we hate housecleaning and about the home business she had just started. The kind of small talk I have missed so much since COVID hit.

As we spoke, I gave my books to the woman working at the register, held out my debit card, and finally realized she wasn’t accepting it. So I looked at her in confusion.

And she said, “Baby, this is your lucky day. I am not taking your money for books, and all you have are books. In fact, you go back over there and pick out more books if you want to. Take as many as you want. Books are free to you today.”

I stared at her. “You just made my day.”

She bagged my books and handed them back to me. “Go, knowing the Lord blesses you,” she said.

And I did. I knew.

Something else had happened earlier that day, between my feeling of wholeness and the thrift store visit. It is the most dramatic example I have experienced of God keeping a promise I hadn’t even been sure was from God. It’s something I cannot, and probably never will, speak of publicly, but it was decisive and soothed doubts about a choice I had made.

So the woman’s gift of books wasn’t just a kind gesture that saved me $15-20 and offered an unexpectedly sweet moment of grace from a stranger — although it was both of those things, and I badly needed the sweetness and grace. It was also a benediction, an underscoring of the wholeness and the fact that I’d just seen God fulfill a promise.

I am trying to hold to this now, while I’m in the empty space after one job has ended and I don’t yet know the next step in my life, the next place I will land. I am trying to trust that whatever follows will be good — and in ways that I can recognize as good, not just some inscrutable “I trust this is somehow ultimately good even though it sucks in the moment” state.

I’m trying to believe God loves me even though I am terrified I will fall through the cracks in the world and vanish, and even when I think I fell through those cracks long ago and I’ve spent my life as little more than a ghost.

I’m trying to recapture that sense of spontaneity and delight and pleasure, trying to link those feelings to God, because the word “God” still evokes in me the image of a joyless, puritanical, power-drunk sadist. I am trying to replace that with the experience of a God who drew my eye to the color of the sky, the freshness of the grass; a God who grinned and maybe even hummed along with my enthusiastically off-key rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “Take it on the Run”; a God who had spoken specific words into my mind weeks earlier and gave me a clear confirmation that day that I’d heard them right; a God who, instead of scolding me for acquiring yet more books (like everyone else in my life, myself included), gave them to me as a gift; a God who smiled at me out of a pair of kind brown eyes and spoke a blessing through a woman’s lips.

Ode to joy(ous canines)

Today I planned to head to the gym right after class. I even brought workout clothes so I could change in the locker room rather than having to stop at home. But after a day that felt engaging and productive and fun, the weather was just so gorgeous that I decided to go home after all, grab the dogs, and do my walking on the greenway trail rather than the treadmill.

Now, Rufus has never been a fan of walks. He’s scared of everything, and he had a severe case of heartworms when I adopted him, which meant that while we slowly killed off the parasites, we had to go easy (on both exercise and anything that induced fear) to avoid over-straining his heart. The few times I did take him to the park, he’d let me drag him a few hundred feet and then plant himself like a sixty-pound brick and refuse to budge unless and until I turned back toward the car.

My dad worked with him during the fall to try to build his stamina and tolerance for walks. That helped a lot, and so does Copper: I think it’s a combination of jealousy (the new dog doesn’t get to have all the fun!) and pack support (I’ve seen Rufus look to Copper for reassurance when he’s spooked by something like a fountain).

So as I laced up my Asics and Copper danced in circles, punctuating his ecstasy with yips, I wondered whether Rufus would opt to join us. He did. If a dog can regret, though, I think he started to regret it pretty early on. He held back as Copper plunged ahead. He wanted to dawdle and sniff things and rest in the grass. He was so visibly miserable that I decided to turn around after a mile, rather than doing the longer walk I’d planned.

We were about halfway back to the car when we needed to take a detour. A couple ahead of us, with three smaller dogs, had stopped because one of the dogs was relieving itself in the middle of the trail. As they juggled leashes and tried to clean up, I took my boys into the grass to circle around them.

In the middle of the grass was some standing water. I’m not sure whether it was left from last week’s rains or is a result of the area being naturally swampy or both. The cause didn’t matter to Copper, who immediately waded in for a drink. Rufus started to drink, too, then decided he’d rather just sit, so he plopped his backside right down in three inches of water. Not to be outdone, Copper hurled himself onto his back and wriggled around with maniacal glee. Even the couple with the canine trio laughed.

I finally managed to wrangle my joyful boys back onto the trail, hoping the wet dog smell would dissipate a little before I had to close myself in the car with them. But they’d figured out how to make the walk fun, and they weren’t about to stop. Copper wanted to roll around in every patch of grass and mud puddle we passed, and when we came to a tannin-colored pond punctuated by cypress knees, Rufus splashed right in and settled down.

To be honest, up to that point I’d been kind of regretting bringing the dogs. Not only had Rufus’ needs curtailed my workout, but I didn’t have a hand free to take pictures of the beautiful blossoms and flowers and turtle I saw along the trail.

But watching Rufus establish himself in a swamp with as much regal attitude as the Sphinx and Copper flash his doggy grin while he saturated his entire body in mud, and seeing the smiles and laughter of everyone who passed us, brought an unexpected surge of joy. It even lasted throughout the distinctly organic-matter-and-wet-dog-scented drive home.

The gym will be there tomorrow. Today I got to laugh at my dogs, and my dogs got to play and remind me to live in the moment. And their delight, their silliness, their spontaneity, and even their stubbornness made it a moment worth living in.

Visibility

Previous birthday gift: Ligeia

Today is my birthday.

That’s actually kind of hard to say, because I hate birthdays. Many of them have been awful. I won’t go through the litany of stuff that’s happened, because in the grand scheme of human horrors, it feels self-indulgent to whine about shitty birthdays. But since I was a kid, birthdays have been days I feel particularly alone, lonely, isolated, unseen, unloved, and like a failure.

Last year some friends threw a surprise party, which I so appreciated. I’d always wanted a surprise party, but I had never admitted it. I wanted my friends to just know that beneath all my birthday hate (removing reminders from Facebook and telling people not to acknowledge it), I secretly craved someone who understood that what I really, really needed was to feel special without having to ask.

Two years ago, my counselor pointed out that expecting the people in my life to be psychic was, you know, a bit unfair, and she encouraged me to express what I wanted. The resulting conversations were quite enlightening; several friends said they had always wanted to celebrate with me but felt like they had to tiptoe through a minefield, trying to respect my stated wish to pretend like my birthday didn’t exist. So that helped, but it was too late to plan anything that year, so I got myself a python instead. And a gargoyle gecko. And last year, I started this blog, and a week after my birthday some of my friends arranged a surprise party, and it was lovely.

Aforementioned gargoyle gecko

I knew I wouldn’t have a surprise party this year because, well, COVID, and also because you can’t have a surprise party every year, even though it would be really cool if you could. The last thing I wanted was to spend the day alone, and I anticipated a bad crash. I cleared my schedule and put together a stack of books to read about God’s love and planned for some quality work on my novel.

And I prayed. I prayed for a good birthday with people in it and at least one good surprise. I don’t know what that can look like in COVID season. But I guess that’s where the surprise part would come in, right?

I so often feel like good in my life is defined (by other people, not by me) as the absence of bad things. “At least you have a roof over your head.” “At least you have a paycheck.” “At least you have your health.” And yes, these are blessings, and I do take them for granted more than I should…but all of those “at least” statements implicitly shame me for desiring more.

Still, as I thought about what would constitute a good birthday, my first thought was the absence of anything bad: no drama, no emotional crisis, no awful crash. (Okay, full disclosure: My first first thought was that meeting the love of my life at the DMV would be pretty darn amazing.) Not being able to see people does mean that some of the things that ruined previous birthdays aren’t going to happen this year. For example, I won’t have to listen to my roommate having drunken sex with my crush. (Not that that’s ever happened. Or that I’m still bitter about it.)

But…is the best I can expect really just an absence of bad things? A reasonably pleasant, mellow day without any major emotional upheaval?

People tell me God is capable of big things, things we can’t even imagine. Don’t limit God, I hear, don’t put God in a box. Then when I ask where God’s goodness is in my life, those same people tell me to stop expecting big things and look harder for the little things. And I’m left feeling perplexed, resentful, unloved. Like other people get feasts and I have to scrounge for crumbs. Like God can’t be bothered to move in my life in a big way, a way I can recognize, a way that doesn’t depend on my attitude or interpretation or observation to be real.

A way that I can’t mistake for anything but fierce, divine love.

So I woke into today hoping for the best and feeling unusually optimistic, thinking that maybe instead of marking yet another year of unfulfilled goals and failures and unachieved dreams, this birthday could signal a new beginning. The start of something. The seeds that have been germinating finally poking their heads above ground.

And I also woke into the epiphany that so much of my pain and woundedness is about feeling invisible and silenced. That’s the root of my birthday angst: thinking if I don’t make a fuss about my own birthday, no one else will notice. Making sure no one can notice, so I’m not disappointed when they don’t. Feeling like if people don’t see me, don’t desire me, I don’t exist. (Yes, I’m such a Goth cliche that there’s literally a song about this.) It’s why I used to push myself to extremes, take every dare, force myself into an idiotic level of acting like a badass. Why I always had to be the most vivid person in the room, because if I didn’t have a teal Mohawk, people might not see me at all, and then I’d be nothing.

Not worried about being seen — she knows she’s beautiful!

As a teenager I shrieked for help in every way I knew how to shriek. I didn’t have the words so I acted out the anguish: temper tantrums, screaming, storms of sobbing that left my face so swollen I could barely see the next mornings. Furrows that I raked into my scalp, beneath my hair. I gouged skin from my head to give myself so much dandruff that classmates said I had lice. On freezing winter nights I’d open my bedroom window as wide as it would go, strip the blankets off my bed, and sleep in my underwear, hoping to catch a fever so I wouldn’t have to go to school.

My parents noticed, sort of. They were terrified to send me to a real counselor. They talked to my teachers, who said things like “She’s just a drama queen” and “She won’t be happy anywhere, so don’t even try another school.” They told me, “God wants you here for a reason. There’s a lesson you need to learn.”

The lesson I learned was that I was trapped. Invisible. That even if I shredded my vocal cords, my screams were silent. That the more I was contorted and maddened with agony, the less seriously people took me. It’s easy to dismiss teenage girls as being melodramatic and self-obsessed and overly emotional and unstable. It’s a convenient way of silencing them, of gaslighting them, of preemptively discrediting anything they might say. And it’s the explanation of the Salem witchcraft trials that, to me, has always rung the most true: teenage girls in a repressive patriarchal society, who had no voice and no power, suddenly finding a way to make themselves heard and seen and validated. Yes, it came at the expense of others’ lives — many of them. But maybe some of those girls were screaming for their own lives in the only way they could.

I’ve walked through my own life feeling invisible, or visible by only the most precarious of threads. Visibility is so tenuous and so easily lost. I could sacrifice it if I do something normal with my hair, if I stop wearing all black all the time, if I don’t have the flashiest collection of footwear. Friends might forget about me if I don’t text them regularly to remind them I exist, or if I don’t need them enough, or if I need them too much. Men might not see me if I develop more wrinkles or gain ten pounds. If I ever stop screaming, God might mistake my quietness for complacency and ignore me.

The paradox, of course, is that you can’t scream loudly enough to make people hear when they’ve decided what you have to say isn’t worth listening to, or, more definitively, that you aren’t worth the time or effort. The paradox of asking for help is that it gives people the chance to say no, and some of them do say that, and sometimes they say it in damaging and ugly ways. You’re never going to strike the perfect balance between strength and vulnerability, neediness and independence. There’s always someone who won’t see you, who won’t hear you, and you can’t make them listen.

Frantic bleating signaled her distress at being trapped — and her goat friends alerted me with their cries for help.

I have been reading and hearing about God being enough. God meeting all our needs. I know that’s in the Bible, but it feels simplistic to me. If God met all our needs, people — or at least people who love and believe in God — would never go hungry. They would never fight losing battles with addiction. They would never commit suicide. And people who love God struggle with all of those things. How is God meeting their needs?

I can’t answer this question. I can say that I’ve been terrified of even wanting God to be enough for me, because I’m so scared that “enough for me” is going to look like a lot more loneliness and deprivation and isolation, and the only thing that will change is I’m somehow not bothered by it, or I’ll believe I’m not supposed or allowed to be bothered by it.

But what I’ve been thinking today is that maybe enough means I approach life with the basic knowledge that I am always seen, always heard, always valued. That I don’t need to rely on other humans for those things, even though I long for and appreciate those who provide them. That I don’t need to keep jumping up and down and shouting, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” and punishing those who refuse.

Because I am guilty of that, too. I have used invisibility as a weapon. I have done it sometimes out of ignorance — truly not seeing someone I should have seen, or not noticing their spoken or unspoken requests to be visible and audible. And I have done it out of deep pain, when I’ve been wounded in ways I can’t begin to articulate or acknowledge to the person who did the wounding, and pretending not to see them feels like a necessary defense. But it’s also cruel. And I realize now that when people have wounded me that deeply, it’s because I have been too dependent on them to see and hear and validate me. I have been looking to them to confirm my very existence. And, in that sense, I have elevated them to the status of God in my life. When they don’t see or hear or acknowledge me, the stakes are intolerably high, and the only way I have known to react is to nullify them as definitively and cruelly as they have nullified me.

In fairness, sometimes when I have tried to acknowledge what they did, they have still refused to see and hear me. That roommate? “It’s none of your business,” was her response when I told her how hurt I was. How I had introduced her to this male friend in good faith; how she had even promised, without me asking her to, that she’d never make a move on him because she knew how I felt. “This has nothing to do with you,” she said as I struggled to understand how I could trust someone who had broken a promise she knew was very important to me. And that made it harder, the next time, to admit when I was hurt. To expose my bleeding hands, my bleeding soul. To not just turn my face away and pretend like I didn’t see the person anymore, to not rationalize that it was the only way to guard myself from further pain and invalidation and maybe even gaslighting.

I hadn’t even put that into words until this morning. I try to consciously act out of love, but sometimes I forget, and sometimes I don’t know what love looks like in a given situation. I have fought to balance love with accountability, and love for others with nurture of myself. And I have sometimes gotten it wrong. So wrong. I expect that I will keep getting it wrong, because I am, after all, human.

But if I approach the world from a posture not of defensiveness, not of waiting for the other shoe to drop, not of fearing invisibility and needing to make my mark just to confirm that I’m real and I matter, then maybe I can be more loving toward others. More understanding of their shortcomings. More willing to supply the benefit of the doubt. More able to acknowledge and confront wounds without placing my entire identity, the whole of my existence, on the line.

Because God sees me. God hears me. God created me, as flawed and imperfect, restless and creative, loving and striving, kind and cruel, brilliant and stupid, extreme and boring, messy and contradictory and occasionally even awesome, as I am. And maybe if I can remember that, if I can know it at a visceral, marrow-deep level, if I can approach other people not with a deficit (of love, of attention, of existence), I can be more free to show them all those facets of myself. And to embrace all the facets of themselves, in return.

Happy birthday to me.

Rethinking submission

I got back to Georgia last weekend (thanks to my father, who drove the whole way). After dropping my dad off at his hotel near the airport, I stopped at the grocery store — where I was appalled by the number of unmasked people aggressively intruding into others’ personal space. By the time I got home, I was sobbing bitter tears about having to spend four more months in this place where I absolutely, utterly do not belong.

The worst part is that I came perhaps as close to belonging here as I have anywhere, only for that to be yanked away, which is part of why I’m so frantic to escape now. It’s even more cruel than always feeling like an outsider: believing, briefly, that I might finally be allowed inside, able to connect, welcomed into a community — then losing it. That this happened right before the brutal isolation of COVID lockdown is something I still grapple to understand. And increasingly feel very bitter about. And it’s something that doesn’t leave me hopeful that I’ll ever belong anywhere, no matter where I go or how I try to build community.

When I walked into my room, still wrecked, I spotted a book I’d left on my bed in December: The Blessings of Brokenness by Dr. Charles Stanley. He’s a Baptist pastor whose name I recognized but with whose work I wasn’t familiar, and the book’s title had caught my eye. I’d planned to read it before I left for Colorado. That didn’t happen, but given the intense grief and desolation and, yes, brokenness I felt about being here, I decided this would be a good time to pick it up.

Before I continue, I need to say that Stanley talks a lot about God using us. I’ve always been, and remain, uncomfortable with that language. I understand that God’s ways are not ours, and God’s purposes are not ours, and God does not relate to us, nor we to God, in exactly the same ways in which we relate to each other. But I find it problematic to apply words of coercion and manipulation to describe God’s interactions with us. If God is perfect and perfectly loving, then it seems to me that our relationship with God should serve as a template, an ideal, for our human relationships. And in human relationships, while it’s probably inevitable that we all use each other to some extent, we also understand that using someone is neither an expression of love nor a healthy way to relate — in fact, it’s damaging and toxic. So I find cognitive dissonance between the idea that I should “allow God to use me” and the knowledge that using other people and/or letting them use me is behavior to avoid.

The troubling aspects of this language are exacerbated when other people presume to tell us specific ways in which God wants to use us — as though they have an inside track. (I’m constantly surprised by how many Christians are fully confident that they know exactly what God wants, not just for themselves but for others, and aren’t shy about proclaiming it.) And of course, that language of using, especially with the implication that we ought to become passive vessels for a greater power, lends itself very neatly to abusers who twist it to justify their own lusts.

That caveat aside, Stanley’s message was tough to read — I had to take several days to absorb and reflect on and work through it — but was, I think, exactly what I needed to face right now.

He talks a lot about submission. This, like using, is not a concept I’m comfortable with. To me, submission means erasure, nullification of myself, embrace of victimhood, acceptance of whatever a cruel and power-hungry God throws at me. Submission means turning the other cheek — you slapped me once; please do it again. It’s telling myself that whatever horrible things happen (to me, to others, to the world) have a purpose and are somehow part of “God’s best,” which is often presented as so inscrutable that our finite human minds can’t even comprehend why it’s good, let alone better than whatever we can imagine. I do not like submission.

But one thing I’ve started to realize is that when I run up against an internal wall, it means there’s something on the other side of it that I need to understand or experience or confront. And so instead of dismissing the idea of submission, I needed to engage with it, with what it means and might look like for my life.

Snow in Southern Tennessee

In the midst of wrestling with this, I leashed up the dogs and took them to the park. I wanted to talk with God, and I knew that wasn’t especially likely with Copper trying to yank my left arm out of the socket and Rufus dragging behind on my right, but once I’d put on my workout clothes they weren’t going to let me leave without them.

And here’s a truth: My dogs teach me more about submission — healthy, necessary submission — than any book or theologian ever has (with the possible exception of Stephen King’s Desperation, which is one of the most profound and brutal pieces of theology I’ve ever encountered).

Bishop, my first dog, was a wild boy. He was large and rambunctious, probably a bit neurologically damaged, and I could not control him. He once pulled so hard that he broke a prong collar; another time, he flipped me through the air.

When Bishop was about eighteen months old, I boarded him for a week at a kennel that a colleague had recommended. The man who ran the kennel prided himself on being an alpha male; he bragged to me that he was so dominant that just being in his presence caused dogs to roll over and “submission pee.” By this point, there were people in my life who were pressuring me to surrender Bishop to a shelter because I couldn’t handle him. Statistically speaking, an out-of-control big black dog did not have good chances in a shelter, and I loved him, but I realized I needed help. So I thought Alpha Male would be the solution. Yeah, he was harsh, but my lack of harshness was clearly not working.

Bishop

Well, Bishop came home from that kennel badly traumatized. For weeks, whenever I even looked at him sideways he rolled onto his back and peed all over himself. For the rest of his life, his immediate reaction to strange men, and some women, was to roll over and pee. He had to wear diapers to the vet and my parents’ house.

Eventually Bishop and I took a series of classes with a man who had previously worked as a K-9 trainer. This man got dogs. He loved them. He loved them so much that he wasn’t afraid to chew out their humans if we were doing things that weren’t in the dogs’ best interest. And he told me, “The trick with Bishop will be to teach obedience without breaking his spirit.”

Unlike Alpha Male, he wasn’t interested in forcing the dogs to submit for submission’s sake. He didn’t need to prove he was the biggest, baddest, most dominant one in the room. For him, it was about leadership and appropriate roles: The dog needs to trust you so that they follow your lead; they will feel more secure if they know you’re in charge, and you will have a safer, healthier, happier dog.

What I learned from him probably saved Bishop’s life. Granted, Bishop never calmed down. He was always wild, always difficult to walk. But he loved me fiercely, and we had eight years full of memorable and sometimes harrowing and often hilarious experiences.

When I adopted Rufus shortly after Bishop’s death, the first call I made was to that trainer. While I don’t know details of Rufus’ past, it was obvious that he’d been poorly socialized, probably abused, certainly traumatized. He has scars all over his body and he was terrified of everyone, especially men. I knew I was going to need help again, albeit for very different reasons than I had with Bishop.

And because the trainer didn’t need to be Alpha Male, because he wasn’t focused on power dynamics, he helped tremendously. He told me right away, “It doesn’t matter if this dog ever obeys a command I give him or even lets me approach. What matters is that he bonds with you.” Everything the trainer did was about showing Rufus he could trust me, teaching Rufus to look to me for food and love and security and consistency.

Rufus in one of his happy places: his Memere’s house

As I gradually introduced new people and situations into Rufus’ life, I noticed something about this meek, cowed dog: He only shows submission behavior when he feels safe. He only rolls over and reveals his belly to people he trusts. If someone or something scares him, he scrambles behind me, or he lowers himself to the ground and does a frantic canine army-crawl toward safety. When he feels threatened, he hunkers down and protects his vulnerabilities.

For Rufus, submission is the ultimate sign of love.

I was thinking about this as Copper tugged on the leash and Rufus trotted next to me. Copper has many wonderful qualities, but he’s horrible on walks. Although he adores them, he actually behaves better when he’s off leash. At my parents’ land in the mountains, we let the dogs run free. Copper ecstatically bounded through the snow, upslope and down, racing circles around us, but he never left my sight. In fact, when Rufus started to roam too far afield, Copper herded him back.

So Copper’s issue with leashes isn’t that he wants to run away. It’s that he wants me to go faster, and he wants to dart off in 87 different directions, chasing scents and squirrels and birds and pine cones, and then he wants to stop abruptly and roll around on the ground. He’s tripped me, he’s almost tripped me, he’s almost tripped my dad, and in general he is…not fun to walk.

So we’re at the park and I interrupt my reflections on submitting to God to exclaim, “Copper, if you would just stop pulling and walk next to me, we’d have a much more pleasant time and you’d get more walks and we’d all be happier!”

And then I pause and think, is this the same message God is trying to tell me? That ultimately we’re headed in the same direction, God and I, and if I’d stop trying to be in charge, stop pulling in a million different directions and racing off and circling back and rolling around in the dirt, we’d get there faster and with less angst on both sides? Is that what submission means?

Copper supervising snow

I am so terrified of submission. So convinced that my resistance is all that’s keeping the next shoe from dropping. So afraid that if I say, “Okay, God, I submit to you,” I will be alone for the rest of my life, unsatisfied in my job, forced to resign myself to discontent because that’s what God wants for me. That I’ll have to perpetually talk myself into settling for a life that is less than I’ve always dreamed and hoped and imagined, because that is “God’s will.” Because it’s been drilled into me that God doesn’t care about my happiness, only about how God can use me, and that version of God has always seemed to have a preference for using people in ways that hurt them.

But Stanley has a different understanding. Stanley says, Our period of brokenness is not the end, but rather, a passage and a process to a new beginning that is even more glorious….The motivation behind everything God does in our lives and everything he allows in our lives is love (p. 17).

As I finished Stanley’s book. I realized there are two significant areas where I’m struggling to submit, to trust — and both are areas he addresses, so evidently I am not the only one struggling with them.

The first is in craving a relationship. Stanley says, “Many single men and women define ‘blessing’ as getting married” (139). That’s certainly how I define it; I can’t imagine any version of a good or even worthwhile life that entails remaining single. Partly, at least, this connects to the feeling that I never belong. I think if I only had one person in my life who chose me over everyone else on earth, who invested time in really getting to know me and embraced what he found, who said, “You are the person I most want to walk beside, and have walking beside me, through this life,” then I would finally belong. Maybe that’s a naive, teenage way to view a relationship. Maybe some of those couples who seem like they have deep security and profound belonging with each other are faking it, projecting a false or artificial vibe. Or maybe it’s real and they have something I desperately want and keenly feel the lack of every day.

I have to acknowledge that fear of not belonging is one of the reasons I am adamantly, even desperately, opposed to dating a man who already has kids. Because I don’t see a way for me to belong in a family that was started with some other woman. Because I don’t think I could ever look at his kids’ baby photos without feeling a wrenching agony at my own absence. Because I’d always feel like I was trying unsuccessfully to claw out a niche in a space designed for someone else. (And yes, I realize there is an inherent selfishness in all of this; but I think it’s better to acknowledge it than to potentially harm kids with my issues. I also understand this is my perspective. I have friends who are wonderful step-parents and who are probably shaking their heads at me right now.)

And if I’m going to be truly, unflinchingly honest, I also need to admit that wanting to belong is not the best reason for seeking a relationship. It is, in fact, setting myself up to use someone (and quite possibly to be used) rather than to fully, freely know and love him.

But oh, turning over those desires to God is tough. So many people have told me that God transforms our desires to match God’s, that God gives us not what we want but what we need. And maybe they truly believe this. Maybe they honestly think they’re better off. Maybe I’m only imagining the wistfulness in their words, their faces; that lingering sense that they’re tamping down disappointment even as they talk about gratitude. I’m so scared that what God wants for me is so much less than what I want for myself, that the love I long to give will never have an outlet, that the love I receive now is all the love I will ever receive. That loneliness and not belonging will be my continued state of existence.

The other area I’m struggling with is my career. Since I was a child, I’ve felt like writing is my calling. My job satisfaction has always tied directly to whether and how much time and energy I have outside work to write. As a result, I have disliked and resented most of my employers. I have felt unfulfilled and like I’m wasting my life. I love being in the classroom with students, but teaching has never seemed like a calling; it’s something to pay the rent while I try to write a book. I haven’t managed to finish the book, though, and I have grown increasingly angry and bitter that my employment has elbowed out my calling. Leaving a stable job with health insurance in the middle of a pandemic is not a decision many people seem to think is wise, but I feel like it’s the only way to avoid stagnating and growing ever more resentful.

Last fall I experienced what felt like a strong call in another direction — something that has always been in the back of my mind as a “someday” career. Just as I was poised to act, though, I had a clear sense of God saying, “Wait until next year.” Which made sense when COVID-19 hit the world like a freight train. I didn’t exactly forget about this new calling, but it kind of got put on the back burner, especially after several conversations about how impossible it seemed for me to be able to do this. One of the points Stanley makes in his book, though, is that if we are ignoring or postponing or short-changing a calling, that might be a reason for brokenness in our lives. So I’ve decided to pursue this direction. It’s not something I can figure out on my own or do without at least a minor miracle, but I’m taking the first step.

And I had an honest talk with God last night. I told God I want to write. I want a relationship with a wonderful man, but I want to go into it poised to know and appreciate and love him for who he is — not because being with him means I won’t be alone, not because I’m reliant on him for a sense of validation or belonging. I want to work for justice and reconciliation. I want to help heal wounds. I want to share love with the people I encounter. I want to know and understand and better love God. I want to experience and receive God’s love and peace and joy.

Trust is really, really tough for me. Submission requires trust, but even more, I’m realizing, it requires me to believe, in the marrow of my bones, that God is good and that God loves me. That God is trustworthy and won’t betray my trust. Long ago I intellectually rejected the harsh and demanding and unyielding and manipulative deity I grew up with — but viscerally I’m still scared that’s who God will turn out to be. That’s not a god anyone but a masochist would willingly submit to, and I can’t submit to a God in whose love I don’t trust.

So I’m trying to submit, and to trust, the way Rufus does and the way I wish Copper would: in a spirit of love; in the belief that God’s goodness will look and feel like goodness to me; in the hope that what I want for my life and what God wants aren’t so very divergent; in security and maybe, maybe even belonging.

The one about Satan

I’ve gone back and forth about writing this post for months. I’ve always been skeptical of people who talk about Satan as an entity that intervenes in their daily lives. So I am not at all eager to join those ranks.

As a teenager in a rigid, repressive Christian school, I came to regard Satan as a romantic hero, a la Milton and Byron, a creative force who welcomed all the questions and rebellion and angst and confusion and beauty that my teachers discouraged and disapproved of. Plus, Satan had better music! Later I embraced my Goth side, and the prince of darkness became practically a patron saint, or at least a muse (although this was not a fascination shared by most of the Goths I knew). I discovered black metal and met actual satanists, who, with one exception, were scrawny loudmouths looking for some sense of power and belonging. I shouldn’t judge, since power and belonging were what I craved, too. When I had the freedom and the courage to do so, I sought out a spirituality that left me feeling powerful, rather than powerless; safe, rather than under constant threat; protected, rather than subject to the whim of a deity who had no problem annihilating me in the most painful way possible just to prove He could; desired rather than despised. Praying had always felt like banging my head against a brick wall; Satan promised to listen. And if I could make contact with absolute evil, I reasoned, then I would know that absolute goodness also had to exist.

My views were further shaped by my reading of Neil Gaiman’s story “Murder Mysteries.” I came away with a concept of Satan as a nobly tragic figure, assigned by God to play a necessary, difficult, painful, but ultimately redemptive role in the human drama. I still find myself partial to that idea. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more agnostic about the existence of Satan as a malevolent being and not just metaphor. After all, Satan gets blamed for a lot of things that are, if we’re honest, our own faults, unpleasant consequences of our own or other people’s poor choices.

But. I’ve noticed a pattern over the past 18 months or so, and reluctant as I am to attribute it to Satan, it is at least causing me to reassess my beliefs in ways that feel uncomfortably fundamentalist. Because it seems like every time I feel particularly close to God, experience deep peace, and have an almost tangible sense of God’s presence, it’s just a matter of time until I find myself crashing hard into disillusionment and despair.

Sometimes it’s my own doubts that boil up. Often, though, the crashes have been triggered by other people. I’d be so excited by what I thought God was telling me that I couldn’t help sharing it. All the books I’ve read on listening to God say that if you think God is telling you something, ask for confirmation from Christian friends. But…what happens when you hear a clear message, but everyone else thinks you got your wires crossed? I’ve heard everything from “That’s just not how God works” to “You’re not at the point where God would make those kinds of promises to you” to “That’s not God’s plan for your life.” And the thing is, all these people seem so sure. And I’m not. So then I doubt that I’m actually hearing God right. But why would God tell other people things about my life that are kept secret from me? And am I just projecting my own dreams and desires onto God’s voice? That way lies madness. And what kind of God rewards you with madness and lies when you’re seeking love and truth?

I spin my wheels. I doubt everything, and the doubt throws me into such existential despair that I don’t know if I can go on living, because if the promises are false, does that mean all the love and the peace and the comfort were just illusions too? I churn. I spiral. No one knows how to help, what to say. It feels like people put God into their own boxes, and if my experiences don’t fit into those boxes, then they shrug in pity and avoid openly saying I’m delusional.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I am. Or maybe God is trying to force me not to rely on other people for validation and confirmation. Maybe God is trying to build my faith.

A few nights ago, I sat down with my journal and wrote a list of questions that were torturing me, questions about why things are the way they are in my life and why nothing I do seems to create change. And then I listened for God. And those same promises, the ones I’ve been hearing for more than a year, came forcefully into my head again. With very specific details that I have no way, yet, to verify. I began writing what I understood God to be saying, and this is where the writing took me:

Satan is the one who wants you to despair and believe you’ll always be alone, who wants to steal your hope. Your suicide would make him gleeful. He attacks every time you feel close to me and at peace and confident about the future. He steals it away.

Regardless of whether those were actually God’s words flowing through my pen, I realized the concept rings true. Whether or not the promises are from God, whether or not I’m hearing them right, they always carry peace and comfort and reassurance and an overwhelming sense of love. But the subsequent crashes are so awful, so ugly, so nearly intolerable, that I’ve stopped wanting to pray at all. I’ve begun fearing the peace and the love, because I know they won’t last and I’m terrified of what will follow. It’s like a bipolar spiritual cycle. And at the very least, adjusting my view of Satan from a tragic ally to a(n actual or metaphorical) being working for my destruction gives me a different framework to understand my own spiritual struggles.

I can’t get out of my own way. All along I’ve blamed God for throwing obstacles in my path, but maybe all those verses about freedom in Christ are right, and maybe that freedom could translate into tangible differences in my life: freedom from worrying obsessively about lack of money and whether I have a future, freedom from mediocrity, freedom from not having time to do what I’m most passionate about, freedom from feeling trapped in my life. Freedom from lies and despair that just might originate from Satan as well as my own psyche.

So many, many people have told me over the past year that I have to learn to be grateful where I am. That God put me in this particular space for a reason. And on one level I’m sure that’s true, but it’s also led me to resent and blame God because I feel so trapped. But maybe Satan is the name on the trap — or a name I can usefully scribble onto it — and the restlessness is God’s way of telling me it’s time to escape before I gnaw off my own foot in desperation.

After I wrote in my journal the other night, I felt a clarity I haven’t experienced in a long time. Less fear and more peace. The peace has stayed, and even though it started with the reiteration of those promises when I prayed, it doesn’t feel tied to them. In fact, I’ve stopped worrying about whether or when the promises will come true. The peace is enough. It enabled me to spend a productive day on my novel and another on work. It allowed me to enjoy an afternoon with people I love, without the lingering traces of sadness that usually haunt me. It meant that today I could laugh in delight as my two dogs chased each other through chest-deep snow, dolphin-leaping with pure joy.

I’m holding tightly onto the joy and peace and love, and I’m keeping the promises close to my heart. And even though I feel a little like the kind of fundie drama queen I despise, I’m praying a new prayer: Please protect me from Satan’s lies and the damage he wants to inflict. Because there has been too much damage already, too many lies. And that’s true regardless of whether Satan is a malevolent entity or a metaphor for my own darkest tendencies.

After I closed my journal the other night, feeling washed clean by my tears, I turned to Tolkien for a bedtime story. And there, in “Ainulindale,” I read Iluvatar‘s rebuke of Melkor:

No theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.

If that doesn’t put the devil in his place, I don’t know what does.

New Year, New…?

Although I’ve never been a regular smoker, I used to light a cigarette every Old Year’s. Then I’d start my list of New Year’s resolutions with “Quit smoking” so I’d keep at least one. I guess I thought that might motivate me to work toward the other resolutions, or at least prevent me from feeling like a total failure when I didn’t achieve them.

Eventually, though, I stopped making resolutions. Obviously I’m not the only person who struggles to keep them; breaking them is not only cliched but almost expected. So I tried re-framing resolutions as goals.

My goals for 2020 were to

  • read the entire Bible (for which I bought a Bible with readings broken down by date)
  • organize my life (for which I bought a book with tasks broken down by month)
  • finish my memoir
  • meet a great guy
  • find a job with growth potential and move somewhere with more opportunities for interpersonal connections.
I traveled through 18 states in 2020 — does that count?

How did I do? Spoiler alert: not well.

  • I made it halfway through January in my Bible-in-a-year quest. Those daily readings were daunting. I ultimately decided that taking time to absorb and reflect is more important than packing the whole thing into a year, so now I’m going book by book. I found gorgeous illustrated Bible journals that include space to write, draw, respond to, pray, and interact with the text. I don’t use them every day, but that’s okay: when I do, I’m present in a way I wasn’t when I was trying to meet the one-year deadline.
This is the cover of the book of Psalms.
  • I got to Week Three in the organization book. I started 2020 hoping to move in May, which gave me less than a year to organize my life, but once the shutdown happened, I found myself with no motivation or energy. However. I have committed to leave both my job and my apartment this spring, and I’ve already started to sort and pack and hopefully facilitate organization on the other end of the move.
  • I didn’t finish my memoir, although I did write a few more chapters. And I started this blog. And began work on a novel over the summer. The tricky part is finding time; when I engage in writing, it tends to take over my life, so I don’t dare immerse myself in it the way I need to. How can I change that in 2021? I’m not sure, but I need to find a way.
  • Meeting a great guy is a frustrating goal because it’s so entirely out of my control. I’ve wasted too much time and money on dating apps, but I’m not sure what else to try. I recently closed my profiles even on the free apps, because they became too discouraging: I’d get excited in spite of myself whenever I had a new message, only to be met with a rude comment (“That lipstick clashes with your hazel eyes,” said one guy, even though my eyes are blue) or yet another query about whether I’d be open to polyamory. And very few of the men I contacted ever responded.

    I don’t know when or if or how I’ll meet someone. Hoping feels like a sadistic joke. Being contented with singleness feels like settling, like accepting that my life will continue to have this huge absence where I always imagined a loving partner. I’m in a perpetual state of furious, helpless despair about the prospect of ever meeting someone I’d actually want to be with. I don’t know where to go with that.
  • COVID-19 put a damper in my job search/moving plans. I was able to spend the summer and most of December with family in Colorado, but the closer I get to returning to rural Georgia, the more depressed I grow (especially with a birthday looming a week after my return). I don’t feel like there’s anything left for me there. I don’t foresee anything for the spring but more months of brutal, grinding loneliness and despair, and frankly, I don’t know how I’m going to get through it.

Given the unforeseen challenges posed by 2020, I think just surviving it is an accomplishment. I know a few people who (claim to have) thrived, and I can barely stand to talk to them. Most of us struggled in fierce and exhausting ways. The friends who opened up to me about their personal hells are the ones who helped most. I’m so grateful for them and the vulnerability they were willing to share.

Every New Year’s, I hope this is the last year I’ll have to usher in alone. And I hope that in the coming year, the holes in my heart will fill, and that I’ll find time to write and discover an opportunity to make my living doing work I love. So far those dreams haven’t come true. I have no real reason to believe they will. Hope often feels futile, even cruel. I started 2020 thinking God had made specific promises to me, promises I was very excited to see fulfilled — but with every day they don’t come to pass, I become more and more suspicious that I got my wires crossed, that they weren’t promises at all but just wishful thinking, that God’s plan for my life is loneliness and deprivation and absence because that’s been so much of life so far. My faith is increasingly fragile, and bitterness crowds around the edges.

Yet I keep thinking there has to be something better. Something that will be beautiful and redemptive, that will, if not justify the difficult times, at least blunt their edges and give me a reason to have survived them.

If such a something exists, I hope it arrives in 2021. I need it to, because I’m not sure how much more my faith can survive, or how much longer I’ll be able to hold on in the hope that things might somehow, someday become better.

Christmas bouquet from a church friend

The extra mile

My employer recently sent out an e-mail praising those who have “gone the extra mile” during COVID-19 season.

Whatever his motives, that paragraph felt like a slap in the face to me. A lot of us showed up, did our jobs to the best of our ability, but dragged ourselves across the finish line with bloodied elbows and knees. We gave everything we had just to survive the first mile and had nothing extra to give.

But my sense of falling short was eased quickly, when I remembered several of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years: Not to compare myself to others. To be content with the knowledge that I did my best, even if that looks different than someone else’s best. To fight for my mental health and maintain my boundaries, even when that means not meeting some arbitrary definition of “going the extra mile.” To reaffirm that I’m enough, and that who I am matters more than what I do.

Fuck the extra mile.

I’m saying this not just for myself but on your behalf, too. This year has been horrible and brutal, and if you’re still standing at the end of it, then you should be proud of yourself. Don’t let anyone manipulate or coerce or compare you into feeling like you didn’t do enough, or you didn’t do it as well as someone else, or you ought to be coping “better” than you are. Because if you made it to this side of 2020, then what you did was enough.

Forget some mythical extra mile. Let’s celebrate the positive things we did and the negative things we didn’t do. Here are a few of mine:

  • I clarified and maintained boundaries. I worked hard and I worked a lot, but I also took Sundays off. On weekdays I went on long walks with the dog and took time to cook dinner, and I read for a few hours before bedtime. In other words, I refused to allow work to permeate the times and spaces I had set aside to nurture myself. These aren’t decisions that most employers support (although the best managers I’ve had recognize that employees who take care of themselves are better, happier, and more productive workers). And although I set up profiles on several dating apps, I practiced my boundaries with the men I encountered, and I didn’t get into an unhealthy attachment just to avoid being alone.
  • I showed up, and I kept showing up. I spent more time prepping classes this semester than I ever have. Yes, I fell behind on grading — I always do — but I came into every class meeting with a plan, with course content to cover (usually in colorful slide presentations) and activities to try to keep the students engaged. It didn’t work perfectly, but students noticed that I was trying, and I was pleasantly surprised at how many let me know they appreciated the effort.
  • I kept exercising. No, I didn’t maintain my usual gym routine, and I have a few extra pounds to show for it. But I walked regularly and took advantage of the fitness trail. Working out was an important part of my life before quarantine, and the habit stuck.
  • I rescued a cat and officially became a two-dog person. The cat had been abandoned at the park, and finding out her history and learning I could keep her was a mini-adventure. The dog started as a foster, but at some point you figure that when an animal has saved your life, the least you can do is become his forever person. So…
  • I struggled with some of my old vices — but struggling meant I didn’t fully succumb. Those aforementioned extra pounds? Dr. Pepper and Chick-fil-A. And book-buying, which has been my go-to escape since I was about seven, proved dangerously alluring with all that empty time stuck in my apartment. But I’m trying to give myself grace. On the scale of dysfunctional behaviors, those are relatively innocuous compared to some of the coping strategies I’ve employed in the past. I did not indulge in my darkest, most damaging and destructive vices.
  • I got out of bed every day. Some days, that’s about all I did. Some days, I made it into the shower and then just sat on the floor and sobbed while hot water washed over me. But there was not one day during this entire COVID-19 ordeal where I didn’t at least get out of bed.
  • I formed, maintained, and deepened friendships. Text messages, virtual happy hours, online discussion groups, hand-written Christmas cards, care packages, socially distanced outdoor meals, group chats — all of these have been lifesavers. And reminders of the many wonderful people in my life. I took too many of them for granted before. That’s a mistake I hope I never make again.
  • I strove to be authentic and vulnerable. This is always a balancing act. Sometimes my “authentic” feels so dark that I’m scared of dragging others down. And every time I post something vulnerable, I watch the number of my Facebook friends tick lower. But I’ve also been touched at how many people have privately messaged me — to thank me for being honest, to say they feel the same way, to offer encouragement or commiseration. Not everyone is here for my real, and that hurts more than maybe it should, but the people who have stuck are the ones worth having around.
  • I accepted help. I think I’m good at asking, but I often feel like a burden when I need help. I’m learning to receive, though, to let other people help me without guilting myself or thinking I’m a flake or beating myself up for not being able to handle everything alone. And this has brought blessings into my life: road trips with my parents, a Christmas bouquet from a new friend, gifts from other friends, honest conversations, badly needed encouragement — and chances to be there for other people in meaningful ways, too.
  • I kept seeking God. My faith was often tenuous and uneasy before COVID-19 hit. Since last spring, it’s been tempestuous and anguished, outraged and despairing. Sometimes I shout at God. Sometimes I feel so deeply betrayed that I can’t talk to God for several days at a time. Sometimes the love feels warm and present and almost tangible. Sometimes I feel abandoned and forsaken. But I think what matters is that I’m still seeking. Still fighting to believe. Still holding on.

What are you proud of during this season? Forget the extra mile: Whatever you’ve done is enough. And more importantly, who you are is a blessing and a gift. Share that blessing. Celebrate that gift.

Connections

Attributions: Unless otherwise noted, all the cute and clever memes in this post were lifted from the Goodwill Librarian Facebook page, but the animal photos are mine.

In the past two days, I have had two delightful conversations with women who both apologized for “bending my ear” or “talking too much.” The apologies were so unnecessary that I felt sad that the speakers even voiced them: I enjoyed both conversations very much and was grateful for these strangers, who took time out of their days to share their lives and listen to me in return.

The first conversation was a phone call with a married pastor who has kids at home but said that even with the family contact, as an extrovert, she struggles with COVID precautions. She’s trying to build communities on Zoom and specifically mentioned a desire to connect people who are single and feeling very isolated. (Sign me up!) The second was with an elderly widow, who struck up a conversation as we waited for our cars to be serviced. She talked about her grandkids and great-grandkids, the books she likes to read, the quilts she’s working on, the dog who passed a year ago.

I came away from both conversations feeling like my ears and my attention were needed, served a purpose, maybe brightened someone else’s day. And I have felt so unneeded, so superfluous, so extraneous for so much of COVID season that being able to listen as well as talk met a deep need for me, too.

As I’ve written before, I’ve spent most of my life feeling very lonely and isolated and disconnected from other people. Last fall and winter, those feelings crescendoed to the point that they seemed unbearable, intolerable. I didn’t think I could stand any more aloneness without shattering. For more than a year, in fact, I have been pushed beyond the limit of how much isolation I believed I could survive. Last February I decided I was ready to reach out more, but all I managed to do was flail around and churn up more chaos inside myself. I was on the verge of trying out a new church, though, and looking for other possibilities to broaden my circle.

And then COVID-19 shut everything down.

It’s not about me, of course, but I’m part of this, as we all are, and the only story I can tell right now is my own.

On the good days, I was grateful for all the very hard, very tough work I’d invested in my mental health and glad that COVID-19 hadn’t hit even a year earlier, because I had put serious effort into healing and developing appropriate strategies for dark times. I felt better equipped to handle the silences and the empty spaces and the ugly feelings without hiding behind endless stacks of books.

But. Whatever emotional, psychological, and spiritual resources I’d built up quickly became depleted, and the timing of the shutdown itself came to feel like a cosmic joke. Why would I have arrived at the clear, conscious realization that I’m less introverted than I used to be and that I need more people in my life more regularly — less than a month before the contact I did have was taken away completely? Why, just after I’d concluded that I craved more time with human beings and less time with books, was I confined to an apartment with thousands of books and no people?

But these two…

In the version of my life where everything has a purpose, I can see now that maybe the timing makes a skewed sort of sense. In the year prior to lockdown, I had finally confronted and named the darkest demons in my psyche, and while I didn’t relish the idea — or the reality — of long months alone with them, maybe there were wrestling matches I needed to have — and to have them in a space where the collateral damage was limited because other people weren’t (able to be) around for much of it.

Also, after such serious anxiety and lack of focus that I’d lost my ability to read for more than a year, I’d finally become able, last winter, to track ideas long enough to finish books again. And despite everything — despite howling at God on Thanksgiving that I’m tired of just reading about life; I want to live — books have provided a comfort and a solace (and maybe even empathy) that I’ve been able to balance with other demands on my time. I’d never managed to achieve anything resembling that kind of balance before.

So as we finally see glimmers of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel — and I for one will be lining up for that damn vaccine as soon as it’s available — I feel like I’m emerging a pared-down, leaner, hungrier but maybe also more centered, less self-absorbed version of me. I expect that healing from this season will take time, because the isolation has bruised me deeply, and much as I crave instant cures, I’ve learned that wounds require time. But at least some days, I’m starting to think healing might be possible. And maybe things will actually, finally, improve. Maybe this isn’t just a story written by a sadist who loves to kick me when I’m already down.

My attitude toward other people has also shifted: what I can offer, what I need, what I’m willing to tolerate. I (want to) think I am less selfish and more focused on other people’s needs, more capable of being able to respond in helpful ways and not just be a burden, more open to truly listening and engaging. I know that once upon a time in the not so distant past, I would have nodded impatiently at that woman in the waiting room and kept my book open, signaling that I wanted to read rather than talk. But today I put my book and phone away and gave her my full attention.

Because I understand now just how brutally dehumanizing loneliness can be, and if I can alleviate someone else’s even for a few minutes I want to do that.

And I no longer take human contact for granted. Now I want to savor every one of those rare and precious moments of connection.