18 April 2018

The Girl Who Couldn't Fly

They say you find things when you clean house. This is definitely true. Sometimes you find useful treasures you didn't remember having (a pleasant surprise). Other times you just find you're hanging onto a lot more junk than you realized, like old drawings:

This one was patterned after the cover art of Kate Rusby's album The Girl Who Couldn't Fly. At the time there was just something about it that stirred the artist in me, and I wanted to recreate it. Kate Rusby's picture depicted a similar scene: a back view of a girl watching birds in flight (actually, I think it may have been a butterfly instead of birds). But the girl in her picture wasn't wearing any clothes. That was a lapse of good artistic judgment, in my mind, so I drew my girl fully attired. I was pleased with the results, and thought my version a marked improvement on the original.

It wasn't until long after the fact that I noticed why The Girl Who Couldn't Fly was naked. Her back displayed an important detail that would have been missed had she been clothed: two red, painful-looking indentations on her shoulders, hints at wings that had once been there but had been torn off. Perhaps she'd been able to fly, once upon a time, but now she couldn't anymore. Or maybe the wings had never grown in in the first place, but there was a space for them nonetheless. Either way, a reminder of something that should have been there, but wasn't. Now she was doing what wingless creatures do: observe -- from the ground -- the ones who had the ability to fly.

I was looking at both drawings again recently, at the wingless, flightless girl longingly watching the sky. And then it hit me: That's me, I thought, That's my life. I'm the girl who can't fly. 

And it's true; I really can't.

It's not for lack of trying. I've been giving it my best shot for as long as I can remember.

I first spread my wings when I went to college, not entirely sure of where I was headed, but hoping nonetheless that I'd catch a breeze and "God would take me places."

Some might say I did well. I learned a lot. I made friends. I even graduated with honors. But even with the help of professors and advisers, I was way out of my depth in mapping out a career path.

For one thing, I was the first woman in my family to go to college, to venture outside the "marriage and family" box. I wasn't exactly set up for success in that endeavor, because I didn't know my way around very well outside the box. That is, I knew that single, childless women in salaried professions was a thing that existed, but I'd never internalized that as a valid option for myself. When people asked me "what I wanted to be when I grew up", I'd always drawn a blank: Women weren't supposed to "be" anything. They were supposed to get married to a man who knew what he wanted to be, raise his children, be a good cook, and keep a clean house. That was it. The fact that I went to a "bridal college", where the unofficial motto was "A ring by spring or your money back", didn't do much to challenge my thinking there. I ended up majoring in teaching ESL, mostly because I was friends with the director of the program and I liked her classes.

But man, was I a lousy teacher. I loved my students. The problem was that I also loved trying to get them to teach me their languages, not teach them mine (which was, unquestionably, the whole point of what I was supposed to be doing). Also, classroom management gave me anxiety attacks. Definitely not a bright future there.

And then I went back home with degree in hand, and lived with my parents. (In my defense, the recession was in full swing back then, and almost everyone I knew was doing the same thing.)

But the love of language was the part of my ESL experience that stuck with me, and kept gently tapping me on the shoulder whenever it crossed my mind to wonder what I should be doing with my life. When you don't know what to do, get a master's degree, right? (Isn't that a thought that every reasonable person has?) So, I spread my wings again and gave it another try. This time, I moved all the way across the country to my degree program of choice. I didn't have a much clearer idea than before of where I was going, but at least now I knew what I loved. I figured that was good enough to take a chance on.

Well, if love is all you need, then I would have been all set. I loved what I studied. I couldn't get enough of the theory or its possible applications to real-world problems, which were many. Phonetics was my favorite. The long hours spent transcribing speech samples of indigenous languages in search of an implosive consonant or a uvular fricative and charting the data into neat columns was enough to drive a sane man mad, but for me it was just right. I practiced my tonal articulation by day and went to sleep at night with visions of spectrograms dancing in my head.

Applied linguists can fill a great many jobs, I learned. The one I was specially trained for, however, was overseas missions work, a prospect that simultaneously excited me and scared the heck out of me. Everyone seemed to agree I was a good fit for it, though, mostly because I was the only one in my Field Methods in Second Language and Culture Learning class who had the guts to try eating grubs. "Missionaries have to be ready to eat anything," they said. "You'll be great."

Regrettably, one's ability to swallow bug larvae with aplomb isn't the preeminent criterion in such a vocation. In fact, it doesn't even make the short list. The whole ethos surrounding long-term missions work has one enormous caveat that trumps all other qualifiers: You must be 100% sure God is calling you. If you're not, you may find yourself "putting your hand to the plow and turning back."

Your calling will be evidenced by a complete absence of doubt or misgivings, combined with a burning love for some particular people group which God has supernaturally bestowed upon you. You will be absolutely certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, of what you should do and where you should go.

I know, it sounds too good to be true. I probably would never have believed it myself, except that I had friends who fit this description to a tee. I didn't, so clearly I wasn't called. 

On top of all that, my nagging doubts about living outside the marriage and family box had followed me to where I was. As I'd always understood it, God wanted men -- and, by association, the women who were married to them -- on His team to help Him accomplish great things in the world. It was only logical, then, to conclude that He didn't have as much use for the rest of us: the single, unattached ones who were going it alone without "a spiritual head" (a husband), outside of our natural and proper sphere of existence (a home of which we were the "keepers").

I didn't let any of this get me down, though. God would find a niche for me and my odd assortment of talents and limitations somewhere... right?

After graduation, I continued to press forward down that path. I put out applications and resumes and was promised jobs and connections and travel opportunities from at least half a dozen sources, but nothing ever came of them. Meanwhile, life in the most affluent region of the most affluent state in the most affluent country in the world kept steadily draining me of my resources, financial and otherwise.

And then I got married.

There's a lot more to that story, of course. But the long and the short of it is that we met, I liked him, and I decided to keep him. In fact, we first bonded over our mutual love of travel and culture and languages. We just seemed to fit together in all sorts of ways. And best of all (so I thought), my days of worrying about where God wanted me to be were over. After all, when two Christians marry, God will send the husband wherever He wants him to go, and all that's up to the wife to do is hitch a ride. Simple as that. I entered into the holy estate of matrimony thinking I had finally done all that was required of me.

Several years later, on the other side of much grief and angst, I'm glad to say that I am finally free of that delusion. My husband bears no blame whatsoever for how long I labored under the weight of it. In fact, I credit him with being the first one to start the great unraveling of a lie that I was bound up in for literally my entire life -- even if neither one of us realized it at the time. And the truth has made me a better wife, a better follower of Christ, a better person in general.

But it has cost me everything.

Now I'm grounded, the girl who cannot fly. I'm not sure my wings have been torn off so much as they've just slowly shriveled up over time, but either way, I don't have much use of them anymore. The strangest part of it is, within the last two and a half years I've been slowly amassing more dreams, more passion, more inspiration for what I do -- or could have done -- than I've ever had before, but I'm fresh out of ways to make them reality. I have all the tools and training I need to go almost anywhere in the world. But here I am, waylaid in the rural American South, where life moves at the speed of molasses (on a good day). The irony of it all just kills me. If it were someone else's life, it would almost be funny.

Not that my situation is thoroughly terrible; it isn't. I am, after all, married to a wonderful man who -- for reasons God only knows -- thinks I'm wonderful, too. I'm in reasonably good health. I make a little money. I own my own house. (Really, it's more of a bungalow, and actually the bank owns it. But they let me pretend that I own it, as long as I pay them for the privilege -- isn't that nice of them?) All things considered, I have a decent life.

And yet... A decent life on the ground is still exactly that: a life on the ground. It can't compare with soaring high in the sky, knowing that you're doing exactly what God created you to do.

These days I'm watching while the ones who still have their wings take to the sky. Some of them got involved in missions work because they felt they had a calling. And some of them weren't naive enough to believe, like I did, that they needed a calling. More to the point, they're doing something with their lives. I'm thankful for the work they do, I really am. But watching them makes me feel that old throbbing pain of something that was supposed to have been there, but isn't.

"Those who wait upon the Lord will mount up with wings like eagles," I'm told, and yet I wait and wait and wait, and all the while I can feel the sand slipping through the glass. "Things happen in God's timing," I'm told, and I'm sure it's true -- but God has all the time in the world, whereas I do not. The best years of my life are already behind me, and I have little of value to show for them. I can't imagine things going up from here.

Or maybe I've simply run out of chances to get it right.

In between whiles, I wonder about what I'll end up doing. Maybe I'll be one of those youth conference speakers who travels around preaching, "Don't waste your life like I did! Don't make my mistakes!" During my Bible college chapel days, messages like those were a dime a dozen. Everybody had a story to tell, and they all wanted to make sure that ours didn't turn out like theirs if we could possibly help it. There was always some pitfall, some heinous sin, some heartache that we were instructed on how to avoid. The point was that they always had really dramatic mistakes to talk about, or something that at least made for an interesting story.

That's not quite the case for me -- I'm not exactly certain where I went off the path. But looking at where I am right now, and then looking around me at people my age and younger traveling the world, publishing books, starting nonprofits -- man, I know I went wrong somewhere.

Maybe I should just be happy for the people whom God uses to do great things, even though He's not particularly interested in me. I guess I should just be content to witness what others are doing, even though I can't contribute what I have.

Or maybe I don't, in fact, have anything to contribute. Maybe the illusion that I did was just that, an illusion.

Maybe I'm supposed to take the advice of the seasoned veterans of life and hold out for heaven, where "all shall be well." Nobody's grounded there, after all. That's where angels live, and they have wings...

Who knows? Maybe that's where I'll finally be able to fly.

However, I intend to wait a while to find out. A long while.

In the meantime, I'll just be sitting here, watching the sky and the flying ones, dreaming of what it would be like to be alongside them.

05 April 2018

A Few of My Favorite Things

In honor of the fifty-third anniversary of the release of The Sound of Music (okay, it was actually April 1, but April 1 this year was Easter and April Fool's Day, so I didn't want to fill my plate with too much), I decided to compile a list of favorite things. Just because it's fun. and in case you might want to give me something.

Raindrops on roses...

1. Mint chocolate chip ice cream.
In a waffle cone, naturally. Because that's the right way to eat ice cream. Or one of the right ways. Heck, you know, I think we can say about ice cream what they say about dieting and budgeting: "The right way to do it, is whatever way you'll do consistently." (You know it's true.)

2. The Pacific Ocean and beaches. For melting away a stress headache: Sunset Beach, California at high tide in late August > painkillers, ice packs, massages, green tea, meditation, et cetera...

3. The Happiness Project and Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. If you find other people's memoirs interesting and you like the "mini to-do list of new ways to improve your life every month" concept, these are both must-reads.

4. Dry humor. Specifically, of the variety so deftly employed by Elizabeth Bennett's father in Pride and Prejudice. (Which, I realize, doesn't explain why I also love Mr. Bean.)

5. Flying. No, I don't love being cramped in an economy-class seat with my knees up to my chin, or the pressure-induced headache I get while in flight. But being able to get somewhere faster than driving? I'll take that any day over being stuck in the car. Not to mention, taking off is more fun than a roller coaster.

6. Blue and white china. Now that I'm on the other side of the wedding registry experience, gone are my days of eating off mismatched Corelle plates from Goodwill if I can help it. They say marriage helps you grow up; maybe that's one of the ways.

7. Mail from friends. Especially if it comes from another continent.

8. Books that you write in. Journals, planners, all that stuff. You can never have too many -- unless you're me, in which case you have too many but you still want more.

9. Freshwater rivers. Beautiful, relaxing, great for swimming, and -- unlike their saltwater counterparts -- they don't aid and abet anything evil that can sting you to death or chomp off your limbs. (Bonus points if there's a rope swing somewhere around.)

10. Tablets. I'm definitely late to the party with this one; I've only had a tablet since last year. But I'm sold on it. No more tripping over cords or having to balance a bulky laptop on my fruit bowl while I work in the kitchen, because I don't have space for it anywhere else.

11. Coffee shops. Most favorite place to spend money I don't have, on things I shouldn't be eating.

12. Snow. Pretty to look at, fun to play in, cancels school. What's not to love?

13. The Lion King. Yes, I'm a grownup, and my favorite movie is a cartoon for kids. It's been my favorite since it came out in 1994, and I guess it'll always be. I don't think I'm the only one, though. I never understood people going crazy with collections of movie-based merchandise from other movies like Star Wars, but with The Lion King, I totally get it. I'd probably do it too, if I didn't have a life and a 720 square foot house with no storage space. It's just that good.

14. Kona coffee from Hawaii. Coffee comes from all around the world, but the best of them all is grown right here at home! (Well, "home" in the loose sense of the word that includes "Pacific islands more than 4,000 miles away from my house.") There's just something about that volcano flavor.

15. Stargazer lilies. They're big and glorious and colorful and they smell amazing. If you're okay with pollen coloring your clothing yellow for life, that's a bonus.

16. Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies. An open box = an empty box = regret that I didn't order at least 19 more boxes.

17. Green tea frappuccino from Starbucks. There's not much on the Starbucks menu that's really to die for (in my opinion -- certainly not the coffee!), but this comes pretty close. They can be hard to find though.

18. Birch beer. Yes, it has to be birch beer. Not root beer. They taste very different. And it has to be white birch beer. None of that Pennsylvania Dutch stuff.

19. Ice cream sundaes with tons of candy and stuff. The more, the merrier. If there's some kind of "all the junk" or "kitchen sink" option on the menu, that's the one I'll be going for.

20. The Innocence Mission. Favorite obscure indie band. Great rainy day music.

21. Sharon, CT. And not just because they named it after me, either. 😉

22. Pizza. Preferably with a thin crust, tons of toppings, and made by someone other than me!

23. Cerulean. The best of the blues. Also the crayon in my box that always got worn down before all the others.

24. Psalm 104. The nature lover's psalm. Not one of the popular ones, probably because it's too long to hang in a frame or embroider on a pillow. But I've always liked it the best.

25. Explosives. I've got a lovely bunch of fireworks, / There they are all standing in a row. / Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head...

26. Acrylic painting. Easier to control than watercolor or oil, and no turpentine needed. Plus, it's very forgiving. With acrylic, if you mess up, you actually have a prayer of being able to cover it up -- or disguise it as something else, if you're good. If you can't hide the mistake? Not to worry. Just tell everyone it's an abstract. There's a pretty fine line between that and a mess-up anyway.

27. Gardening. I don't love every aspect of this, but it is the best way to get fresh vegetables. Farmer's markets are great for this too, but they tend to separate me from my money too easily.

28. Tin whistle and uillean pipes. No, I don't play these. But they're my favorite music to listen to. Fortunately listening requires no talent.

29. Maple syruping. The best maple syrup money can buy still isn't as good as what you make yourself at home. And it is so much fun! (Access to at least 5-6 acres' worth of sugar maples and an outdoor sap boiler highly recommended).

30. The Twilight Zone. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in it.

31. Swimming. Or -- if you're like me -- just splashing around and floating on your back looking at the clouds passes for "swimming" too.

32. "Come Together” by the Beatles. There's just something about the sound of this song. Also, the fact that I can't for the life of me figure out what is going on in the lyrics.

33. Silver jewelry. Or nickel or pewter or silver-plated, I really don't care. Just as long as it isn't gold. Gold makes you look old.

34. Japanese language. Delicious foods are said to "melt in your mouth", and certain languages have a similar effect on one's ears. Part of me hates to be into something that it seems like literally everyone else is crazy about, but oh well -- I am what I am. (Swahili and Greek are incredibly close seconds.)

35. Tiramisu. Heaven on earth. That is, a properly made tiramisu, with ladyfingers and mascarpone cheese. Do not take short cuts. Do not, above all else, be like one of the heathens I know who tried to take the easy way out with boxed vanilla cake mix and cream cheese. That ain't gonna fly.

36. World Market. I'd love to be able to furnish my living space by shopping here, although there's no telling how many mortgages I'd have to take out to be able to do so.

37. Tintin comics. Why aren't these more popular? I have no idea. They're hilarious, brilliantly written and beautifully illustrated. And yes, they may be a tad culturally insensitive, but that's the 1930's and 40's for you!

38. The Nutcracker ballet. I saw this for the first time when I was about seven or so. Despite the inclusion of some slightly intense scenes for children under eight (the stabbing of the seven-headed mouse comes to mind), I remember loving it and thinking that the Nutcracker was just the nicest man (wooden toy?) ever. And, well, the part about living in a land made of candy and all that.

39. English. My favorite subject in school, unless you count art, which my school didn't have.

40. Ecclesiastes and Revelation. Favorite Old Testament book, favorite New Testament book. (I couldn't pick just one.)

41. The sound of my dog eating her kibbles. I know, I know, this one will get me branded as a weirdo for sure. Wesley loves it too. We're both weirdos.

42. Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson. This book will make you thankful that you live in America. Or embarrassed that you live in America. Or probably both. Either way, it'll make you laugh till your sides hurt.

43. Myers Briggs. I'm a bit of a MBTI junkie. No, I don't make any claims that it's scientific or that you should base major decisions on it. But it does have some entertainment value. If I know you even somewhat well, I've probably figured out your type already (or at least taken a guess at it).

44. Freight trains. There are certain weird people in this world [me] who love trains and don't mind waiting for them at crossings, or being woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of them passing by. We're not sure why.

45. Chocolate nonpareils. Best candy ever, except of course for the mint-flavored variety that looks like a pastel-colored Hershey kiss. Slay me...

46. Blackeyed Susans. The prettiest wildflower of them all. Probably the toughest stems, too.

47. Faith Hill. I used to be a moderately-big pop country fan; fortunately I saw the light of day and now I'm not anymore. But I still have a special place in my heart for Faith Hill, who was my favorite, and especially the album Breathe, which was my jam in seventh grade (and got me a lecture from one of my teachers about "listening to worldly music." Ha!).

48. Raspberry pie. With homemade whipped cream. No explanation needed.

49. Beanie Baby cats. Like everybody else, I had quite a few of the Beanie Babies during their uber-popular days. The cats were always my favorite for some reason; don't know why. I'm not a big cat person, but I did love those Beanie Baby cats. I still have them all, though they're a bit worse for wear after so many years. Clearly, life in the dark recesses of the closet hasn't done much for them.

50. Chatting online with friends. I know, I'm so 2001. But I still love it.

51. Fun pens and colored pencils. To go with #8, of course.

What are some of your favorite things?