Little girls.

I have recently begun the application and interview process for doctoral programs and, with that, am having to answer questions about my dissertation research. I have had a thought rattling around for years about researching the weight of Christ-given identity in college-age women in the church and how the lack of ownership of that identity leaves all these girls running around apologizing for everything they do, think, say, and feel.

More on that another time.

I used to not own my identity. Sorry was the most frequently used word in my vocabulary. I apologized for sneezing, coughing, talking, walking, going through a door, closing a door, eating, breathing. I said sorry to everyone for everything.

One of my students apologized four times in 45 seconds this morning for absolutely nothing, and it got me thinking about how I ever got to that point. And how I got out.

Before I was sorry for existing, I was a rambunctious, albeit an orderly and rule-following, child. I was told that little girls are quiet. Little girls don’t yell. Little girls don’t talk too much. Little girls don’t always raise their hand when they know the answer to the questions in class. Little girls don’t compete with the boys. Little girls don’t question authority. Little girls don’t make the boys feel bad by telling them to stop snapping their bras or pulling their hair in class. Little girls should act like less so that boys feel like more. Little girls should be demure and submissive.

I learned how to be quiet. How to not speak up or stand up for myself. How to push down whatever I was feeling to make boys and grown-ups feel stronger. How to do as I was told without question. How to make other feel smart by not showing how smart I was. How to not tell anyone I took the ACT at age 12. How to not tell anyone my grades because other people had to work harder than I did for less achievement.

I was a little girl lost. I did not believe in my Christ-given identity, but I held fast to stifling my identity to keep from rocking the boat. I don’t blame my parents or my teachers or pastors for this. It was the culture of the time, and is a culture that still exists.

This isn’t meant to align myself with the current movement of feminism. As with all movements, this one has its own flaws and exclusions that I don’t wish to be a part of. This also isn’t meant to align myself with the current Republican party as all political parties have their flaws, too, and I have grave reservations about things where they stand on all sides of the aisle. Last, this isn’t meant to condemn the church or the people in it. I love my faith and my Baptist people, shortcomings and all.

Nothing and no one is perfect, and nothing and no one is beyond redemption.

Even that little girl who resigned herself to being sorry for even existing. God redeemed even her. So where I’ve landed is in this place of wounded/healing fire. My heart aches for little girls who apologize for existing. My student killed me this morning with her whispered “sorry” over and over for doing absolutely nothing wrong. My belly is consumed with fire in frustration at people who perpetuate the belief that little girls are less than. Because God, this God I seek to serve and study and follow, does not see them as less than. He sees them as whole people.

Little girls are brave. Little girls are beautiful. Little girls are sometimes made for things other than, or alongside of, dating, marriage, sex, childbirth, cooking and cleaning (and in that order). Those things are beautiful and wonderful and holy things in their own right. People so often think that because I am educated and working and excited about it and encourage other women to explore career paths that I am denouncing the traditional female role.

Naysayers, haters, and critics, let me tell you something. Since I was that little girl, I wanted nothing more than to marry, have loads of babies, and bake biscuits for my man. I still want that life with all that is within me. For whatever reason and despite my best efforts, it is a life denied to me up to this point. I will never know why. I grieve for the things I have never had. I long for a husband with which to make a life of service together. I cry over every abused or abandoned baby and child I read about on the news and I ask God why He would allow such awful people to have the privilege of motherhood, but leave me alone and childless when I would love and cherish my husband and any child in my care.

He hasn’t answered me yet. But I believe in His goodness, His faithfulness, and His reasoning for my life’s journey. I lived outside of His will for a long time and it is not a place I wish to return to.

I don’t have a traditional life. I never have. I grew up moving around and I have lived my adult life moving around, knowing that the Lord has made me something of a nomad and has used those moves and experiences to grow compassion and understanding I would never have had if He had left me to stay in one place. To settle down and be a wife and mom and biscuit-maker sounds like a dream that has faded over time. I don’t want it any less now than I did when I was five. I also understand now that sometimes the Lord calls little girls to different things and I am on my own journey wrought so clearly by His hand.

And by His hand, little girls are on journeys not meant to be compared. Little girls might be teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, counselors, professors, senators, pharmacists, and presidents. Little girls might be mamas and stepmamas. Little girls might have husbands, or they may not. They might have children, or they may not. They may be like me, living their Plan C (educated and working) instead of their Plan A (stay at home mom with six kids, bearded husband, and a cabin in the woods). Or maybe educated and career-driven was their Plan A (and the Lord’s plan for them) all along. Little girls might just have it all: education and family and career and service to a community. Little girls might be loud. Little girls might be soft and tender. Little girls might play it safe or jump off every cliff they come to (like I learned to). Whatever their path, whatever their personality, they are not less. They are made whole and have an identity given by a Savior who loves them beyond all imagination.

Little girls are brave. Little girls are beautiful. Little girls are made to live lives full and wild and wholeheartedly. Little girls don’t have to be sorry.

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I have been thinking lately about what I would do if I stopped doing what I do now. Higher education is life-giving in so many ways…and allows theft of life in others. I am not at a place where I want to stop; I have simply been wondering what I would do instead if given the opportunity to change course.

I have discovered that it is not an easy question to answer. My vocation is complicated, and layered with years of broken dreams and failures and little victories and grace. On every CV and initial email to a job, I simply want to write, “I have multiple degrees and  several years of experience in two diverse fields. I have lived a lot of life packed into my years. I love people and want to serve. I am a better listener than talker. I will give 150% to everything placed before me. I have a heart for the underserved and marginalized because I believe every human being is made in the imago Dei. How can I serve with you?” But that kind of talk is not recommended by the career advisors and headhunters and consultants. Alas.

Some twelve years ago, in a moment I forgot about until today, I made the choice to play it safe. The consequences of that choice have led me to a career I could not have imagined on my own and an area of service to others I did not know existed…and a lot of nights spent in tears wondering if I was, if I am, doing the right thing. Because I stick out like a hooker in church. Because I view success differently. Because I want different things than my colleagues. Because what makes my heart beat fast isn’t something that drives them.

So what would I do if I could? The answer, though complicated, hasn’t really changed in the last twelve years. I would leave the States. I would stop crying every time I see a kid get baptized and go somewhere where children who do not have the privileges of those around me can learn about Jesus and get baptized, too. I would sell my possessions AGAIN. I would love to lead young women to embrace the identity they have in Christ and own it and live free and brave wherever they are. I would tell them my story, which is really just a little speck in God’s big story.

A song I am vaguely familiar with came on the radio today, stating the following:

Lord I’m ready now
All the walls are down
Time is running out
And I wanna make this count
I ran away from you
And I did what I wanted to
But I don’t wanna let you down
Oh Lord I’m ready now
Lord I’m ready now

Instantly, the memory of the day I was saved popped into my mind. I don’t know why. I haven’t thought about that day in a long time. But I thought about it today. About that particular invitation for salvation. About invitations for forgiveness. About invitations to come to the altar. Not to worship or praise or lament or confess, but to lay my things down to burn up and be refined and restored and redeemed.

I sent in my RSVP for that particular invitation some 30 years ago. I’ve been invited again and again over the years to be refined, to rest, to remember what has been both lost and found.

I received another invitation today. To reflect. To consider possibility. To stop playing it safe. To lose my white-knuckled grip on a life I have become rather adept at mucking up. To do what, I have no idea. That’s the beauty of it, though. To simply be able to reach a place where I can say once more, “Lord, I’m ready.”

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Miss Dana Simmons

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What the locusts have eaten.

It is the thing I don’t talk about much. How it all started. I can wax poetic on the need for us all to be a little more vulnerable and break the stigma of mental health and shed light on our hurting places so we can experience healing individually and collectively. I am honest about where I have been and where I am now, if you ask. But I don’t often talk about how crippling anxiety came to take up an unwelcome and permanent residence in my life.

Have you ever sat with someone near death? Ever heard a death rattle? It is the sound that haunts me even now, all these years later. I spent the last week of my grandmother’s life at her bedside. She was already immobile and speechless when I got there, the unexpected stroke that followed her terminal cancer diagnosis rendering her so. I’m not sure even now she recognized me when I said her name and she opened one eye to look at me.To date, those seven days constitute one of the best and worst weeks of my life.

By the time I got to the hospital that day, I was one month out of a bad relationship and scared to death to be at home alone.. As difficult as it was sitting there watching death creep in bit by bit, I was still grateful to not be alone. I watched my grandmother’s toes, then feet, then legs turn black with necrosis, and still she kept raggedly breathing on her own. She was a fighter, that one. I remember wishing that she was still alive and awake and ready to fight my latest battle with me.  She had always been so larger than life with so much wisdom and grit packed into her five foot frame. And I wanted her to open her eyes, move her lips, and tell me how to keep pressing on and waking up every morning and facing each day.

But she didn’t. Her breaths got shallower with every day. Occasionally, those shallow breaths stopped and we were sure it was her last. Then her chest would heave again and we would resume our vigilant watch. To give my great aunts, my aunt and uncle, and my mama a break, I volunteered to take the night watch two nights before she died. As soon as everyone left and I turned out the lights and laid down on the narrow couch, the death rattle started. I couldn’t stop shaking at first. That sound will run chills up your spine like nothing else. It is as though somewhere deep in my soul I knew she was half in this world and half with her Jesus, and she was not going quietly. I lost count of how many times I paged the nurses to please suction her throat, until they gently told me it was doing more harm than good and I needed to let her be. So I sat up until dawn, white-knuckled, listening to that awful sound of death taking a life, and waited for the hospitalist to show up for his shift and increase her morphine dose.

I haven’t slept through a night since. I had nightmares for almost a year after that, dreaming that I could hear her calling my name in a death rattle voice and begging me to help her breathe. They were the kind of nightmares that wake you up in a cold sweat panic. A little too vivid. A little too real. A little too hard on the heart. What little sleep I got was awash in fear. The days weren’t any better. I lived in fear, afraid that all of the threats made in that bad relationship were going to come true and the cops wouldn’t get there in time.

Anxiety is a wretched beast. It robs you of joy and being present in the journey. It robs you of trusting others. It robs you of physical rest and resting in the promises of a good God.

What anxiety burglarized, the Lord has redeemed. But not the way I expected. I thought I would do my due diligence and do what I needed to do to get well and I would just be well and that would be it. If I have learned nothing else in the last four years, it is that this life is much more an ultra-marathon of hills and valleys with an unsure end than it is a sprint with a clearly defined finish.

And yet, I still see the this wild and wildly surprising race as redemptive. In the same firm/gentle way the Lord healed my screwed up childhood/adolescence, He has stitched back together my broken heart and broken mind and breathed new life into my aching lungs. I still have the wounds, physical and emotional and spiritual, but they’re not gaping open. Instead, the scars are revealed bit by bit to people who need to know vulnerability so that they may learn vulnerability themselves. I know what I have survived and just how much I can take. I know what I will and will not tolerate. I know how soft I am and how strong I can be. I know how to make it and I know that I must choose each day to show up, and live, and live life abundantly.

I am grateful to be used in that way, to see my wounded parts be used for restorative practice in others, redeeming not just my own hurts, but also the times I was the one who was hurtful. I recently spent a serious evening with a member of my tribe who is hurting deeply. I won’t reveal the specifics, but I will say that I left that conversation weeping for that person’s hurts and also awash with gratefulness that I had once been in that very place and could lend a bit of understanding for the journey.

Two friends whom I hold so dear are in the midst of something no parent should ever have to experience: the probable end of their child’s life. I struggle to find words to comfort them. They are brave and wonderful and kind and anyone who knows them is blessed. So many of us are standing by speechless with shared grief and waiting and praying and hoping for what seems impossible for one precious little girl, believing our God is a good God with our best in mind.

A recent addition to my tribe revealed her struggles with mental health over a meal I can only describe as grace-laced. Because a lot of hard things were said and a lot of listening happened and I cannot help but rejoice when observing another person taking those first slow and unsteady steps into freedom.

Through that night that sent me down the path of anxiety and depression and trying desperately to keep it all together when I was falling apart, and through the communal grief of the last few weeks, I have been reminded that as much as we shatter together and hurt one another and watch others hurt, we also have the remarkable ability to repair together, to share each other’s burdens and lighten the load of grief.

This discovery, too, is redemptive. For so many years, I remained hardened and hid my heart far away. I weep with wonder now when I happen across another soul whom I can look straight in the eye and say, “I am wounded. This is my pain, my burden, my sadness. It does not look the same as yours. Yet here it is. Will you walk with me in this? Will you offer up grace for the days when I have none and know that I will do the same for you? I see that you are wounded, too. And that’s okay. Tell me your story.”

It isn’t what I thought it would be. I still have days where staying in bed appeals far more than dealing with the overwhelming nonsense and hatefulness people seem to drag with them. The world can be so incredibly harsh when you have a too thin skin and a too big heart. But I get up and show up and remember what I have survived. And I smile. Because without my scars, I wouldn’t be who I am. Without my scars, I wouldn’t be of much service to the people I love when they hurt. Without my scars, I couldn’t share their grief. What anxiety stole from me, what death steals from families, what unholy lies steal from broken hearts, the Lord redeems in community with Him and the people He has placed in our paths to share in our hurt and to comfort us as only wounded healers can.  Grace upon overwhelming grace. Amen.

In the wilderness.

Four years ago, I found myself at something of an impasse. I had just gotten out of an abusive relationship and in speaking up, alienated myself from friends and my church. My job environment was quickly deteriorating into something I no longer wished to be part of, and a job prospect with my dream NGO was set aside due to an unexpected coup in the country.

I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had been stripped of everything I found my identity in back in those days. I couldn’t sleep. The nightmares that had started the fall before after I spent one hellish week watching my grandmother die, death rattling all the way,  just wouldn’t stop. My family was struggling. The gym no longer brought the comfort it once had. I couldn’t breathe. I was wound up and burnt out.

Over the course of the last four years, I have held five jobs and moved eight times. Eight. Even adding all those up just now makes me shudder. I don’t mind change. I dread chaos. And chaos is what it was. I lost more friends than I can count. Walked away absolutely broken from a church I have been a part of since I first returned to the states in 2006. Became too well known by my doctor. Turns out they don’t make medicine for broken hearts.

Somewhere in the middle of the last four years, I found a church I loved after I moved for the last time. Solid theology. Solid people. I found a state I loved. My darling Texas. It took me a long time to get here, but I’m glad I did. I found a job I love with students I absolutely adore.

And yet. I’m still wandering. Still waiting for answers to prayers that feel so long dead I’m not sure why I bother speaking them out anymore. I still feel amped up. I sometimes liken myself to a gun with one in the chamber and that’s about how it feels most days. My stuff sits in two states because there’s nowhere to put it in this one room. I miss my kitchen table and having a front door to call my own. I miss my massive desk I refinished myself. I miss my coffee mug collection, one that is much too large for any sane person to own.

I miss quiet nights and long talks with deep thinkers. Because for all the goodness of this place, I have no community. And I miss that. I miss a tribe close enough to touch. Hugs and cheek kisses are two of my very favorite things. Things I haven’t shared with anyone in a long time.

I’m in the wilderness. And yet…for all the silence and loneliness and feeling like too much and not enough all at once, my God has been so incredibly near. Closer than breathing, as they say. I cannot adequately describe how He has rescued me from myself over these past four years, how He has made me endure and come out stronger on the other side, how He has made Himself known in grand gestures and ordinary bits both.

I want the wilderness to be over, but I don’t want the lessons I have learned here to be forgotten. I am loved. I am redeemed. I am not forgotten. My identity, the one I lost some years ago, is found in this incredible God who has been with me my whole life and wrecked my world some twelve years ago. In Him, I am found. In Him, I live and love and laugh with wild abandon because I’ve been on the other side of that and I wish that hell on no one.

So I’ll wander a little longer. Because God is with me. In the brightly lit, people-filled days of the past. In the wilderness, four years long, too.

 

 

I love you.

If I tell you I love you, I mean it. All the way. No restrictions. No conditions. I know people use it wrong and say it when they don’t mean it and those experiences have caused you to question its validity each and every time.

Not me. I mean it.

I didn’t used to. I didn’t know what love was. I didn’t think I was loved. I didn’t know how to love. I thought love was fake if it existed at all. It was just something people talked about but didn’t actually believe in.

I was 23 before I knew love. Love that crashed over me like ocean waves, literally and figuratively. Love that passed all understanding, defied all odds, and exploded every expectation.

So hear me when I say I love you. I write it in birthday cards, speak it at the end of phone calls, whisper it in ears. I love you.

Because I do.

Because I am loved.

Because to not turn around and pour out what has filled me up would be to waste a good gift.

I am learning to say it more often now, despite a culture that declares it all a farce. We need more love. We need to stop assuming our loved ones know it and start living it and breathing it out day by day.

We only get a little time on this earth. I hope we fill it with love and fill one another with love while we’re here.

We need to start telling people we love them and mean it. Family. Friends. Lovers. Church. Enemies, even.

I love you. No restrictions. No conditions.

Too old to be single.

I am an outcast, an outsider, a person on the fringe. I often feel that I do not fit in anywhere well, and I write about that feeling a lot.

I am too tattooed and traveled for the church.

Too much of a prude for the world.

Too loud for the social escapees.

Too quiet for the extroverts.

Too educated for the college-less masses.

Too uneducated for academe.

Too absentminded for the practical.

Too practical for the dreamers.

Too wounded for the naive.

Too hopeful for the cynics.

Too honest for the narcissists and play-it-safers.

Too reserved and held tight for the verbose exaggerators.

Too much. Just too much.

To add insult to injury, I am single and 35 in the south. My Facebook feed is daily filled with friends on first and second husbands, third and fourth kids, and new houses and jobs galore. I am not in a rush for the aisle and I have yet to experience a ticking biological clock and comparison is not my thing, but I am quite done with the single season. I’m over it. I am not expecting perfection, I just really want to travel this wild life and its sorrows and joys and serve others WITH my husband. I was made to be part of a team. I was born wanting to be a wife and mom and to participate in something greater than myself. I know the promises the Lord has made. So I wait.

But culture suggests that because I wait, there is something wrong and so people ask dumb questions and set parameters and suggest actions I can take to “fix” it. And the church, the site of my most painful human experiences but which I choose to love anyway, just keeps cutting away at my excess of self. Like this morning when I went to sign up for a city-wide singles Bible study. I was perusing their ministry page and discovered I was too old and would not be allowed to attend. My age had long since been removed from the registration drop-down box. It felt like being told I don’t fit in. Again. In my exhausted state this week from no close community and long days and little sleep, it cut like a heated knife into old wounds. Hence, instant tears, which had to be shed quickly and disposed of so I could start my drive into the city for another long day.

In a world where I simply want to listen and love and extend compassion and grace, I am too much. Just too damn much.

Winning.

As I move ahead in my life and my career, I find that I define success different than most of those around me. Many of my colleagues define it by the number of degrees on their walls or the amount of meetings they get in with the upper echelons of administration. Sometimes they define it by their salary or where they live or who knows their name. Some of my friends define success by social media followers or who in their lives gives them street cred to people they admire.

I think my life would be easier if I were like that, if I gave real weight to the things society tells us we need in order to be winning at life. Alas, I like the long, winding, sometimes scary, back road to a destination. I despise attention. I care little who knows my name. I blog publicly because I feel like I have something to say and our world lacks vulnerability and, surprisingly enough, a few other people think so, too.

I hang up the degrees and certifications on my office wall begrudgingly. I do it because I am supposed to at this point in my career. Some people are impressed, I guess. I get some “world wins” here and there. Like today: I had to make some tough decisions which were met with respect I wasn’t expecting. And I laid new ground for new things to begin. But what I really wish I could hang up were names. Names of people I come across, people who feel loved and welcomed and heard and seen when they are around me. Some are students, some are colleagues, some are family. I want people to know love. I had the privilege of helping out a student yesterday and was rewarded this morning by news that all will be well in her world. I would like to put her name up. Not even where anyone could see, necessarily, but just as an Ebenezer stone of how far the Lord has brought me so that I might be of some service or blessing to others.

The last 35 years have held a lot of losses, more than I should know. The last four especially have been fraught with days I do not want to relive for any amount of money. But I got up yesterday and faced the world. And the day before that. And today. And someone else benefited from the sometimes monumental effort it takes for me to show up and speak love, live love, be love. I’m winning today. But for the grace of God. Amen.

winning