A Visible Life (Or, an Update on That Brutally Honest Christmas Card)
You know things are better when not all the sad songs seem to apply directly to your life.
It’s been about 6 months since I wrote my brutally honest Christmas card, which astounded me with how it seemed to resonate with so many. But I shouldn’t really be surprised, since the walking wounded is my tribe and my family, since I live surrounded by survivors of the very worst situations the world has to offer. Six months ago I was still in the trenches of a darkly gray fog—call it PPD, or PTSD, or Secondary Trauma, or just plain old grief at processing so many transitions in such a short amount of time—whatever it was, I had it. And each morning I woke up knowing it was still there, sometimes a friendly little Gollum, sometimes an oppressive weight that I prayed aloud against. Sadness became a part of me, and the hardest part was wondering if it would ever go away.
I stopped having panic attacks, eventually. I went to see a counselor for a few months. I took low doses of a medication to help me sleep and to also combat depression. I watched Tom Hanks movies like my life depended on it. I trained and completed a half marathon, letting my thoughts wander wherever they wanted to go. I did not hang out with a lot of people, because it was very hard for me to pretend I was OK, to talk about kids and jobs and whatever else I thought was expected of me. I wanted to be intense and quiet and a little rebellious.
I hated my new neighborhood, but tried hard to fight that feeling. I slowly found a sense of solidarity with it instead. As it turns out, depression, coupled with having young kids and zero dollars, is one of the best ways to get to know your new neighborhood. We took walks, we hung around, we never went anywhere, because there was nowhere cool to go (plus, someone would have been in tears anyways). Slowly, we started to recognize people, and they recognized us. We got a sense of the layout, of the atmosphere, we learned things that you can only learn by staying put and being quiet. Even though it was a burned-our suburb, the new face of poverty in America (payday loans and 7-11’s being some of the only stores within walking distance)—I started to try harder to look for the good. Mexican food, I decided, along with the incredible view of Mt. Hood. Tacos and a great view of the mountains. Lift your eyes up to the heavens, then lower them down to your plate. Say thank you, and eventually you will mean it.
Things have simmered down emotionally, but it is not perfect. I get thrown back into chaos over simple things: reading a story of a missionary trying to do good, for instance, or by the thought of my baby getting his shots next week. These moments of irrationality (I am no longer doing anything of value with my life! I don’t want my baby to get sick and die!) remind me that I am not in control. And in my own small way I am grateful for that reminder. Because control itself is a big fat lie, one that I will have to keep beating back with all of my worth if I am to make something of this chaotic, delicious existence. None of us could ever really be rich enough or safe enough or praised enough to satiate us. No, we have other, much deeper wells we need to be digging.
A few months ago, we started helping out at the homework club our friend and neighbor started. The kids are wild and scrumptious, all over the map scholastically, and when it is sunny they play soccer in the busy parking lot because there is nowhere else to go. I started an English class, really an excuse to meet people and to help them meet each other. It’s like a little gathering of the United Nations, we are a map of people from the most war-torn countries you have read about in the newspapers. The troubles of surviving pile up in front of me as people tell me their stories and situations and I feel the old temptation to despair. But how disrespectful would that be, to wallow in sadness when their bright eyes are in front of me, wanting to learn and change and grow and thrive. I learn from them, is the cliche thing I am trying to say. I learn how to get better, because every day I see it modeled in front of me.
I can feel it, like the changing of a season. I am entering into a new phase of life. I feel incredibly visible, like I am living in a fishbowl. Now that we know people, if we step outside our back door into the communal courtyard the interactions are immediate: women inviting me over for tea, women waving from the balconies, commenting on my appearance, children wanting to play with my daughter or eat the few tiny strawberries we are growing. I feel like I am living in the Oregon (and happier) version of a Ferrante novel, everyone living life in the sight of each other. I try and wear long, baggy clothes, conscious of my mostly-Muslim neighbors. Our small little prayer time that we hold weekly is growing, slowly. We say the same words to each other, every week, as we share the joys and sorrows of our lives: O Lord let my soul rise up to meet you, as the day rises to meet the sun. Every day, every morning, every week. Look for the mercies, they are new every morning, even if they are surrounded on all sides by lamentations.
I also wrote a book, and copies are making their way into the hands of reviewers and endorsers, and soon enough—to your hands too. It’s a different way of being visible, and I am not quite sure what to do because I don’t live next door to you. My story, my thoughts, my neighborhoods and how they have changed me—they will all be laid bare before anyone who wants to judge. But instead of focusing on that, and my fears and insecurities, my pride and my hubris, I am trying to look for the good. And that, as always, is connecting with others through our hearts. Connecting with others who wanted to change the world, or thought they did, or thought that in some small way they could make it all better and possibly convince God to love them just a little bit more.
I have some exciting things coming up in the next few months, podcasts and articles and giveaways and blog series. I’m going to be preparing to send the book of my heart into the world, and I look forward to hearing from those who read it. To all who have been with me on this journey—from the beginning, or maybe just from last week—I am so grateful. You have been a part of helping me heal in a way, as well. You continue to help me move forward, and you show me that it is possible to love neighbors both near and far.
Here is what one of my literary heros, Kyle Minor, has to say about it:
As always, if you would like updates and/or links to places I have written or spoken in the past month, please sign up for my newsletter. I will be sending out a juicy one soon!