Becoming Bethany

Observations on becoming and being

Home

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This is the written version of a piece I shared at a storytelling event last year.

When my friend Hannah announced that the theme for this storytelling event was Home and told me I had to tell a story, I got nervous. You see, I have a lot of stories but I also have a somewhat conflicted relationship with Home.

It’s not that I had a bad home life growing up. If I know anything, it’s that my parents love me and my seven siblings. And we all love them and each other too.

It’s not that I don’t like homes or have anything against homemaking. While some little girls daydream about their future weddings, I spent a my time imagining what I wanted my grown-up home to look like one day. I always imagined it big with a huge attic to read in on rainy days and a giant yard where I would spend every sunny day hosting parties and entertaining friends.

So it’s not the idea of home that I am conflicted with. It’s mostly that I don’t know where my home is and I feel like a lot of my life has been spent looking for it.

By the time I was 18, I had lived in 10 different cities in 4 different countries and I think 18 different houses. In each of the houses we lived in my mother worked really hard to make them feel like home and many of them did. But I was always aware that I was not Home. For one thing, I was a TCK (a third culture kid). For much of my formative years, I was not living in my parents’ home culture (first culture). We were not immigrants to the culture we were living in (second culture). Instead my siblings and I and many of the kids we grew up with formed our own culture (third culture). (And as any TCK is quick to note. one of the most famous TCKs of all is President Barak Obama.) As exotic as all of this sounds, the point is that I didn’t even have a “home culture”.

One of the first chapter books my dad read to me when I was little was “The Little House in the Big Woods”. The first book in the Little House on the Prairie series. Almost all of the books in the series are named after where the family was living at the time. And even though they moved often in Laura Ingalls’ young life, they never seemed to doubt that they belonged where they lived. (Which is actually a whole other conversation about colonialism and American settlers and whether any of that land really belonged to them. But anyway…)

In high school, I (along with everyone else who was in high school in 2001 when The Fellowship of the Ring movie came out) read the Lord of the Rings series for the first time. And to many of my nerd friends’ surprise, my favorite book in the series was “The Hobbit”. I loved Bilbo Baggins. I completely understood why he just wanted to stay in his cozy hobbit hole. But I also related to his sense of accomplishment for going out, having an adventure, finding treasure, killing a dragon and then coming back home again.

In college, I read “The Odyssey” and was riveted. (I think I read an abridged version in a high school literature class but it didn’t really stick with me the same way.) I realized the story is not so much about all of the adventures Odysseus had along his arduous journey but the fact that he was just trying to get home. (Or at least that’s how he tells the story. He did spend a really long time “stuck” at that sexy witch’s house.) His journey ends not once he has fought off his wife’s suitors and reclaimed his large mansion as his own. But it ends once he is back in his elderly father’s arms. That is when he has arrived Home.

After college, I moved back to Istanbul, Turkey because it felt the most like home to me of all of the places I had lived. And it was 2008 while America was in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. (An economic depression ironically brought on by problems in the housing market.) So I was happy to claim my “citizen of the world” card and live in a place where the economy was still humming along and there were jobs to be had.

My boyfriend at the time followed me there and proposed to me in a historic Byzantine church – once the home of Eastern Christianity. We got married in LA and with Odysseus in mind, as his wedding gift I gave him a brass compass inscribed with the words, “May you ever, always find your way home.” We decided to return to Istanbul for our first year of marriage because once again, it felt the most like home. And really, we had both decided that we felt like home to each other. I thought that from then on wherever he was would be my Home and I loved how romantic that all was.

After we had been married a year, we felt like maybe it was time to live on more than just love so we moved back to LA to actually pursue careers and build a physical home. I hoped that maybe I would finally have a little bit of the home I had always wanted. I now had my own little family and soon I would have my own house that we would make sure was large enough to have people over all the time and we would have the best dinners and gatherings.

Unfortunately that beautiful dream was short-lived. Though both of our careers flourished, our home plans did not. Just 3 and a half years after our wedding, my husband announced our marriage was over by moving everything he owned out of our little apartment. It still strikes me as more than a little poetic that the way I found out I was getting divorced was by discovering an empty home. It was and is confusing and sad but that is a much longer story for another time.

While I tried to figure out what to do next, I was welcomed into the new home of a dear single friend. She had just bought it the week before I moved in and the roommate she had lined up had backed out at the last minute so there was a place for me. I loved watching her set-up her home those first few months I was living there. It may seem an odd thing to find comforting as my own home was crumbling but it felt very hopeful and forward-looking and I needed hope wherever I could find it in those months.

I eventually got a cute apartment with my longtime best friend. Its selling point was the huge front patio where we could host parties. And we made it home in the extremely feminine way that only a house inhabited by two women can be. There are flowers and pastel colors throughout. There are teacups in the bookshelf and books in the china cabinet and as many potted plants as we can keep alive. It is not the house I always imagined or the way I imagined it but it is home for now in the way the many houses my mom made feel like home when I was growing up also did.

Last year I returned to Istanbul for a visit. It was the first time I had visited since my divorce and before I went, I was a little nervous about what it would feel like. There were parts of it that were hard and parts of it that were beautiful and there were parts of it that still feel like home. But there have also been a lot of changes since I called that city home.

The political and social climate has shifted dramatically in the 5 years since I lived there and much of the country is in an existential crisis searching for a new understanding of their home. Meanwhile, Turkey has become a temporary home for millions of Iraqi and Syrian refugees who have lost their own homes and will probably never get them back. The whole country now feels like they are all looking for an elusive home together. And that felt familiar and well, relatable.

I know it has become a Christian cliche to say and hear, “This world is not our home.” And unfortunately I think too often that phrase is used to dismiss rather than deal with injustice and pain and brokenness. But it is also true. I think in many ways, we are all searching for home. And I am sure I am not the only one who feels like I haven’t found it yet.

If all of those stories I loved taught me anything, it’s that a desire and yearning for home is deep in each of us. Maybe some of us find it in this world and some of us may not but we are all looking for it. And there is something about that that is encouraging.

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Super Bowl Sunday

I knew he was sad. I had known for a few months. We had talked about it until he was tired of talking and I was just tired. I tried everything I knew to cheer him up – his favorite food, shows, friends, activities, hobbies. Anything and everything I knew brought him joy I tried to encourage. I stopped nagging about the things I knew annoyed him – vacuuming and dishes and laundry. I could do them if it would help him feel happier again. I tried to just focus on the essentials – health and well-being and connection. But I was getting sad too. You can only carry another’s sadness for so long before it starts to seep into your skin too. We were both working hard – at work and love and health – and we were both tired.

I kept telling myself: Just keep going – a little longer. He finally had normal working hours and weekends. He was about to get a raise. Maybe we could move to a part of town where his commute wouldn’t be so taxing. Spring was coming soon and it would be warmer and the light would stay out longer. And we were already planning our summer getaway to one of our favorite places. Peace and nature and beauty and time for just the two of us was only a few months away. Just keep going. Only a little longer I would tell myself.

That afternoon was a relief. I had been away working for almost two weeks straight and I was spent. I needed a little attention and care myself. Snuggled into his side on the plush sofa for a whole three hours was exactly what the doctor ordered. I asked him to explain each play of the game. By this point I had watched enough football with him to understand the rules but I knew he loved teaching and I knew he loved the game. Mostly college football he would remind me. “There is no excitement in the pros – it’s all just a machine at that level.” Between you and me, I just wanted to listen to his gentle voice for a couple hours. Honestly, I could have listened to his voice forever.

His arm squeezed me tighter when he laughed at a commercial or yelled at a play. I felt like he was pulling into his joy and excitement and it strengthened me and made my heart glad. It was one of the first things I discovered about marriage that I loved – that you can experience someone else’s joy for something that you have no personal feelings about. Marriage had nearly doubled the things I enjoyed and I couldn’t believe it but somehow an occasional sports game had made it onto that list too.

We were not alone. His whole family was there – eating and talking and laughing and yelling at the referees too. But in that corner of the sofa, I felt like I had my whole world right next to me and it was so peaceful. It felt like home in that warm belonging way that only home can feel. Another’s sadness can seep in through your skin but so can their love. I don’t remember the game or who won. I don’t even remember who played. But those several hours of quiet joy and deepest contentment remain one of my fondest memories.

The odd part of this whole story is that that was one of the last Sundays I ever spent with him. About ten days later I would come home to our apartment and find out that he had gone to find his peace and joy and love and home somewhere else. I always hope that he has found it.

Love is Risky

After I heard about the 7 Nation Immigration Ban on Friday evening, I experienced a swirl of thoughts and emotions. I knew I needed to write about it but I wasn’t sure where to start.

I thought about writing about how highly guests are honored in those 7 nations and how the insult we are messaging is much stronger than just political. How I have experienced Middle Eastern hospitality over and over again and how much it has taught me about opening my home to guests and even strangers.

I thought about telling the story of the sweet young couple (he a high school science teacher and she a school counselor) who I tutored for the TOEFL, helped navigate Ivy League University websites, and proofread their application essays. The couple who each wanted to get PhDs in Education in the USA so they could return and help reform the school system in their own country. The couple who brought me a cake when they were accepted (on their own merit!) to at least one of the Ivies they applied to but were ultimately denied visas to attend. I thought about telling this story just to illustrate that US visas are some of the most difficult in the world to receive.

I thought about simply publishing the facts of how difficult it is to obtain a US visa, how rigorous and time consuming the screening process already is, or the statistics on how unlikely it is for an American to be endangered by a refugee in the United States. We are much more likely to be killed by heart disease, a car accident, or even a gun in the hands of a fellow citizen.

I thought about listing the mandates in Abrahamic religions to assist the stranger who asks for help, to care for the poor and needy, and to not turn away the guest who shows up at our door.

But as I kept thinking, I realized even with all these facts and personal anecdotes and religious commands, it actually comes back to something even deeper than all those things for me. It all comes down to love.

Love is risky. “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” C.S. Lewis reminds us in one of his most quoted sayings. Opening our hearts and lives to others involves uncertainty. Love is both an opportunity and a liability. We are sometimes given much greater love and grace in return. But love can also be a one-way street. Just because we extend love to another does not mean that we will be loved in return. We can extend grace to another and not experience grace in return. Sometimes we experience hurt or betrayal or cowardice or any number of ill actions in return.

I do not think it is likely but one of the refugees we welcome to our country could do a bad thing – could hurt someone or steal something or commit an “act of terror”. I do not think it is any more likely for a visa holder to do this than a US citizen but it is possible because all humanity is capable of doing evil and violent things.

Just as in any relationship, we should be wise and cautious and have appropriate boundaries and all of that, but really, all love and acceptance is still a risk. A risk that I think is the bravest and noblest for any person (or in this case – nation) to take. One that can potentially pay off with huge rewards and bring more benefits than you can possibly imagine before you take that risk.

Think of a friend or loved one or partner that you took that risk of love on that now you cannot imagine your life without. Think of all the joy you would not have experienced if instead of opening your arms, you had closed them tight across your chest.

I think of this great nation of refugees and immigrants and I cannot imagine it without them. Partially because I would not be here either. Someone took the risk and accepted my ancestors to this country – willingly or otherwise – and now I have the opportunity to be part of a multicultural democracy that is founded on principles of plurality yet also equality and justice for all. I think about the scientific discoveries we would have missed; contributions to art, literature, and film. I think of the foreign-born engineers who have helped build this country into a world leader in technology and innovation. I think of the friends I would have never known and my heart hurts.

Yes, allowing anyone into your circle – personally or socially or nationally – is a risk. But if that is not a risk that we think is worth taking, then I wonder what we are actually protecting. Because that sounds like a very small life and a very small nation to me indeed.

Embrace

I don’t usually look at a piece of art and say, “Yeah, me too.” I say this often about writing and film and music but very rarely about a drawing or painting or photograph. So when I saw John Baldessari’s “Green Kiss/Red Embrace” at The Broad last week and this was my first thought, I stopped and looked longer.


I’ve been thinking about the Body a lot in the last year. I’ve had an at-arms-length relationship with my body most of my life. My mind has always been stronger so I let it lead the way. I spent my childhood tripping over things with too long legs and a minimal sense of balance. In school, I only played sports when forced to and usually in positions where my height was my sole advantage. In trying to unify and strengthen my mind, soul, and body, my body has always lagged behind.

When I got married, I became aware of my body in new ways. (And I don’t just mean sexually.) As I got to know someone else’s body, I also got to know mine better. (Have I had that freckle on the top of my knee my whole life? Has the nail on my ring finger always had that asymmetrical slope?) I started noticing my body and enjoying my body and being thankful for it in new ways. (I love that my arms are long! My nose crinkles up funny when I smile!) It’s funny to me that my body only really felt like mine once someone else’s body also became mine.

When we separated, one of the many strong emotions I experienced was a distance from my own body. I alternated between feeling like I didn’t even know my body and feeling like half of it was missing. I experienced sensations that I can only describe as something like phantom limb syndrome. My hand would hurt to be held and my shoulders would physically ache for someone’s arm to be around them. I don’t know what it really means to become “one flesh” but I wonder if I was experiencing some physically reaction to that being torn apart.

During this time, I started doing a therapy where I learned to identify emotions through my body. I learned to identify fear as a tightening in my chest, happiness as a lightness in my arms and shoulders, and anger as a heat in my neck and face – among many other emotions. It was an interesting and unusual way to come back to knowing my body and appreciate more deeply the place my body plays in the interaction of mind, soul, and body.

In the last year, I have been more conscious about strengthening my body. Learning to identify physical indicators of stress earlier, recognizing that good food and sufficient sleep are not luxuries for me but necessities, and developing patience with myself when I need time to heal from injury or illness. Humbly recognizing that my body affects my mind and soul just as much as they each affect my body.

I still sometimes experience the physical sensation of missing another’s physical presence. I miss being held and touched and sex and well, being an integral part of someone else’s physical experience of the world. It’s not something I consciously acknowledge very often so that moment in The Broad when the green faces and red bodies forced me to stop and think and feel was significant. And I am once again grateful to the role of art as a mirror to the parts of ourselves we may be hesitant to look at too closely

This year as I focus on dwelling, one of the things I want to understand better is what it feels like, looks like to really dwell in my own body. I know that sounds funny because where else would I be dwelling? There is probably a better way of describing it but I have a tendency to feel like my body is just container for who I am rather than an integral part of my very being and experience of the world. I want to learn to be more thankful for and enjoy the fact that I dwell in this world in a body and one that is mostly healthy and getting stronger.

Looking at You, 2017

What would it look like to settle into my life? To put aside striving and trying and reaching and just live the life I have? To hope for but not wait for more or other?

I’m not very good at resolutions but I do enjoy choosing a topic or theme or even a word to think about and study for a year. For 2017, it is: to dwell. 

“Dwell” is a word I hear and use frequently but I’m not sure I totally understand. It’s a verb that has physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual uses. For me it carries connotations of being in one place and being content in that place. Is that what the word really means? 

What about “dwelling on things of the past”? That seems bad.

What does King David mean when he saws he will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”? 

And what about Moses’ blessing over the descendants of Benjamin when he says, “The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety. The High God surrounds him all day long, and dwells between his shoulders.”?

2016 was a big year of building for me. Building plans and goals, new interests, community, career, etc. I am proud of all I accomplished and I don’t want to rest on my laurels but I also want to settle into the life I have. Maybe I’m just getting old or tired but I don’t think a life of constant striving will bring much peace. I believe there are seasons for it but also seasons for being. For dwelling contentedly?

I expect more changes to come. (And will welcome most of them.) But I am ready to live the life I already have. I am curious what that looks like, feels like, means for me. 

Why I Am Religious (Even Though Religions Do Bad Things)

I ease my back into the old wooden pews. Tall candles flicker just above my head. The cedar garlands draped above the altar and the small fir trees decorating the foyer release a spicy-sweet smell. Deep old sounds emanate from the organ. Ancient words are intoned by a man in a deep voice and a woman invites us to meditate on peace in a time of division. The voices of the choir join together to meld harmonies that have been sung in churches for 350 years.

I exhale deeply and close my eyes. Grateful to find a moment of peace and reflection in a busy season. I feel comfortable in religious spaces. I think I always have. But it’s not very popular to be millennial and be a practicing religious. Only 27% of millennials report attending a weekly religious service.

I get it. Religion has let us down over and over again. Religion has promised things that have never been fulfilled. Religions have used their political and emotional power to force people to do things against their wills. Religions have promoted unspeakable actions. I can only speak for my own religious tradition but Christians have done (and still do) truly horrific things in the name of the Church. The Crusades, the Inquisition, sale of indulgences, supporting ant-semitism, burnings at the stake, segregation and racism, the KKK, forcing Native Americans to abandon their culture, misogyny, hateful acts against the LGBTQ community – the list goes on and on. It is a list I grieve and mourn. The history of my religious community is not one that I am always proud of. It is one that I intentionally study and recognize in the hopes of not repeating some of my forefathers and mothers mistakes.

But I must also recognize that religions have promoted really beautiful meaningful acts – care for the poor and lonely, abolishment of slavery, elevating the rights of women, challenging dictators, giving homes to the homeless and food to the hungry, encouraging selflessness and community, and promoting peaceful actions – just to name a few. Yes, not even all of these good acts have been done in a “pure and genuine” way. Some of these acts have been done in self-serving ways – for self-promotion, for power, for a false sense of goodness. Yet even with all these human failures in attempting good, St. James reminds us “pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”

In effort to reckon with and also side-step the complicated history of Christianity, it is currently popular in my sub-set of the Church to say that following Jesus is about a “relationship and not a religion”. Meaning that our highest goal is to know God and not to just practice meaningless forms or promote harmful and dangerous ideologies. I understand this and in many ways affirm it too. It comes from a desire to strip away the unnecessary in order to focus on the most important aspect of our faith. But here’s the thing: I think I need religion to help me know and experience God – to cultivate that relationship.

It may not be true for everyone, but for myself, I am not sure that my personal imagination is grand enough or consistent enough to direct me to practices to connect with God on my own. I need the consistency that religion offers through weekly practices. I need the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter to guide my reflections on different aspects of the Divine and my own humanity. I need the ancient texts, readings, and songs to help me express the words and feelings and devotions that I know deeply but do not know how to express on my own. I need the confessions to help me search my heart for the inclinations that would lead me to any of the awful things humans are capable of. I need the comfort that comes with belonging to an ancient faith and history. I need the wise words of those who have gone before me when I am overwhelmed trying to confront injustice, hatred, and division. And honestly, sometimes I just need the kick in the pants to focus on something or someone other than myself.

That’s not say I am by any means a slave to religion. I have not been an official member of a church since I was a young child. Most of my life I have attended non-denominational churches and as an adult I have felt the freedom to borrow practices from other Christian traditions that I do not belong to. When I am asked my religious affiliation, I am mostly unsure what to say beyond “Christian”. (And even then I am not confident that term fully expresses my faith and practice.) I have prayed and thought long and hard about making a more formal commitment to a certain branch of the Church but so far have never felt comfortable enough with any one tradition to make that leap. But deep down I still know that I would be lost in my feeble attempts to deeply connect with the Divine and with my fellow humans without the helpful guide that religion offers.

So under those beautiful garlands in the warm glow of candlelight, I stand with the congregation at the Advent Evensong and with one voice affirm the tenants of the Apostles Creed and tears come to my eyes. I am grateful for the early bishops who affirmed the central beliefs of our faith in 390 AD. I am grateful that I can walk into a church of which I am not a member and speak the affirmation truthfully with them. I am grateful for the history of attempting to love God and to love others and the community that my religious tradition offers. I am grateful for the practices offered that have help me find my way to God over and over again. And I keep wrestling with the dark parts of my religious tradition just as I wrestle with the dark parts on my own self.

A Liturgy for Advent in Difficult Times

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For family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and ourselves for whom it is hard to find Hope, Peace, Joy, or Love this Advent season, Lord we pray: Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who have lost loved ones – whether a grandparent, parent, child, sibling, spouse, or friend – and are facing the holidays with grief,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who are far from or estranged from their loved ones and for whom pictures of happy families bring more pain than nostalgia,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who are chronically ill and face continual physical pain and weakness no matter how many medicines they try or doctors they visit,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those living with anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental illnesses that make daily life difficult and wellness seem impossible,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For families currently risking their lives to flee war-stricken cities in fear and leaving behind their homes, possessions, and all they know,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who have no safe place to gather and worship this holiday season,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who have recently arrived in a new city or country and feel lonely and uncertain about the future,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who are struggling to obtain even basic necessities – clean water, a home, food, clothing, warmth,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who have experienced trauma and are still processing the experience,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who are worn down and deeply discouraged by injustice, prejudice, hatred, and malice,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who are tired, weary, overworked, and worn out,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who carry long-held hopes and dreams deep in their hearts but have not yet seen them fulfilled,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For those who feel fearful looking ahead at the new year and what it may bring,
Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

For the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only of the Father, full of grace and truth. Lord, we both remember and look ahead praying: Come, Emmanuel, be with us.

Arrival

I tumble into bed after a long day (week? year?). I reach for the book even though I am more ready for sleep than for inspiration but I am in the middle of an experiment and I would hate to mess up the consistent streak and have to start all over again. So will (determination? stubbornness?) wins out over desire (healthy emotional boundaries? self-care?) and through squinting, tired eyes I read:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
(St. John)

Even through my exhausted haze, the symmetry of this passage quietly thrills me as it does every time I read it. The writer’s allusions to nature, ancient literature and symbols, Greek and Hebrew philosophy, cosmic forces, and the cyclical nature of time (among other things) are all so unpretentiously condensed into one poetic paragraph explaining the mystery of incarnation. I sigh contentedly in my sleepy contemplation and find a moment for pure wonder before nodding off.

***

I can feel my soul struggling like a runner in the last miles of a marathon. I am tired and I admit to being tired. I am not entirely sure where the finish line is for this leg of the race. But I am also aware that I need to do all I can to just keep going. And I hope with the deepest hope I can muster that some triumph is just a few miles away.

***

I leave work and drive to my favorite independent cinema through slow evening traffic. I am being unusually spontaneous but after two weekends and most of a week of being sick in bed with a seasonal cold, I can’t just go home and go straight to bed again. I feel my soul starting to give in to the cold as well and I need a remedy stat! I’m afraid I’m still too contagious to be social so I bargain with myself that if I buy a hot tea and sit far from anyone else in the theater (which shouldn’t be difficult on a Tuesday night) then I can see a movie without further harm to myself or others.

I make it to the cinema just in time to get a hot peppermint tea and find a seat two rows from anyone else. I am expecting a visually beautiful and mildly philosophical exploration of how we view “the Other”. And the film definitely delivers that but also explores language and time and symbols and moral obligation in ways I have rarely seen film do so poetically.

I watch a woman struggle to love herself while loving her work so devotedly that she will risk her life to accomplish her assigned task. I watch her come to know herself and her people in deeper ways as she comes to know “the Other”. I watch her passion for language and communication drive her to keep working on the most difficult job she has ever been given. I watch her receive the gift of seeing her whole life with all of its joys and pains and disappointments and choose it anyway – again and again.

And in the last 5 minutes, as her story comes full circle, I cannot stop the tears flowing down my face. I sit stunned in the dark theater until the last note of the score has faded and lights come up. I walk stunned out of the theater to my car and sit in weeping silence until I feel like I can drive home. I walk silently into my room and close the door and sit in the wonder.

I am deeply grateful for the gifts that Story has given me over and over again – new perspective and understanding. Watching someone else do the deep wrestling and make the journey gives me hope and inspiration for my own journey. Watching the pieces fall into place for someone else helps me understand how the pieces are falling into place for me. I settle into a deep peace before I fall asleep.

***

On the first day of my vacation week, I have to complete a list of errands that are important but I never have time for during regular weeks. One of the tasks I am dreading the most should be straightforward – name change on my social security card – but it involves going to a government office. I know most people don’t like government offices but after a childhood spent in immigration offices in various countries, I have a near-phobia of them. I push myself through the line. I steel myself through the waiting time. I will myself to slide the papers across the desk and answer the bureaucracy as politely but succinctly as possible. I am so caught up in just making it through the ordeal that I almost miss the parting words of the administrator. They are words I have been desperately hoping to hear for almost three years. But never in my wildest imaginings did I ever expect them to come from a government employee behind a cubicle divider.

“You are restored.”

I blink twice and my jaw drops. I stammer a “thank you” when I understand that he means my legal name has been restored. But I walk out of the government office with my heart beating a little faster and my step a little faster.

***

Advent. (n. Old English, from Latin adventus ‘arrival,’ from advenire, from ad- ‘to’ + venire ‘come.’)

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year. Like all things new, it marks a renewed hope for what is to come. Every year we remind ourselves of the Word that was here from the beginning but that we are also waiting for. That which we hope for but have also already received. That which we know is within our grasp but we are also running toward.

“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
(Adolphe Adam)

Do Hard Things

I don’t like to admit it but this time of year is hard for me. There are layers and layers of memories stacked on top of each other like pancakes. Some are crisp and clear. Some are indistinct and mushy. Some are so sweet and lovely and some leave a bad taste in my mouth. Some of the dearest and some of the most painful memories of my life are all crammed into about 8 weeks on the calendar.

This time of year,

8 years ago I was falling love with the man I would eventually marry. It was lovely and magical and unexpected and everything I could have dreamed and more. It felt like the best gift I had ever been given.

7 years ago we got engaged on the weekend between Thanksgiving and my birthday. We were both so happy and excited for the future that we couldn’t stop glowing for days.

6 years ago we celebrated our first married Thanksgiving by inviting a bunch of people over and cooking our first turkey. We planned to make it a tradition and host Thanksgiving as often as possible for as many as our home could hold.

3 years ago my then-husband began the process of leaving me though I was unaware until several months later and even now I don’t really know all that transpired in those months. I was not part of the decisions being made about my life. All I knew at the time was that everything felt strange and confusing and out-of-place.

2 years ago I had the hardest conversation of my life and agreed to my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s terms of divorce. I cried and prayed for days before we met not knowing how else to prepare for a conversation like that. But then when we finally spoke, I felt the deepest peace.

1 year ago our divorce was finalized on the day of our engagement anniversary. I felt immense relief and freedom but also so much loss and grief. I felt drained of everything that had come before but hopeful and expectant for whatever would come next.

It is overwhelming to process all of these memories that fall within the same couple of months. Our first date was the night of the first presidential debate in 2008 and the air feels familiar. The time the sun goes down each day is the same as the year our life began to unravel. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and my birthday is a week later. I look forward to the celebrations but also dread the residual grief.

This time of year rolls around and my heart and spirit feel weak and kind of fragile. I look for opportunities to create new, happy memories. I try to be gentler with myself. I lower my expectations for what I can accomplish because I know my soul is working hard to keep processing and healing.

But if I’m honest with myself, I just want to have it all resolved. I want to have all the whys answered and all the details clear so I do not have to keep processing complicated grief. I want good and bad memories in separate tidy baskets when most of life does not actually sort that way. I want things to be black and white but they are often truer in gray. I am learning to be comfortable with uncertain but it is hard to do.

When I am ready to just throw up my hands and give up, I remember the words a dear friend repeats often, “You are doing hard things. It is so important to do hard things. Hard things can sometimes take a lifetime but they are still worth doing.”

I know we are all doing hard things – processing complicated feelings, loving those who are difficult to love, taking good care of ourselves and our people, reaching out with empathy and understanding to those we don’t agree with, grieving, hoping, and trying to continue moving into greater wholeness. It’s difficult. The road is often hazy and unclear.

But keep going – doing hard things is worth it. And it’s so important.

Complicated Gratefulness

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I am standing on top of 2,500-year-old temple ruins in southern Mexico and my breath catches in my throat. I look out over the green grass and the rocks and the perfectly blue sky with a smattering of clouds and as happens so often when I see something unspeakably beautiful, I can feel tears welling up in my eyes. The moment is so brief but holy and lyrics of a Gungor song come to mind:

I see it all like a hymn
The constant refrain of the echo and change
And all is beautiful

There is no giving without any taking
There’s no love without any loss
Everything everyone building and breaking
Oh I see the grace of it all
All is beautiful

I did not travel here on some spiritual pilgrimage or even a vacation. I am actually here for work and we took an hour break from panels and screenings and receptions (not to mention the mountain of emails that need attention) to see a bit of the city we are visiting. And it is in that seemingly mundane situation that I remember again how incredibly fortunate I am to do what I do for a living.

You see, my job (like every job) has monotonous tasks and lots of hours in front of a computer screen and sometimes working through weekends and tedious things that just have to be done however unexciting it is to do them. But it has also taken me all over the world and allowed me to meet artists in cities whose names I had never even heard before. It is rewarding and fulfilling and I know how rare that is and I do not take that privilege lightly.

At the same time, I am keenly aware that the only reason I can do this job is because I don’t have young children. And because I don’t have a spouse or even a serious partner, picking up and jetting off to another country or city for a week is something I can do easily. When I started this job, I had a spouse and we were talking about children in a couple years once we felt more settled in our careers.

Sometimes I think about those plans and how differently my life has turned out. I think about how many places I would not have gone, how many amazing experiences I would not have had, how many fascinating people I would not have met. And I feel this complicated gratefulness. Grateful for the the really unique experiences. Grateful for the openness and freedom that permeates my life but also sometimes grieving the seeming stability and clearer future of the life I had planned.

I look at my friends who have laid aside or taken less demanding jobs so they can spend time with their babies and honestly, sometimes I feel a little jealous. They are watching a little person learn to walk or teaching her new words or hearing him giggle when he discovers sand for the first time. From talking with them, I know they keenly feel the privilege of what they get to do as well. I also know there is a complicated gratefulness for them as well. Grateful for their children. Grateful for the time to spend raising them but also sometimes missing the personal fulfillment that comes with more free time and a more results-oriented job.

Complicated gratefulness–it almost feels inherently ungrateful to even mention the difficult parts of what we are grateful for. To mention the sacrifices that come with the blessings. To sit in the tension of having something really wonderful but also aware that it is still not what you truly desire. I wonder if those things we are grateful for that are complicated are where we actually learn what gratefulness is.

We are thankful for our warm houses but also aware how much work it takes to pay the rent or mortgage. We are thankful for our families but also aware of the brokenness that even the best families experience. We are thankful for our friends but also aware that our friends have gossiped or been petty or forgotten to invite us to a birthday party.

That we can still be grateful for these gifts even while acknowledging the difficulties or hardships that come with them is incredibly beautiful to me. It feels richer and deeper than only being grateful for the simple or easy things. It feels both more honest and more gracious to look at the world as it really is and be thankful for the gifts while also acknowledging the hardship or pain that can accompany them.