22

Wednesday

de(tales): the list

Jason and I met at the Festival of Faith and Writing in April. He very graciously invited me to come and speak about writing to his students in Colorado this past weekend, and in a stroke of crazy timing, his de(tale) just happened to coincide with my trip. I spent this weekend with Jason and his wife. It was lovely to get to know him better and get a peek into his world. 

I hope you enjoy his de(tale), today. 

de(tales): the list

It’s tough to portray with complete accuracy just how much swearing was frowned upon during my childhood. Our pastor at First Baptist Church, my schoolteachers at First Baptist Elementary, my friends’ parents, my own parents—everyone in our small, stringent subset of rural fundamentalist Christianity decried it as the Devil’s language and vigilantly avoided it. My earliest memory of curse words involves my elementary school principle delivering a school-wide lecture on the topic when I was in first grade. He said a few words like “damn” and “hell” and explained that he was only saying them so that we would know exactly which words we should always avoid using. Fast forward a few years, and my fifth-grade teacher was taking time during our afternoon Bible lesson to explain how we should always avoid words like “darn” and “heck” because they were what he called “euphemisms,” a term none of us understood until he explained that it meant a softer way of saying the same exact thing. Christians didn’t use these words, he and every other adult told us. Only non-believers did.

The most hallowed of all words was the Lord’s name. We all knew the commandment by heart—“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The Elizabethan English in the King James Bible—the only Bible we were allowed to use—gave the command extra weight, and the combination of the command itself and the formality of the language used to convey it made me tremble at the prospect of speaking it—or even the euphemism for it—in even the most indirect or unintentional way. I remember lying in bed at night, terrified that I would accidentally think of a time I’d heard a character on television say it, worrying that my mere thought of someone else’s utterance, the words momentarily crossing my mind, would be offensive enough for the Almighty to immediately mete out a swift and terrible judgment.

The crusade against cursing didn’t stop when I got older, either. When I was in my teens, some of my parents’ church friends gifted us a “Curse Free TV” box. They explained how, by hooking it up to our VCR, we could filter out the cursing in whatever movie we watched. Unfortunately for its self-censoring users, instead of allowing them to avoid the swearing in Hollywood’s latest offerings, it only ended up highlighting each instance of a “dirty” word by muting the sound and displaying an often-nonsensical replacement word or phrase via closed captioning. “Wow you!” popped up a lot during R-rated films.

Somehow, despite the deep-seated resistance to all things First Baptist I’d developed by high school, this idea—a set of forbidden words, written in stone somewhere, should be avoided at all costs—managed to burrow into my psyche and take up a more or less permanent residence. By the time I left for college, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d cursed. Even during my first couple of years away from home, I avoided not only swearing but also people who did.

But then something happened. It’s difficult to say exactly when, but somewhere along the line, I started to realize that this crusade, so tirelessly led by almost everyone I’d known growing up, was a years-long exercise in missing the point, the promotion of a mindset devoid of understanding rhetorical contexts or even basic motives behind speech. I should have caught it earlier, how it functioned as a microcosm of their overarching beliefs. Polish up the outside, the health of the heart be damned.

Now, many years removed from those influences, I must admit that I sometimes swear like a sailor, skipping over the small-bore ammunition and going straight for the heavy artillery. Not often, and not in front of people whom I know I might offend, but I do—at myself, at left-lane slowpokes during my daily commute, at my wife in the midst of an argument (although I’ve recently managed to cut that out). I’m not proud of it, but I also no longer feel the deep-seated sense of shame that First Baptist’s authority figures wanted me to feel over using “bad” words. I suppose I’ve fallen somewhere in between—a place I plan to stay.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. I still do not—cannot—take the Lord’s name in vain. Not even the euphemism.

Jason A. Ney works as an English professor at Colorado Christian University. He is married to a wonderful woman and has a dog. He is not on Twitter.

You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.

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20

Monday

Slow Leak

Slow Leak

As a culture, we tell stories about single people, women in particular. Who among us has not heard cracks about crazy cat ladies, who, when living in New York, may die alone, undiscovered until the smell drifts into the hall, alerting not the neighbors, but the police, or building management.

I have long thought that it would be much worse to die with cats than alone.

I have been part of telling these stories over myself. One of my co-workers has been known to add “and you’re going to die alone, we know,” to the end of one of the dramatic statements I have been known to make.

Even though I don’t believe that these stereotypical comments are reflective of reality, it’s hard to get away from them, even in my own mind. I am frequently thankful for my cat allergy, which has permanently silenced those who have asked when I will start collecting cats.

Even though I am pleasantly placed in an interesting career, a cozy home and many meaningful relationships, in short, a lovely life, I find myself bemoaning my singleness far more often than I would like.

I don’t want to deny my desire for romance and companionship. But there is a difference, for me, between acknowledging my hopes and discounting the beauty and richness of my life now.

These are not “starter blessings.”

Last Friday, I was plopped into the middle of a stereotype.

I was getting ready to leave work after a busy week, trying to tie up loose ends to allow me to take Monday off (as this post wings it’s way into the world, I am in Colorado, speaking to English majors about writing).

A co-worker came back into the office, shortly after leaving, to tell me that one of my tires was flat. I went out to inspect it, not wanting to believe it, and walked back inside to call my mom.

She suggested that I head to a gas station for a little air, before making my slow way to nearby Costco for a good look.

When I was in driver’s ed, we had to learn how to change a tire. An older friend, likely about the age I am now, helped me to go through the motions. Quite a few years have passed since then and I have no real memory of that time, other than relief that the requirement was at an end.

I have kept the roadside assistance on my insurance plan current.

I pulled up to the gas station and reluctantly put four quarters into the machine to start the air flowing. The picture on the front assured me that part of my money was going to help hungry children.

It was raining.
I struggled with the hose, unable to get much air into my tire. When it didn’t seem so dangerously low, I capped the valve and began my journey to Costco.

The temptation was there, of course, to start crying on the way. Here I was in the situation I’d laughed about so many times before. I was the single girl with the flat tire, driving through the rain, wishing for rescue.

I had an event to get to that evening. I would likely be late.

There is no shame in tears, I know, but something in me hardened and clicked into place. I would not be that stereotypical single woman, I told myself. This would be all right. This was not too much.

I began to unclench my fingers from the steering wheel.

I arrived at Costco and handed over my keys. I started to wander around the warehouse, picking up beautifully illustrated copies of Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. Christmas was in the air and the gifts were out in full force.

Soon, I was summoned back to the tire center. “What was the problem?” I asked, thankful that I hadn’t needed a whole new tire.

“The valve was leaking,” the mechanic told me. “We replaced it for you.”

I drove home, on four full tires, thinking of the tears I didn’t cry and the hope I sometimes struggle to keep alive. It’s amazing how often valves begin to leak.

{photo credit}

17

Friday

Dance Steps of Faith

Virginia and I at her 100th birthday celebration.

Virginia and I at her 100th birthday celebration

Early this year I wrote a bit about my friend Virginia. She and I talked for a while about her experiences as a single woman over the course of her one hundred and two years. In some ways, I remember feeling a little guilty even bringing it up. We are talking about an amazing woman, a writer of books, a teacher and nutritionist. She spent her years doing interesting and exciting things, and making meaningful connections with people. In many ways, she is the sort of woman I want to be when I grow up.

Some of you may remember that piece, After Church. Even though I was nervous to ask, knowing how full and rich Virginia’s life had been, she did not respond with only the sunshine. She was honest with me about the complexities of life as a single woman, and specifically as a single woman of faith. Her words about after church, a time of loneliness for her, since many people went home to their families, stuck with me, echoing in my ears.

A few weeks ago, I went to visit Virginia. She was no longer able to be at home, and they were saying that the end was near. I wanted to make sure I got to say a few things, even though I’ve said them before.

She was asleep when I arrived, and I took a moment to reflect. I thought about her 100th birthday party, so many people gathered in one place. I went on a first date with my last boyfriend that day and she confused him for a member of the maintenance team when he came to pick me up (as the relationship unfolded and shriveled, I’ve come to love that story).

I had asked her if she would mind me writing about our conversation and she’d agreed, though she didn’t know that anyone would find it of interest.

But that piece hit a nerve.

I told her about it, the next time I saw her. She was pleased, and yes, surprised.

She was engaged in her 70s, and when I saw her last, she was still wearing the diamond. Whenever anyone asked about it, she would tell us that it was a sad story. Sometimes, she would tell it. When most people tell me that I’m young and I have plenty of time, I don’t appreciate it. Somehow, it was different coming from Virginia.

It struck me, on this visit, as I sat in a chair near her bed, that it was Sunday, after church. Here we were, two single women, spending the afternoon together, neither one of us alone.

When she woke, we talked. It was hard to see a woman who had been so independent, confined to a bed, so in need of assistance. Still, she wanted to know how I was, asking after the intimate details of my life.

I’ve been richly blessed with people in my life. More than that, I’ve been blessed with strong, insightful, brave, and faithful women. It is hard to pick among them, when I think of my heroines in the faith. Sometimes, I single them out, one by one. It is good to remember.

Virginia passed away this week. That Sunday, after church, was the last time I saw her. I got to tell her I loved her, and even as she slept, I whispered some thanks and shed some tears.

Virginia showed me a lot of things in the time that I had with her. She modeled a gracious spirit, and true hospitality. She reminded me that I am stronger than I think.

But most of all, she danced the steps of faith in front of me. I loved to listen to her pray out loud, talking to her Friend. She loved Jesus and she leaned heavily on Him, even as she resisted leaning too hard on anyone else.

Sometimes, the future seems daunting. And although death is unknown, it is the life that really concerns me sometimes. So much is obscured and untested.

Once, I asked Virginia how she’d approached her singleness, as well as the rest of her life. “I just did the next thing,” she said. “And then I did the next thing after that.” Those words, too, have rung in my ears.

It’s hard to believe she’s gone. I half expect to turn a corner and see her standing there, bright lipstick and all. I suppose, one day, I’ll do just that.

This blog post is part of Michelle DeRusha’s #MyFaithHeroine contest, in connection with the release of the book 50 Women Every Christian Should Know. Find out how to participate here.

15

Wednesday

de(tales): pencil

Kelli Woodford and I met at the Festival of Faith and Writing this April. There are those people I feel I’ve known for a long time when I meet them, people who carry an ease of conversation and comfort about them. Kelli is just such a person. We stayed up talking long into the night, sharing honest, hard, and beautiful  things.
Her writing is fluid and poetic, always asking me to think a little differently. 
I’m thrilled to share her de(tale) with you, today. 
de(tales): pencil
I frowned at the rain. And it seemed to frown back. The toddler at my side – who had demanded he do it BY HIMSELF – struggled to get his arms in a hoodie, finally erupting into a wail that would wake the dead. Sigh. It was going to be one of those days. I could feel it.

We pitter pattered across the wet grass toward the waiting van. When he was securely buckled into his car seat, I began to dig in my cavernous purse for the keys. What presented itself to me first, though, was the sticky remains of a lollipop – half-wrapped and half-sucked. I tried to wipe my hands on the seat, but gumminess has a way of laughing in your face, of course. Especially in the rain. When you can’t find your keys.

I went back in for a second dig, this time with renewed ambition. The search resulted in something long and thin – what could that be? Curiosity had me. I pulled out a white pencil. Turning it over in my hand, the words were as clear as the purple ink with which they had been written: WE ARE PROUD OF YOU.

And it all came back without warning, spinning me softly into nostagia’s lap. We had been sitting in church when I first laid eyes on this pencil. It was one of those late August days when the flies stick and the wooden door swells so much it won’t shut right to keep them out. I had felt brave that morning, as I recall it, and had shown up at church with all seven kids in tow by myself. We sang, we read, we listened. It was a typical service.

Until.

Halfway through her children’s lesson, our pastor pulled out a handful of these lovely white pencils. She asked the children what would be starting soon and waited for one of my precocious ones to pipe up appropriately: SCHOOL! Which, of course, they did.

She handed the pencils to an older child to pass out and then continued talking: “I’m going to speak for the congregation here, but we want you to have this pencil to remind you of something. When you are at school, we hope you know that you are so very loved by every person in this room. That if you need something – anything – we want to be there for you. See, you’re part of us in a way that we can’t really explain, and we like it that way. When we know you’re in that building down the street, learning your multiplication facts or studying the anatomy of a toad, we are thinking of you – we are connected to you. And that connection brings us a lot of joy. So when school starts this week and you take this pencil to school, we hope you’ll remember that there are a whole lot of people who make up the local Body of Christ who love you, who pray for you, and who are proud of you. And we hope that will give you joy, too.”

My children each turned their shiny new pencil over in their hands. I, meanwhile, worked hard not to show the shiny tears that had been streaming down my cheeks at her every word. You see, not so long ago we were surrounded by people who did not understand the importance of this message to my children’s hearts. I imagine if pencils were given out in our former scenario, they would have said not WE ARE PROUD OF YOU, but rather MAKE US PROUD OF YOU.

And friends? There’s all the difference in the world between the two.

Children who grow up trying to prove their worthiness are starting at a disadvantage. They hustle through their days, eyes fixed on the ones withholding acceptance, wondering if they are enough yet. Often, they become adults who have finely tuned the habit of measuring themselves – chronically assessing and re-assessing their every move – for a lifetime. Self-consciousness, insecurity, and a critical spirit are usually not far behind. And this is a tragedy.

Because God doesn’t love us like that.

God doesn’t withhold love from us because we fail or falter or any manner of catastrophe. The love of the Creator is constant. It doesn’t demand “make me proud of you” as much as it offers itself unabashed.

That day in the van in the rain, I allowed myself to feel all the feels of this encounter. My eyes welled up with gratitude for the path we had traveled and the place in which we now find ourselves: surrounded by cornfields and grace. There and then, my heart resolved anew to be a voice of acceptance, of belonging, of sufficiency for those around me. To quell the anxiety of the hustle and calm the uncertainty of past woundedness. To bring a gentle “Yes” into the life of every little (AND BIG) boy and girl who crosses my path asking “Am I enough yet? … Are you proud of me? … Am I safe here?”

Aren’t those the questions that so many of us are asking when it comes right down to it?

To speak this powerful YES into the ravenous void is the work of a healer. Of a reconciler. It is the work of apeacemaker. One who proclaims the peace that already stands between God and man and welcomes others to make themselves at home in the fact of their ridiculous belovedness.

That, friends, is a good place from which to start. Whether it be a school year or a life.

My three year old crunched on his apple from the backseat. I snapped out of my nostalgia and turned around, looking deep into his impressionable almond-shaped eyes. Then, slowly, I swiveled back toward the front. Through my tears I smiled at the rain. And I can’t be sure, but I think it smiled back.

IMG_20141009_112731I live in the midwest, surrounded by cornfields and love, with my husband and seven blue-eyed children. We laugh, we play, we fight, we mend; but we don’t do anything that even slightly resembles quiet. Unless it’s listening to our lives, which has proved to be the biggest challenge of them all. You can find me writing somewhat regularly at my personal blog or hanging out on facebookinstagram, or twitter.

You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.

13

Monday

Hope For Beginners

Hope For Beginners

Now, when I offer a friend a drink and she refuses, I begin to wonder if she is pregnant. It is an intimate thing, and so I hang back from asking, at first. These are the women who have worried, not over when or why, but with if. There have been miscarriages and diagnoses and complications.

For some, there are children, or a child, already. They have seen the miracle of life created in the womb. Some of them have confided that they feel a little guilty hoping to see that miracle again.

I like to carry hope for people. It is often so much lighter than carrying my own. It is easy for me to imagine that it will not be disappointed, not for this person that I love.

It is easier than to suppose that my hope will come to fruition as well.
I spent yesterday morning unexpectedly in an evangelical church, not unlike the ones of my youth. I swayed in a darkened room on a bright, sunny day, and sung some of the words. My mind would not stop whirring.

Perhaps distance is always needed before clarity can dawn. Perhaps the time and space has been enough at last, but I saw and heard something in those prayers and songs and words of explanation that I’d heard often but never questioned.
We sang, and I was struck by words I’d always belted without a second thought, sometimes in consecutive songs. “I’m nothing without you.”

It’s true enough, as things go, I suppose. But the problem for me is that it’s entirely hypothetical. I stop singing, and the words of Psalm 139 float into my conscious thought as I begin to cry.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.

I may be nothing without God, but where would I go to be without God?

The musicians pray for strength to reach, and for Jesus to come into each corner of our lives. They pray as though He is not already there.

At my core, I am still trying to prove myself. I am still trying to do my part so that my hopes will not be disappointed. I will hold up my end of the yoke, if it kills me.

It’s easy for me to get so caught up in all of the tribulation (the things that I weather and traverse) leading to hope in Romans that I easily miss the reason that hope does not disappoint: it’s because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:1-5).

Now, I can see that these statements don’t match the Jesus that I have come to know. They are close, so close, but they do not tell of the grace and true love. They don’t tell the full story of Who it is that does the reaching.

I may hold the hopes of friends and loved ones, but I am not the only one who does so. I have longed believed that it is God who opens and closes wombs in times and for reasons that I don’t understand. When I watch a friend waiting and hoping for a baby who has not yet come, I don’t assume that the baby will never come. I don’t assume that my friend will receive some sort of cosmic consolation prize. I wait and I watch and I pray. I anticipate.

Sometimes, when I think about my singleness, and my hope of being married, I think exactly the opposite. Yesterday morning in church, I couldn’t help but think about the patterns of my youth which haunt and inform my theology. How I want my theology to be a static and unchanging thing, never needing revision (at least, the part of me that loves to be right, wants that). But, another part of me remembers that the word itself means “study of God” at the roots, and I realize that it will always change and shift. I will never know the whole.

I have held tightly to a theology of scarcity in my life, forgetting completely about those cattle on thousands of hills. I have forgotten about the people that God brings and calls and grows. Like Elijah in the wilderness, after the slaughter of the prophets of Baal, I have said aloud that I am the only one left.

I have continued to start from a deficit that doesn’t exist.

I have chosen to sing about being nothing, wondering if God could ever forgive and welcome me, when all of that has been done, settled and made right.

I am missing the party.

I’m sure much of what gave me the eyes to see yesterday, was my new church. In that place, often filled with light from the lovely open windows, I never feel less than. I am welcome and loved. I belong.

The task of God’s people has always been to hope and rejoice at the same time. We look forward to wondrous things, and we thank God for what already is. I want this to flood my view of singleness and longing for marriage.

I don’t want to minimize the pain and the difficulty of this part of my life, but I also don’t want to obscure the blessing that comes from each one of those thousand hills.

And when I pray, which I do, some mornings in my car, with the radio off and tears in my eyes, about singleness and the cocktail of emotion that comes along with it, changing recipe from day to day, I want to pray from a place of safety, knowing that my hope is safe, suspended in Love.

10

Friday

On Bikinis and Looking At Water

On Bikinis and Looking at Water

A couple of weeks ago, as I was catching up on Sarah Bessey’s blog, I read two posts both set around water. Maybe you read them, too? One was about going near it and just giving yourself time to be, the other was about spending some time with women who wore bikinis without apologizing for their bodies.

This is why I found myself stepping into the bikini I had purchased this summer, and then leggings and a long sweater. I packed a beach towel and a book, and a yellow pad. A friend and I drove to nearby Liberty Lake, which was practically deserted on that late September day, hot as it was.

They had pulled the docks out the water and we set up camp on top of them. The sky was brilliantly, daringly blue, and the sun seemed unaware that it was fall.

I stepped out of my clothes and waded into the water.

It’s been challenging for me to be sweet and gentle to my body lately. While I used to feel fairly confident, lately I’m not so sure. I look askance at my hips and my tummy, even though I don’t want to. Even though I know that I deserve better.

I was intentional about buying a bikini this summer (and eating some french fries before I did so, to get an accurate idea of what it would look like). I spent a wonderful evening suspended in a lake, feeling free and delighted.

But then, someone took a picture and I couldn’t stop looking at it. Is that really what I look like? 

I’m learning that, as it is with other people, love for myself is a choice. I will not always have a smooth relationship with me, but I want to keep working at it. I want to accept myself as I am.

As my friend and I stand, calf-deep, in the water, a young couple wanders down to the waterfront. She is wearing a sweater, jeans and boots and looks at me as if I am lost, as if I may be leftover from another season.

She must be hot in those clothes, I think, as the sun warms the back of my neck and the tip of my nose.

After a while in the water, I lie down on my towel. I have brought a book and other things to do, but I don’t do any of it. Instead, I think about the way the sun feels, and how much I like the whispers of breeze that cool my back. I watch the water as it sparkles and laps at the shore: constant, but always changing.

I close my eyes, and I am satisfied.

8

Wednesday

de(tales): potluck suppers

Liv is one of my truest friends, and also my pastor. My time talking and praying with her has been among the strongest tools that the Holy Spirit has used to heal some of the wounds of churches past. She constantly challenges me to think a different way (usually with more room and more grace), and she always has a warm hug and a wink for me. If you’ve been here long, you may already know her, a little, she’s made it into my posts here and there.

I’m so happy to share her de(tale) with you today.

Enjoy, friends. 

de(tales): potluck supper

Barley and kale salad. Blueberry crumble. Black bean chili with red onion salsa. Cornbread.

Not surprisingly, there are good potluck suppers and bad potluck suppers. As a Lutheran pastor, raised in the church, I am adept at telling the difference. It may not be what you think.

I grew up in a large, wealthy, suburban church. My rosy memories of childhood there include potlucks where my Dad joined a throng of women bringing thoughtful, creative dishes to share, offered up in a warm and sincere manner with accompanying serving spoon on a big buffet table. When I chat with my parents these days, I hear a different story. No one cooks anymore, my Dad moans. Instead they swing through Whole Foods and grab designer potato salad or a roasted chicken. “Don’t get me wrong, everything tastes fine,” he explains. “But you can just tell. People don’t care.”

My Dad is a rarity in this scenario. A male who loves spending time in the kitchen, he carries a now-old-fashioned notion of care connected to food and feeding. Old-fashioned, and I would say gospel-centered. Others are pressured by busy lives or assumed standards and decline the work of cooking for a church potluck. This breaks my dear Dad’s heart.

Years after leaving the large church in the suburbs, I worshiped at a small urban church on Chicago’s far north side. It was affiliated with the Mennonite tradition, and it was there I got schooled on the true goodness of the potluck supper. Even as a Lutheran.

Wednesday nights the people gathered. Warm chafing dishes brimmed with baked veggies in rice. Chipped pottery bowls held fresh fruit. Someone made weak lemonade. On Wednesdays, this neighborhood corner became casserole row.

One night, Ray, an expert gleaner (he spent a lot of time finding treasures in corporate dumpsters), came to potluck bearing guacamole. A big bowl of it. “Guacamole!” The excited cry went up. One by one, we scooped the green goodness onto our plates, grabbed some chips and gave it a taste. Then looks passed around the room. Raised eyebrows, puckered mouths. “Ray, what did you put in this?” The explanation came: “Seventeen limes. Y’know, to keep it green.”

Whole Foods, while helpful in many ways, would never sell you guacamole made with the juice of seventeen limes. It also can’t sell you that great story, that potent memory. It can’t package the puckered faces laughing through the grimaces. Certainly it cannot sell you a relationship with Ray. That’s the special glory of a good potluck.

In the congregation I now serve, those limited by access and skill bring pre-made potato salad or chips to a potluck. Others bring soups and casseroles baked at home, with ingredients from their masterfully tended garden. And we eat with delight. The wide welcome, the sharing, and the magic that somehow every time we gather there is more than enough: this makes a potluck good. Humble yet glorious, it is a feast in which the hidden face of God is made visible, embodied. It’s the body of Christ in green guacamole and homemade bread. O taste and see.

LivLiv Larson Andrews is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in the West Central neighborhood of Spokane, Washington. She lives with her husband and young son, and dreams of hosting the first lectionary-based cooking show.

You can read more of Liv’s words on her blog for Spokane Faith and Values.

You can check out the other de(tales) (so far) here.

{photo credit}

6

Monday

Making Peace With My Mental Illness

Making Peace With My Mental Illness

The term “mental illness” has always scared me. When I heard it, I found myself thinking of instability and madness. I could picture a sick brain.

I did everything I could to distance myself from the mentally ill. I didn’t want to take the chance that it might be contagious.

Several years ago, in college, I studied abroad in the UK for a month. I was wildly homesick, and had no control over my schedule. In spite of the fascinating surroundings, I found myself slipping, slowly, into despair. There are specific people who were in my life during that time that I loved. There were times, on that trip, when my love for those people was the only thing stopping me from walking out in front of a bus.

Of course, no one on the trip knew anything about how I was feeling. I didn’t have any friends with me, and I pride myself on appearing unruffled, no matter what I’m feeling inside.

I am the queen of keeping it together.

I guess I thought that if I could act like everything was fine, then I couldn’t be mentally ill. I was trying to protect myself from mental illness by cutting myself off from the only help I might receive.

I returned home from the UK, and the weeks that followed were filled with stressful circumstances: a roommate situation gone wrong, a dead computer, an ending relationship. I began to experience panic-attacks.

I’m not sure what it was that got me to turn a corner, but things began to get better. I sighed with relief.

In the summer of 2013, depression crept up on me (though we didn’t call it depression at the time). I would drive to an empty parking lot on my lunch breaks at work and cry as if my heart would break before mopping myself up and returning to work, all smiles. I began to think of ways to avoid work. Perhaps I could get into a car accident, or get pregnant and quit. When I started to let my mind linger on the steak knives in the office kitchen, I began to panic.

It’s almost like there’s a mechanism deep within me that has to be disabled before I can fall apart. It’s tough to find that lever, but when I do, I’m flat as a pancake, utterly incapable of making a decision or moving toward help.

I found that lever in a church small group, and as I confessed all of the terrifying thoughts in my head, I saw only support reflected in the faces around me. Those people helped me take the first steps toward therapy and identifying a vitamin D deficiency (which certainly contributed), as well as helped me see that I could quit my job, no excuses needed.

I began to walk through the steps of changing my circumstances, and then I dutifully went to therapy.

I’ve written before about my first therapist and her thoughts on my desire not to have children. What I didn’t tell you was that on my first appointment, I sat down and told her my story, trying not to leave anything out. I anxiously awaited her verdict.

“I don’t think you’re depressed,” she said. “I think that now that these circumstances have passed, these feelings will go away.”

It was exactly what I wanted to hear.

I was not mentally ill.

The only problem was that it wasn’t true.

After that experience, I found myself dipping below the surface about once a month. Anything might set me off: a holiday weekend spent alone, a friend getting married, the cancellation of a planned outing. Although I didn’t experience suicidal feelings again, I found myself hopeless during those times, trying to hunker down and weather the storm, hoping that it lasted just a few days.

I had friends that I could call upon during the hardest times, people who would pray and swear with me and sit in the pain (or numbness) with me. Those friendships are forged in a fire unlike anything else.

Even in those times, it was hard to reach out. There is something hard-wired into me that tries to tell me that nothing is wrong as long as I can keep a smile on my face. My first attempts were always feeble and so much less than urgent. A sample text might say: “Are you free at all this weekend?” I was always afraid that if I told people what was really going on, they wouldn’t come (and that they might never come again).

After many months of this recurring, I finally made an appointment with another therapist, with a trembling hand.

I was so worried that this one would be like the last one, but I had to try. I couldn’t keep living from one horrible few days to the next, not if there was hope to be had.

I grilled her on that first visit, and she was patient. I’ve been seeing her for several months now, and she is nothing like my first therapist. She has given me hope for the future (and the present).

She’s also given me a pending diagnosis (pending in that these things have to occur for a certain amount of time before they are definite). She thinks I have dysthymia, a type of depression that affects a huge number of people (I had never heard of it). The symptoms are not as severe as that of major depression, but dysthymia can often be triggered by an episode of major depression (which is what we think happened in my case). While you may feel better much of the time, a person with dysthymia rarely escapes all symptoms for more than two months.

Since getting some clarity about what was going on with my mental health, I’m surprised by how much better I feel. The fear that I had harbored for my entire life had come true: I am mentally ill. But that admission is allowing me to be more supported than I’ve ever been. Instead of a life-sentence, I’ve found that embracing this truth is life-giving.

My friend Rachel suggests in her book, Eat With Joy, that everyone has an eating disorder. I’ve taken that to heart, trying to understand my relationship with food and the different ways in which it is disordered in different seasons.

In the same way, I’m beginning to think that everyone is mentally ill. We might not all have a diagnosis, or chemical imbalance, but we all have things in our past and present experiences that sneak up on us and try to get us to believe lies. I have believed those lies for a long time.

In the end, I’m finding that the true enemy was not mental illness, but the fear of it. It was that fear that stood between me and my own humanness, between me and wholeness, and between me and other people. But now, as I begin to share my story and my feelings, even my brokenness, I’m hearing the stories of others, and I’m feeling healthier than I ever have, mental illness notwithstanding.

This post is part of the October Synchroblog: Blessed Are The Crazy. This event was prompted by the launch of Sarah Griffith Lund‘s new book — Blessed Are The Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church, and National Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 5-11). When I heard the announcement, I knew that it was time to tell you this story.

Thank you for listening.

Check out the full list of synchroblog participants below:

Sarah Griffith Lund – Stronger Together

Liz Dyer – Finding the Courage to Break the Silence

Stacy Sergent – ‪#‎BlessedAreTheCrazy‬: No Longer Protecting Secrets

Patricia Watson – Grace Amid Crazy

Glenn Hager – When Mental Illness Strikes Home

Crystal Rice – Looking Well on the Outside

Cara Strickland – Making Peace With My Mental Illness (you are here).

Jeremy Myers – A True Foot Washing Service

David Hosey – The church, the psych ward, and me: a #BlessedAreTheCrazy synchroblog-ama-watzit 

Ona Marie – Mental Illness, Family, and Church: A Synchroblog

Carol Kuniholm – A Prayer for the Broken

Susan Herman – 3 Self Care Rituals for Managing Tough Transitions

Eric Atcheson – #BlessedAreTheCrazy

Joan Peacock – “Alice in Wonderland”, a Bipolar BookGroup Discussion Guide 

Justin Steckbauer – Mental Illness, Awareness, and Jesus

Kathy Escobar – Mental Illness: 3 Sets of 3 Things

Leah Sophia – Synchroblog: Mental Illness/Health Awareness

Josh Morgan – Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health

Tara Ulrich – Breaking the Silence

Sarah Renfro – #BlessedAreTheCrazy

Steve Hayes – Blessed are the crazy: Mental illness and the Christian faith

Mindi Welton-Mitchell – Breaking the Silence: Disability, Mental Illness and the Church

Michelle Torigian – A Life of Baby Steps

Bec Cranford-Smith – a vlog

3

Friday

Martha, Misunderstood {at the Junia Project}

Martha, Misunderstood

If you’ve been around this blog long, you know that I love Martha of Bethany. There is something about her story that has captured me and I can’t stop thinking (or writing) about her.

I told you earlier this week that I was going to have the chance to guest post for The Junia Project (a community of women and men advocating for the inclusion of women at all levels of leadership in the Christian church and for mutuality in marriage). I have long respected the work that they do, and I’m beyond honored to have a piece there today.

It’s about Martha.

Please join me there, and read and follow the rest of the site, as well. You will not regret it.

Here’s how my piece starts:

I can’t imagine a world in which it would be culturally acceptable for a hostess to walk up to her guest of honor and ask him to have a word with her sister, who was not anticipating the needs of her guests with the same alacrity as the hostess (especially loudly enough for at least one eyewitness to hear and write about it). That is not the world that I live in, and it was certainly not the world that Martha of Bethany inhabited.

I’ve heard quite a number of sermons about “Mary and Martha” over the years, and they have all had the same tenor: Strive to be more like Mary and less like Martha.

Please join me at The Junia Project to read the rest.

{photo credit}

1

Wednesday

de(tales): grocery store

Saskia and I met, originally, through SheLoves and the wonderful community there. There are those people, I’ve found, who say something and make you think that they wrote it just for you. Saskia is just such a person. I had the great joy of meeting her in Maastricht and spending a beautiful sunny day getting to know her better. As a result, I now know much more than I ever thought I would about prostitution in Amsterdam, and I have gained a wonderful friend. 

I know that you will enjoy this poignant, hopeful de(tale). 

de(tales): grocery store

On (Canadian) Thanksgiving in 2011, I stood alone, crying in the grocery store here in Amsterdam.

The grocery store has always been the place where the reality of travel sinks in for me. Often when I am in a new country, it doesn’t feel real. Until the grocery store. The grocery store is where I know I am not in a familiar place.

That particular Thanksgiving, I was crying because I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. I wanted to make a beautiful meal, but everything was just so much more complicated in a different country. I had been living in Europe for less than six months and I was desperately tired of trying to figure everything out on my own.

Grocery stores have a way of doing that to me. The impersonal experience can feel so vulnerable. Especially when shopping alone. Shopping alone to eat alone. In each new country the grocery store is the place where I realize I don’t have it all together. Whether it is overwhelming me with all the options, or simply overwhelming me with the uncertainty. Some people probably find new grocery stores exhilarating, but I am a creature of food habit. I rotate between my chosen essentials because I am horribly indecisive in environments of plenty.

Take away my essentials and I am lost.

A few weeks after the big meltdown, I was in another grocery store in Amsterdam. This time with a group of friends, we had just come out of church, and we were buying food to make our dinner.

I saw a girl standing alone in front of the vegetables, and I observed her obvious confusion. She caught my eye and asked me a question. I helped her out and then continued to observe her. It was like grocery-store-overwhelmed-me all over again!

She was obviously alone and trying to decide what else to buy. I so got the feeling and my empathy just couldn’t handle it.

That is the weird thing about shopping for food. We all have to do it. But when you are a stranger in a new country, you just show up, and stand in the way, staring at all the options, thinking… Volle? Half-Volle? Biological? What the heck is knoflookboter? (It’s garlic butter by the way).

While all around you people have got their list all figured out and they know exactly what they want to buy.

So I saw this girl, and it was one of those Holy Spirit tugs. I felt like I might come across as a little creepy, but went for it anyway. I asked where she came from (France), what she was up to (school project), how long she was in Amsterdam (just arrived), and then I awkwardly invited her to come for dinner with my friends instead of eating dinner alone.

Forget this attempt at grocery shopping. We are making a nice big meal with people who know exactly what knoflook is. Come and join us.

She did, and we had a fabulous time. I think I made everyone go around and say something they were thankful for (throwback to the Canadian thanksgiving that I didn’t get to have). It was a sweet moment, where I felt community, and the joy of inviting someone else into that community.

Months later, I was in an American grocery store with my little brother and I got stuck in the syrup aisle for a good two minutes. So many different kinds of syrup in one store! Why in the world does there need to be so many syrup options!? Maybe someone can answer this for me?

 

I felt a little self-righteous in that moment, identifying more with the European grocery store then the North American one. In Europe, I have to go to five different specialty stores to get what I need, non of this one stop shopping with a million different kinds of syrup. Oh the pretentiousness of being a world traveler!

But despite that, it was when I knew I was assimilating to my new home. It reminded me, that I didn’t want to be in this American grocery, or a Canadian grocery store, I wanted to be home, in an Amsterdam grocery store, where dammit, I still can’t find anything to make a good thanksgiving meal with!

I have learned some important lessons in grocery stores. I have confronted my own loneliness, self-righteousness, and inability. I have also learned a little more about Jesus in the grocery store. He was always bumming meals from people – “Hey, I am coming to your house for dinner today.”

I guess he knew that it isn’t nice to eat all your meals alone. I guess there are times I need to be reminded of my own loneliness in order to step outside of myself and make more room for others. Being uncomfortable has allowed me to recognize that same feeling in others.

Responding on the need you see in someone else, even when it is as simple as translating a word or as complicated as addressing loneliness. That’s when Jesus is often the most real to me. When we spread our arms a little wider, saying to those unknown, come and join us. Come and share a meal, share in our thankfulness, be a part of our community.

Don’t do the grocery shopping all alone.

And p.s. if you happen to find out where to buy turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie filling in Amsterdam, share the information, I can’t face another thanksgiving meltdown.

Saskia-bio250My name is Saskia. Pronounced (sus-key-a).

Cool Fact: Saskia means “valley of light.” I have worked in the field of anti-human trafficking for the last six years, but have just given that up to become a law student. I am not organised, not a good sleeper, and not a multi-tasker, thank goodness I am a problem solver. I love my country – Canada, drinking coffee, creating beautiful things, and Cape Town (which was my home for three years). I miss the mountains, snowboarding, surfing, and all things natural as I make my way in the city of Amsterdam (my current home). I blog at Just Saskia occasionally and tweet @saskiacw.