Starting on Year 29

Today is my birthday. I was born just after 7 in the morning after only 4 hours of labor. It was the first time I willingly got up early, my poor mother. Although I have friends, and although I had the best family support I can imagine—including the best brother—I was a lonely child. I felt unnoticed, at times unwanted, and usually wholly misunderstood by the classmates and others around me. Not understood wrongly, so much as not worth other people trying to understand. At least, that was the impression I received.

From a ridiculously young age, I imagined what it would be like to have a boyfriend. In my mind a boyfriend would validates me and help me others see me as I secretly believed I was, someone worthwhile and important and funny, with all the makings of someone who was popular. Popular kids didn’t get picked on or bullied. And I just knew that if one person could see that I was worthwhile, and would choose me, then everyone else would see it too.

It’s easy to see now how sad and, well, wrong, that thinking is. And, in some ways, how common. Everyone wants to feel special, everyone wants to be noticed. Everyone wants to be appreciated and I was no different. And our culture glorifies relationships. Even from a very young age, I believed that a relationship would magically fix a lot of hurt in my life.

On big occasions like birthdays, New Year’s, and the inevitable, evil red and pink holiday of Valentine’s Day, I would feel especially lonely. And I would console myself with pep talks about how I was too young, how I didn’t like any of these people in my classes anyway, and how I would have all I dreamed of at some point in the future. By the time I was 15, I told myself. By the time I was 16 or 17. No, 18 for sure. Before I finished college. Probably by 25. But around my senior year of college, I began to realize that the years were passing faster and faster, and I seemed no closer to being in the relationship I hoped for.

I began to see how guarded I was and how my need for order and predictability would sometimes get in the way of possible relationships. In short, I began to look at my life and choices seriously. I’d long known, logically, that nothing would be fixed by a relationship. I saw my friends enter into relationship after relationship, the good and the unhealthy, and both kinds ended. Both kinds led to marriage, too.

And, as I grew happier in my life, and more mature in general, I put less desperate hope on a relationship that would validate me and make me a better person. I worked to do those things for myself, to build great friendships everywhere I went, but I was still lonely.

I kept extraordinary busy. My mom says I’ve been busy since I was eight, and that sounds right. I look back with amazement at how responsible and disciplined I was from about that age. I certainly am not that person now, but I’m also really glad I don’t have to be. It was a stressful life, one partially-built to keep me from dwelling too much on what I was still waiting for: recognition and appreciation and classmates’ kindness and being chosen by someone.

Once I passed a mile marker age by which I had thought I would have all of my romantic dreams realized—or just to have a boyfriend at all—I could look back and see how I wasn’t ready before. Of course 12 was far too young, and 15, 16 hardly better, 17 basically the same. And 18 was such a transitive year and I was so young and nervous and twitchy! I think about all I grew to know and learn, all the ways I was able to travel, to focus on other people—many people—and how blessed I have been.

So you can guess how weird it is that, this year, I’m dating someone on my birthday. I was dating the same person on Valentine’s Day of this year. I’m about to head into a major season of holidays and I have a boyfriend. It’s very good, but it is also very weird. I’m learning for the first time how to juggle this relationship and the possibility for new traditions amidst all the other relationships and traditions I’ve built over the past 28 years.

How do I make sure that my friends continue to know how important they are to me while also allowing Tyler to take an active role in the day? I don’t want to manage people, allotting certain hours or days to one group or person versus another. But, this year, that’s kind of how it feels.

At work I’ve been reading about the Israelites transitioning into the Promised Land. They had made lives for themselves in the desert. They knew how desert living worked. This generation have been taught by their parents, who had figured it out themselves with help from God through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

And even though they knew that this is what they’ve been promised, that the new land would be wonderful, they were afraid. They needed signs from God and reassurance in Joshua’s ability. They had trusted Moses, but this new leader was untested as a solo act. He’d only ever been Moses’ apprentice. Everything felt different, even if it’s what they had dreamed of their whole lives.

I don’t mean to be particularly melodramatic. These are very small concerns in light of so much pain in the world. Still, I built my identity around being single, advocating for the unmarried to be as respected and cared for as any other group, particularly in the church. But just as no person is unimportant, no concern is trivial to our father in Heaven. Transitions need growing pains. That’s how you know it’s really growth: a bit of pain is involved, some discomfort, more than a little uncertainty.

Tyler, I love texting you good morning and goodnight every day. I love knowing my hand is welcome yours, and I love when you reach for mine. I’m so grateful that you picked me to listen to and to ask questions of and to sit beside whether the day is good or bad. I’m so grateful I picked you to get to know, to learn from, to choose to love. I look forward to every single time I’m going to see you.

My friends, thank you for waiting so long for me to text you back. Thank you for understanding that I have no idea what I’m doing. Thank you for being so understanding when I fumble stuff. Which isn’t to say that I’m not still messing up. Thank you for being excited with me and for making my life so warm. I wouldn’t have been half as happy as I’ve been these past 28 years without you. You made my life interesting and you made me a better person. Thank you.

“Bless the Lord, oh my soul.”

Oh God, I am sorry

My childhood nemesis was murdered.

I don’t mean that exactly how it sounds. For one, I had several childhood nemeses, our relationships growing progressively hostile as we grew older. But this was an early one, my second. And for another, he wasn’t murdered when we were children. It was many years later, when we were adults and living in different cities—from our hometown and from one another—and hadn’t seen or spoken to each another in over 8 years.

So why did I care so much when he died?

Maybe because I always had, or try to have, compassion. Even for my enemies. Not that we were really enemies.

Maybe it’s because he was alive, and now he’s dead.

Maybe it’s because murder is terrible.

We had a lot of fun times together, actually. But only when it was just the two of us, waiting for our moms to pick us up or working on a project together or sitting at the same art table.

I remember once asking my mom why he and I couldn’t get along except when we were alone. She told me that when we were older, maybe in high school, things would be different and maybe we could be friends. I moved to a different school a couple years later and we never got that chance, but the optimism of what our future relationship could have been colored my memories until I saw him through the lens of that never-realized friendship. I don’t know if I still harbored any bitterness toward him when I left that school at age twelve, but I know I’d long-since lost it when I got the email from my mother, his name as the subject line.

It might have been something innocuous. Mom had bumped into old friends and even other nemeses of mine at the grocery store, and spoken with their parents in the store where she works. I expected a fun update from him or his mom about how he was doing, all the more welcome because it’d been so long.

I had to read the article’s opening paragraph four or five times before I began to understand.

It was October. I’d been for a walk at some trails and was catching up on emails in my car before driving to Bible study. I felt closed up, insulated and alone but exposed, realizing how terrible a thing had been done to him.

And my next thought was of his mother. His kind, loving, hardworking mother. His mother who had already lost her husband in another act of violence.

If you think about famous nemeses, you might think about Joker to Batman or Moriarty to Sherlock. You’ll think about dastardly villains on the wrong side, foils in specific ways to the protagonist, but also compliments in vital ways. The Joker and Batman live their lives by similar but polar principles. Joker believes that anyone could become what he is—the worst of villains—if their circumstances were bad enough. And Batman believes that no matter how bad your circumstances, you too can become a hero. (Or, at least choose not to be a villain.) They work so well as nemeses because they are determined to prove themselves right to the other, but neither can destroy the other without abandoning their defining principles.

Moriarty and Sherlock are fantastic nemeses because they are so well-matched in intelligence and skill, and have similar enough vices that you can see how they very easily could be the same person or even best friends. But their moralities are just different enough that they have chosen to use their intelligence and vices and needs in entirely opposing ways.

Where Joker and Batman cannot destroy each other because of the nature of their ideological battle, Sherlock and Moriarty fear how they will cope if one should kill the other. We admire Sherlock not for the murder he commits, or believes he commits, but for his willingness to finally end this dangerous feud. He does so for everyone else’s sake, since doing so poses a real risk to his happiness and well-being.

Alex and I were good nemeses in part because we were so similar. We were both smart, analytical, logical, sassy. We enjoyed arguing and bantering. And we were both proud. When no one else was around, the pride wasn’t much of an issue so we very rarely fought. Our similarities aligned and we had a great time. But allow even one other person into our proximity and we begin to compete, to spar, and to wound. I don’t think we really meant to hurt each other, just to avoid being on the receiving end. But I remember feeling hurt, so I know I hurt him. And that, I regret almost the most.

I probably should regret inflicting pain the most, and yet children are cruel. That was the duel and the deal until I bowed out and went to another school.

I didn’t reach out to him after his father died. I regret that the most.

He didn’t need me, but I wish I hadn’t withheld my offer of support and comfort. We were similar, had history, and had been connected. I told myself I didn’t know how to reach him but I did. I just didn’t try. I repeated, “He doesn’t need you” and didn’t dwell on “But what if it could help him?”

And, oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for inflicting pain. I am sorry for withhold support. I am sorry for his fear and his death. I am sorry for his mother, his friends.

After Bible study the night I learned of his murder and the finding of his body, I stayed up for hours in the dark writing every memory I had of him. Most I hadn’t revisited in years, but they were still there, once I let my brain sift through its back rooms. My personal pain from those years of the bullying was gone in the echo of his taken life. Late, late, late, sifting and writing and sitting and grieving. The next night, I wrote more, wrote them all out, and now I have them. And I will keep those memories on paper, a back-up for my mind.

A year and a half later, the week my aunt passed suddenly of a heart attack, I wrote to the judge so he would know the man who’d been taken before passing sentence on the murderers. I sat in the dark of a Dallas hotel, my coworker/roommate asleep behind me, too far to comfort my family or be comforted by them. But I could speak for my childhood nemesis. I could advocate for his memory. And I could pray, for the thousandth time, for his mother.

His name was Alex. He was aware, so he must have been afraid when he died. I hate fear.

I tried and tried to find a way to reach his mother, to tell her how sorry I am and to share my memories of her son and husband, but she retreated and I respect her boundaries. I’m sharing about this now because, with one gunshot, October was smeared with gunpowder. Even though Alex’s birthday was in summer and I first met him in January, I think of him in October. I remember him in October.

Not only in October. Also in sunlit pools and when I see a figure through the rain and when I feel spattered paint under my fingers and when I see a pale blue polo over broad shoulders and when I hear a football being caught.

Oh God, I am sorry. I am sorry for Alex. Please comfort his mother.

Three Red Dresses

In the business and legal worlds, so taught my high school debate teacher, red is a power color. My dance teacher taught that less is more when trying to stand out. But red dresses are designed to attract attention and are worn to make statements, to distract, or as a disguise.

Think of the (often ill-fitting) red dresses you see characters wear in movies. In “Music & Lyrics,” Drew Barrymore’s character borrows a red dress to help her feel confident enough to confront a former lover. Rhett forces Scarlett O’Hara to wear a red dress so she’ll look the part of the homewrecker she tried to be. Julia Roberts’s “Pretty Woman” character wears a red dress to go to the opera with her John, as if they’re a normal couple who do this often. Peggy Carter wears red to let Steve Rogers in “Captain America” know she’s interested in him. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Downton Abbey,” “She’s All That,” “The Princess Bride,” “Titanic,” “Outlander,” “Clueless,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Arrow,” “The Princess Diaries 2,” countless Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and countless other movies and TV shows feature women wearing red dresses for one of these purposes.

I love the color red, but I’ve only worn a few red dresses over the years. Here are the stories of three of them.

The first is a dress of my mother’s. She wore it in high school, but in middle school I was playing Queen Isabella de Castille in a school play and needed something floor-length and regal. The dress my mom remembered, and which my grandmother mailed me, is a somewhat muted crimson with a deep V-neck. It’s not inappropriate, but lower than anything I’d worn thus far. The skirt billowed as I moved and the draping at the shoulder skimmed my upper arms. It was the first time I felt mature and beautiful at school. I was playing a queen. I made a headdress and veil and wore my mother’s red dress. I’d been in at least half a dozen plays or musicals to that point, but I had never before played someone whose voice carried such weight, who was always listened to. I certainly didn’t feel that way at school. I was awkward, anxious, and had been bullied. I had forged together some good friends and had good relationships with most everyone in my class. Still, that dress. Sitting on a throne, surveying my classmates in my mother’s red dress, I projected a confidence I’d never been able to display before. And if I could do it once, I could do it again.

I wore a floor-length, mermaid-style neon green dress absolutely covered in sequins to my junior prom. If I ever had a teen movie-style standout moment, it was in that green prom dress. Every single day of school, I wore a personal uniform of jeans, sneakers, t-shirt, and hoodie, but in my neon green gown, glittering as I moved, I felt light and relished the looks of surprise I received. Near the end of the following summer, my mom and I found a backless, wine-colored prom dress left over from the previous season. This dress was more mature, more romantic, than anything I’d ever put it. In the green dress, I had been vivid, effervescent, but in the red dress I would be daring, mature, desirable. My classmates would remember me differently. This was senior prom, after all. I think we paid $30 for it and I wore it, strappy and gauzy and slinky, in my room, trying to take pictures in the mirror that would capture what I felt while wearing this dress. But it didn’t fit perfectly, and by the time we got to March, I’d decided not to wear it. I was ready to leave high school. I loved my small circle of friends and planned to stay in contact with them forever, but everyone and everything else I was ready to leave. I didn’t care as much how they remembered me, or if they remembered me at all. So I chose to buy a new dress, one that made me feel my best and that befit the new era of my life I would soon be entering: a huge white princess dress, strapless, and overlaid with blue beaded flowers. I donated the hardly worn red dress, along with my green one, to a children’s hospital for their patients’ prom. I like to imagine the girl who got my red gown, and hope it helped her step forward boldly, and helped her say all she wished to that night.

Several years ago, one of my friends from college and his girlfriend broke up. A few months later, she had a new boyfriend but he’d chosen not to date anyone else until he graduated law school and moved back home, where he’d join a small local practice. But first was “lawyer prom”, and my friend’s ex had a new boyfriend, so he asked me to be his plus one. To be fair, I didn’t have a lot of notice for this event, but I happened to have a bright red, strapless dress with deep pockets tucked in the very back of my closet. I’d bought it several years earlier on sale, but had never worn it. His friends hadn’t met me before, as it’d always just been the two of us when we went to the movies or out for lunch. I got the sense that he wanted to escape the constant drumbeat of law school for a while and we’d been friends and classmates all four years of college. So the night of lawyer prom, the red dress to dinner with his friends said, “I am a force you know nothing about.” In the ballroom, where we bumped into my friend’s ex and new beau, my dress said, “Look at me; he’s doing fine without you.” I kept thinking about my senior prom, how ready I’d been to leave and what I had wanted to say, and felt honored that I got to help my friend say it. Plus, going alone to couple-y things sucks (I’d been to enough weddings to be absolutely sure of that).

There’s visual power to a red dress, or they wouldn’t be onscreen, let alone in our lives. There’s also the Jessica Rabbit factor, the woman in the red dress as a seductress or just arm candy. To that point, I’ll leave you with the words of the Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher, an on-screen fashion icon whose mysteries I’ve been rewatching lately: “A woman should dress first and foremost for her own pleasure. If these things happen to appeal to men, well, that really is a side issue.”

Space and Other Enthusiastic Interests

I love space. I wear space pun t-shirts and constellation earrings and refer to “Oppy” and “Curiosity” and “Juno” in regular conversation as if normal people know all about these rovers and satellites and what they tweet. I am also taking of the day of the full North American solar eclipse off work so I can enjoy it how I choose (i.e., in the direct path, with my boyfriend and brother, preferably drinking a moon pie milkshake). Kennedy Space Center, it’s existence and also the two vacations in which I’ve visited it, gives me a ton of feels. I reread The Martian at least twice a year. “Hidden Figures” makes me so happy that I’ll watch it two or three times, back to back, on a Saturday while crocheting and folding socks. I tweet “Merry Christmas” and “Welcome home” to astronauts on the International Space Station. My desktop image is either a high-res image of Charon, Jupiter’s southern pole, or Star Wars fan art of Rey, Leia, or Jyn. And the in-house blog contributors at work know that the best way to get a gushing reply email to their newest post, and for me to boost the crap out of it on the company’s social media, is to write about the distance between stars or the Apollo missions or something.

It’s important to note that, though I love space and profess that love openly, I am enthusiastically devoted to many things, and so am not Neil deGrasse Tyson or Emily Calandrelli levels of knowledge about the Hubble Telescope, upcoming missions, or the physics of black matter. (Please, no one ask me about light. I know it’s both a particle and a wave, but I don’t understand this at all.) Neither am I equivalent levels of knowledgeable about comics, yarn, young adult literature, ancient Egyptian mythology, hurricanes, Doctor Who (especially in the past 3 seasons), sharks, musicals, or women in the Bible, though I am deeply enthusiastic about all of these things. More than your average human with other interests.

People with less broad but overlapping interests sometimes grow annoyed with me for not having dyed my own alpaca wool or not being able to quote from a middling episode of the most recent season of Who. I try not to be upset by this. If I’m upset, it’s because that person has implied—or stated—that I’m not a “real” fan because I don’t bear knowledge or experience equal to or exceeding their own. There’s also, often, gender and age expectations in here that I’m not getting into because I don’t feel like it and it’ll bring the mood down. But bear in mind that I’m a human without knowing the exact pH of human blood (Kidding. It’s 7.35-7.45 depending on the person.), so I can be a comics fan without having read the first 17 issues of “Cloak & Dagger” (I haven’t read a single one, though I’m excited to try out the TV series adaptation).

I think they get upset because there aren’t too many in-person people they can talk proverbial shop with regarding out mutual interest, and they want to be able to talk in deep detail, as deep as they want, because clearly I exist for their conversational enjoyment. Mitigate expectations, my friends. Let’s gratefully sock-slide through our favorite lines of “The Great Comet” and our favorite characters in The Graceling Series until one of us (okay, probably me) reaches the stairs. Then, instead of getting upset that I haven’t mastered sock-footed stairs yet, let’s turn in a new direction! Also, don’t assume when I show up for a sock-party than I can’t walk at all. Don’t be that jerk. Also, I’m not here for you.

Not that I don’t potentially love you. But friends can also get frustrated when I don’t take up a new thing they’ve tried to introduce me to. For example, my best friend in all the world tried for eons to get me to watch “Parks and Rec”. Did I like what I saw? Definitely. Did I want to watch it? Yup! But I didn’t have the time/brain space then. I have found the brain space/time since her first attempts, but not so much with “Arrested Development”. There’s a degree of pressure to a person you love wanting you to love a thing with them. Loving enthusiastically takes work! It takes time! It takes a headspace open to New, but also that particular flavor of New. And there’s always the possibility that I won’t love it, thereby disappointing my dear, beloved friend.

Also, I believe they get annoyed because they know what brilliance I’m missing out on. (I know I need to read The Sun Is Also a Star! I know.) And yet, I suspect it’s fun to watch me gush over something, and they now don’t get to enjoy my squealing and talking incredibly fast and possibly tearing up over this thing. Being able to watch my newfound joy likely helps them to enjoy it all over again, in a way they haven’t since they were the gushers. Like when I introduced my roommate to “Ninja Warrior”. Or my bestie to “Arrow”. Or when I tell my massage therapist about Greenland sharks. (It’s Shark Week. My evenings are booked. Every night. Sorry, boyfriend.)

(Also, sorry coworkers. It’s possible I might be a bit annoying this week. But learning is FASCINATING.)

Here’s the takeaway. “Jill of all trades, master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one.” Also, don’t be a jerk about it.

In Silent Depths

A couple of worship services have combined in me over the past week, beginning with this question from last Tuesday’s Summer Gathering:

What obstacles do I need to revisit so I can build a monument to encourage others?

I didn’t have an answer then. But over the past week I’ve gotten frustrated multiple times, usually because I wasn’t communicating something to Tyler that I wanted him to know.

I wasn’t communicating for a lot of reasons, macro reasons like I have been conditioned not to interrupt men, micro reasons like I saw he was trying to do something sweet or I knew he’d had a long day, and no reasons at all. More than once, I repeated the words I wanted to say over and over in my mind but never said them.

Because I am spiritually gifted in service and it’s my love language, and because I have an introverted supine personality, I naturally prioritize others over myself. I even put others’ wants over my needs, and yes I know that doesn’t make sense and isn’t healthy. I’m fighting both nature and nurture just to say that I need to go to the bathroom, would rather eat at Wendy’s, would like to just lay down for a while. I got to the point where I even felt frustrated over what we were watching on TV, not because I didn’t have a say or was overruled, but because I wasn’t sharing my opinions and preferences when he asked. I let him choose, even forced him to choose, over and over, and then felt so frustrated by the results of my own silence.

I’m an introverted supine creative. I have a vivid, deep, complex inner life. It’s extremely difficult for me to share any of that inner life, even with people I trust. I can share seemingly intimate and important stories, but that doesn’t mean I’m being vulnerable. In true supine fashion, I fear rejection and don’t want to bore or burden. If it’s like this with my family, best friends, and boyfriend, you can imagine how it is with strangers, new acquaintances, and friends.

Aware of this and in light of last week’s frustrations, I have been trying to share more of my inner world, and more of my opinions, with Tyler. I’ve struggling to decide what I might ask him to experience with me—This book? That show? Which trail? A musical? But which one?—and to know how much is healthy and reasonable for us both. A struggle.

This brings me back to last week’s question: which obstacles do I need to revisit so I can encourage others? I’ve thought of dozens of instances when I didn’t say what I wanted, when I felt so impeded by my own personality and conflicting desires and fears that I wrote page after page in the backs of my class notebooks. Times when I felt so frustrated that I could almost hear myself scream in my own head, when I immersed myself in yet another book, when I pushed away from impatient or busy people I thought might reject me. It’s been isolating. I don’t want to set myself up for more loneliness.

Then came the second song during Sunday’s contemporary service, “Uncontainable Love” by Elevation Worship. As I stood beside Tyler, one of the worship leaders sang, “Your love is deep enough to reach the deepest part of me.”

And I relaxed.

I pictured the trenches at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, so dark and so cold, inhabited by otherworldly creatures requiring unique adaptations to survive. Piercing this darkness is a single, broad sunbeam, golden and strong, fluctuating with life, penetrating all those fathoms to reach the ocean floor. God alone can do that. God alone knows. Even when I struggle to illuminate a few meters to another person, God is a sun more powerful than our solar system’s, piercing right through. Nothing is hidden from God.

That comforts me. It takes some pressure off. The deepest part of me is a place no one else has seen. It’s a place I’ve even worked to keep hidden. No one will ever know all that is within me, including me. I certainly will never be able to communicate all that I know is inside me. But God knows. God sees. God created. God loves. I don’t have to get it all right. Even in the coldest depths of me, I am not alone.

And maybe my saying so can be a monument to encourage someone else.

7 Ways to Care for the Grieving

I’ve alluded to this before, but I’ll say it point blank: from January 2014 to June 2015, 9 people in my life passed away. They died of heart failure, blood clots, burns, young and old age. Plus the murderers of a childhood friend were sentenced. And a tree died. Some of my dreams died. My roommate’s dog started to die but we didn’t know it yet. It was kind of a lot.

Over that year and a half, I got pretty good at telling people why I’d be out of town again, at hiding that I was still grieving (or grieving again), at visitation small talk, at selecting photos for slide shows, at giving warm hugs without sobbing, and at thanking strangers for coming.

Lately, I’ve watched various people in my life experience intense loss. So here are 7 ways to care for a grieving person, learned from being the one grieving.

Say something. More to the point, don’t say nothing. Avoid platitudes, but a platitude is better than nothing. Say you’re sorry. Ask me about a favorite memory of the person. Don’t ignore it because you’re nervous or uncomfortable. That’s horribly selfish. Don’t be afraid to bring up my loved one or say their name. Even if it just happened. Even if it was two weeks ago and you just found out. Even if it’s been months.

Listen. Listen to what I say. Listen to what I don’t say. Let me guide the tone and topic for a week or so, especially when the funeral or death comes up. And if you conveyed your sympathy, I thanked you, then I started talking about work or asking about you, don’t keep dragging our conversation back to my grief. Maybe I really don’t want to delve those depths right now.

Don’t harp. I’m not the only person who has lost someone and neither are you. Mention that a family member died but don’t tell me the whole saga of your grandmother’s slow demise unless I ask multiple questions. Your harping makes me feel like I should be comforting you. Your grief is no less legitimate than mine, but mine is also quite new. Please don’t make my pain about you.

Do something tangible. What you’ll do will depend on how well you know me. My roommate would vacuum and tidy up while I was gone and be available when I got home in case I wanted company or a distraction. When I did want to talk, she asked how my family was doing, if the service went okay, if everyone behaved well. (That could be it’s own tip: don’t cause drama. Pity it ever needs saying.) The day we had to put the dog to sleep, a friend texted and said he wanted to bring us KFC for lunch.

Take initiative. Saying, “Can I bring dinner by tomorrow? I’ll leave it on your porch” is way better than “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” A dozen other people have said the same thing to me, and I don’t know that they all meant it. Assuming you did mean it, no matter what I need or how much I need it, I don’t want to inconvenience you. But if you take the initiative, I can either say “Thank you” or “Would you mind waiting until next week?” or “I really appreciate that, but I’d rather get coffee with you and talk. Could we do that instead?”

Pain is pain. My friend told me this nine years ago. Her fiance had just called off their wedding and she couldn’t understand why a lady in her church, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, had reached out to her to offer encouragement. “Your loss is so much greater than mine,” my friend had said to the woman. And the woman had answered, “Pain is pain.” All pain is not the same, and maybe you don’t understand why I’m grieving so much over the death of my roommate’s dog or the falling of that tree. Just know it was important to me, and so the loss is painful.

Don’t tell me I’m grieving wrong. You aren’t helping by criticizing how much or little you saw me cry. Maybe I’m much better at acting okay than you think. Maybe this is my third funeral in two weeks and I’m a bit numb. Maybe I wanted the woman in the casket to hold my babies and I just saw how much yours have grown. I’m working through this is my own way. You don’t have to understand to respect it.

Early Morning Prayers

I don’t like mornings. I’d prefer not to see most hours of them. Springing forward and having to get up that morning in the dark is a mechanical sort of torture for me. No hope. No mercy. Just darkness every morning for weeks. I’ve been this way almost since I was born (I made my appearance just after 7am, so I like to say that it was the only time I willingly got up early).

When I was in middle school, my brother (even more squinty-eyed in the mornings than I am) declared that even God wasn’t up yet and he didn’t see why he should have to be up either. I adopted the phrasing, but I did sometimes have such terrible early mornings (fights breaking out near me in the school gym, betrayal by a once-friend, arguments, missed homework, word of new terrorist attacks, rumors of wars and battles and deployments, flat tires, deaths) that I have been glad to know that God does not, in fact, sleep.

In time, I came to imagine that God the Father has passed off those dreadfully chipper mornings to God’s inexplicably early-rising Son. And so, like the Greek celestial siblings Helios (sun god), Selene (moon goddess), and Eos (dawn goddess), the parts of the trinity pass their duties from one to the next based on the hour in the Eastern Time Zone of North America. At times, surely, they are all three awake (it’s 6am somewhere on this planet) and I can talk to any of them and the Bible tells of all three doing unique things in the same scene at the same time. But on bitterly cold, grey-blue mornings on the bus or not-quite-dozing in my mother’s little car, I imagined those prayers going to answering machines while God the Father took five more minutes and the Holy Spirit grunted over a mug of coffee while Jesus took careful notes.

Now then. About two years ago my roommate and I felt called to foster children. We went from single friends excited about Shark Week and trying to catch up on our respective weekly Bible studies to temporary mothers of three traumatized children under three years old. I don’t know when the last time that baby had had a full stomach—he ate for two days as if it’d been weeks—and the older boys hadn’t been vaccinated since they were each nine months old. Their legs were also so badly bowed that I worried they might jump and their femurs just snap.

Putting them to bed the night they came to us was horrific. All three screamed—screamed—for two hours. No amount of cuddling or patting or shushing or singing soothed them. One would calm, then another, then the third would scream and start the others up again. Even putting them all in different rooms, they could hear the others crying and screamed in solidarity. Even the baby. Separating the older two proved to be a bad idea because they were afraid and had likely always slept together. Still, eventually, one by one, they screamed and cried themselves to sleep.

It took my roommate and I a bit longer to drop off ourselves: we lay on the couches in the living room under blankets scrounged from other parts of the house, clutching the baby monitors to our ears at the least rustle, reaching a leg from beneath the blankets to rock the two-month old in his bassinet every time he woke or fussed in his sleep.

At 6am, I was feeding the baby. It was dark and I hurt all over from physical and emotional exhaustion. I squeezed by eyes shut to try to pray, but that hurt, too, so I relaxed them. The pre-dawn grey light filtered through the slits of the blinds behind me and, for the first time, I felt thankful for morning. The easy light. The gradual way God brings the world into wakefulness. I sent the simplest snatches of prayers to whichever member of the Trinity had early-morning duty.

After a few minutes of “Thank you for this little boy,” “Thank you they slept so long,” “Please let him fall back asleep,” “Everything hurts,” “Please get us through,” “Thank you for this moment,” “It’s so early,” and similar prayers, I found myself grateful the Spirit is up, too, interpreting these bare words and literal groans into something sensible. I imagined Jesus on his knees and leaning against a Gethsemane rock, face aloft, attentive and squinting one eye, listening to my prayer, confused. Then I pictured him reaching over one sandaled foot to nudge the Spirit awake. The Spirit jerks and his mouth falls open before his eyes do, already interpreting my prayers to Jesus, who’s face relaxes.

With that image, I rocked the baby and opened my connection to the Spirit, focusing on the tightness in my upper back, the aching behind my eyes, the pulling at my scalp, sharing each with the Spirit. By this I believe the Spirit told Jesus all I hope for, how worn down I am, how afraid. I felt love radiating back to me, and the comfort of Someone just listening, understanding.

By the end of that day, the boys were with different families, my roommate and I were two single women watching Shark Week once again, exhausted and far behind where we should have read for the week’s Bible studies.

Though that morning two years ago was a meaningful prayer time for me, I haven’t tried to replicate it. Part of this, of course, is because mornings are terrible. But I think it’s also because I’m not used to praying in the dark. Darkness is for sleeping and stargazing and spy movies. We feel like we’re doing something we shouldn’t or slacking off if we aren’t praying with our eyes shut at a florescent-lit conference table or beside the brightest lamp in the living room (conveniently placed by the squishiest armchair, of course). Frankly, we feel like we’re wrong if we pray with our eyes open, too.

Despite my private jokes, though, God doesn’t need to be awakened and God doesn’t trisect God’s self to lessen the load around the clock. God neither nudges a part of the Trinity awake nor needs a poke in the ribs from me. Literally, any place and any environment is a good place to pray. You might need a bright lamp to read your Bible or journal prayers, and you may need some sunlight to help keep you awake, yet darkness is also a fine place to pray. Dawn and day and night and twilight and many other hairsplitting terms for mere moments on the clock can describe a moment you need to pray, an opportunity you may or may not take to pray.

This morning, as I read in Matthew 3 of Jesus’ baptism, I’m praying for those three boys again, two years older, who I held on the worst day of their lives.

Perfect Timing

I don’t want to be dramatic, but the other night I was standing in my boyfriend’s kitchen when he asked me, “If you were to write a blog post about the past two months and send it back in time to yourself, would you have believed it?”

So, you know, he started it.

“But, Katie,” you begin, “What are you talking about? Who’s this boyfriend?”

Well, his name is Tyler. And even though I’ve known him for 9.5 years and counting, I don’t know that a detailed blog post from myself to myself could have prepared me for how much of my life has changed in such a relatively short amount of time. We’ve often said to each other, “Two weeks ago/A month ago/Two months ago, I could never have imagined I’d be here with you.” We say this while watching a movie or taking cinnamon rolls out of the oven, while holding hands at the park or spearing roast duck from the other one’s plate.

Here’s the short of it: I went to work, went home, co-lead a Bible study, hung out with my roommate, went on walks or to dinner with friends, wrote a bit, read a lot, and watched a lot of movies. Now I go to work, go home, co-lead a Bible study, set aside time to hang out with my roommate, pick one or two friends to see this week, write a little bit, read when I can, and almost everything I watch is with Tyler. Almost all my dinners are with Tyler, too. I see him almost every day, but we definitely text every day. I seem to spend more time at his apartment than my home, except for when I’m sleeping. And I’m incredibly happy. And as much time as I spend with him, I want to see him more.

I’m still working on the balance: not neglecting my roommate and friends; writing more, reading more, sleeping more (I don’t know what I’d do less). I’m more regularly having a quiet time, but the content is more Bible-reading and less praying than it used to be. The dust bunnies are forming an army and I haven’t seen the bottom of the laundry hamper since New Year’s.

So what if I’d known? Six months back, two years back, five years back, what if I’d gotten a letter from myself? As starry-eyed as I might be right now (although I don’t think I am, I know it’s probably true), I’m not pining at all the time we “wasted” not being together. That wasn’t wasted time. Not at all. I needed these years to become this person, right now, who’s finally ready to devote myself in a relationship. This person who can trust, who isn’t so racked with fear and insecurity that she can’t stand to be special to a man. He needed that time to grow, too. And if I’d gotten that letter, I wouldn’t have waited.

If I’d told myself who, even if I’d told myself the exact day we began and how it happened and everything since then, I would have been too nervous to look at him for ages and then too wound up and impatient to wait for the natural course. It would have been Sarah and Hagar and Abraham all over again (but without the slavery and stuff). I would have wanted to fast-track all my present happiness and shove it in the midst of all the life I was busy living four years ago, three years ago, eight months ago. And I would have been astounded, devastated when it didn’t work.

I’m not like David. If I’d been anointed the future monarch as a child or young teen, I would not have waited those 20-40 years God spent preparing Israel and David for the throne. At the very least, tempted by so many opportunities to kill Saul, I would have had some serious “Really, God?” prayer sessions. (Which is not to say that David didn’t; the psalms are full of his honest laments, complaints, confessions, and praises.) But I also would have thrown in my towel and quietly plotted to take the capitol, take the throne, take the kingdom. I’d been anointed, after all. King Saul was no longer good for the country, after all. Surely Saul wandering into this cave is a divine opportunity.

I would have been a terrible David, a terrible king, a terrible follower of God. No, I am far more like Sarah, prone to frustration and calculation and impatience and second guessing. What if God’s promise isn’t going to come the way we thought? Did we really hear all that right? Are we remembering it right? This is so hard; I don’t think God meant this. How can I nudge things along? God does help those who help themselves!

A week after a friend became a Christian, we were leaving the church building and chatting and generally being pokey about it all. From the circle of a conversation in the parking lot, I watched my friend walk up to the pair of glass doors at the entrance and deliberately pushed the right handle. Locked. Then he pulled it. Again, locked. He pulled the left handle. Locked. With a nod to himself, he stepped in front of the left door and pushed it open.

A few minutes later, he explained to us that he had visited the church two years before. He’d gotten there a little late. The doors were closed, the greeters had taken their seats, and no one else was coming in. He’d pushed and pulled the doors three different ways. Then, believing the church completely locked to him, turned and went away. He remembered it so well that he knew exactly what he’d done to each door, in what order, and he knew that all he’d missed was pushing on the left handle. If he’d exhausted that fourth and final option—if he’d noticed that he hadn’t—he would have come into that church two years earlier. Disheartened, we fumbled over our regrets and apologies, but he shook his head, smiling: “God’s timing is perfect.”

These past two months with Tyler, I have often thought of that friend, of his confession of faith on the sidewalk that afternoon: God’s timing is perfect.

Praise be to God!

The Land Basketball Forgot

I suppose no one made a big deal of March Madness in college because Georgia Southern didn’t have a standout men’s or women’s basketball team. It must have felt disloyal for students and faculty who carefully follow March Madness every year to tout their Duke-dominated brackets.

Or maybe I just didn’t notice. Spring was always so full: azaleas, breezy dresses, carpenter bees, voluntary walks, reopened pools, spring break, spring classes, and The Great Duckling Count. I usually went with friends to one or two basketball games a season, but that was long over by March.

No, the first time March Madness settled itself on my radar was the first year I started at the publishing company where I presently work. A coworker came around with finger guns, asking everyone if they wanted to compare brackets.

“Brackets?” I asked him.

The beat which followed told me I really ought to know this. But I’m still in my first 6 months! I thought, I don’t know this tradition yet.

Except it wasn’t a company tradition, it is a national one. I returned home one day a few weeks later to find my roommate, who I could hardly convince to watch a single college football game with me, in rapt study of a Tennessee women’s game.

Eventually, I figured it out. March Madness is a national phenomenon. And I’m from the land basketball forgot.

Not intentionally, of course. But we don’t have professional teams in SC. We live and breathe the Clemson-Carolina rivalry because that’s basically all we have. If we must choose loyalty in baseball, the Braves are the closest. If we must choose in the NFL, the closest team is either the Falcons or the Panthers. (I know, the Carolina Panthers. But they play in NC and all the revenue goes to NC. Plus, when I was growing up, the Panthers sucked.)

I suppose I should specify that other areas of SC may well feel kinship for a team based on proximity to a border shared with GA or NC, but not so on my island. The state sort of looks like a piece of pie, the crust partially broken off to the north, and I’m from the gooey tip. I would have to travel to and through the crust to reach the Panthers. Atlanta, too, is about 6 hours away. So we residents of this land basketball forgot lean back with our water sports and our Clemson or Carolina coozies, never knowing that basketball carries raucously on without us each spring.

But, the internet. Travel. ESPN! Yes, you’d think a late 80s child who grew up in the 90s wouldn’t have been so insulated to the ways of that pimpled orange ball thwacking polished wooden floors all over the country. We certainly learned to play basketball in gym class—my brother even played basketball in high school—but we didn’t learn that basketball matters any more in March than at any other time.

Imagine my shock a year after I discovered March Madness when Macon’s own Mercer University not only made it to the playoffs, but beat Duke. The city shut down for the afternoon games. We took long lunch breaks to watch, coworkers clustered around computers to watch together.

Imagine my further shock a few days ago when, asking a group of coworkers what I should know about March Madness this year, I was told that South Carolina’s men’s team is doing really well. And it’s not a Mercer-esque underdog shot, either. Still, I was assured they wouldn’t beat Duke.

Except they did.

So maybe the land basketball forgot is just the county where I grew up. Or maybe it’s just the little spot where I’m standing.

Update: South Carolina is now in the final four! And that’s a big deal, apparently! A friend texted when they won to (a) inform me, and (b) ask if I’d caught the March Madness yet. But at this point, I think my lack of engagement is a winning strategy.

A History in Scarves

In the back and forth of this winter’s weather, from 34 degree mornings to 78 degree afternoons, I’ve been using a lot of scarves. My scarf repertoire is pretty extensive, but also relatively new.

The first scarf I ever owned was blue, downy, fluffy, and given to me by a middle and high school friend named Chelsey. I still have it and used to wear it to cold Georgia Southern football games. I also wore it skiing, along with my bright blue snow bib and pale blue ski jacket and Tarheel blue gloves, which is when I discovered that my scarf was quite ineffective against actual cold.

The first scarf I bought for myself was on the street in Barcelona. Okay, actually we were in Parc Guell by the bus parking lot. I wouldn’t have stopped but several of the others in my group had, so I felt safe doing so. I fell in love with the lightest, shiniest pink polyester scarf. Plyed with a “buy two, get one free” deal, I also bought a rich sky blue and a red and orange ombre. The pink and the blue I let an acquaintance borrow four or five years later, along with several dresses, because she was going to the same area of West Africa that I’d visited the year before. The scarves would cover her head as local custom demanded and and the dresses, which I’d bought there, would ingratiated her more quickly. She never returned them. I keep my orange and red scarf hanging in my closet, wearing it only once or twice a year.

I bought my next scarf—black, and currently hanging from the coat hook at my desk—from a vendor outside Primark on Oxford Street in London. I also bought a white one, possibly because of some sort of sale. I draped them over my shoulders in chilly classrooms and crisp evening streets. I draped and swirled and knotted and loved them. Where I wore hoodies in high school for warmth and armor, here was an elegant alternative suitable to a wider temperature range. I wore my scarves to the theatre and stuffed them into my bags.

That same summer, I bought a light, wide lavender scarf I had to fold many times to avoid blanket dimensions and to provide a touch of warmth. I wore it with a white blouse and grey skirt to Les Mis. At Javert’s suicide, I clutched it to me like Fantine and stumbled down the stairs from the Upper Circle, coughing so roughly that an attendant from the bar on the top floor and the coat checker from the lobby took to the staircase to search for me, one descending and the other ascending until they met each other, and me, in the middle.

My mother bought me an airy pale pink scarf from The Gap, so soft that I ran my fingers through and through it, still wanting it even thought we found a hole near one end. And because I wanted few things so much, she bought it for me. I liked to wear it to poetry readings and student panels in college, along with jeans, a white long-sleeve shirt, and my black pleather motorcycle jacket.

A very dear college friend returned from a year in China and gifted me a bamboo compact and a short silk scarf depicting the letters of an ancient poem. I keep the compact on my vanity and hardly ever wear the scarf. It is the most precious of all.

When I returned to England after I graduated college, I bought scarves quickly, cheap or expensive, to match outfits and coats, to warm and shield me, twice just to make me feel better, and once because my flatmate told me a lilac scarf gathered into puffs and waves didn’t look like me. When moving home again, I gave a few away. The rest, including the often-worn lilac-colored one, I stuffed into the corners of my suitcases until each seam held its breath.

The first scarf I completed was too irregular and short for an adult, so I gave it to a hot-blooded boy I babysat. Other than the moment I passed it to his mother and she tied it around his neck, I don’t believe he ever wore it.

The second scarf I made was more even, every stitch tight, especially when my flatmate (who’d taught me) was speaking. I never could regulate modest tension with her there, complaining and criticizing (even if it wasn’t about me). I’d pull my stitches so tight with unvoiced frustration, then she’d exclaim “watch your tension” and I’d want to hurl the entire thing, skein and metal needles and all, at her face. So I tried not to knit when she was in the room. Rather, I knitted while watching Merlin after she went to bed, in Edinburgh while she napped, on the bus to see the friend she didn’t like, in the kitchen while she Skyped with her boyfriend in her bedroom. I even took my needles on the plane home, getting the most done during the layover in Newark. I had five hours to eat Frosty’s and knit and reacquaint myself to the accents of so many Americans. But I never did finish that scarf.

I can’t regulate tension well wherever I am, so I asked a student at a later employment to teach me to crochet. I graduated from hats to scarves and taught others. In the four years since I first learned, I have gifted and been gifted scarves. Red knit, pink linen, gold crochet hang in my closet or lay rolled in a drawer. Two-toned reds with gold thread and ribbons of coral and cream appear in photos taken in cities I’ve never visited. My friends have frequently asked me whether or not I made the scarf I’m wearing. I learn new patterns, working and working the material between my fingers, working and working to keep its softness from the dog’s mouth, playing with colors and volume, keeping the skeins off the floor and away from the dog hair (so much dog hair).

I don’t crochet much anymore. There’s too much dog hair. I most often miss it when I’m at work, wishing I could spend my lunch break in the armchair by the window, intricately knotting yarn, my fingers worked as I listen to something soothing. But my work is always at home, with boxes and bags of skeins I haven’t touched in months. And at least one scarf is rarely far from me, at work, at home, in my car, if not around my neck.