(En)joy

On New Year’s Eve, as we were reading in bed after watching the ball drop in New York City, I told Tyler that I thought my word for the year should be either joy or enjoy. In my mind I’d stylized it (en)joy, at least until one or the other became more apparent.

As with “believe”, my word for 2018, I wanted my word for 2019 to encourage me and remind me of my goals and hopes for this year. I want to relish it. A year without a huge party to plan. A year, hopefully, without last year’s stress. I just want to enjoy being married, spending time with friends, and following whatever whims come to me: wreath design, scarf creation, weekend-long read-a-thons, maybe a dance class. Instead of worrying or stressing, I want to enjoy this year. I want to find joy in all the little things around me. I even thought of a photo I could keep by my desk, a jumping picture in the desert from the same trip to Egypt as my 2018 photo.

So I find it ironic, and tiring, that I got sick on New Year’s Day with a sinus infection that laid me out for two weeks. I haven’t been that sick since I had the flu four years ago. Tyler was also sick. Many of the things that usually bring us comfort, like cuddling and going for walks, were out of reach. We struggled to find the energy to feed ourselves three times a day. We went to work when we felt well enough (which wasn’t often), went to Publix for orange juice and saltines and a different kind of decongestant that might help me sleep. We were in constant need of more Kleenex.

Enjoy? We were miserable.

And now I’m sick again. And things at work are complicated. And I’m still trying to get my name and address changed in all the necessary places. And once again I can’t seem to get enough sleep. And I’m thinking about my word and wondering How?

I have, of course, thought back to the many Sunday school lessons that focused on the differences between happiness and joy. Happy is a fleeting feeling based on circumstances. Joy is an abiding connection to God regardless of circumstances. I have tried to connect to joy by naming things I’m grateful for, like Tyler, blankets we’ve been gifted, sunshine, Gatorade, paid sick leave, health insurance, and money for plungers and Kleenex and pizza someone else made.

I’m stubborn, so I’m not changing my word now. But I am beginning to worry that this year will be a trying one in ways I cannot begin to comprehend. I know I’m tired and therefore prone to some fatalism. But if this year is going to be a difficult one, the joy and enjoyment I’m seeking will constantly be in spite of. Which sucks. But we aren’t guaranteed anything else in life. We aren’t guaranteed time where everything’s great, where the government isn’t shut down, where everyone I love is well, where Tyler and I each have the time to pursue our own interests, where we aren’t plagued by worries.

But neither are we promised a life with no enjoyment at all, no sweetness or fun. And we have had those times this year.

We’ll see what the balance will be.

“Believe”

I know many of you are expecting a blog post about Tyler’s and my engagement, but I need a little more distance (and time) to put that together. Instead, I want to talk about 2018. People usually post New Year’s Resolutions and the like in January, but I’m a rebel and not going to do it that way.

I did make a resolution for 2018, but I’m not going to talk about that. It’s not that interesting. (Okay, fine. I resolved not to buy as many new hardcover books. Yay Gottwals and county library and eBooks.)

However, I also chose a word for the year: believe.

Believe I can be a novelist.

Believe I can change my habits.

Believe my relationship will get stronger.

Believe in God’s sovereignty.

Believe the best of the person I’m in conflict with.

Believe that I can be adventurous again.

Believe that wedding planning can be more fun than stressful.

Believe that I can like my body more than I do now.

Believe that I can be a good friend while being a spouse and full-time employee.

Believe that I can be a good spouse while being a full-time employee and friend.

Believe that I can be a good employee while… you get the idea.

I’ve been shaking the branches of the internet (mostly on Etsy, if I’m honest) looking for a small sign with my word on it, which I can put on my desk at work and on my wall at home.

I want a reminder. It doesn’t do me any good to have a word for the year if I don’t remember it and don’t try to act on it.

While cleaning one night in February, I came across a printed photo of myself in Egypt my senior year of college. I’m standing in front of an ancient volcano in the Black Desert (so called because the soil of the volcanos has eroded and now the desert is covered in the black, broken up pieces of the cooled magma). I’m wearing my favorite shirt. My hair is golden from time in the sun. I can see my shape. It was an incredible trip, full of struggles but also rich in joy and knowledge and confidence and good health and adventure.

I slipped the photo into a cheap plastic frame and took it to work. Now it sits beside my monitor, in front of the hand sanitizer bottle, and I look at it multiple times a day.

It doesn’t make me feel badly. In the weeks the photo’s been there, I haven’t once bemoaned what I’ve lost since then. I feel inspired by my past self and I feel encouraged because she is me. She became me. My life is one of the ones she dreamed for herself, and in many ways is even better than she’d hoped. In ways, I can be her again.

I can take a painting class because I used to enjoy it.

I can reconcile with people who have hurt me.

I can resist the candy bowl on the corner of my desk.

I can drink more water.

I can learn the names of more countries.

I can start a new story.

I can slay the Jabberwocky.

She believed she could so she did.
—R. S. Grey

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
—Hebrews 1:11

4 Years After Loss

I have a theory that you don’t really know people are gone until they’ve been dead for about 4 years. That’s the recommended length of college and of high school. It’s two Martian years and a quarter of a year on Jupiter. Not a long time, but still plenty of time. Plenty of time for the not-right-ness to settle into your bones, for you to get used to this new normal, an alternative universe where the one you love isn’t dead, just away. Right up until the illusion can’t hold anymore. Not when I didn’t see them daily anyway. Not when I stay so busy, even when I’m home, to avoid visiting their empty house.

One autumn day, 4 years and a couple months after my grandfather passed away, I was sitting at my desk at work watching the red and gold leaves fall and twirl in the wind. I suddenly missed my grandfather so deeply, with such a long-suffered ache, that I stood up to walk into an empty office so I could call him. I couldn’t, of course. And that was the moment I knew he was gone forever. And I grieved, silently, viscerally, until I had to get up and walk into an empty office to ensure privacy for my tears.

My grandmother passed away 4 years ago last month. I thought of her often in the snowy day we had recently. A few days ago, her last sister passed away as well. Yesterday, a friend texted to ask when we could get together, as she had a present for me. It would be another week before we were able, and she confessed that she’s always impatient to give people their gifts. “I’m terrible at it,” I told her. And thought, I get that from Grandmother. And just like that, I realized anew that she is gone. I will never hear her voice, hold her hand, feel her love, receive her gifts or smiles again.

It’s been building. Someone asked about the small tablecloth my grandmother’s sister crocheted for me in the 11 months between her sister’s passing and her own; blue because it was my grandmother’s favorite color. The pendant my grandmother gave me when I was in middle school, which my mom bought a chain for and gave to me this Christmas; the pendant I wore this week after my last great-aunt passed away.

I’ve been calling the dog “Babe,” my grandmother’s nickname for me, even though I didn’t like it at the time. (To be fair, my mom was “Babe,” I was “Little Babe”.) I dream, sometimes, that I’m back at her house. She and my grandfather are in their armchairs. I’m sitting on the floor listening to a conversation I don’t grasp any of. Or I’m racing around the pool table with my cousins, a small metal grocery cart full of our toys. I picture the house the way it was before the remodel. Dark wood panels and old brown carpet. My grandparents in their places. Me in mine. Our family around us. When last this happened, I woke up knowing my grandfather is gone, but had forgotten my grandmother is. After this week, I suspect that will change.

For my cousins, I am so sorry. Your loss is fresh and deep. Many of you saw your grandmother and aunt and mother much more often than I saw my grandparents in those last few years of college and travels and work. Maybe you’ll experience the knowing just once, and soon.

I love you. I’m so sorry. She worked so hard, loved so well. I know you will miss her. And I am sorry.

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.”

November Means NaNo

I’ve wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo since I learned about it in college, but I never felt like I had the time. Looking back on all the Novembers since then—almost a decade of them, which isn’t disheartening at all—I can point to ones where I could have tried it, at least. And there are some that I genuinely could not have managed. Not the 50K words, not the mental devotion, not the emotional drain.

Like two years ago. So many people in my life died that month that I physically could not attend all of their funerals. Emotionally, I could hardly bear to read all their obituaries. I was overwrought in every way. My birthday and Thanksgiving came and went as usual, but I don’t remember them at all. And just before the month’s end, as I staggered under the weight of it all, someone I love dearly fell, and fell ill, and died just before Christmas.

A year later (last year), I did NaNo for the first time, and I won. In NaNo-speak, that means I finished: I wrote all 50K words.

I joined NaNo because I had to do something. By October of last year, every day I struggled more and more to get out of bed. No matter how much or how little sleep I got, I couldn’t seem to motivate myself. I tricked myself upright sometimes but I knew it was bad when I couldn’t even bribe myself. Not with Chick-fil-a, not with a new book, not with a nap later. Where everything else failed, guilt would eventually get me up. I was leaving the dog whining outside my door, him knowing I was inside and awake, me knowing he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t get up and open the door to see him.

Ten minutes became fifteen, twenty, thirty. I was regularly late for work and stayed late to make up the time. Trying to scare myself out of bed, I’d watch the clock on my bedside table tick to, and past, the time I should have left for work. I’d berate myself that “They are going to fire you and you will deserve it.” Despite having a job I was good at with coworkers I love, despite my wonderful family, despite an understanding roommate, despite friends, despite professional counseling, I couldn’t seem to get out of bed in the morning.

Now, I don’t want to over-dramatize this any more than I already have: as best I can remember, I did get up every day. Out of habit, out of guilt, out of shame. I don’t think I ever called in sick because I couldn’t make it out of bed. But I also didn’t know each morning if today would be the day I didn’t get up.

I started thinking of November as my month to save myself, to set a big goal and to meet it, and I thought NaNo might be what I needed. NaNo has built-in ways to track and celebrate my progress, plus a community of people also writing their way into or out of or through things via these 50K words. I’ve been writing to escape for as long as I could write, which is almost as long as I can remember. And, when I did a test run, I discovered that, if I could write very first thing, I could get out of bed.

As November strode on, though I grew increasingly tired and did sleep through my pre-work writing sessions a couple of times, I flew out of bed. I was excited. I felt driven. My mind sharpened and I got better at other tasks, like editing and social media writing at work, like memorizing scripture and focusing on the sermon. I think it did help that I was writing about death and grief, generously heaped with humor. It also helped that the dog liked to come downstairs for a pet and to wish me well.

As I always have, I wrote to cope and to understand. And I saw people draw near to me, people who asked about my project and cared about how it was going. Near the end, probably the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my brother came into the room where I’d been holed up for hours, miserably trying to pry words from my brain. He came up behind me, kissed me on the crown of head, and told me I could do it. I grabbed his hands and hugged him, and when he had left I cried. And then I kept writing.

That’s something else about NaNo: it forces you to take care of yourself. You’re still galloping toward 50K words, which you likely wouldn’t have written otherwise, and you’re staying up later and getting up earlier and not returning friends’ texts and ordering pizza again, but you have to sleep. You have to eat. You have to laugh. You have to go for walk. You have to, or the words won’t happen. And in November, it’s all about the words.

I don’t need NaNo with the desperation of last year. Still, I am incredibly excited for my 6am writing sessions and I’ve literally been stockpiling cookies since the spring.

I don’t know if I’ll finish. I do have an idea I like. I’ve tried to prepare better than I did last year. And I know what NaNo can be.

I love to write, and I’m going to try really, really hard.

Forgive me if I’m a bit distant this month, a bit hard to find, a bit more tired and less conversational than usual. I’m doing something that’s really, really important to me. I hope you’ll still be there in December. I’d love to catch up.

To Almost 25-year-old Me

I don’t have too many years on you, but it’s about to be one year more. Emily (yes, that new friend of yours Emily) and I went to see a musical at the Fox this week and she shared how unhappy she’s been, how hard the transition has been for her from college to working life. The same month I turn 28, she’ll turn 25, just like you will.

First, let’s put some words to what you’re going through.

Your life is a house and the house is on fire.

You didn’t really notice until now, ignoring the hot door handles (I just won’t go in there right now) and the watery eyes (I’m just tired) and the heat (Adulting is hard). But the smoke inhalation is catching up with you and it’s so much easier to breathe when you’re crawling, not walking, from room to room. And, no, that’s not normal.

Your life is a house and the house is on fire.

You’re inside. This is your life. It’s been on fire for a while and you don’t really know how long this has been going on. Heck, maybe it’s always been on fire but your parents and your brother and your plans and your childhood expectations have been running the hoses all this time. But that’s stopped. Your parents don’t live with you anymore and, even if you were to move back, you’d find that your house is still on fire.

So what to do? Abandon the house? This works great for some people. They grab a few items and walk away like a hero in an action movie, carrying a rucksack of photos or a pillowcase of books or a wheelbarrow of porcelain figurines and houseplants. Maybe they are carrying a child wrapped in a blanket that will forever smell of smoke. As the roof catches and the ribs of the front rooms become visible and the entire grey maw collapses in on the insatiable flames, these people are walking steadily up the street, and they don’t know where they’ll end up, but they aren’t looking back. They’ll build a new house somewhere, a new life, and that’s okay.

That’s also not really your style, but who am I to tell you what to do?

So your life is a house and the house is on fire, but maybe the fire’s mostly in the kitchen. Maybe you can take a sledge hammer and a lot of baking soda and save the rest of the house. You will absolutely need a new kitchen, probably a new roof and half of your living room, too, but you can more or less rebuild it the way you want it. You can improve things: a new layout and a sunnier paint color and maybe a bigger porch while you’re at it. But there’s fire first. You’ll find fire in rooms you didn’t know had been touched, maybe didn’t even know existed.

Here’s the really important bit: no matter how many industrial fans you bring in and no matter how many consecutive days you open the windows to the restorative powers of the breeze, your house will probably always smell faintly of smoke. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Most people’s do. However, if you can’t stomach that, grab a pillowcase and a wheelbarrow and put on your tennis shoes.

But remember: you were in that fire. You’ll smell the smoke again—for years—on your shirt, between the binding and the pages, on the porcelain unicorn (even though you know that shouldn’t be possible). You’ll smell it in your hair. It’s not really things you’re smelling, it’s you. You were there. You are there right now.

Your life is a house and the house is on fire. And you don’t have to do anything. You can keep crawling around on the floor, wiping soot from your face, and coughing into damp washcloths. You can pretend nothing is wrong. But the fire will consume you. And if you survive it, you’ll be left without a house, without an armful of books and a porcelain unicorn balanced on top. Even if you see the destruction coming, sitting in the least hot corner of your bedroom with your knees pulled to your chest, watching the flames creep closer to you. Even if you wait to break out the window until the last moment. If you do nothing, you’ll be left with nothing.

But I know you. I know you are surprised and maybe crying, but this is making sense, isn’t it? As much as it did the first time Kayla used this metaphor in front of me. We talked about it a little, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I know you are practical, proud to be sensible and strong, and you are. I know sitting in the corner isn’t your style, as least not for long.

A couple of caveats, dear past me:

    1. Whether you decide to fight for your house or give it up, you won’t be able to move into a fully furnished two bedroom condo with a balcony tomorrow. It takes time to build, to populate, to choose. Even falling into a life that feels surprisingly full isn’t actually a full life. A week in Key West when you’re my age will tempt you to feel like it is. (Don’t go looking for that week. Let it come to you.) But there are massive holes. It’d take so long to get to Kayla, to your parents, to your brother. Zika is coming north (don’t ask, it’ll also come without any help from you). Where would you go to church? It’s an expensive place to live and the workers at Judy Bloom’s bookstore are volunteers. Take the vacation, but don’t believe the lies of it. Or of any vacation.
    2. The fire department exists for a reason. Call in help. Call in professionals. If you want to fight and rebuild what can’t be saved, call the people you trust not to stand around smirking and not to nick your accent pillows. Hand out buckets and send them to the creek for water. Call in professionals who can bring in the big hoses and the axes and the fresh muscles and the experienced advice.

    Don’t be embarrassed if your neighbors see the fire truck in the driveway. That truck is going to help you save your life. And some of the people who see will come to help, to check if you’re okay, to offer a casserole or a hug. Maybe you’ll make a really good friend out of it. Maybe someone you know now will tell you about the time her house was on fire, and then you’ll have a great friend.

    If you decide to give up this house, these people can help you pack, or they can let you sleep a few nights on their couch. They can help you lay a good foundation on higher ground. They might be able to donate an extra box of tiles or a pile of lumber or their son’s barely used armchair and ottoman.

    Call in professionals when building, too. Who wants to do their own brickwork? Who’s any good at brickwork? (Remember, I’ve seen you ice a cake.) You aren’t being weak; you’re being wise.

My life is a house and right now I smell smoke. Maybe it’s in my hair and maybe it’s on this bedspread. Maybe it’s from grey-black clouds above my head and maybe it’s from a heap in front of me. I won’t tell you what I chose, what colors are on the wall or even if I have walls, but you know Kayla and Emily and musicals and our parents and our brother and Key West are here, so maybe you have an idea.

Happy Early Birthday, almost 25-year-old Katie. Next summer will suck. Call all your grandparents. Invest in Apple. Hug those babies. Write, write, write.

You’ll survive. Promise.

Love,
Almost 28-year-old Katie