If We Are Becoming

If We Are Becoming

This pain has worn me well

This sorrow has made me rich

What is sadness then?

In the hands of the blessed

The children of glory

It is only the path to becoming

A way of wealth and joy

For we love a man of sorrows

Whose tears were more than gold

Whose heart held riches through pain

And who made a way to become

So we do not despair

We become

What greater joy is there

Than for one who has seen death

One who has seen the hellish broken

To delight in the early morning

To breathe deep and fully

Who knows doubtlessly

It was only becoming

And she is becoming still

I did not feel the rush of joy and protective hormones you are supposed to feel when they put my son in my hands for the first time. I found myself instead, scrounging around for something anything that would help me grasp the moment. But I couldn’t. This little squishy and slightly sticky bundle was a stranger to me. What I felt upon the birth of my son was not love, or new identity, but relentless, heavy, unbreakable duty. And that was all I had to go on.

I was not prepared at all for the relentless nature of motherhood. The diapers that always had to be changed again. The fact that the next time he would need to eat would be very soon. Always soon. The endless need for sleep and the constant realization that what sleep I got barely touched the ever growing debt of exhaustion that had wound itself around every cell in my body and settled deeply into my soul.

And when I looked at him,  I felt all the freedom I used to have and how very very dead it was now. And always duty. And pity too, because none of this was his fault. And he had me as a mother. And I did NOT feel like a mother.

There were so many things that made me feel that way. Breastfeeding was not possible for me and my son became dehydrated and lethargic before I discovered that fact, to my horror. I did not handle sleep deprivation with any kind of grace. I did not find sitting next to my son all day alone as he made gurgling noises thrilling in any way. I had already begun counting down the days until he turned 18–because my new mom brain thought that it would be exactly like this forever.

What I wish I could tell myself back then more than anything is “hormones or not, no one becomes a mother in a day, or in many ways even in a year or in two. Becoming a mother takes a long time, and I suspect, it never stops. You are becoming one right now, even if you don’t see it yet.”

In many ways, I think my own identity of mother is more a mark of what I have done than of any ability I ever had before that. I am now a mother to two very special boys. A mother of a 4 year old and a 2 year old. I cannot be a mother with all the wisdom of one who has say, a 10 year old until I have earned that by doing it over the next 6 years. I am becoming. I have become. And it is that becoming which matters so much.

I have always struggled under the weight of feeling like I simply AM things. I AM good at math or I AM bad at directions. Hard work wasn’t really about anything other than sheer production to me. I did not know you could get better at things, as strange as that may seem.

But as I have tried to get away from this faulty idea in my adulthood, I have run into the wall that I think so many in my generation do. That I also cannot be ANYTHING I want. If I decided I wanted to be a professional basketball player, I could not make that happen. My lack of any natural grace, and short stature would ensure that. I could get better at it than I am, but I cannot choose what I can be excellent in outside of a narrow set of skills and tendencies and biological leanings. So then I have to ask myself, what is it that I am actually capable of becoming? Can I even know that? Can I be a good mother simply because I want to be? Or a writer? Or a friend?

For the most part, I think all we can choose is what to grow toward. If I go outside when I can be alone, and manage to find a moment to slip off my shoes and feel the earth beneath my feet and I breathe deeply and let the world feel big and myself feel small–one thing is obvious. We were brought into a world of ever growing things. We are made to be ALIVE and not to be still.  We WILL grow in some way and toward something. And growing things tend to always grow toward that which gives them the most energy.

I really hate to think of what growing toward Netflix looks like. Or comfort eating. Or 8 cups of coffee in one day. But by grace, by so much grace we can grow back again and again toward something better, no matter how much we lean to lesser things. I don’t think we always have to know what it is we need to become if we fix our eyes on the work that has specifically been set before us, and on what is good, and worthy, and true. It is not the seed who ultimately ordains this miracle, or the planter, but the God who made them both. 

There were so many places in my life where I was not yet who I wanted to be, but those moments were often the ones that eventually pushed me closer to who I was supposed to be, and to the passions that make me who I am. And I do not regret a single ounce of pain from any of those moments. For they brought me here, to this place in my life and every blessing or gifting I have. And I do not know if I am the best mother that has ever existed (I can guess pretty well that I am not), but I am the best mother I can be to my very own two boys and I will be better yet tomorrow. Even more than this, the joy I find in my identity as Mother now is breathtaking. I leaned in, I showed up, I watered that ground with faith and transformation happened so slowly I never saw it until it already was.

I wish I could say to so many many pieces of myself scattered back through time, “You are becoming. You were not made for this moment alone, but for another one, and many more–and for all of them put together.” 

If You’ve Never Been an Immigrant (When you need a Human Life Preserver)

If You’ve Never Been an Immigrant (When you need a Human Life Preserver)

Immigrants are some of the bravest people I can think of in this world. And if you have never been one, there is just almost no way to explain how incredibly terrifying and difficult it is to step into a new place where you not only don’t know the rules, but you don’t even know that there are rules you don’t know. I have been an immigrant in another country, and that was tough for sure. But I was somewhat prepared for it as an adult. It doesn’t hold a candle in difficulty to the first time I ever immigrated within my own country.

The first time I stepped foot into the cafeteria at Doudna Elementary, I had no idea where I was supposed to sit. No one had told me where to sit, or how seats were assigned in the cafeteria. At every school I’d ever been in, seating was assigned. At the previous elementary school I attended, it was not only assigned, but done by class in alphabetical order. For four years I had always sat next to the kids whose names were nearest mine in the alphabet. Four years is practically an eternity for a 9 year old.

So with great anxiety, I looked for the kids who my cubby was next to in my new 4th grade class: Daniel H. and Beau H. And I was in luck! They were sitting together! They must do alphabetical too. Not wanting to stand there looking stupid any longer I hurried over to sit with them.

They looked at me like I was some kind of cockroach. Something was definitely wrong. My calculations were definitely off. But not knowing what else to do I ate my lunch as fast as I could and left. I walked out onto the playground where all my new classmates were playing. None of the games looked familiar. No one invited me. I really had no idea where to start and I had already tripped up pretty badly in guessing, so I just sat alone.

Later on I would find notes that my 4th grade teacher made about me and wrote to my mother. “Does not play with the other children. Does not get along with classmates. Spends too much time alone.” Not once had my teacher EVER asked me what was going on or why I wasn’t playing with my peers. What I DO remember was being told soundly that trying to talk to my teachers at recess was inappropriate and I needed to stop. (I had tried to start there because I was generally comfortable in the world of adults. Or at least had been before that.)

A couple days in, I realized something that seemed totally overwhelming about the cafeteria debacle. Kids sat wherever they wanted to. That had just not been the culture of the blue collar school I had come from where such enormous choice might be dangerous. It had not even occurred to me ONCE that the reason the cafeteria was indecipherable was because there were no rules at all to where one sat.

I finally settled on sitting at a table which was mostly occupied by girls from my class. They didn’t seem too thrilled about my presence either, but it was at least getting less of a shocked reaction than the boys I tried. I had no idea that I was sitting at the “popular” table. I just quietly sat at one end, and tried to put as much of my body as I could into the hole that the tables were folded back into when the cafeteria once again became a gym. I listened to what people said, and mostly didn’t talk.

Once I made the mistake of engaging in a game from my old school and tried to “match” boys and girls from my class as couples–but mostly based on putting people with the same color of hair together, the same height, same nose shape, and so on. Kids at my old school weren’t really seriously pairing off yet, so the game was pretty innocuous. But at my new school, couples were already serious business and one of my first couplings was one of the cool girls with a less than cool boy. She immediately told me she would put me with the very large kid in class and started to tell other people about it. I was horrified. I wasn’t trying to mean, but she clearly was.

I was trying to play by the rules I knew. And it did not work.

One day I showed up to sit in my spot at lunch, and the queen bee of the table was already sitting in it.

“Look Andi!” she called out mockingly “I’m sitting in your spot! Are you going to cry? Are you going to try and make me move?”It felt like she saw me drowning and decided that it was high time she took my life jacket, and maybe gave me a good push under as well. I stared at her for a moment. People weren’t perfect at my last school. I knew that when someone was getting made fun of it always got worse when they fought back. So I just picked another spot and I said nothing. I intentionally never sat in my favored spot again.

That was the beginning of a lot of days where I said absolutely nothing. When kids stomped on my feet, I got Mom to buy me steel toed shoes and never explained why. When someone punched me at school and the teacher took his side, I swallowed it. I didn’t want my parents trying to fix it or defend me. When a teacher decided she HATED me because of my Dad’s politics, I just went about my day and tried to dodge her accusations and back biting as much as I could.

Do you know what eventually happened? You should.

I started cracking. The kid who had once kept her head down and really really tried to make the best of things and put a positive spin on everything died. Sometime in Middle School I started arguing. I threw things back at the bullies. I even hit a few kids (careful not to get caught mind you.) I got in food fights. I snarled when people even sounded like they might be thinking of being mean. By the time I graduated with those kids I was known as abrasive and opinionated and definitely oversensitive.

I know this can come off as a long oh poor me kids were mean to me once blog. I hate that. Please know I hate that. Because what I’m really trying to point out is NOT that those kids were bad and I was good. I’m not trying to make any statements about the relative pain of my own school experience compared to anyone else. I’m saying that because of my different culture and expectations for how things worked, I got off to the wrong foot in my new home–and I really never got back on totally. I made new friends, but I never recovered with those first people and I had a very very hard time trusting people in my community.

I was from Kansas, friends. I moved to another state in the same country. The people in that town were not bad, so much as completely unequipped to deal with someone who did not know what they knew. And it did not have to be much. I spoke the same language. I looked quite a lot like them. But it was still enough difference to make a mess of things before I had hardly even gotten started.

I now work with immigrants and people who don’t speak English well because every time I look in their eyes I feel like I just get a little of where they are in life. They are doing everything they can to fit in and blend just like people want them to. And they work so hard to do just that. But what do you do when you have no idea how to pay your rent or that putting garbage out at regular scheduled intervals is a thing? What if you have no idea most Americans aren’t really into a kiss on the cheek and that pointing with your middle fingers is not a good idea, even if that’s how you pointed back home? The only thing that fixes that is if someone comes along and is 1. Kind enough to tell them 2. Understanding enough to forgive them for any previous mistakes.

And even stupid little mistakes in a brand new community can set you up to fail basically forever.

You know what DID eventually help me find a place to belong, and enough to survive, so that thank the good Lord, food fights and a few kicks to the shins were the worst things I actually did? The people who adopted me. The friends I had until the end of high school who were gracious to me and who filled me in on what I was missing (and forgave me for being a bit grumpy and oversensitive at times.)

Friends save lives people.

Friends save immigrants who don’t know how to do very basic things to function in their communities.

Friends save minorities swimming against a sea of people who want them to be just like themselves.

Friends save silly lost girls in grade-school cafeterias.

Friends save anyone who by no fault of their own is a little off the right path and doesn’t know how to get back to a safe place.

Always ask yourself if someone did something rude because they ARE rude, or if there is some piece of culture or personal history you might be missing. And you know what? You can always always ask. Often, almost always, people have reasons for what they do.

I think standing in the gap for someone is one of the most enriching and empowering things I have ever ever been blessed to be able to do. Because in some small way, I feel like I am getting to reach a hand of comfort back to my child self, who didn’t even know where to sit in the freaking cafeteria. And all it really takes is friendship freely offered with room to understand someone with a different story than my own.

So I’m pleading with you. Wherever possible, figure out where people are drowning in culture or even just in life and throw them a life vest. Heck, go and be a damn human life preserver. Because one day, if you are very lucky, you will need a human life preserver and someone will be that for YOU.

And you will never ever forget that person.

If You Hate Small Talk

If You Hate Small Talk

I am the ultimate queen and reigning champion of absolutely despising small talk. That’s right, if hating small talk were an Olympic event, I would take gold, silver, and bronze and I would solemnly cross my hand over my heart as they played the national anthem for my complete and utter domination at hating it.

But I’m also disgustingly good at it. Not by choice mind you. The skill was drilled into me as a matter of self-preservation. But that doesn’t mean I always play by the rules of appropriate small talk. Sometimes out of boredom, or maybe just a wild need to experiment, I tend to…try and spice things up a little.

In Middle School, whilst extremely bored one day in the girls’ locker room, and not a little bit on edge about the aerobics we were about to be forced to take part in (Richard Simmons is still a man of my nightmares thanks to Middle School girls’ gym), I found myself listening to a conversation about the upcoming frog dissection in Biology.

“Oh my word, it’s so gross! Do you think we have to actually cut them ourselves?”

“I hope not! I think I’m going to throw up!”

Just for fun, I decided I’d cut in. “Oh, we have to do more than cut the frogs. I hear Mr. Bray has tiny barbecues set up for us to cook the meat when we’re finished and we have to try some. Well I guess probably only if we want an A.”

A wail immediately went up from the girls around me. “You’re joking right? They’d never make us eat the frogs! Right?!” Girls were actually crying.

Without skipping a beat I said, “Why would I lie about something like that? Besides, I’ve heard frog meat is pretty good!”

I need to cut in right here to tell you that I never once thought of myself as a pathological liar. I always assumed that it was obvious when I was being super ridiculous that I didn’t intend anyone to believe me. The problem is that I didn’t always pick up on social cues–and when I did, sometimes I was already too caught up in my story to stop myself. And it was just so much more interesting than regular chit-chat!

The thing is, child Andi was forced into completely controlled and very stressful small talk on a regular basis. I am of course speaking of the fact that I am one of those curious souls who grew up with a minister for a father. And let me tell you—people are very weird about their pastors a LOT of the time. And the family that tags along with them usually get sucked in one way or another. People would tell me about their strange medical problems, goiters and colostomy bags included. Sometimes I was regaled on that latest new fad that was obviously sending everyone to hell and have witnessed brochures on the evils of playing cards, geometric coloring books, movie theaters, the Internet, and obviously those portents of evil: bar codes. But most of the time it was about subjects so mundane and expected that I could barely keep my eyes focused and remember to add the occasional smile and “ya” to the whole thing. And through all of it I gained the ability to grin and nod and make a good listening comment on absolutely any subject. I saved my wild stories (lies) for classmates and friends out of what was probably an overly wound up imagination and a whole lot of stored stress.

In my adulthood, it has been very hard to not duck out of absolutely every occasion in which small talk is required, since Dad’s job is no longer on the line. I have a tendency to go right for the meaty stuff like “What was your most painful childhood moment?” Or perhaps, “Who is the first person you ever knew really well that died?” I’m kidding of course (was that obvious?), but I often find myself almost incapable of listening to whatever appropriate topic of chit-chat we’re on and wondering what dark or ostentatious tid-bits might be lurking behind every perfectly normal looking pair of eyes. Now those things would be worth listening to.

But I’m learning that small-talk is actually absolutely necessary. It can be abused, sure, but it has a very real and very needed function. Hating small talk is like hating to boil water before you make tea. Sure, it’s not the most interesting part of the whole event (I am definitely guilty of slipping into existential quandary while insisting on watching the kettle boil), but it’s very important. Without boiled water all you have is a soggy tea bag in some cold water. It’s not very appetizing. You could drink it anyway and pretend it’s tea, or you could give the tea bag a chew or two but it really doesn’t work at all. (Translate that metaphor as you will into actual conversation tactics.)

I am coming to believe that everyone, and I do mean everyone in some part of their souls is longing desperately to connect with others at a deeper level. But we simply cannot dive into the very heart of real conversation without making sure the temperature is right if you understand my meaning. We have to take the time to make people feel validated, and safe, and like they are talking to a kindred soul before they can really dive in deeper. But without that—we have no idea what kind of person or context we are spilling out the deeper parts of our souls onto.

And just to take the metaphor a bit too far (because what fun would it be if we didn’t), there are definitely people who go on boiling water without ever making any tea. Conversation tea is vulnerable and risky business, and boiling water for no reason can get to be such a habit. We need tea! And by that I mean eventual deeper conversation! It’s the part that gets me down the most—that some people just really aren’t interested in “tea” at all. And constantly being the one who tries to introduce the tea to a very reluctant audience who are happy with their shallow con… I mean boiled water… can start to be very dreary business.

I still struggle to be sold on the whole business. At times I think that small-talk is a symptom of living in a broken world. If we could only all be totally and absolutely trustworthy to the people around us—and know that everyone around us cared for us at the deepest level—maybe we wouldn’t need it anymore. Or maybe it would only be for fun (and not to make Pastor’s daughters queazy with stress while they consider what exactly IS the correct response to someone who has just told you that they have bleeding ulcers on a regular basis?). But on better days, I think of it more like little affectionate touches in conversation form.

I’m here. I notice you. I’m available.

What I think the business of small talk requires, more than anything, is the ability to be fully present and to take joy in it for what it is. Like a ray of sunshine, or a wisp of wind across your face, or birdsong. I think of God listening to us being absurd humans and smiling, just like a mom who smiles while listening to her children talk nonsense or invent silly games together. If God can take joy in us, even in our sillier and shallower moments, surely I can find the patience to be with someone and appreciate who they are, even if I never find a way to the deeper stuff. I think I can do that. I know I can.

On a side note, if you find yourself occasionally being a bit absurd just for the fun of it and find that people are believing you when you really did NOT expect them to and you know the secret to getting out of it—please please tell me how to get away without being awkward or making other people feel bad. Because I have yet to totally solve THAT problem.