Deep in the heart. Of Texas.

I love where I live. Love it. I love how men hold the doors and kids say, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” I love how the piney woods make me feel tucked away and safe. I love how people flock to church on Sunday and how the local Whataburger gets my picky burger order right. I quote the old joke that I wasn’t born here but I got here as fast as I could. And it’s true. Prior to moving to my beloved state, I spent three years dreaming of ways to get here. When I finally made it, I wept with the wonder of it all.

I have been a Texas resident for 19 months now. The time has, as they say, flown by. I have waited expectantly for the promises of the Lord to be fulfilled. The anticipatory hope that filled my first year has long since been sated in some ways, and retreated in others. Those prophetic words about relationship spoken over me one month after I arrived have not come to fruition. I am not married, not dating, not in love or even entertaining thoughts about some strapping bearded Jesus-loving fellow who is supposed to sweep me off my feet and whisk me away to our little cabin in the woods where love and babies and biscuits are made with the same wild abandon and we welcome people into our home and our hearts trying to be like the God we seek. In fact, I have laid all of that aside in recent months. I may never see that dream fulfilled and I have learned to accept that hard, but all too possible, truth for, quite possibly, the first time in my life.

I have not just continued in my career in higher education, but have thrived in my work. I love my kids and their questioning hearts and their ponderings and their wildness. I love how they work diligently at some things, and recklessly at others. I love the new possibilities opening up for me in my field. I love my new grad program and the excitement of adding another hard-earned degree to my wall in just 9 short months.

But if I’m honest, the good things and good gifts and good lessons carved out in these months in the place I hold dear pale dreadfully when sitting alongside the nagging loneliness that persists deep in my soul. It is no secret that I have not managed to establish a community here. I know a handful of good people, but I have made exactly one friend. One. Early on, I used to say that these Texans know how to serve full-metal jackets in slices of pie with smiles on their faces. I didn’t know how true that was until just a few months ago. That backstabbing nonsense left some deep scars. They emerged unscathed and I, with my too-thin skins and too-big heart, did not. Those days made me even more wary to establish connections.

As I told a dear, and far away, friend recently, it is not so much that I want to be praised or validated – words of affirmation do little for me. I simply do not want to be invisible. I don’t want a big group of folks, introvert that I am, but there is literally not one person here that I can call up and say, “Want to go for some coffee and good conversation? And what happens over coffee cups stays over coffee cups?” No, not one.

I drive to work and I drive home and I pore over textbooks and journal exorbitantly and write on this little blog and fret over my family and pray and sing and sometimes cry myself to sleep. I know, as I have known since that life-altering day in 2006, that we were not designed for solitary life. Community is life. The breaking of bread and sharing stories and laughing and crying and hugging and yelling and doting on babies and dreaming dreams together is life.

I’m deep in the heart of Texas and deeper still in my own heart as I try mightily to carve out sacred space for thought and connectivity with fellow travelers. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

Advertisements

Joy & Sorrow.

I have been debating for some time about writing this particular post. I wasn’t sure if anyone would read it or if it was even necessary. In the last two weeks, however, I have had two dear friends make a comment in passing that I “always look so happy on Facebook.” It is true in part. I am happy…and I’ve never thought that social media was really the appropriate place to air our woes. But I would like to dispel the myth that life is a breeze. If I’m going to be really honest and do real life and I want others to do the same with me, then I have to be honest about this: my joy goes hand in hand with my sorrow. And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would not be as well-equipped to bear the burdens of others if I did not know pain.

For starters, I am a Baptist/Wesleyan girl. And I’m 34, educated, and single. And I live in the South. My church doesn’t even have a singles group with my age group because the vast majority of them are married. So I stick out. And people say ugly things about my singleness sometimes. As though it is a lack and not an opportunity to do things I wouldn’t be able to do if I were married. I want to be married and have babies, but I’ve simply not met a good man yet. And I’m not rushing about to do it, either.

I am a Southern Baptist who also has tattoos as memorial stones to her life. I like the occasional sip of whiskey, but never drunkenness. Sometimes I curse in anger. I really love Jesus and try to seek after and serve this God that loves me and has redeemed so much of my life. I decided 20 years ago that I wanted to save my body for my husband. I loathe bars and church greeting times both. I’m too shocking for the good little church girls and too much of a prude for everyone else. So I walk this really fine line and fit in nowhere.

I try really, really hard to do right by everyone. This usually ends in abject failure. Mostly because it’s impossible. Even when I think I am doing the right thing and love the people, it blows up in my face. Words get twisted. Accusations get flung. People get hurt. It is second nature to me to walk away. Because that’s what I know to do. I’m not saying it’s right. It’s just what I do. So then I gain this reputation of being some sort of holier-than-thou aloof woman when nothing could be further from the truth. I’m actually just really sad and my heart is hurting and I’m trying to figure out how it could all go so terribly wrong. I lose a lot of friends this way.

I am a child of divorce. A really nasty, messy divorce. Adultery, drugs, and my mom losing all her parental rights kind of divorce. I became an adult at 14 during my freshman year of high school in ways I wish I didn’t know. So I don’t have a lot of patience for nonsense. Those experiences made me old before my time, hardened me for awhile, and then made me compassionate for others who know pain. I still have nightmares and fears. I hate the dark and sleeping alone and not having my back to a wall and people grabbing my shoulders from behind.

I know what it is to be mired down in the pit of depression. Now I lean more towards anxiety at times. Not always and not with any discernible trigger, but I get stupid scared when I am called out publicly and I hate attention. I despise yelling and slamming doors. I am thankful for good physicians and good friends and a good God who have seen me through all of this.

I used to be an athlete, but then I let an individual have so much control over me that I gave it up and lived in overwhelming fear and currently reside in a body that doesn’t feel like my own. I am long past all that now and slowly getting my life together and restoring what was lost. I’ll always have the scars, but it’s my body and my story and it counts for something.

I was 5 when I was saved from the pit of death and 23 when I was saved from the pit that had become my life. I see my life divided very neatly into two halves: the first, a sunset where my life dipped slowly but gradually down and down into dark; the second, a sunrise on my 23rd birthday, during which I discovered anew the love of my good God and which has dictated every day since. These days feel like a given gift because I lived the first 23 years feeling like life itself was a burden.

I care too much and have too-thin skin and a too-big heart. People tell me I shouldn’t feel so much or love everyone. I often respond that I am grateful for the feeling because there was a time in my life that I was quite numb and it was there that I learned there are things far worse than death. I make no apologies for feeling. I am who I am. Sweeping it all under the rug serves no one well. Shutting myself off isn’t kind or good. Engaging in some self-discipline, however, goes a long way. So if I talk a lot, I am really passionate about the subject and I trust you enough to share my words with you. And I will hug you a whole lot. If I don’t, I’m just not feeling it or you. If I talk, thanks for listening. I’m thankful I finally found my voice. I’m working on “finding some grace to go with my boldness,” as a dear fellow introvert friend put it the other day. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

Life has been really, really hard at times. And so dreadfully painful. Yet it is all beautiful and it is all gift. Of this, I am absolutely convinced.

The Single Adventurer.

When you’re in your mid-thirties and single, people feel the need to constantly put you in your place and give you their unsolicited two cents. And some of that feels like folks lobbing dollar coins at your head. It’s exhausting.

Some people think single is lonely and uncool and that the single woman is wandering about longing for something she doesn’t have and envious of all the marriages and babies. What a sad and uninformed perspective.

You want to know what single really is?

Single is getting to make coffee at 4:00 am and wander about the house contemplating life without worrying about waking anyone else up.

Single is binge-watching Netflix and binge-reading John Grisham novels and binge-daydreaming about road trips for the summer.

Single is knowing I only have my own underwear to fold on Saturday.

Single is not having to ask anyone else what they want from the store.

Single is wandering the aisles of Target for three hours and mentally redecorating your house without purchasing a single thing.

Single is ordering the pizza toppings I like most, and not having to share my beer.

Single is shooting guns on Saturday without having to rush home to make dinner.

Single is curling up in front of the fireplace on rainy evenings and writing five blog posts in one sitting.

Single is hiking to the crag and watching the sunrise without being interrupted.

Single is holding all the babies and getting to be the novelty aunt. And it’s fun.

Single is taking off for a hike whenever and wherever I want.

Single is not having to come up with a reasonable explanation for why all the queso is gone.

Single is leaving church on Sunday and not having to worry about getting a table at the restaurant afterward because you’re going to go home and eat leftovers and curl up with a good book.

Single is going to midnight showings of Star Wars and not complaining about being tired because it was TOTALLY worth it.

Single comes with painful reminders, particularly when filling out wedding RSVPs. Or when asked to be the 3rd or 5th or 11th wheel at a gathering.

Single is sleeping alone and having only yourself for comfort when it storms.

Single is hard. Sometimes.

Single is lovely. Most times.

Single is so often trial by fire. Some people think you have not matured or experienced responsibility until you have birthed a baby and/or walked down an aisle. But the fire that refines one individual may not be the fire that refines another. I’m only thirty-four and I was thrust painfully into adulthood some twenty years ago. Some of us get burned by fire you cannot imagine. Nor do we wish it on you.

I’ve known great loss. And I’ve known great love. My heart breaks when I see parents who don’t parent and don’t love their children. My soul hurts deep within when I watch unfaithful spouses and people who manipulate the truth to suit their own needs and feed their own images, their loves ones be damned.

I don’t know if I’ll ever marry. I don’t know if I’ll ever bear children, and I don’t think I physically will be able to even if I were to marry. I want those things, I’ve always wanted them, but I’m not looking or hoping or searching. I’m choosing to let it happen organically in a timing of the Lord’s making. And I’m choosing to dwell in singleness and explore the adventure of it. It’s not a disease. It’s kind of awesome. And I much prefer it to what I’ve seen in relationships of late.

I’m happy. I’m whole. And I’m single. Imagine that.

 

Wild women.

As I reflect on my adventures lately and how the whole of it has been not at all what I hoped in some aspects, and yet beyond my wildest dreams in others, I have been hard-pressed to remember my bloodlines. To remember the women who came before me and are long gone. To honor the wild in each of them and measure how it was passed down to me.

My paternal great-grandmother, Sylvia. By the time I knew her, she was just a slip of a woman who spent most of her days in a chair with a homemade afghan over her legs. I was little when she died and I have only one photo of her, me dirty as always and hands full of some gooey pastry and her smiling indulgently over my dark unruly curls. Long after she died, I learned that she had lived through great loss: burying children in both infancy and young childhood, burying her husband, and burying two sons in adulthood, both from cancer and one of them my grandfather. I heard a story once that when a woman in town made fun of her many children (and them desperately poor), she chased after the woman with a sack of potatoes. She was tough. She had to be, raising so many boys and military men and burying her tribe one by one. My only memories of her, though, are her smiling her long, slow, peaceful smile.

My maternal great-aunts: Gladys, Lois, Nancy, and Chris. I had the privilege of keeping vigil with them the last week of my grandmother’s life. I have never laughed harder or cried more deeply wounded than I did that week. Shared grief will do that. I don’t know their stories well, but I know they all married young and were wild as horses and were sisters in blood and heart, each of them wearing their high Cherokee cheekbones proud. They laugh like my grandmother laughed, full-bodied and whole.

My paternal grandmother, Nora. In my often chaotic childhood, she was the one constant. We didn’t always get along, in fact almost never, but I realize in adulthood that we were both incredibly stubborn and stood our ground no matter what. She had built a reputation of standing her ground, that one. She hated guns. Hated them. I never knew why (and it was something on which we strongly disagreed) until just a few weeks ago when my father shared a story of her. My grandfather was a wild man from a family full of wild men. When he got in an argument with one of his brothers and said brother pulled a gun on him, my grandmother walked straight in between them, the gun barrel resting on her forehead, and demanded they stop. She hated alcohol, too, and my father, the last and unexpected of her four children, did not grow up with alcohol in the house. I knew that my grandfather had enjoyed a sip in his day, but I also knew my grandmother’s vehement opposition to drinking of any sort. My grandfather wrecked their only car one night driving drunk. She informed him in no uncertain terms that if he were to ever do such a thing again, she would leave and take the children. He never drank again. She could do that to a person, put someone in his place and make sure he knew the consequences of his choices. As harsh as she was, she was also the woman who taught me how to make bread and enjoy coffee and watch the sunrise and revel in the beauty of playing in the dirt. She was tough, but she was a classy lady. And she ended every conversation with “God loves you…and so do I.” I miss hearing her shaky alto calling me at unholy hours to sing me happy birthday. I miss the way she would fling her hands and mutter curse words if someone called during a ballgame when her beloved KC Royals were playing. I miss the way she could fill a room without saying a word.

My maternal grandmother, Ruth. She was a spitfire in a tiny package. I have never witnessed a woman work so hard and eat so hard and laugh so hard in my life. Whatever she did, she did it with everything she had. Life, love, and faith. There were no halves in her. She raised her cows like beloved dogs and I have many memories of laying my head on their warm, soft bellies while they basked in the sun. I was never afraid of her gentle giants and I had no reason to be. She loved them and they knew it. It was the same for people: she loved or hated you and you knew it. She didn’t bother with masks or pretenses and I loved her honesty, even when it was brutal. I worked as a farmhand for her one summer in college; it was the most difficult and blessed summer of my life. I learned so much and walked away with cherished memories of a five-foot-tall firecracker.

These are the women in my blood. I see bits of them in myself and I am thankful for that from which I come. Wild women. May we be them, know them, and raise them.

 

 

Sunset.

When I celebrate my birthday on March 31st each year, it is not just celebration but gratefulness for a sunrise some eleven years ago now, seen from the shore of Hope Town, Abaco, Bahamas, a tiny island dotted with little candy-colored houses and the sweetest people and ex-pats you could ever hope to meet. I can still remember the rocks digging into my back and the way the ocean smelled that day. How I snuggled into my sweater in the morning chill and waited desperately for the sun to beat the clouds. How the Lord’s voice sounded in my heart as I heard the words I waited 23 years for, to know simply that I was loved in spite of myself. How the rest of the day is a blur because I was eating key lime pie and laughing and sailing and soaking in the ocean that had become my life and all the while, trying to process the discovery of love like an ocean that drowned out the lies I had come to believe.

It was the best and worst day of my life, forever etched in my memory and in a small tattoo on my wrist as a daily reminder of all that I have been rescued from and the implications of that on how I engage with my fellow travelers. I have written words on it for years, waxed poetic about it in conversations, and cried over it again and again and again, still in awe of what the Lord has done.

What I have been thinking on this year, though, is the evening before. When I laid my head down on my arm on the trampoline of the boat that night and watched the stars dance as they can only do when you are anchored in the middle of the ocean, I was excited for my birthday as I have always been, but I had no idea that it would be the last night I would go to sleep not knowing/believing in/acting in love. I did not know how hard and beautiful and holy the sunrise would be when I watched the sunset that night. I could not have possibly fathomed how incredibly my life was about to change.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to love not only that sunrise, but that sunset the night before. Much like my life, I needed the dark in order to appreciate the light. I need my hard memories because they make my beautiful memories that much more so. I needed years of struggle so I could dwell in times of rest. I needed my questioning years so that the answering years sunk deep in my bones. I needed human moments of hatred in order to embrace heavenly moments of love. I love sunrises. I love the daily promise of how I have been made to love. And I love sunsets, too. Because joy comes in the morning. This morning, in fact. And every morning after.

the year that answered.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” Much of my life’s work, my passion, my reason for spilling up and over the rim of the proverbial cup that is my heart, has been rooted in questions. From those first shaky steps  saying “I don’t know if I am capable, Lord, but I think it’s what You want of me?” to uncertain days of “I cannot, but I must, right?” to “Why me? Can’t you choose someone else? Did you really have to make me care so much about this?”

Through it all, through every too-late night and too-early morning, through every argument, through every party, through that time when my kids piled furniture two stories high in the dorm foyer and started CLIMBING it, through that 2:00 am knock on my door that required pliers to pull out an infected piercing, through all the tears, through difficult conversations when I have had to call my kids to the carpet on their behavior, through that time when one of my students fell to her knees on my carpet and wept excitedly about how she had discovered the Lord’s love for her just the night before, through every fervent prayer for their souls and their rapidly beating hearts, through those heartbreaking first times when they experienced death in their close circles, through the years of walking alongside them in their self-discovery and learning from their mishaps and mistakes, through all those times when I royally screwed up…through every bit of it I have tried (and often failed) to get to their hearts and formulate a gracious and frank response to their questions. And in doing so, I ended up with so many of my own. This hard and holy work of serving students has made me question my faith, my life, my mistakes, my triumphs, and sometimes, my own reason for being.

I guess that is why this year has been so meaningful. This work I love, well…I had grown to hate it some years ago. The circumstances in which I found myself professionally back then left no room for advancement nor personal and professional growth. I felt stalled, stifled, and unable to draw a full breath. I let my frustrations with that experience cloud my feelings about my kids and walked away, vowing never to return and returning, instead, to an old career and long-dead dreams.

After 20 months of missing the joy and struggle of walking alongside my students and feeling like I had made a grave error in leaving them, I got the call at work that I had been longing for. I had to step into an empty exam room and weep with the wonder of it all, but then straightened my scrubs and my shoulders, and went back to my patients, knowing that my life was about to change and my questions I had been carrying around so heavy in my heart were about to get answered.

And so they were. The 365 days between February 15, 2016 and February 15, 2017 have been filled with answers. I came to Texas, and 33 years of asking the Lord if I could please find a home happened at last. Until one year ago, I had never lived here, but in recent years had been drawn to the culture and the accents and the people and the sturdy stuff of it all. And it is home. It is home in ways I never thought possible for me in this nomadic life I’ve led. I may not get to stay, and in fact if past promises ring true I won’t be here terribly long, but I’m relishing every day of feeling like I landed somewhere safe and solid and honest.

Friendships I thought long ruined have been restored. How I can go so long without talking to someone, but then be given the grace to pick up right where we left off with new respect for the humanness in us, is beyond me. But it happens. And to have friends returned to my tribe is an indescribable gift.

I found the church I love. After losing a church and my faith in the church and its leaders some years ago, this has been such a sweet return. The leadership is solid and honest and real, and that is a rare gift in American evangelicalism. I am thankful to be there on Sundays, singing my little heart out and finding depth and meaning in old traditions.

I got my heart back. This is a long story, and not one for this particular writing, but I got my heart back. Words are not adequate for how those prayers and questions have been answered.

Most of all, it was made clear that when I ask what I am supposed to do with my life, the answer is, and will be, to love on these crazy university kids and give them space to be themselves and to teach them to stop apologizing so much for being just that. I love watching them grow and change and become self-aware and other-aware and suss out wild lives that offer freedom and wisdom to those around them.

Today marks one year in East Texas, one year at this university with these kids I love, one year working with some of the most passionate colleagues I have ever known, and six years  of work in higher education. I cannot imagine doing anything else with this one wild life. A year that answered, indeed.

I almost quit my job today.

I almost quit my job today.

This morning, I saw a new job posting for the job I wish I had taken six years ago. Getting it would guarantee me not only a college campus I know like the back of my hand and the job I believe I was made to do, but a ready-made community and old friends with which to have deep conversations.

Friends. That sounds like the most wonderful thing to me right now. I have lived in Texas for nearly a year and yet I find myself quite lonely and essentially friendless. I haven’t curled up on a couch to talk about life and the living of it since I got here, and friends are something I would like to be in the presence of. My heart aches for real connection and laughter and vulnerability. I love Texas, but life has felt so harsh these past weeks. I feel that some people are harsh with their words and actions when it is unnecessary, and I especially feel that I am much too harsh with mine, that I snap when I shouldn’t and speak when I shouldn’t and get too excited and interrupt everyone all the time. I cry over my words at night so much anymore, afraid I am saying the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing and treating my work tribe badly and too loudly because I am tired and scared and my heart is all in shambles.

So, a job I would love surrounded by people I already love felt like too good of an opportunity to pass up. I went so far as to rework my resume, ask a colleague to be a reference, and ponder new beginnings over my lunch hour. I was ready to go and the swiftness with which I could leave in my heart frightened even me. I’m good at opening doors. But I’m even better at slamming them shut behind me.

I almost did it, too. I was on the third draft of my cover letter when I heard a soft knock at my office door. A colleague from another department stopped by to pick my brain about new processes and curriculum to help our students. As soon as she left, I was overly excited about the possibilities and I raced through the office to head to a meeting when a student stopped me just to say, “Hi, Miss Dana.” And while I was thinking about that interaction and how far that student has come in recent weeks, I sat through my meeting and talked to three more colleagues I barely know about how we can serve our students better. And I found more passionate souls there who care deeply about the souls we serve.

And then a student stopped by my office to tell me about his life and how he’s planning to live it more intentionally with those he loves. And then I got asked to sit in on another colleague’s meetings and share in his joy over new things in his area. And then I had an event tonight to which few showed up. But the ten of us sat there far past when we were supposed to be done and we had raw and real conversations about financial literacy and life.

After I finished the teaching portion and we all agreed they were tired and perhaps even overwhelmed by all of life’s happenings, my usually bubbly kid talked about how a supervisor was treating her badly and you could just see the weight of it in her face. But she opened up, and that right there is a tiny victory worthy of celebration. I heard about how one student paid for three other students’ tuition last semester, and how it had affected her emotionally. How she didn’t think she could say no to anyone, but then another student piped up and spoke life and truth to her and shared her own experiences of learning to say no, and they exchanged numbers for future conversations. That same student sat in my office just two months ago, broken and hurting, and we had talked through how setting healthy boundaries is not the same as building walls. And now here she was, teaching her peer the same lesson she had learned.

Another student, my very toughest nut to crack, got real honest about his poor habits and how something has got to give. He’s had bags under his eyes and weighed down shoulders for awhile now and I’ve been quite worried, but he never complains and I know where he’s at. I’ve had that same look in my eye and when you get to that point, no amount of people telling you what to do will fix you. You have to hit your rock bottom and then rise. But first you have to hit your rock bottom.  He’s there. I cannot wait to see how he will rise.

One of my international students learned about the very American concept of self-worth tonight, and taught us all a good lesson about not getting too caught up in it. Another put his chin on his hands at the end and said thoughtfully, more to himself than to anyone, “Oh. I get it now. Finances affect everything in your life.” Yes, kid. Yes. That same student, he’s the one with whom I have an uneasy, sometimes contentious, rapport. But he stood there in the doorway afterward with his pizza and his rumpled clothes, and he lamented the fact that he is a devout Christian who feels like he’s in hot water. So we talked honestly about how beautiful this community is, and the vast opportunities there are to love and respect and have real conversations with the variety of people in this place. How as God-seekers we are called to love and serve. And he left looking a little lighter.

And as we walked out, I stopped to chat a moment with a group of kids I know, and they unexpectedly opened up about their problems. And one I’m just getting familiar with told me he needed to come see me just to talk. And another told me some feedback he had heard about a program I did early last semester, and how he was finally sold on the fact that I actually care about students’ lives. And they ate their leftover pizza and let me listen to them for a few more minutes.

So then a student walked me to my car because it was late and, for reasons that are my own, I am dreadfully afraid of the dark and being alone in it. For someone who is used to going it alone but hates having to be on guard, there is something to be said for the small and quiet blessing of not having to be your own protector for two minutes. And I smiled all the way home. Because I feel like I’ve been walking around in a daze, overwrought with all of the things that are completely beyond my control and choking back tears at my desk. I don’t know how many times people have nearly caught me crying in my office in the last month or so. But today, I felt the Lord whispering quietly, “Do you love them? Do you love them enough to work long hours? Do you love them enough to hear their stories, good and bad? Do you love them enough to feed their bellies AND their hearts? Do you love them? Do you love them enough to bear the brunt of their anger and the weight of their fear? Do you love them enough to put aside everything you are dealing with and take a deep breath and be present with them? Do you love them enough to sit through meetings and admonishments and wholly unprofessional conversations so you can serve them better? Do you love them? Do you love them enough to speak truth in hard moments? Do you love them enough to have to wait months before you know if any of the work you have given yourself over to is actually making a difference? Do you love them enough to stay?”

Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Even when I feel like I’m getting every single thing wrong, this is my yes. Wholeheartedly. Without reservation.

I almost quit my job today. I’m so glad I didn’t.