A few months ago I announced that I was taking a break from blogging. The purpose of this break was to heal from a difficult physical, emotional, and spiritual spring; to work on some non-blog writing; and to survive summer with all four children home from school.
I survived summer. I’d expected summer to feel like an endless mountain ascent lined with detours for sibling fights and requests for snacks and rinsing out the bathing suits again; summer turned out to be not that bad. It was even fun. For the most part, I actually enjoyed spending all day, every day with my four daughters. We read a lot and played a lot and took some memorable trips.
What I didn’t get done were any of the projects that I’d planned to accomplish over the summer. These included: teaching my four-year-old to write her name, helping my seven-year-old sew a dress for her doll, and editing a book. I didn’t get much of anything written all summer long, aside from my bi-weekly column for The Addison Independent — and that was usually composed in a panic two days before deadline.
What I did get done was some much-needed work on my heart and mind. I’m going to share a little of that now, because I’m turning 40 today.
According to most measures of success, I haven’t accomplished much in my first four decades of life. Since graduating from college, I have not found my way into any definite career. I have made hardly any money. I have not started a company or written a sonata or published a book. In fact, the most tangible things I’ve produced this decade are my four daughters — and whether that counts as a “success” is highly subjective, depending on whether you like my kids. (And sometimes even I don’t like my kids!)
But despite my lack of conventional success, I’ve learned something in my 40 years. I think that I’ve come some distance in the right direction. Maybe — hopefully — I’m gradually becoming more and more the person God created me to be.
Yes: I’m going to mention God a few times in what follows. I recognize that not everyone who reads this shares my beliefs, and I’m sorry if this makes you uncomfortable. But I honestly don’t know how to describe what happened to us this summer without bringing God into it. It’s my birthday and I’ll write what I want to.
When I left you back in May, I was deep in a morass of depression and self-pity: a norovirus had attacked our family for six weeks, I was exhausted, I was attempting to arrange housing and homeschooling materials for a sabbatical in California that I didn’t really want to take, we’d lost three local houses that I’d been interested in based on my desire to move somewhere with more land, and Erick and I seemed out of step on our visions for the future.
In short: I had expectations about how life should be, and life wasn’t keeping up its end of the deal.
My expectations seemed entirely reasonable to me, so I couldn’t understand why God kept shutting them down: I just want our family to be healthy! I just want to grow vegetables and raise animals! I just want to stay where I’m comfortable! I just want what I want!
You may be thinking that my blind spot was a mile wide, and it was. But I wonder whether most of us don’t have similar blind spots, especially those of us who are living privileged upper-middle-class existences in the West.
We expect to be comfortable. We expect to be able to do what we want. And we think that those are reasonable expectations.
ARE they? At what other time in history, and in how many other places in the world today, do people EXPECT to avoid sickness and physical discomfort? To live where they want, and get a job that they like? That they shouldn’t age? To be able to take vacations and have two-day delivery and buy citrus in February?
In most other times and places, most people were grateful simply to live past the age of five.
Where do we get these expectations, this sense that we’re entitled to comfort?
(I’ll tell you one major source: The folks who want to sell us things.“Because you’re worth it.” “You deserve a break today.” “Have it your way.” “No more tears!” We’ve been programmed to expect comfort and immediate wish-fulfillment so that we’ll buy more stuff.)
This summer I had to deprogram myself in order to heal the rage, self-pity, and depression that consumed me when life didn’t hand me what I felt I was due.
Because the truth is that nobody — least of all God — ever promised me that life should be comfortable. The only people who ever told me that were trying to sell me something.
Erick and I had gotten too comfortable. After a decade of graduate schools and switching houses and adding babies every couple of years, we’d found the place where we wanted to settle, and we settled. So this summer we set out on a long and challenging journey of unsettling ourselves.
This journey mostly involved changing the way that we prayed. A wise friend said to me, when I told her that we’d been praying fruitlessly for a place to live during sabbatical, “Maybe you’re praying the wrong prayer.” As Anne Lamott wrote: “God is not a short-order cook.” As my own daughter — who apparently learned in 7 years what took me 40 — said: “Don’t pray for something to happen or not to happen; that’s cheating. Just pray to do what God wants you to do.”
If there’s an all-powerful, all-loving God who’s worth worshipping, doesn’t it stand to reason that sometimes we don’t understand what God’s doing? Instead of me asking: God, why are you shutting down my plans?, doesn’t God have just as much right to ask: Faith, why aren’t you living according to my plans?
So that became our prayer: That God would make us do what God wanted.
And we’re getting what we prayed for. Not in an “And they lived happily ever after” way, not in a way that will make us comfortable, and not in a way that will make sense to many outside observers.
It became very clear to me that, no matter how uncomfortable I felt about it, spending Erick’s sabbatical in California was the right thing. But for several months following that revelation, it looked like we might not find housing: we pursued multiple leads, none of which panned out. Finally, a place opened up: A small two-bedroom house. It’s going to be “cozy,” it may not be totally comfortable, but it will certainly be an adventure.
I figured that cementing our sabbatical plans meant setting aside any thoughts of a local move for at least a year; after all, three potential homes had already been whisked out from under our noses.
I thought wrong: On the very day that our house-sitter (and fifth Gong girl!) moved in with us, a house came on the market. Erick thought we should look at it. I’ll write more on this later; suffice it to say that we put in an offer with fear and trembling, and every single door opened. We close at the end of this month. It is both the house we wanted, and not at all the house we wanted: It’s 40% smaller than our current house, it needs a lot of work to be safe and finished (which will have to be done during our sabbatical), and it sits on 12.5 acres of beautiful open land in a great location close to town.
It’s going to be crazy, it may not be totally comfortable, but as Erick said — to my disbelief — when we first saw the house, “This could be a neat adventure.”
This may not sound like a big deal: a sabbatical journey and a downsized home with upsized land. But it feels like we’ve tossed up all the pieces of our life and are waiting to see where they land; it feels like trust. We don’t know what’s next, but we feel like we’re finally on the right path.
So I’ve learned to distrust comfort. When I’m comfortable I usually buy into the illusion of control, which eventually leads to entitlement and self-pity. There’s a joy and a peace in being uncomfortable again, in having to rely on what I can’t see instead of on my own expectations. I hope to be uncomfortable for a long time to come.