On Pursuing the Genuine

A friend and I were texting tonight and laughing about those old journals we kept when we were fourteen or so that we wish we could burn but we kind of can’t because that person was us at one point–or maybe just because the journals were cool and expensive and so shouldn’t be burned.

Just thinking about that person who-used-to-be-me makes me die of embarrassment. We are talking about a teenager who looked for super-long knit dresses at the thrift store because that was what was “cool” at church, who judged everybody on sight and by very narrow standards, who was trying desperately not to grow up in some embarrassing ways. Basically the only thing from those years that doesn’t make me cringe is the part that was the very worst during those years–my deep struggles with faith and what I could believe about God and the world around me.

I think that part isn’t too embarrassing because it was genuine. It was mine and mine only.

At some point I shifted from fierce conformity to fierce individualism. And in the middle of all that was this great, genuine grappling with what I believed, with what really counted in life.

Interesting.

One of my friends posted today about conformity and the value we place on it in conservative circles, that she felt like water, easily taking the shape of every vessel she was poured into. She was not being bitter, but simply reflective about how the very qualities that make one an excellent citizen and family member are also qualities that can make one wonder who, exactly, one is.

I wondered as I read her post, because I was once her, and I am no longer.

Not that I don’t try to conform. I mean, my goodness, even edgy little subcultures have their set of ways that one must dress and behave, and woe to the one who doesn’t! I mean, a goth who doesn’t care for skulls? A girly girl who doesn’t like pink? A geek who doesn’t watch Star Trek? Can such things be? The second you realize that you’re comfortable in a subculture, there’s a pressure to start checking off the boxes you don’t already have checked.

Nevertheless, at some point in my life, I kind of scrapped everything and started rebuilding myself based on what I genuinely believed and genuinely liked. It started with the faith crisis, it continued in college as, you know, I got to choose my major (and chose something I liked) and then got to choose elective classes (Seriously, I was a writing major with an education minor and I took medieval history and choir just for kicks). Then I got a job doing (surprise!) something that I liked. And I have decided that because I feel called there (deep personal beliefs) and because the fact that I enjoy it is more important than the fact that I don’t make much money, I am staying there. On a more day-to-day level, if I like certain music, I will listen to it. If I like a show, I will watch it, provided I don’t have grading to do. (And if it gets canceled I will throw a several-year tantrum.) Life is too short not to do things that are genuine–things I genuinely like, things that genuinely matter to me.

Of course, to make sure I’m being spiritual enough, I should add that it does matter to me that God and I can still talk. If something clearly isn’t helping with that, then it does need to go. But even then, that standard isn’t because someone else is telling me to have it–it’s because that is truly important to me. It is genuine.

Seriously, when taken with a grain of salt, “follow your heart”–as in, base your life on what you genuinely believe and what you genuinely enjoy–is not half bad advice.

Does ┬ácome with some snags? You betcha. Such as, you know, a paranoia of disapproval if I mention movies or music I like around people with stricter standards. Or accusations of intolerance if what I genuinely believe about God isn’t in keeping with what’s popular. But whatever you like or believe or feel, there will always be someone who disapproves of it. Always. And if we let that stop us, nothing would ever get done.

If I could go back and tell that horrifyingly awkward fourteen-year-old in those journals one thing, I think it would be an encouragement to be genuine. To only do something because she really wanted to, because she really liked it, because she really believed it. And to value the genuine in herself and others.

“Do you ever think about how much you’ve changed and wonder if you’re even still the same person?” I texted my friend. (I may have been binge-ing Dollhouse and having some deep metaphysical thoughts about personhood.)

“Lol,” he replied. “Hopefully I’m not!”

The more I think about it, the more I don’t think I am. And the more I think about it, the surer I become that that is a truly excellent thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Days

Some days you don’t want to go to bed because it means waking up the next morning. At that point, you know that the next day is going to be SOME day.

That was last night.

Then today actually started. I don’t need to go into all the details, but it included a fairly intense conversation with a parent before first period was even over. An hour into the school day, and I felt like throwing up and really just wanted to crawl into a dark hole and hide. I felt like I was splitting at the seams, and if you poked me too hard, all the stuffing would come out.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take much. During lunch period, in front of my high schoolers, a fellow teacher and dear friend asked a harmless question that sent me into defensive mode. The stuffing was leaking, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was tension. There were tears. I left the room.

Not only had I hurt her, but my poor high schoolers, who certainly don’t need any more drama and emotion in their lives, were treated to tension between two trusted teachers. Not okay. Not in any way okay. And it was all my fault– unquestionably my fault. I frantically scooped up the stuffing, grabbed a needle and thread, and got to work. Apologizing to my friend in front of the kids was the best way to patch up the situation, but it was, after all, a patch where something had been irreparably torn that should never have been, and I left school today feeling like the biggest waste of oxygen on the planet.

This happens, you see. I make mistakes. Even worse, I do things I know are wrong. And I keep doing them. Then I realize I’ve been doing something wrong, and I sit back and imagine God’s perspective. But, after all, I am human, and this projected dialogue with God is a dialogue with my humanized imagination of God. It usually goes something like this:

Erika: “So I did it again. I know it was wrong, I knew it was wrong when I was doing it, and I did it again.”

God: “All right. I love you anyway, but hey, girl, I want to USE you. I want you to be an important part of my story here, and you’ve got to get your act together if you want that. You want that, don’t you?”

Erika: “Of course I do!!!”

God: “All right, then. Get your act together!”

But God, as we’re clearly told, does not think the way man thinks and doesn’t see the way man sees. In fact, sometimes (usually, I find) His workings are so completely and totally opposite anything we would plan out that there is no way they cannot be “other,” that they cannot be divine in origin. I see this in salvation; no human who really takes sin and evil seriously would invent a system in which their sin gets completely paid by someone else. It’s just irresponsible; we want to feel the pain, we want to feel like we’re atoning for things. We want to earn our way, to do penance.

But oh no. God had another plan up His sleeve, one so “other” that it can’t help but be divine.

It’s easy to see it in salvation. It’s not so easy to see it in the nitty gritty stuff in life.

For example, I’ve been noticing a very odd, very “other” trend. Every time I do one of these things, every time I do something I know is wrong and then feel terribly sorry for it and beg for forgiveness, what I would expect is a setback. I would expect a probation period, a time during which God wants me to come closer to Him and learn some obedience before he gives me a new assignment in his Story. A time to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done.

But oh no.

Instead, I usually find that within twenty-four hours, I have been thrown an assignment of more-or-less epic spiritual proportions (usually involving a person in need) and have experienced victory in it.

This happens way too often for it to be a coincidence.

Back to tonight.

I think it’s safe to say that today was one of my biggest failures (out of many) that I’ve had in quite some time. I really, really blew it in front of a lot of people who mattered to me and who I’m something of an example to. If there was ever a time for me to get pulled out of the game for a while, thrown into the penalty box to ponder my ways, this would be the time.

Instead, four hours after leaving school in tears, I found myself on the back stairway of my church beside a fourth grade girl as she prayed the fourth-grade version of “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner” and became, as she called it, “God’s kid.”

You see, I’m beginning to understand something absolutely mind-blowing. God doesn’t always respond to my mistakes by telling me to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done. He knows– he knows very well– that I want to be a meaningful part of the Story. He also knows that I’m weak and have issues. So, instead of dangling a “someday” in front of me and telling me to get my act together, the conversation runs something like this:

Erika: “God, I blew it again. I really messed up. I did it even though I knew it was wrong. I’m going to go put myself in the corner and think about what I’ve done.”

God: “No! No! Get back in the game! I have something I want you to do RIGHT NOW!”

Erika: “But I’m not your person. Didn’t you hear? I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway.” (looks up from the corner) “Oh! Look! Something needs to be done!”

(Goes and does it)

Erika: (comes back with a grin) “That was so cool!” (remembers earlier failure, head droops) “Wait, I messed up. Why did you use me? I need to sit in the corner and think about what I’ve done!”

God: (just grins)

Erika: “WAIT. Hey, that’s not fair. You didn’t play by the rules. You’re supposed to wait until I get my act together before you use me, right? Right?”

God: (just grins)

Erika: “Are you trying to tell me that the whole sit-in-the-corner thing was my idea?”

God: “Maybe. Hey, if I wait till you get your act together, you’re not going to get anything done. That’s too discouraging. So I’ve figured out something better. How about you get back in the action and actually DO some of the cool stuff in my power, and remember how much you like it.”

Erika: (grudgingly) “That DOES sound a whole lot more motivating.”

God: “How about I help you get your act together, instead of you doing it on your own, and we do it WHILE we’re doing the cool stuff?”

Erika: (sigh of relief) “Now THAT sounds like something that could actually happen.”

Of course this is all coming out of my imagination. I’m not even trying to say that God actually says these words to me. But it is actually how He’s been working. No dangling-carrots. No penalty boxes. Just… grace. Grace, which is frighteningly, gorgeously “other.”

And that’s more than enough to get me through some days.

An Open Letter to a Friend

Hello there…

Last weekend we both came face to face with something that we have both tried to ignore, tried to pretend wasn’t going to happen. We’ve philosophized about friendship, we’ve hung out as friends, we’ve talked openly and honestly as friends, I have celebrated our friendship repeatedly on my blog. And yet, we both knew, I think, that at some far-distant point, we would have to face the fact that you are a guy and I am a girl, and that our friendship had, despite our attempts to say otherwise, remained open to the possibility of another type of relationship. We couldn’t escape that door; we could super-glue it shut, but the creature imprisoned behind it was alive, and would need to be dealt with, whether through befriending it or putting it to death.

On Saturday, in the gentlest way possible, you told me “that we needed to put a period after the word ‘friends.'” That it wasn’t my fault, but just wasn’t going to become that other kind of relationship. And, oddly, as much as I care for you, I agreed with you. Deep in my soul, I knew you were right. Besides, I trust you.

It was right, but I am sad. I am sad because I cannot be certain that I will ever meet someone with the same qualities I so admire in you. I am also sad because, for very good reasons, we will not be getting together every week or so to watch a movie and talk about fictional characters and fuss about the people we love and our personal struggles. I will miss those things very much. Your friendship, over the past six months or so, has given me strength and support to deal with some very difficult events and issues, and I will miss getting all the texts and seeing you smile and feeling your hugs. I will miss you .

But I don’t want you to feel bad. In fact, that’s one reason I’m writing this. Because you should not feel guilty for being honest, not any more than I should for caring for you. I do not blame you; I do not blame me; the sadness is natural. It makes sense, anyway. People our age are looking for a life partner, and toward that end we make friendships, we have crushes, we fall in love, and then we evaluate the relationship and ask ourselves: is this the one? And, no matter how much we love that person, if that person is NOT the one, we’d better just admit it. Things like this just happen. They stink, but they are not wrong. They are, in fact, part of life.

Actually, I want to thank you. I have been in your place before, having to tell someone who liked me that it wasn’t going to work out. And he took it very badly. You know all about that story. I didn’t want to have to do that again. I would have felt so guilty if you had not spoken up, if you had left it up to me to call this relationship-thing what it was. Thank you beyond words for having the courage and forthrightness to bring it up. Thank you for “being the man” about it, if you will.

Also, thank you beyond words for doing it gently. I did not feel cheapened or devalued by the manner in which you did it. You, in fact, said that you didn’t want to keep me waiting, that you wanted to step aside so someone even better could come. You said that your reasons had nothing to do with my personal qualities, and, in fact, praised me. That’s not to say that I haven’t since struggled with self-worth, but it’s more “No one else will be okay with strange little me” than “He didn’t want strange little me.” Thank you for making me feel like a queen (if a lonely one), instead of something cheap. Thank you.

Because you were so very decent about all of it, you have given me a wonderful gift. Despite a sense of loss and the questions about what’s ahead now, there is no anger and hardly any hurt associated with my memories of our friendship. I have no guilt, no regrets, no hard feelings.

I will always be able to look back on our movie-and-dinner nights with a smile. When I watch Guardians of the Galaxy or I, Robot or all of Doctor Who season 8, I will smile remembering the fun of watching them first with you. When I eat quiche I will remember making it for you and then learning how much you disliked cheese. Or brownies! Heaven help me. I want to laugh just thinking of how you praised them so much out of politeness, so I kept making them even though you couldn’t stand them. When I put on my long coat, I will remember wearing it in the corn maze and wearing it to go see Dracula, and how you thought it was cool, not ridiculous. When I listen to that Anna Nalick album you showed me, I’ll remember our crazy Half Price Books day, when we ate a picnic on a narrow strip of grass beside a busy street in the middle of Lynnwood. When I am struggling to be strong, I will remember that you believed I was.

So much good. So much happiness. So many beautiful memories.

And thank you for being a good friend. For listening when I needed to talk. For being a guy with whom I could feel completely safe. For treating me, not like something “other,” but as an equal. Thank you for all the goodness you blessed me with.

We knew we’d have to figure out what it was someday. Thank you for bringing it up and for doing it in a way that left all the happiness and beauty untouched.

Things have changed. We can’t kid ourselves; it can’t be what it was, even if neither of us are quite sure what that even was. But I wanted you to know that, in the words of the Doctor, “you added to my pile of good things.” And those good things are precious and will never go away.

Again, from the bottom of my heart, I say, Thank you.

A Redirected Revolution

“Anna, what do you say to a guy who wants to marry you?” my dad asked my sister Anna. We were all quite young–I would guess that Anna was four or five at the time– and we were passing the time on a family road trip.

Anna’s voice was sweet as she piped up with the perfect answer. “Speak to my father first.”

“Good! And Linda, what would you say if a guy asked to marry you?”

My two-year-old sister didn’t miss a beat. “YES!” she shouted.

It was funny. We all roared with laughter, and I immortalized it in one of the little comic strips I liked to draw of funny things my sisters said.

Today, though, it isn’t all that funny. Because today I am sitting around, halfway between resentful submission and outright antagonistic revolt, because my father is unhappy with me, a twenty-seven-year-old who has lived on her own for almost six years now, for having a guy friend without consulting him.

It would be funny if it wasn’t me. And my dad. And my dear friend. And the holidays.

My dad is generous, and kind, and wants nothing more than to protect his family, provide for them, and see them happy and safe. He also wants to serve God with all his heart. I know–as, in fact, my guy friend keeps having to remind me–that he loves me, and that all of his actions come out of a heart that loves and longs to protect. But somewhere out of this desire, he has subscribed to one of the many variants of a word that I am beginning to loathe: courtship.

Now, there are about as many different takes on that word as there are people who use it. I find that most people in my particular conservative Christian circle mean a variant on dating (though heaven forbid calling it that) which includes the guy who’s interested in you talking to the father, the father taking the guy through a sort of screening process, while the guy and girl get to know each other in supervised situations, particularly in groups of friends or with the girl’s family. Then, once the guy passes the screening process, he once again asks the father for permission to marry the girl, and the girl can at that point say “yes,” and he can put a ring on her finger. In a few months, they’re walking down an aisle.

My dad’s version includes something he calls “the Program,” which is a systematic method by which he hopes to get to know the fellow in question and show him for who he is, including reading a carefully selected reading list along with my dad and having weekly reading discussions.

The problem with all (and I mean ALL) man-made formulas is that they are just that: man-made. And when something is man-made, it will have a margin of error. It will not be one-size-fits-all.

The particular problem with this version of courtship is that this schema was not designed to accommodate a woman who is nearly thirty, has been living on her own, and has not screened her choices past her father for eight or nine years. Further complications arise when this particular young woman feels strongly about being able to make her own decisions.

The conflict was inevitable.

I was aware that my father would eventually like to know my friend. However, I knew that, to him, it would be highly singular and furthermore deeply suspect if he knew that I spent plenty of time with a guy as a friend. The whole “just-friends” thing, by the way, is rarely if ever found in the courtship schema, as far as I have seen. I mean, you’re hanging out before your dad has had a chance to screen him?

The problem was that my friend and I really, really wanted this to be just-a-friendship. We’re both cautious people, and we’ve been burned before, and we have no desire to rush into something. Why not just be friends, for a good long time, if not indefinitely? And if it turned into something else, save all the awkward parent conversations for later?

But I was growing uncomfortable with having to deliberately sidestep the gender of my friend in conversations. I never lied, but it was feeling sneaky–sneaky about something I shouldn’t have to be sneaky about. So in typical fashion, I decided to run at it headlong. I introduced my father to my friend, figuring there would be unpleasantness so we might as well have it out.

They spent all of twenty minutes in each other’s presence. I thought it didn’t go horribly, but alas I was wrong. Two nights later, I got a call from my dad. He wanted to talk about it.

I don’t really “talk about” stuff with my dad on a regular basis. Listening is not his gift, and submitting graciously is not really mine. So our interactions, while pleasant, have avoided controversy by skimming on the surface. But I had reached a sort of epiphany. The truth is, I loved my dad. I want very much for him to be part of my adult life. And while I do not feel obliged to “obey” him letter-by-letter, I do very much want to give him honor.

As my friend Mary pointed out, honor could very well mean opening my heart to him. It could mean trusting him to handle this situation well. And a relationship of trust is a relationship of truth.

So I listened to my dad. I listened to him talk about the shortcomings he perceived in my friend. I listened to him talk about what he wanted “the Program” to look like. I listened to him talk about how what he really, ultimately, wanted, in case of a serious romantic relationship of mine, was to get to know the guy, to have a relationship with him himself.

Then I shared my heart. I was finally honest with my dad about the things about the Program that made me nervous, about how I didn’t like everything being put into a formula because not everyone fit a formula. I told him that I wanted to trust him but it was hard, and when he asked why, I was honest with him. I got to say a lot of things I’d been wanting to say for some time, in a way that I felt was honest but not unkind.

Then I went home this weekend–and my little sister told me about the aftermath. Apparently he had discussed my conversation with him over dinner, and he had told the family that I did not want him to be part of that aspect of my life. Apparently it had also been seen as a sort of betrayal that I had had a guy friend without his knowledge, as well.

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

I tried to talk to my dad that night, to no avail. He had worked a long day and was too tired to focus. I did manage, the next morning, to convince my mom that I hadn’t said those things, nor was that how I felt. But I felt so violated. I had finally opened my mind and heart to him, and I had been misunderstood on a catastrophic level.

My initial and regrettable impulse, once I recovered somewhat, was to decide that, well, it must be time for someone to stage a revolt against this whole system. But the more I tried to wrap my head around this Hunger-Games-esque resistance movement, the more it sat wrong with me. I don’t want alienation from my family. I don’t want to sit alone in my apartment, secure in my independence but with unraveling family ties. I love my family. They matter to me.

What I want is an adult relationship with my dad. I want him to listen to my side. I want him to hear my perspective and give it thoughtful consideration. I want him as a friend and advisor, not a dictator. I want to find a way that I can hang out with a guy friend–and go on dates–without being afraid that he will find out and object. I would love to be able to tell him about things like that without worrying about him suspecting me of inappropriate behavior or demanding to meet the guy… because the truth is that I have a pretty strong moral compass (thanks to my family and faith), and I know my own mind and furthermore have high standards of my own when it comes to gentleman friends.

So the revolt it is not to be, at least not yet. As I go home for Thanksgiving this week, I need to be carefully considering how I can pursue this dialogue, but, even more, I need to deliberately show my dad that I love him and that I know that he loves me. I need to steel myself and try to talk with him again.

Don’t think better of me than I am. Reopening this conversation is the last thing I want to do now.

It was my guy friend, actually, who gently reminded me of the love inherent in my dad’s words, actions, and even in the Program. Despite the unfairness directed at my friend and the rather vitriolic version of the weekend that he’d heard from me, he could see the love and protection in my dad’s methods. And when I asked what he thought would be the best way I could approach my dad about the situation, he said the last thing I was expecting.

“He needs to know you love him.”

Retreat or open rebellion would both be so much easier. This approach involves trusting when I am already suspicious, being vulnerable when I already feel hurt, and showing love when I feel antagonistic. Seriously, it feels like it will never work. It feels as foolhardy and impossible as the X-Men sending Wolverine back in time to talk sense back into young Professor X. It requires tact and delicacy and patience, and I’m feeling more like sullenness alternated with claws-out attacks. I have next to no hope that the situation will be resolved peacefully, and next to no confidence in my own ability to handle it well.

But what is the truth of the matter? The truth is that I have done nothing wrong–in having a guy friend, in being honest with my father about how I feel about his Program, in any of it. The truth is that no one else actually has control over me, and that the only person I “belong to” is my Heavenly Father. The truth is that “courtship” is a cultural construct, and that the intentions–purity and discernment– can be achieved by other paths as well. The truth is that, if my dad and I are willing to find it, a middle ground exists in which he can act as the protector while allowing me to be the adult I have become. And, even if we cannot find it, no part of my life needs to be destroyed thereby. None.

And the truth is that I love my father and he loves me. And in recognition of that love, however distorted and twisted its expressions might be, I intend to give the whole dialogue thing another shot. I’ll redirect my fighting spirit and, instead of fighting against my dad, fight for a new kind of relationship with him. It probably won’t work, but isn’t that the most epic kind of fight?

Excuse me. I’m going to go listen to the Gladiator soundtrack.

Like Cold Water

I didn’t realize just how intensely the events of last week (narrated earlier) had affected me until Friday night, when I went over to my friend Nicole’s house to chat and watch a movie. During a time we’d have normally been relaxing and chatting, she was relaxing and chatting, and I was answering in monosyllables. I felt like I could hardly move; I stared straight ahead; and, most telling of all, I’d drawn my legs up instead of stretching out on the recliner.

That moment when I feel safest when I’m as compact as I can make my nearly 6’frame– that moment, my friends, is a dangerous moment. Because, if you poke me with a stick, there is no telling whether I will run screaming from the room, run screaming at you, or just stare blankly at you and the stick as if I’ve never seen such a thing before.

What proceeded, though, over the next few days, was nothing short of astounding.

It’s hard to say at what point it started. But somewhere back toward the middle of that week, I kept getting texts. And messages. And little comments from people who I didn’t think even noticed that all was not all right. One of my students texted me a link to a song that spoke directly to where I was at. I got to spend a portion of Saturday with a dear friend who not only gave me hugs but also washed the dinner dishes for me and shared a Doctor Who episode that specifically addressed finding hope at the point where there seemed to be none (the 50th anniversary special, in case anyone was wondering). I mean, there were lines in that episode that seemed eerily written for me. A favorite Facebook page posted a meme with one of my favorite quotes from Lord of the Rings: that moment when Aragorn looks in hopeless eyes at Helm’s Deep and reminds the fighters, “There is always hope.” Friends– friends whom I usually looked after, not the other way around– were checking in with me because they were worried about me.

I didn’t understand it. On one hand, I was downright uncomfortable with all the attention. On the other hand, I was beginning to have no delusions about my own weakness and the fact that these people were actually helping.

But it all reached a head on Sunday.

I was on my way to church, and I got a text message. I checked it, and it was my mentor from student teaching last year– a woman I literally have not seen in months. “You are especially in our prayers this morning,” it read. WHAT. This was going beyond “I have a problem that people must be able to see.” This was getting downright weird.

But things didn’t get better. They got worse. Anyone who’s dealt with something similar will understand what I mean when I say that sometimes, when I am low like this, waves of inner blackness will come, for no explainable reason, and fighting them off is exhausting if not impossible. I don’t think I could tell you much about the church service, honestly, because it was mostly engulfed in one such wave. I made it home, though, things a little abated although not necessarily better.

Shortly thereafter, my phone rang. It was one of my best friends, whom I was more or less expecting. We talk most Sunday afternoons. Our conversations are usually a glorious mix of elaborate story crafting, sci-fi-tinged theological wonderings, rants about the world’s stupidity, and the occasional Hannibal joke.

I hate it when, instead, they turn into me sobbing my heart out into my friend’s ear. Never mind that she’s done that a few times, too. It just feels wrong, coming from me. It’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I’m supposed to be.

But there we were. And then something happened that I very much hope I will never forget. I don’t see how I ever could, anyway.

“You know, Erika,” she said. “I was thinking about you this week, and about all the stuff that’s been happening the last year or so. I was thinking about it, and I actually wrote some stuff about it.” She sounded embarrassed. “I wrote a poem, actually. And I won’t read it to you. I won’t read it to anyone, but let me see if I can just tell you the gist of what I was thinking. You’re going to make it. It will all be okay.”

“Well, of course I will,” I said. “If we look to eternity, we’ve all got a happy ending.”

“I had that one thrown in my face a few too many times to find it comforting. But you can think it if it helps; it’s true. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you, in this life, in this situation. It will be okay.”

Before I go any further, one fact requires explanation. My friend just doesn’t say this sort of thing. Any cynicism I may display, I learned from her. She is one of the most cynical, pessimistic people I know–and what makes her pessimism stick in one’s mind is that it’s based on cold, hard, indisputable facts. She’s had more than the usual human share of grief and maltreatment, herself. Her outlook on life and humanity is bleak but justifiably so. She is, in fact, so consistently right about impending disaster that I have taken to just taking her at her word, no questions asked.

This, then, was the person who 1) wrote a poem about MY situation and 2) was now telling me that things were going to work out with the school. It was almost too much for me to process.

“Why do you say that?” I finally managed, quietly.

“Because I know you,” she said. “Because of who you are.”

I wanted to argue, to protest, to demand an explanation. But really, I knew what she was saying. It didn’t require an explanation. I just didn’t believe it. It seemed like such a strange reason to hope, a reason grounded in the one thing I really had no confidence whatsoever in, in the thing I felt was crumbling. Because of who I was?

“I watched a movie last week that you should watch,” she was continuing. “A Western. Tombstone. The best part of the movie was Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday character. I’ll send it to you. You should see it. He reminds me of you.”

The movie arrived at the speed of a digital document, and I watched it almost as soon as it arrived. And without spoiling a rather excellent piece of filmmaking for those who haven’t seen it, Doc Holliday was easily the coolest character in the whole story. He’s a drunkard and a gambler, but he’s got this sense of humor that stuns his enemies, and, even better, he’s casually deadly with a gun and has no objections to shooting up anyone or anything that gets in his way. All the while, might I add, he is suffering from a worsening lung disease.

I was enjoying his character immensely, but having some difficulty understanding my friend’s comparison until a scene where another character demands, incredulously, to know why he just keeps fighting. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend!” he declares.

Nice one. I get it now, I thought.

But it didn’t end there. No spoilers, but that character just kept on going. He kept on fighting. It was ridiculous. It was beautiful. And by the time the movie was over, I was so overwhelmed at being compared to this character that I felt the need to call my friend and just sort it out.

At this point, I should probably mention that my student decided to come back to the school. The initial source of panic, the tipping point, was unexpectedly resolved Sunday night. I got a text from her simply saying that she would be back in school on Monday.

I could almost taste my relief. And I recalled my post about the scarcity of miracles, and I smiled. Take that, odds. Maybe you are in my favor.

I would love to say that life swung upward permanently. But the fact is that by the time I actually got to talk to my friend again about the movie, I had had another very difficult day, and what I had hoped would be an enjoyable discussion of the movie turned into another impassioned round of tears. It took an Evanescence sing-along and a long Facebook chat with another friend before I was at peace enough to sleep that night. No, I would not say that things have gotten easier, even though that particular hurdle has been crossed.

But I know one thing. I know that, no matter how close to exploding or getting engulfed I might feel, it will work out. My pessimistic friend told me so. And she is always right.

The moral of the story: A pessimist wields a power of comfort that an optimist can’t even touch. Optimists, at their best, are relying on an unquenchable scaly hope. An honest pessimist, on the other hand, cannot help but say what they see. And if they see hope, hope there must really be indeed.

So, keep that in mind, pessimists. Your day may come to do what no optimist can. Because, like cold water in a dry and weary land is optimism from a pessimist.

Hope is the Thing With Scales

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “That perches in the soul– and sings the music without words– and never stops– at all–”

I think mine doesn’t have feathers. I think it has scales. Scales made out of the same stuff they use to make blast shields in sci-fi movies.

Because like those stupid bugs that you can grind into the carpet and they still somehow live, I cannot seem to stop hoping that the worst of things will work out. Even if, for a day, I am convinced that there is no point and things are finally hopeless, the slightest touch, the slightest breath of promise, however far-fetched and foolish it might seem, revives my hope, and up it springs, tormenting me once again.

Yes, I say tormenting. And I know I’m being melodramatic, but I’m allowed to be. I’ve had a hideous week, and I can’t seem to give up hope.

That sounds like a wonderful thing, and, deep down, I suppose it is. But sometimes it would just be such a relief to actually be able to throw one’s hands up over a situation and walk away, heart at peace because there actually, truly is no hope. But no. Like one of those tough-shelled bugs, my hope only appears to die. Then it reappears to throw me back into the game.

And I’m not talking a gentleman’s game. More like the Hunger Games.

Allow me to provide a little background before I once again continue philosophizing. I teach at a minuscule Christian school. We had enough students–and just enough students– to run a full program this year. After putting more effort than I really had to give into promotional work last year, we still ended up with fewer students than we had last year. But we still had enough to run a program. Then, last week, one of our full-time students pulled out for “personal reasons.” And it was a student I’d personally connected with and spent a lot of love and tears on.

I cried so much Tuesday that my eyelids were puffy for two straight days. I do not exaggerate.

Tuesday I was convinced that the school could not survive. I finally began to consider the possibility that the promotional efforts had been in vain and maybe I should start looking for another job next school year. Maybe it was time to just give up. After all, what else could I do? I’d already tried.

But of course, the next day, our administrator and I tossed the situation back and forth, and he encouraged me to keep up the promotional work. And that night, I chatted with the student, who admitted that she might want to return at some point.

So, you see, hope is alive and well.

And it’s so very annoying.

Because, you see, there really is no good reason for it. My student could just as well decide to stay out of our school. I might not have any more luck getting our information out to churches that have already slammed the door on me once or twice. And if we don’t get any more students this year, who knows where my last couple of paychecks are going to come from? Hope is ridiculous.

But without it, nothing impossible would ever be attempted. And it’s true that every now and then, once in a blue moon, one chance in a thousand, something impossible actually does happen. Hope lives because miracles do sometimes happen. And on the off chance that this school will be one of them, I will act on my hope.

Pain and disappointment, here we come. All because that stupid scaly thing in my soul won’t die.

Fourth Graders (and Me) on Marriage

Besides teaching high school, this year I am also working several hours a day as a teacher assistant for a combined 4th/ 5th grade class at our “sister school,” Oak Harbor Christian School. While switching between 12th grade literature and 4th grade math within minutes has been a mental stretch, it’s a joy.

But I still can’t seem to get those fourth and fifth graders to call me “Miss” Heins. To them, any female adult worthy of a title must needs be a “Mrs.”

Today I decided to remedy this error. Every time a fourth grader called me “Mrs. Heins,” I replied, “Miss Heins. Mrs. Heins is my mom. A wonderful lady, but she’s not me.” It was cute, it made them giggle, and, best of all, by the time I was finishing up with them, most of them were getting it right.

But one girl, a lovable ants-in-her-pants fourth grader who likes to talk to me about Star Wars during recess, wouldn’t let it go. To her, it was just too astonishing that an adult female wouldn’t be a “Mrs.”

“You mean you’re not married?” she demanded incredulously.

“Nope.” I grinned back at her.

“You’ve NEVER been married??”

“Nope.”

And the freckle-faced imp looked at me and declared, “We’ve gotta find you a husband!”

I pointed down at her half-completed math test, and she got the idea.

It was cute. It made me smile. And, coming out of the mouth of a fourth-grader, there was nothing whatsoever offensive about it. In fact, I prided myself that maybe I’d opened her mind to the possibility that adult females are not, actually, always married.

In fact, if a freckled fourth-grader had been the only one to demand such a question of me, I wouldn’t be thinking twice about it. And I probably wouldn’t be blogging about it. But she isn’t.

As a Christian twenty-seven-year-old raised in quite conservative circles, I have been surrounded with the concept that I was born to be married. Not that my parents (bless them) ever told me that, but I was taught how to cook “for my family someday” and we did assemble “hope chests,” because, after all, we all “hoped” we’d get married someday. Basically, people talked about Christian girls growing up to do one of two things: be a mommy or be a missionary. And if you were really, really cool, you’d get to do both.

So I talked about being a missionary and planned on being a mommy. I think, deep down, I figured things would work out for me like they had for my parents: I’d go to a Christian college, meet Mr. Right there, and get married a couple of months after graduation.

But it didn’t happen.

Partly, that was my fault. I was a late bloomer. My freshman year I looked like I’d just come off the farm, and my sophomore year I tried to wear makeup and failed. By the time I was a junior, I was developing self-confidence and friendships, but still somehow seemed invisible to the opposite gender. I didn’t mind, though. By that time, I was taking a heavy load of writing classes and was deeply enjoying wading waist-deep through art and writing and other things that I loved. I had a tight-knit group of girlfriends. In other words, I was happy, socialized, and very, very busy.

By the time I knew it, I’d graduated, no boy in tow.

I didn’t have long to worry about my state. I got a job, and after a several-year, somewhat-rocky transition, I moved out of my parents’ house, got an apartment, made friends, and once again started filling my life chock-full of things that I loved and people I loved. Not that it’s always been perfect or happy, but my life is full and good and worth it. It doesn’t feel like “half a life.”

I remember talking with a friend I worked with at summer camp, who was in such agony to have a particular counselor as her boyfriend that I just kind of looked her at in shock. She really, truly felt like she was half a person without, well, “another half” (pernicious saying). It was something of an epiphany for me.

Why do so many of my fellow conservatively-raised Christian women feel this need to put their lives on hold until a man walks through the door and sweeps them off their feet? It’s not, I think, because we don’t WANT to be useful. I think most of us really do want to play a meaningful role in God’s story. I think it’s because we’ve been raised to think of ourselves as incomplete.

I don’t think our parents ever meant us to see ourselves that way. I know mine certainly didn’t. They wanted me, I think, to honor the role of motherhood in a world that often puts it down. They wanted me to be a good wife should I get married. And their intentions were pure. I think they did a better job, honestly, than many other parents I know did. (In a way, the very fact that boys were not the center of my life in college proves that.) I don’t and never have felt like I’m missing a half.

But now I get half-questions, half-thoughts from them and some of the other conservative Christian adults who have watched me grow up. Yes, it’s fantastic that I’m a teacher. But haven’t I done this “on my own” thing long enough? Haven’t I met a guy yet? In my student’s less tactful words, “We gotta find a husband for you!”

Maybe I have met a guy and maybe I haven’t. Frankly, I’m not even sure myself. I’ve dated a few times; I’ve made guy friends. I’ve more or less outgrown my awkwardness around guys. I am not in the least opposed to the idea of getting married. I would do it in an instant if I met a man I cared about enough and who cared about me enough.

But I do know this: I don’t mind if I stay single. And there is no guarantee that I will EVER get married. But I have no plans of ever moving back in with my parents. I like having my own place, where I can serve meals to people and write my stories and hang my art on the wall. And I sure do wish that the happily-married-for-30-years adults around me would be okay with it.

For now, though, I’ll settle with teaching fourth graders that “Miss” is nothing to be ashamed of.