Thirty-two and Still Learning

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This hat has such a wide brim, I have to fold it back sometimes! ūüėÄ

This birthday post is inspired by a similar post by my friend Stephanie Morrill. I loved the idea of celebrating personal growth and new experiences. I hope you enjoy this collection of big and small discoveries/changes in my life this past year. ūüôā (They’re not in any particular order.)

  1. The biggest change/learning experience of the past¬†thirteen months: Driving on my own. I finally got my driver’s license after a decade and a half of shame, fear, frustration, and disappointment. I am including this in my twelve-months list because it’s such a H.U.G.E. victory for me, but also because the learning has extended into this year, as I’ve continued to gain confidence¬†as a driver. It was an amazing feeling to finally overcome my psychological roadblock about driving, and gave me more hope about other areas in my life in which I still give in to fear.
  2. Sunglasses! They have been¬†a life-changing discovery for me as a migraineur. I used to think people mainly wore them to look cool. Then I bought a pair when I got my license, for driving into the sun, and I had no idea how much they would improve my life. See, the thing about sunglasses is they reduce eye strain in bright light (duh)… and I can wear them ANYWHERE at ANY TIME. And I do. In the grocery store. In the library. Walking around my neighbourhood. Walking around my house. I probably look like I have a perpetual hangover, but I don’t care, because I get fewer migraines from light strain. And I no longer have to wipe away my mascara smudges before heading out the door. ūüėČ
  3. Saucers! Teacup saucers also struck me as items people only used to look cool. But it turns out people use them so they can transform their hands into tiny tables on which to rest a cup. Brilliant. I used them in a teashop in Lincoln, in the UK, and I love them now.
  4. Not all zippers separate. ūüė¶ I learned this the hard way. I bought a heavy-duty zipper for my favourite winter coat, hand-sewed all 32 inches of it into the lining… and then realized the zipper did not separate. I thought it would look a little odd to step in and out of my winter coat… so I had to order a¬†separating zipper.
  5. PowerPoint presentations do me no favours. Since joining¬†The One Year Adventure Novel¬†staff, I’ve become increasingly dependent on slides when I speak.¬†My boss has a speaking style that works very¬†well with slides, and our students really¬†like having slides to help them take notes, so I’ve tried to incorporate them into my own presentations. But this year, I realized that they aren’t “me,” and that when I use them, I¬†lose control over what I really have to say. For me, slides are a crutch, and they get in the way of my natural communication style. It may take more time to write out my talks in full, but if I do, I am much more articulate and genuine. It feels good to get to know myself better as a speaker. It also feels good to have a way forward. I was becoming so discouraged about my abilities as a speaker.
  6. Hats are magic. I’ve always admired from afar people who pull off fantastic hats, but this year I realized I can pull them off. Some of them anyway. I have now fully embraced my love of hats. Cloche hats, wide-brimmed straw hats, tweed berets, tweed aviators, tartan tams… What should I try next? Also, hats are a brilliant way to hide greasy hair and put off taking a shower.
  7. Cloth napkins. Again, something I thought people only used to look fancy. I refused to buy paper napkins because of the paper waste, so we just did without. Who needs cloth napkins? Me! I love that I relax more while eating because I no longer worry about¬†my clothes. And they are environmentally-friendly‚ÄĒa one-time purchase.
  8. I discovered online thrifting this year! It’s been a great way to earn a bit of money while simultaneously clearing out clothes I no longer need. I’ve stumbled on¬†some Anthropologie items I have pined for in the past‚ÄĒnow secondhand and affordable. As many of you know, I love colourful, quirky clothes. Getting dressed is like¬†painting on a canvas.
  9. Pumping gas‚ÄĒan extension of #1 on this list, but I take pride in the fact that I do this for myself now.
  10. I get Star Wars now. Until recently, I had only watched the original Star Wars trilogy once, when I was thirteen. And me a nerd. They were among the first live-action movies I ever watched, actually, and so even though I liked them, I didn’t react to them as most people do. They were pretty overwhelming and scary for me at that time. I really enjoy that I now “get” the franchise‚ÄĒat least, much more than I did.
  11. Corduroy trousers‚ÄĒso much nicer than blue jeans! And the more bright colours the merrier!
  12. Almond oil works for my skin‚ÄĒit’s pretty amazing to find a moisturizer my skin can handle that does not smell like chemicals or coconut.
  13. Euro pillows‚ÄĒI used to think these were for show, too! But this year I realized why people like them: they make sitting up in bed so much better! For two people who often work in bed (shhh), it’s kind of ridiculous how long it took for us to figure this out.
  14. Nordic Ware‚ÄĒThese baking sheets have revolutionized my dishwashing. Apparently baking sheets don’t have to be the bane of my existence. They are SO NICE.
  15. I learned that there is pretty much no part of history on the African continent I don’t find interesting. (I assumed I was only interested in West Africa.)
  16. I voted for the first time! In an effort to make up for my past negligence, I voted in a district vote, state primary, and the national election. They were all very interesting experiences.
  17. It’s possible to come back to a town in Kansas from Europe and actually feel happy to be home. Miracles are real.
  18. Mascarpone ice cream is A Thing of Beauty. I would never have believed there was an ice cream flavour out there I would consistently choose over plain old vanilla.
  19. I went to a book signing for the first time (Maggie Steifvater). I have a horror of being around famous/powerful people, so I was pretty shy, but I went!
  20. I don’t exactly remember when Matthias and I discovered Fever Ray, and expanded our Florence + The Machine listening beyond Ceremonials, but¬†whenever it was, it was a good decision.
  21. Apple earbuds‚ÄĒearbuds that don’t give me a pressure headache. I doubt they would be ideal for more active people, but I love that I can pop them in while lying down or doing dishes. Before I got them, Matthias and I used to have to sleep separately if I was having a bad episode, because I needed to play audiobooks to get through the night. Now that isn’t necessary anymore!
  22. My taste in craft beer¬†is¬†maturing. There are a number of craft beers¬†I enjoy now that I used to dislike. Just two years ago, I didn’t like any beer at all! It has been a nice discovery, because I’ve simultaneously been learning that my head can’t handle wine. It’s great to find drinks with a low alcohol content that I genuinely enjoy. I still¬†can’t have a whole glass, but that’s okay. It’s still really nice.
  23. I’ve been learning to play¬†Dungeons & Dragons! It’s hard for this exhausted introvert to play a game for so many hours straight, but I’ve had a lot of fun.
  24. I want a dog. I thought I might want a dog, but this year I realized I really do.
  25. Icelandair does not provide complimentary meals or snacks. ūüė¶
  26. Privacy window peel-and-stick/laminate. I just didn’t know about it, and it has transformed our dark bathroom into a much more pleasant space.
  27. Electric hedge-trimmers are incredibly helpful! They save SO MUCH time! And managing to trim properly when your whole body is shaking and you’re wielding a dangerous machine feels super hard-core.
  28. SEO and affiliate links‚ÄĒI’m slowly learning more about this aspect of marketing, thanks to our consultant, who is a really non-intimidating guy. I really like learning things like this.
  29. How to treat wood‚ÄĒI’m at a super amateur level‚ÄĒall I’ve done so far is treat my shea tree wand to restore moisture‚ÄĒbut I want to continue to learn about conserving and refinishing wood.
  30. How introverted I truly am, and how much social anxiety I have. I’ve known for years that I am an introvert, but this year I’ve become more aware of what that really means for me. It intersects with social anxiety I did not know I had. I’ve always been good with people, and very friendly, so I didn’t see myself as socially anxious. But actually I am. It’s been helpful to identify the ways in which I express or repress anxiety in social situations. An area in which I need a lot more growth!
  31. How to better manage my migraines‚ÄĒThis is an ongoing project, so it’s impossible to precisely mark milestones. That said, I know I have made progress this year. I am becoming more and more attuned to my body and the many signals it sends me. Learning to pause and listen to my body and my emotions has been key in helping me prevent and respond to pain.
  32. Self-talk. This is related to the last item, but I think it deserves its own listing. I’ve been practicing talking to myself in a reassuring and empowering way. For example, one clear situation in which I can see the impact of self-talk is my driving. I still get very nervous about driving. I¬†remind myself ¬†“I know the rules of the road,” and “I have good judgement; I can make good decisions.” It really makes a difference.
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Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms – A Review

cartwheeling-in-thunderstorms-coverI’ve never reviewed a book on my blog before, but as I shut the covers of Katherine Rundell’s Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, I realized many of you who follow my blog would appreciate being introduced to this book. It’s middle-grade fiction. The author is a TCK who grew up between Zimbabwe, Belgium, and England; and the story, which takes place in rural Zimbabwe and London, is about a TCK.

I’m going to tell you why you should read it. That part will be spoiler-free. And then¬†I want to explore¬†what this book has to teach¬†me as another TCK writer from Africa, and¬†offer some criticism. Don’t worry, the border crossing between the Spoiler-Free Zone and the Spoiler Zone will be heavily patrolled. But I’ve done my best to communicate to the police that I don’t want them to extort you.

Publisher’s Synopsis

Wilhelmina Silver’s world is golden. Living half-wild on an African farm with her horse, her monkey, and her best friend, every day is beautiful. But when her home is sold and Will is sent away to boarding school in England, the world becomes impossibly difficult. Lions and hyenas are nothing compared to packs of vicious schoolgirls. Where can a girl run to in London? And will she have the courage to survive?

About the Author

Here’s what Katherine Rundell permits Simon & Schuster to say about her on their website:

Katherine Rundell is the author of Rooftoppers, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms (a Boston Globe‚ÄďHorn Book Award winner), and The Wolf Wilder. She grew up in Zimbabwe, Brussels, and London, and is currently a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. She begins each day with a cartwheel and believes that reading is almost exactly the same as cartwheeling: it turns the world upside down and leaves you breathless. In her spare time, she enjoys walking on tightropes and trespassing on the rooftops of Oxford colleges.

How much of Katherine there is in Wilhelmina Silver‚ÄĒ”Will,”‚ÄĒthe electric main character, is her business, of course. But my own curiosity is a lesson to me. I am the first to support the privacy of fiction writers, but as a fellow TCK, I find myself playing at sleuth, trying to detect how much of the story was invention and how much of it based in her own life. There are hints in the video below (but also mild spoilers).

A¬†TCK author’s fishbowl is made of magnifying glass.

 

You Should Read It!

Here’s what I love about the book:

  • Rundell’s vivid, imaginative style
  • The¬†figurative language drawn from Africa instead of the West
  • Characters who are not only original but told in an original way
  • The warm, respectful portrayal of African characters
  • Its artful corrective of a more famous “life on a farm in Africa” narrative, Out of Africa
  • Will’s friendship with Simon and Daniel. I am a sucker for boy‚Äďgirl friendship stories. I especially love that her best friend is Zimbabwean.
  • The attempt at nuance in portraying a boarding school. This is no Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Young Ladies.
  • The theme: the power of courage and perseverance to carve out happiness in the least likely circumstances

Most of all, I love¬†Rundell’s powerful portrayal of¬†the shock Will sustains. Rundell goes beyond simply showing us the many ways in which London was a whole new world for Will. She does not just describe culture shock. She crafts a series of events to show us that Will was not only happy and loved in Zimbabwe, but she was strong. She had a vitality and boldness and sincerity there that even her critics (minus Cynthia) recognized. For such a person to then find herself no longer fearless, but bewildered; no longer a protector, but bullied; no longer perceived as capable or intelligent, but inept and ignorant; and no longer a beloved member of a community, but a “disgusting” feral outcast,¬†made this a more powerful cross-cultural transition story than others I have read.

I was moved; I have felt many of these reversals; and the deep sense of loss I continue to feel, looking back on a time when I felt strong is one of the locus points of my life.

I really respect Katherine Rundell for telling this story. She’s right. Courage can sometimes feel incredibly tremulous and, well, weak, but it’s precisely this kind of strength at the end of our rope that can take us back from the edge of despair.

 

 

——————–BORDER CROSSING to the¬†SPOILER ZONE—————

Keep a sharp eye on your valuables. Get ready for a long wait. Name-drop if you can.

Can you tell most of the borders I’ve crossed were in West Africa? ūüėČ

 

CANDID CRITICISM

I thoroughly love Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms yet also find it flawed in three ways.

I want to be clear: I am picking the book apart because it’s important to me. Most of the time I enjoy the books I read without worrying too much about the story structure, character consistency, etc., etc. But it’s different with Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms because this is the closest thing I have found to what I myself am writing.

I am taking notes because these are pitfalls I,¬†too,¬†have to watch for. I don’t know if I could do better, but I can at least pay attention.

1. Contrast

The first part of the book, set in Zimbabwe, is more enthralling than the second part, set in London.

Yes, it’s appropriate for the tone and writing style to adapt to the very different settings. Wilhelmina is enchanted by her home in Zimbabwe, and is very happy there. Her joy in her life sweeps you away as a reader. And her bewilderment when she finds herself¬†in cold, drizzly London where no one understands her behaviour accounts for the less-than-ecstatic point of view in part two.

If it were just the change¬†in settings and tone that were noticeable, that would only underscore¬†Rundell’s ability. But it’s not. The quality of the prose changes. Her writing in the first part of the story is much more vivid and compelling. And the characters in Zimbabwe (apart from Cynthia) are so alive they make your head swim. There isn’t anything lacking in the second part except by contrast, but there you have it. The contrast is there.

I both admire Rundell for taking on the challenge of a cross-cultural transition story and find myself wistful for the story she could have written if she kept the plot to Zimbabwe.

2. Pacing

There is one way in which part two could be said to be stronger: the pacing. This book has a particularly drawn-out Act I. It takes ages to get to the Inciting Incident. I didn’t mind, because I really enjoyed being immersed in Will’s life on the farm. But I noticed.

There is more action once Will lands in London. The pace in the first half is appropriately¬†African. The second half keeps time with the best clocks in London. This is more evidence that Rundell has a challenge on her hands.¬†She is writing about two very different cultures. I like the contrast in the pacing‚ÄĒit feels true to life‚ÄĒyet it is still a story flaw.

On the one hand, you could say that the story moves quickly because life moves quickly in London. But Will’s internal clock has not adjusted yet, so this change of pace doesn’t¬†quite work for the character. Will is an alert, observant person. Grief dulls our senses, but even when she is miserable, I expect Will¬†to be sensitive to her surroundings if only to react to them. But the boarding school environment is described in broad strokes. The story does not pause for details. I wonder if this indicates that the author¬†doesn’t have as many personal sensory experiences to draw on for this section.

3. Tropes

I put the first two flaws‚ÄĒthe contrast between the settings and the change in pace‚ÄĒdown to how difficult it is to write fairly about two very distinct cultures in the same book.¬†When you take on a risky story, you won’t win every round.

But I can’t make good excuses for the tropes she uses.¬†I find Rundell’s choices hard to swallow because in other respects she does such a great job turning stereotypes on their heads.

The worst one is the evil stepmother. In this book, she is the gold-digger Cynthia Vincy who marries Will’s guardian after the death of Will’s father. I am sure there are women as insufferable as Cynthia, whose baldfaced greed ruins the happiness of children.¬†But why did Rundell settle on such an overused way of getting Will shipped off to boarding school?

Cynthia is a one-dimensional, static villain who only exists to create a convenient scenario in which Will can be forcibly relocated.

And then, of course, Wilhelmina’s dad has to die.

How else to get Will to London?

I don’t know. But please. There must be¬†a way.

It’s not just that these are clich√©; it’s that they are missed opportunities for nuance. How wonderful would it be to get a boarding school story where¬†cruelty and neglect are not the motive for sending the child to the school? It would not be far-fetched at all for members of the community in Zimbabwe to convince Will’s guardian that if he had her best in mind, he would give her an English education. No need for evil Cynthia. Will’s dad could even have stayed in the picture, frankly. At some point, her doting father would have to start wondering if he’s really giving his daughter the opportunities she deserves. That conflict‚ÄĒWill’s convictions in¬†conflict with those of the people who love her‚ÄĒwould have made for a much better book.

I could even accept¬†Cynthia if she were cast as a well-meaning¬†person with traditional views on a young lady’s education.

I also disliked the final conversation between Miss Blake and Mrs. Robinson. It was so clich√© I could hardly stand it. I love Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess, but the romanticization of Sara Crewe’s TCK¬†outlook is not to the book’s credit. I really hated Angela’s¬†syrupy praise of Wilhelmina’s purity of heart. Professional tiffs over student discipline, sure; but we don’t need a sermon about the innocence¬†of¬†a child nurtured by Mother Africa.

We, Africa’s children, are just humans like the rest of you. We TCKs are just human, too. We can celebrate the fresh perspective and the unusual strengths of a Wilhelmina Silver without turning her into a super-child.

I resent this so much because we TCKs are prone to exceptionalism. We have a hard enough time knowing ourselves as it is. We don’t need to be told¬†we are special. We need to know we are seen and accepted.

Writer Takeaways

To sum up, here are the questions Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms raises for me as a writer.

  1. Would it make for a stronger, more consistent and vibrant narrative if I kept my own stories to a West African setting?
  2. If I want to write about people who move between worlds (which I might), what do I need to do to make sure my writing about other settings is as engaging as my writing about West Africa?
  3. How can I avoid relying on plot gimmicks to help a Western audience follow a story which might not be believable to them (even if it is true to life)?
  4. I want to give West African characters a stronger voice than I myself often had the ears to hear as a child. How will I do this when I did not have the kind of friendship myself that Wilhelmina had with Simon?
  5. How can I write stories on African time for an audience on Western time?

I admit that I had moments, while reading her novel, where I felt a bit dismayed. There were times when Rundell’s choice of words or her figurative language were those I myself might¬†use.

I have written and spoken before about the unfair advantage I have as a writer who grew up in such an “exotic” setting. I can be pretty lazy as a writer and still come off sounding original.

One of my fears is that I will not work hard enough for my words. I don’t want to coast. I don’t want to¬†parade for show memories and experiences that¬†had¬†better be saved for the right moment.

I am really grateful to have read Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms because Rundell unknowingly pushes me to work harder. An “original” metaphor can,¬†in a smaller circle, be clich√©. Now I know there is at least one person who is ahead of me on the road. And I don’t underestimate her.

It’s not a competition. She doesn’t even know I exist‚ÄĒfor good reason. But it’s a kind of stimulating intellectual company I haven’t had much of.

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When You Brood More Than You Write

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Today¬†I wrote about¬†brooding. Surprising, right?! ūüėČ If you’ve ever felt as though¬†all you do is obsess about creative projects¬†instead of getting anything accomplished, I would like to hope this post would offer you some encouragement. It considers¬†brooding from a different angle.¬†

I’m sharing it here, on my own blog, because I think some of you may also like to read it because I delve into my motivations for writing.

The post, “When You Brood More Than You Write,” is on the blog of the press I work for. Here is a snippet.

Brooding is uncomfortable. Embarrassing. It’s difficult to see the point, and while I wonder what the point could be, I brood some more. What should I do with my book? Should it be fiction or nonfiction? Should I scrap the manuscript and start over?

More than anything, I wrestle with what it means to write in a way that honors the people among whom I grew up, in sub-Saharan West Africa. I vividly remember my farewell feast in northern Benin. Nineteen years old, I was leaving West Africa to pursue a university writing degree in the USA. The community outdid itself on the food. All my favorite dishes. And there were speeches, of course. I made a speech, too. In my best Baatonu, I said I would not forget. I said they were my people. Always would be my people.

Read more ¬Ľ

 

Tamajeq necklace

Why I Choose a Life of Regret

Tamajeq necklace

Clicking on this image will take you to more photos of “Tuareg” jewelry.

The other day, we popped into Ten Thousand Villages. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a necklace, and I immediately knew where it was made: Niger. TTV is carrying a number of Nigerien pieces at the moment, it turns out.

I went again yesterday and I looked at them all for a long time. Haunting, the designs, most of them engraved silver. So expensive as well. $175 for a necklace. $75 for a pair of earrings. It is strange to think how much less these would cost back home. How I used to own a necklace like these and lost track of it, because it was commonplace.

How little I prized or learned of Nigerien culture, when I lived in Niamey, Niger, for four years. I took Hausa lessons for four months and don’t remember a single word. I don’t have a Nigerien friend. And I didn’t when I lived there.

It was a good boarding school, Sahel Academy, where I attended those years in Niger, but I deeply regret its¬†insulated world. I still grieve those four years‚ÄĒthe Lost Years‚ÄĒhow preparation for re-entry into the West swallowed up¬†a precious opportunity.Map of West Africa

I regret them so much that when I took my husband to see where I grew up, I refused to spend any time¬†in Niger. “I want to be in Benin every single¬†day I can,” I said. But, as true as that was, I was ashamed for him to see what my life in Niger¬†had not¬†been.

Staring at these necklaces and earrings, evocative of a landscape of dune and the grace of stars, the tradeoffs of a life abroad sit inside me like a meal of pounded yam.

There is nothing so heavy in the gut as sokoru.

This is what took me to Niger: education, and preparation for re-entry into North America.

There is no quality high school in English in Benin (where I had lived since age five). But in Niamey, a seven-hour, pot-hole-ridden trek north of my home, stood Sahel Academy, an international school, and it offered long-term boarding.

Niamey__Niger

This photo of Niamey may be a bit old… then again, that could be the haze of dust in the air.

There was no question in my mind about homeschooling instead. I adored learning in a classroom. And Sahel Academy was American. Well, it tried to be international (it offered testing for the International General Certificate of Secondary Education‚ÄĒ”IGCSE”s‚ÄĒthrough Cambridge University), but culturally, it was predominantly American.¬†Americans¬†just made up a disproportionately high percentage of expatriate Christian workers¬†in Niger. So much so that the lingua franca¬†in missionary circles was English, unlike in Benin, where we used¬†French. (Lots more European missionaries in Benin.)

I absolutely did not look forward to this culture change. But I knew how essential it was that I prepare¬†for The Departure. When I left West Africa on finishing high school, it would be to study in Canada (my mother’s homeland) or America (one of my dad’s homelands). I had known this before I even knew what a university was.

The Departure beat down on my back every day, a burning sun, baking my resolve, hardening my natural enthusiasm for living.¬†Oral histories‚ÄĒlaments over derailed re-patriated “Third Culture Kids”‚ÄĒswirled in my consciousness. I would not derail.¬†I would conquer.

Bring on Sahel Academy.

Bring on walled compounds and air-conditioned vans sliding¬†through the humanity of Niamey streets¬†to their own tinny Christian pop culture tunes. Bring on weekends watching softball games in the exclusive “American Rec Center,”¬†bring on expatriate church services. You could wear pants and shorts. Go bareheaded. You never had to speak a word of French, or Hausa, outside of language class. Some places¬†had lawns. And this was the edge of the desert.

It was a fast-moving current of friendships and shopping trips and homework deadlines. It was a well-meaning effort to give us‚ÄĒthe¬†kids‚ÄĒthe best¬†approximation of the life our¬†parents gave up for us. It was the dream of our own green lawn and softball field, so we wouldn’t even have to drive across the city to the American Rec Center. It was the prayer for our own vine and fig tree.

It was sincere, and good for me, and how deeply I regret it.

I am thirty years old now, on the other side of The Departure, and I gnash my teeth.

Here’s the thing: all the people in the Sahel Academy “bubble” were good people. Those years enriched my life. I made some friends I still have today. I learned a lot from wonderful adults who invested in me. And the education, while not as high quality as my primary school education, was still very good. I am grateful for the IGCSE training from Cambridge, especially. Its approach to learning was writing-heavy (read: perfect for me) and kicked my butt. I owe every¬†A+ on essay-style exams in college to that training.

Yes indeed, Sahel Academy transformed¬†me from a “bush MK” to an urban MK who made the transition to upstate New York¬†with relatively little drama.

Educated. Prepared for America. I mentally checked off those boxes. As did my parents, who suffered more sending me away to school than I did being sent. (If, reading this, you dare to wonder if my parents were selfish in sending me off to boarding school, HERE’S THE DOOR. I saw the furtive tears. I read the longing letters.)

But West Africa is not a home for Yes or No, This or That, Either Or. It nourishes Both And. Inconsistent beliefs flourish. When it comes to understanding my past, I am a syncretist.

So I don’t have a problem saying those good years were Lost Years. I don’t have a problem saying I bitterly regret four years that helped me out tremendously.

The anger and grief in¬†the creases of your¬†inner elbows and knees‚ÄĒyou continue to feel their damp sweat as you lie on your bed, no matter how thorough your shower. It’s hot season.¬†There’s no point in fighting it. Just lie still in your¬†sweaty sheets. Just admit you are raging.

“Why? Why does this have to be so expensive?”¬†I lament to my husband.

He¬†is studying history at the University of Kansas, and I am wishing I could audit classes. KU is proud of the breadth of its language courses. As a former employee of a college admissions office who sat in marketing¬†meetings, I smile in amused disdain reading KU’s enthusiastic plugs. I assume there isn’t much substance to them‚ÄĒthat they probably carefully crafted their statements to make something grand of rather average facts.

But I ‘m wrong. As I discover when I find that KU offers over 40 languages, among them Hausa‚ÄĒadvanced levels of Hausa, in fact. Curious, I Google¬†schools in the USA that offer Hausa classes. There are virtually none. And KU is one of the few that does. I have no idea why. KU is smack dab in the center of the USA, far from culturally- and linguistically-diverse areas.

And here I am, also smack dab in the center of the country. Regretting the semester of high school Hausa that did not get me anywhere.

Is this Fate?

Nope. A single class would cost me around $1,000 as a non-degree-seeking resident of Kansas.

There is justice in this world. But of an odd kind.

Benin map

The superimposed Beninese flag is helpful here: I lived in the yellow region. “Baa tem”‚ÄĒthe land of the Baa (or Baatombu) extends a bit into the red, and into Nigeria as well.

Some people would tell me, Tineke, calm down. You did experience Niger. You lived there for four years, in which your skin cracked, you wrinkled your nose at the damp smell of the niim tree, you timed your early morning jogs to the call of the minaret for crying out loud! And your Hausa teacher was horrible.

You could fairly say that I did experience Niger. I had an expatriate experience of Niger. It was interesting.

But can I tell you a story?

The people among whom I grew up‚ÄĒmy people‚ÄĒare called the Bariba. No matter how many times you might tell someone¬†that the Bariba people call themselves the “Baatombu,” they¬†will¬†continue to call them the Bariba. White people…other foreigners…the Baatombu themselves, if they are educated… they¬†still say les baribas.

Because when the storied French traveled up from the coast and asked the Yoruba people what “those people beyond you are called,” the Yoruba told them “Bariba.” Based on the names¬†Baatombu give¬†neighboring ethnic groups, Bariba¬†can’t have meant anything¬†nice.

I think about this when I turn over a pair of earrings, also made in Niger, but this time out of soapstone instead of silver.

Tuareg ‚Äúax‚ÄĚ design is traditionally used on wedding necklaces to symbolize the tools a bride uses to shape hearth and home. This handcrafted jewelry is made from smoked soapstone, polished, etched and decorated with black leather dye. From Tuareg artisans of Niger in Saharan North Africa. The Tuareg are found in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Chad. Traditionally nomadic herders, some Tuareg now cultivate crops in fertile oases, or work as traders.

Tuareg is not exactly the right name for this people. They are a traditionally nomadic people, spread across much of the Sahel and the Sahara, and bear different name variations. Within Niger, they call themselves the Kel Tamajeq (or, the people who speak Tamajeq). I asked an American friend who grew up among them and later married a Tamajeq man, to help me understand the relationship between the different names; she and her husband relayed to me nuances too complex (but fascinating!) to share here.

Some say¬†that “Tuareg” is a pejorative¬†name other¬†ethnic groups gave¬†them, meaning “abandoned by God.” Another story attributes it to the French. Perhaps¬†the origin story¬†was the same: French colonists asking the wrong people for information. Ever since, the West, an extension of the “Other,” has controlled¬†the conversation.

At this point in time, the true names of the sub-groups and clans of this people group have become politicized. The media in French West Africa is saturated with stories about rebel action, nationalist action, terrorist activity, often in the name of ethic identity. To insist on the true names could be misconstrued as an intentional political or religious statement.

Tuareg is practical, whatever its beginnings, since it has come to represent all the regional groups. It has lost most, if not all of its offense, to many modern Tamajeq. And considering how little the wider world knows or understands of this people group, perhaps it’s just as well to use the name the French distributed.

That’s how many French-speaking Baatombu might put it, when pressed. Nobody recognises their true name, in a world where very few even know them by their “wrong” name. They could so easily disappear, so easily burn to the ground¬†in a¬†forest fire of globalization raged out of control.

An example of soapstone work

An example of soapstone work

Looking at the Ten Thousand Villages earrings in my hands, I dwell with regret on yet another missed opportunity. Whoever the “middle men” are between TTV and the artisans who created these stunning , evocative pieces, they did not provide¬†TTV with the correct name.

We don’t know their reasons. Practicality, probably. Being part of the global conversation, on its terms, can definitely seem¬†more important than rehearsing the particulars¬†of a people group whose way of life is about to disappear into the sandstorm‚ÄĒespecially when the advocates of the purist alternative are so volatile.

Regret.

Is it another manifestation of the neocolonial guilt complex? A twist on the White Man’s Burden? Some may argue that my shame over squandering¬†the¬†opportunity to learn more about¬†Sub Saharan Africa is tainted by an exaggerated sense of the importance of my role. What does it matter to Niger¬†that you, a white woman from North America, regret that you did not grace Niger¬†with your interest?

I¬†am fascinated by “old” colonialism (which is still alive and well in my landlord, sadly). I am fascinated by neocolonialism, too. The Western world’s¬†tendency to work itself into an apologetic frenzy has intrigued me since I was a teenager. As Americans, we have paroxysms of compassion, sporadic spasms of awareness of famines, wars, genital mutilation, AIDS orphans, etc.

It is, in some respects, a form of cultural narcissism. There’s a dire problem somewhere? It must be our responsibility! People are dying somewhere? What horrible, self-centered people we are to be deaf to their cries for help!

This past year, my newsfeed offered so many berating posts about how America’s only sincere concern about the Ebola crisis consisted of its paranoia about the spread of the disease on her¬†own soil. And I read many bitter laments about the disgustingly short attention span of American people for the sufferings of anyone but themselves.

As a friend, Kiefer, expressed after visiting a genocide museum, in Rwanda, and realizing every single visitor was white:¬†“What is it about our culture as Americans and Westerners that allows us to think that feeling deeply is a substitute for action?… When did empathy become a form of apathy?”

The social media sphere was awash with emotion.

American paranoia about Ebola on American soil defied reason. And yet, it didn’t. Here were Americans driven¬†by fear and jumping to conclusions over misinformation‚ÄĒpulling their kid out of school because a family from Angola (thousands of miles away from the epidemic) had moved into the neighbourhood, for instance. And over in West Africa, people fretted that hospitals were deliberately contaminating people, and wondered if the government could be making the epidemic up. Conspiracy theory is not an American invention.

Americans flagellating themselves over their lack of action over Ebola was, in some ways, noble. It was also noble, in a way, that many West Africans called for widespread fasting and repentance, convinced that their own selfish sin had brought the end times upon the rest of their country.

“It’s natural!” I often want to yell, when I read these posts.

It’s natural to feel more empathy and concern for what touches you most directly! It’s natural for people to have difficulty keeping the deaths of thousands of strangers across a vast ocean on their minds. It’s natural to fear for one’s own safety more keenly than for the safety of strangers in a different world. It’s natural to wonder if you bear personal responsibility for calamity, since you know yourself best.

That we (I am speaking as an American here) have a responsibility, is true. That we could afford to be more outward-focused is also true. But if only we could give attention, funds, and help as friend to friend. Equal to equal.

I would like to think my regret is that of a friend, an equal.

Well, that’s not quite the¬†truth. I¬†am not a friend to Benin, or to Niger. I am not just an equal. I am a daughter. (I am speaking as an African here.)

Nen meero, a man suru kowo. A wa nge na nen tombu dwaari.

Mon pays‚ÄĒma maman‚ÄĒj’ai tellement de regrets. J’ai laiss√© √©couler des opportunit√©s jamais √† retrouver. J’avais mon attention ailleurs, pour bonnes raisons, mais comme je me peine d’avoir en m√™me temps perdu une connaissance plus int√ģme avec mon pays.

My Mother, I am so sorry. There were such good reasons to focus my attention on preparing for The Departure. But they taste like lucinia leaves in my mouth.

In Niamey, Niger, I learned to speak “American”; I did not learn to speak Hausa. Or Zerma. Or Tamajeq.

I will have years and years in this my new country, by the look of things. But I can never retrieve the opportunity to come to know, understand, and love Nigerien people. Even if I made penance by returning there today, it would not be with the eyes and heart and mind of a young person. It would not make up for the years I spent passing through in an air-conditioned bubble. It would not make up for the friendships I did not have.

There are days when I consider the painful, awkward, confused entries¬†other, less-prepared¬†missionary kids make into Western society and think, “Better to suffer a brutal loss of your world suddenly than to lose your world before you even left.”

But I don’t know. That’s someone else’s story.

And there’s a sense in which, even had I the money, I should not purchase one of these Tamajeq jewelry pieces. It’s too late. And it seems oddly fitting (if just as irritating) that learning Hausa here is¬†out of reach.

There’s a sense in which walking away from the display is¬†the most respectful response I can give.

What’s the Use in Denying It?

How do we grieve in exile?

Last night in West Africa

Taken the evening before I left West Africa permanently; age 19: with my sister.

A coworker needs my bio for a webpage. Sure thing. I take pruning shears to¬†an old one and notice it says nothing about where I live. No “makes her home in‚ÄĒ” or “she lives with her husband in‚ÄĒ.”

Kansas.

It’s where I live. I type the words. Erase them. Type them again in a new sentence arrangement. Backspace. Backpace. Backspace. I then try something witty: Tineke technically lives in Overland Park, Kansas, but spiritually lives anywhere else. Awkward and confessional. Tineke continually plots how to move out of Kansas. Not enough context.

Twenty minutes later I send my bio her way. There is no mention of where I live.

An American friend headed for West Asia¬†asks for my thoughts on whether bringing up children in another culture can be¬†a loving¬†choice. He says to me, “Tineke, you are one of the very few I know who has come¬†through¬†it relatively intact.” He has known me a decade‚ÄĒfrom the first year¬†of my exile. And I know who he is thinking about when he dwells, with pain, on the stories of suffering and derailment he has witnessed. I have known these people too‚ÄĒand many others.

It is a hugely complicated question. (As I am careful to say.) And that all the adult Third Culture Kids I know would tell you they wouldn’t trade their childhood for the world does not actually dismiss the question.

I smile as he explains why he considers me to have weathered this journey with grace. It is true. I have. “Not everyone is as self-aware as you are,” he says.¬†This too¬†I acknowledge.

It means a lot for him to say this of me. He would know. And yet.

I have not escaped the pain any more than anyone else.

Only I have been so determined‚ÄĒoh so determined!‚ÄĒto make it through. I have self-examined and self-coached since as long as I can remember; rehearsing how I would overcome reverse ethnocentrism, overcome missionary kid arrogance, overcome the temptation to go back. And how I would force myself to sit with the pain. How I would neither deny my background nor use it as an excuse to be a jerk. How I would Do It. I would marry an American. It was the only way to truly face and take the stakes.

Well, I’ve done the best I could. I’ve done self-help as well as counseling. And married my American. And still manage to be stunned each time the grief drives my body into the ground.

This same friend told me on the eve of my birthday of the wonders of turning thirty. “You just stop caring about what people think about you,” he said. “I look forward to it,” I replied. Now, discussing this heavy question of¬†the experience of missionary children, I look my friend in the eye and I say, “Lately I’ve been feeling that I am done. I am done trying to be American‚ÄĒtrying to be fair-minded and adaptive. I just don’t care anymore.”

But saying is not believing. Am I done trying to come to terms, or is this just a later phase of coming to terms? Is this powerful feeling of weariness with the American Project a good enough reason to quit? (Is quitting even an option?)

If I could only stop caring about being just. I hoist the burden of my dream of being a fully adjusted world citizen back onto my back. I did not truly mean it. There is a sliver of me that still cares.

Tineke, you need to be fair to Kansas. If this were any other place on earth, you would try. You would make an effort to learn about the culture, the way people think. You would try to make friends. Adapt.

No. I can’t adapt here. You’re right; I am being inconsistent.¬†But I can’t adapt here.

These are your values. You are compromising your own values. How can you pretend to stand for the importance of every people group, every country, every language, and religion and yet refuse to dignify the Americans of the midwest by making some effort to know them?

I don’t want to belong here. I don’t belong here.

And that gives you permission to treat a whole population of people as culturally inferior? Not worth belonging with?

It’s not that black and white. Besides, I do have some friends who are midwesterners‚ÄĒnot all my friends here are fellow “migrants.”

The assumptions underpinning your behaviour are black and white. Whether you want to admit it or not. And what are your midwestern friends supposed to think? Do you expect them to be pleased you are friends with them in spite of your true feelings about their culture?

Please stop. I feel bad enough already.

No. Refusing to belong here is not making your life any easier. It isn’t changing anything. It isn’t getting you out of here. And it is making you a worse person.

I know. But you don’t understand: I can’t try to love it, or I will never get to leave.

Are you listening to yourself?

So many years of this internal conversation on a loop. I moved to the American midwest six years ago.

And, yes, I am aware that it may say something about me that¬†I can record a dialogue of me talking to me. I’ll just add that concern to the pile. That I am divided inside is not news to me.

I grew up in a home where cultural engagement happened every day. To begin with, I was born of¬†a cross-cultural marriage. My parents are both white but the 6¬†inches of difference in their height is nothing to the difference in their backgrounds. English is not my father’s mother tongue. Dutch is. And my parents’ choice to move to Benin, West Africa, to work in church leadership development among the Baatombu meant that I grew up in a home where we spoke English, Dutch, French, and Baatonum every day. Breakfast was in Dutch; lunch was in French; supper was in Baatonum. I used to huff over saying “Pass the peanut butter” in Dutch, but truthfully I¬†was proud to be¬†multilingual.

At primary school I had classes in English and classes in French. While also studying German.

In French class

In class at Parakou Christian School with my German friend, Miriam, and my Welsh headmistress, Megan Patterson.

On the weekends and in the summer vacation, I taught my Baatombu friends how to read and write in their own language, and also taught Sunday school. I was twelve.

I know it sounds like I am bragging. I’m sorry.¬†But I also don’t know how else to describe my childhood.

My family was so committed to cultural assimilation that we were sometimes criticised for making too much effort. My parents dressed us like local children (no pants or shorts for me and my sister), invited our neighbours into our home, and encouraged us to speak the language. They even deliberately limited how much we played with other non-Beninese children. So we would learn. They campaigned to get our international school to require the same plain school uniforms worn in the Beninese public school system. My mother wore headscarves and double-layered skirts, even though they were uncomfortable and (in her opinion) unflattering; my father wore long robes and the hat of a religious teacher. When I reached my teens I wore a headscarf in public, with pride.

Me and a family I "adopted". Therese, front left, was my best friend, and I am holding her little sister Salomé. Mother Victorine and brother Pascal also shown.

Me and a family I “adopted.” Therese, front left, was my best friend, and I am holding her little sister Salom√©. Mother Victorine and brother Pascal also shown.

Hegeman missionary prayer card

Appropriately odd family photo, which was stuck to fridges across the world.

It may seem strange that these choices garnered criticism‚ÄĒthat I am one of only a handful of fellow “missionary kids” I know who actually learned to speak an indigenous language‚ÄĒbut these choices were not the norm for expatriates. It was all just going a little too far.

I am proud of my family’s way of life, and of the efforts we made; I am proud of the intercultural exchange my parents taught me to participate in; and that’s why my refusal to treat Americans with the dignity I insisted on for the Baatombu is a secret shame. Because I don’t know how to¬†change. And it’s all because I am so afraid. So afraid of losing the little of my past sense of self I still have.

To blend into this place‚ÄĒto consent to belong here‚ÄĒis the last surrender. Everything gone.

I know it is not logical, but I have never been logical.

I am an invisible immigrant. A white woman in a (significantly) white world. “It would help if you had an accent,” Matthias says, “so people would immediately understand that you are not from here.” I do get asked¬†about my “accent.” But although I often say “Canadian,” I don’t actually have a Canadian accent.

I am homesick. What’s the use in denying it?

I am changing against my own will, and letting punches loose at anything “American” moving. What’s the use in denying it?

I am rent through with grief. And rage. And I have denied it and denied it and denied it.

Grief is a relentless friend. If I¬†brush her off, she will still continue to look up and smile¬†when¬†I¬†pass. She waits, because she knows. She knows that she reminds me of what I need to face. I will keep ignoring her, but only to ultimately face her and say, “Yes. You.”

Ironically, I am writing this post during my happiest year to date in the midwest. Six months ago we drove home from a wedding in Texas and when we crossed the Oklahoma‚ÄďKansas state line, Matthias and I¬†both felt it: a gladness and even a mild sense of pride in “our” state.

Matthias is going to the University of Kansas, in Lawrence. Commuting for now. In the summer we will move there. I would never have expected excitement to be moving to yet a smaller city in Kansas. But Lawrence has character. And a top-rate European goods shop. And diversity, praise God. Every time I see a woman wearing a veil or hear a person speaking something besides English, I just want to shout.

“It is just for a few years,” I say.

“Two years,” Matthias says, crisply. And we resume work on our ever-lengthening skein of travel plans. Going over the escape plan again. Agreeing we don’t belong here, again.

What is maddening about self-awareness is that I don’t have the luxury of delusion. I know well enough that this is no way to live. Always trying to pry my fingers under the lid of Tomorrow. But the alternative‚ÄĒto accept where we are‚ÄĒfeels like defeat. If we give Kansas an inch, she will take a mile. If we surrender our frustration with being here, God will pull the wool over our eyes and we will wake up one day, too old to move, with children‚ÄĒand grandchildren‚ÄĒwho only speak English. They’ll probably be Libertarian, follow the national sport of president-bashing, enjoy country music and a good conspiracy theory, tote essential oils and anti-vaccine theories, and take pride in owning guns.

Can you see my reverse ethnocentrism? It’s wearing a neon orange jacket.

Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord have mercy on me, a hypocrite.

It turns out growing up among worlds does not make you a better person. It can. But it won’t if you refuse the weakness of falling apart.

It won’t if I disdain the humility of a good, old-fashioned temper tantrum (followed by a deep and peaceful sleep).

Man Who Hung on the Cross, how do I inhabit this pain? How do I let go of the helpless rage?

Please. If you are not the Man Who Hung on the Cross, refrain from answering me.¬†You better believe I’ve read all the books. Including The Book. But if you have a story to tell from your own life, please share!

A sheepish ode to the Chicago Manual of Style

Langston-Hughes--youngHold fast to dreams
for if dreams die
life is a broken-winged bird
that cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
for when dreams go
life is a barren field
frozen with snow.

– Langston Hughes

I have a tense relationship with my dreams.

If I could only stop wanting this. Then I could be at peace…Then I could be quiet. Detached and free.

Every time my dreams and I arrange to go out for coffee, one of us cancels, and it’s usually me. Because will-we-ever-get-past-the-small-talk-? Will we ever move forward?

On a bad day, I consider telling my dreams, I think you’re cool, but can we just be honest and admit that we’re not actually friends? Please stop inviting me to hang out. It’s all I can manage to stay afloat these days‚Ķ

But then Lanston Hughes. And bam, I remember why my dreams and I need each other. We go way back, and I would be miserable without them. I would be a bird with a broken wing, in fact. I would be a barren field frozen with snow.

But…¬†I do not feel the back of the wind under my outspread wings. I don’t think my field-soul is growing any wildflowers.

My dreams exhaust me. They want to go places, do stuff. Have adventures, or at least a movie marathon, okay then, coffee. But I am broke, broke, broke. And I,¬†ahem, don’t drive. So no, I can’t just jump behind the wheel and¬†go see them.

Could there just be a section for this in the Life Survival Manual? I check the index. Under “dreams” is (1) courage (2) perseverance (3) interdependence (4) asking and accepting help (5)‚Ķ

Sigh.

What about (1) dealing with disillusionment (2) self-esteem when you’re a coward (3) how to know when you’re settling (4) can resignation be healthy? (5)¬†merging dreams in your marriage (6)…

That’s the kind of Manual/Book/Bible I need.

I’ve heard since I was knee-high about the limitations of a formula.

Prayer is not a formula…God does not offer a formula for life…The Bible is more than a book of rules and formulae…There’s no formula for surrender/worship/healing…

Etcetera.

It’s a relief‚ÄĒthat life is not about a dos and don’ts.

But how I wish it were, sometimes!

In my “heart of hearts” I’d like the Bible to take a hint from that glorious book, The Chicago Manual of Style.

I love my Chicago Manual of Style

I love my Chicago Manual of Style.

Seriously. One of the secret reasons I am an editor is that it is just so comforting to do something where there’s actually an answer for everything. As long as I know how to navigate the index, I’m good. I can deal with any kind of grammatical or stylistic challenge¬†that comes my way.

The Bible, alas, is not The Chicago Manual of Style. People may treat it like it is, and try to make it into one, but God never set out to write¬†a definitive exhaustive manual on how to live. He wanted to tell His Story‚ÄĒour Story.

That’s all fine and lovely of you, God, but what am I supposed to do with these dreams that are¬†skyrocketing¬†my heart rate through the roof?

Yeah.

I am not allowed to give up on my dreams, or ignore them. They’re a gift to me, and all that. But I am also not sure what to do with them. Do we really have to continue being friends? Maybe it’s just time for a reality check. A grown-up Facing of Facts. Maybe Living-in-Europe and I aren’t destined to be besties. Maybe Writing-books and I are incompatible. I can’t keep up with the demands of her lifestyle. And (deep sigh) maybe Thriving-Wife¬†and I are‚ÄĒdare I say it?‚ÄĒbad for each other? We just egg each other’s cynicism on.

Then there’s Magical-Mum. We can’t seem to get on the same page. When she wants to take me out for lunch, I (conveniently) get a migraine. When I’m finally ready to talk, she¬†is booked hanging out with more stable people. You know what, I am sick of mentor friends anyway. What am I to a mentoring type but a project, after all? I should make friends¬†with my peers.

But if my eyes don’t deceive me, the Peers Pool¬†is shrinking.

Dear dreams,

I am going away for a while. I just need some space. To figure out who I am by myself. Without you. You are wonderful. But I am feeling lost and depressed. So‚ÄĒ

Scratch that.

Dear dreams,

I would love to spend time together, but I just don’t have time. My job is all-consuming right now. I mean, I don’t even have time to jog, never mind become someone I could be proud of. For now, I think it best if I just focus on what’s in front of me. Don’t worry, I’m fine. I just don’t have time. Let’s talk again in 6 months. Coffee. I can’t pencil in a date yet, but‚ÄĒ

Yeah… scratch that too. Too obviously disingenuous.

Dear dreams,

I am drowning. I need help. I know I’ve been elusive and cranky. It’s because I am just really having a hard time knowing how to manage life. Please forgive me for putting you off over and over again. I actually do still care, but I just don’t know how to show it when I am running on empty. But don’t worry‚ÄĒ

Yeah. If I send that, they’ll be here at my front door for an intervention.

I had better get something done around here. Dishes. Laundry. Sleeping… How many hours behind am I on work, again? I should probably put in a few hours.

Funny how I never get as far as signing my name.

Facebook recently fed me an article about how busyness can be¬†a form of self-aggrandizement.. In You’re Not As Busy As You Say You Are, Hanna Rosin¬†writes:

The art of busyness is to convey genuine alarm at the pace of your life and a helpless resignation, as if someone else is setting the clock, and yet simultaneously make it clear that you are completely on top of your game. These are not exactly humble brags. They are more like fretful brags, and they are increasingly becoming the idiom of our age.

The article highlights a book: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, by¬†Washington Post¬†reporter Brigid Schulte, and explores how people consider¬†the “craziness” of their lives a social status symbol.

I really appreciated the article because I identify with the behavior. I use busyness as a gauge for how important I am. Since I feel like a pathetic excuse for a Tineke, it really helps to engross myself in being awesome at something I can actually get my arms around. Like editing. Or pretty much any kind of employee situation. I am good at being necessary and reliable and busy.

Too busy to pursue my scary dreams. Too busy to explore. Too busy to write. Too busy to be honest.

Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time, as Tim Kreider wrote in ‚ÄúThe ‚ÄėBusy‚Äô Trap.‚ÄĚ*¬†It‚Äôs the equivalent of being told that you‚Äôre redundant or obsolete.

Ooh. Obsolete. I am 29 years old, and I do feel obsolete. 

I do feel that since I didn’t make the courageous cut, it would be a mercy to put me away. A mercy to tell me to just go home, you’ve-done-enough.

Really? Do I really get to quit my dreams? Go home and sleep?

Sleep!

(I’ll let you in on a little secret. I sleep a lot when I am depressed.)

It’s painful¬†to be lonely, but it’s also really hard to be a friend when you’re on empty. (And I have such a comfortable bed.)

“Are you talking about people here, or your dreams?”

Yes.

And, just to get one up on the commander of the army of the Lord, I am also talking about God. Being friends with God when He refuses to be an index.

wyveraryIn Cathrynne Valente’s Fairyland books, her main character, September, has the good fortune to befriend a wyverary: the offspring of¬†a wyvern (i.e., a dragon) and a library. His name is A-through-L, and so long as your perplexity starts with A through L, he can dig into the recesses of his consciousness and find you a definition. If you’re clever enough to think up an A-through-L synonym for an M-through-Z conundrum, that can do in a pinch.

Now, what I would like to know is why can’t God be like a wyverary? Why can’t Jesus (to get really crazy!) be the offspring of an index and a story?

Since God cares so much about writing a Story, let Him be a Storyteller. But why not throw in a bit of Index action too? Some days, I just want some answers.

IMG_0692

An array of magnificence (amid an odd assortment of curios)

I stare at The Chicago Manual of Style, upright on our study desk. Next to the MLA Handbook, the Guide to Historical Literature, and the Oxford English Dictionary with type so tiny you have to read it with a magnifying glass. They contain the mathematics of language.

If there are equations and calculations to explain the forces of nature, if there are grammatical rules and definitions and etymologies to explain the forces of the English language, then surely, surely, there is also reason to the life of the soul.

I am not sure. I am not surely. But I ingest a whiff of the smell exhumed by these crinkled pages, and I am comforted. The smell of solutions. Of someone-has-been-here-before-me. Someone has catalogued my problem. Parsed it out.

Problem: A 29-year-old woman in cultural drift can no longer make sense of her life and does not know what to do with her dreams. Are her dreams safe? Does peace lie in the way of pursuing her dreams or surrendering them?

Surrender. It would indeed be such a relief. Such a relief to detach. To cling to God only and turn my back on every desire.

Desire only racks my bones. Desire only blurs my vision. Desire only reduces me to a prone figure, ice over her eyes, in a dark room. Desire only makes me cranky, guarded, busy.

Surrender would be so peaceful, so blank.

This is not a definition of surrender most people I know use. Surrender, in Christian circles, is a good word, a strong word. A word for trusting the Almighty to send help, to know more than we do, to be a better champion of our desires than we can be ourselves.

thomas-a-kempis-1

Thomas a Kempis wrote in the early 1400s

But I use a twisted definition of this strong word. I use a definition I got from Thomas a Kempis, in The Imitation of Christ. For all of his insight into the spiritual life, he also had a few twisted ideas. Desire was to him but a base impulse to crush. Love of this life a distraction from love of God. I used to block off the portions in his writings that did not sit well with me, marking in pen or pencil which sections to ignore. But they got into me anyway.

So much exposure to radiation.

The thing is, part of me liked those sections. I liked the idea of saying goodbye to all my troublesome dreams. Of living in solitude, in simplicity, far away from friends I could not figure out how to love. Protected by the dogma of absolute surrender.

Goodbye dream of writing the story I can’t get out.

Goodbye dream of being a fully adjusted world citizen who applies cultural sensitivity to all without discrimination.

Goodbye dream of being at peace about sexuality and gender.

Goodbye dream of having children.

Goodbye dream of experiencing the Christian faith as something besides disillusionment.

Goodbye dream of being truly brave.

People join religious orders for different reasons, some of them excellent. My reasons for wanting to join are not admirable.

There’s a reason God gave me a husband who can’t give up on a dream for anything.

There’s a reason…

A reason.

Occasionally, God does let me chew on a reason bone.

Tineke, why do you feel obsolete?

I haven’t really done anything, and there isn’t any indication that I ever will.

None at all?

Well, Langston Hughes can write poems about how important dreams are, but have you been following the Humans of New York blog while Brandon has been in East Africa? Yeah… about dreams. It’s not nice to talk to displaced, traumatized children without hope about dreams. So I am not going to talk to my soul anymore about dreams. Because hope is not certainty. Hope is just hope. Powerful, but not a promise of anything but more necessity for courage. I don’t have much courage. I don’t know why you listened to me and sorted me into Gryffindor. You should know better than to listen to little kids.

You are brave.

Prove it.

You haven’t given up on your dreams, even though you say you will. You won’t. You’ll never give them up. Because you’re brave.

Or desperate. I’m not brave, I’m desperate.

Sometimes those are the same thing.

Why am I not surprised? You can turn anything into something worth praising. My whiny intermittent fight for what I want is not worthy of praise. It’s disgusting.

That’s enough.

Yes, it’s enough. I know when I have pushed the envelope far enough. I accept.

I will answer the emails and texts my dreams have sent, asking when I am free. I am never free, never; but I am determined to be available.

Will I insult you if I point out that this is courage?

Shhh… Don’t ruin the moment. You know my perseverance is fragile.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

– Langston Hughes

I sit here, pondering. Maybe acknowledging my dreams with a face full of fog is brave. Reason tells me I will never have a child. Reason tells me I will never finish my book to satisfaction. Only writers who write every day get anywhere. Not stop-and-start writers like me. Reason tells me I may never be free of my dark thoughts about sex and gender. Reason tells me I may never feel steely confidence about the rightness of my faith (should I??). Reason tells me we will never live in Europe. Reason tells me I will be forced to bring up any children I might have in the Midwest‚ÄĒthat they will grow up speaking only English, belong to¬†a different world I can’t even see. Reason tells me I will only put on more weight, and chafe at my body more. Reason tells me I don’t have the internal makeup for peace.

Reason.

Do I really want reason?

Perhaps I do need a friend besides A-through-L, the wyverary. Perhaps The Chicago Manual of Style is not enough.

It certainly was not enough for Job.

For those of you who are familiar with “The Girl Who” fantasy series: Perhaps I need a God more in the likeness¬†of a Marid. A God who exists in Story.

Stories hurt.

But in a story, dreams are a weapon to win through to a meaningful peace.

Saturday the Marid

Saturday the Marid

 

 

 

When God Isn’t in My Trust Circle

So tired of waiting for God to¬†come through…

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The news comes in. The plan Matthias and I made to emigrate to the Netherlands isn’t going to work. And the budget¬†we engineered¬†to somehow make ends meet¬†while Matthias goes back to school has even more holes in it than we thought. Double punch in the gut.

We should have known. Nothing works for us‚ÄĒat least, nothing easy. Square one is¬†so familiar by now I forget it’s a cheap motel room and call it “Home.” We’ve spent so many nights here, avoiding each other’s eyes, pretending for the other’s sake that we still believe that we’re going to get out of here. That we’ll get Matthias through school. That we’ll one day take vacations. That we’ll see Mont Saint Michel. Visit Japan. Sail on a tall ship. Have children.

I look at the empty hanging baskets sitting on the balcony bench.¬†I wonder why I keep telling myself I’ll be able to fill them. They’ve been waiting there for weeks now and I still don’t have money to go to the nursery. Why don’t I just give the idea up? Because they’re waiting there, of course.

Why do I keep telling myself there are better things in our future? Because we are waiting here, of course.

Don’t You realize how crazy it is for us to keep hoping we’ll live our dreams when we don’t even have enough money right now to go out for coffee?

Perhaps the better question would be: Why is it so hard for me to let go of my plans? To trust that everything will sort itself out?

Of course the answer is obvious: I know that the only way to have that kind of peace of mind and steadiness is to allow God’s Spirit to “tidy up”‚ÄĒlike Mrs. Darling does. Excuse the long quote, but I think you’ll agree this is¬†exactly the Holy Spirit:

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this and you would find it very interesting to watch. It’s quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on Earth you picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek, as if it were a nice kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out the prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.

Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie

tumblr_maflhv9jlh1qa1aa1o1_500I will spare you further¬†details of my low points¬†over bad news and¬†my freakout routine when I am broke and get down to the inventory. When “Mrs. Darling” looks into¬†my mind, there is fairy dust and acorns strung on thread. But there¬†are¬†also a lot of riotous pity parties and fits of depression.

I may be a neat freak in our apartment, but I leave tormenting fears strewn across the rooms of my mind. The floors are littered with the bobby pins of a thousand and one attempts to pin my spirits into some semblance of a good Christian life.

Sometimes I am only pretending to be asleep when the Holy Spirit folds away the courage I never put on, and all the dreams I washed on the wrong setting. He looks so sad. The way He fingers the holes¬†in my resolve says as loudly as words, “If she would only believe I’m on her side.”

We both cry. Me beneath the bedcovers. He brushing away tears as he stoops for all my smelly socks.

What does a person do when she is incapable of trusting the one person she absolutely must trust?

There are times when I don’t trust my husband, for example. Even though he is trustworthy. Steady, sensitive I-mean-what-I-say Matthias who won my heart by a grueling determination to show¬†me that not all men are liars, even if it took more than a year. He stuck¬†through a lot of weeping, a lot of misdirected anger and resentment. Many¬†fears. The first months of our relationship were pretty miserable.

“I will give you my accountability partner’s phone number and email, and you can talk to him, if you need to,” he said, looking me straight in the eyes.

I blinked.

BrysonWM325
 

BrysonWM326

I look pretty happy here. So‚Ķyou know‚Ķ.not EVERYTHING in my life is a bad surprise ūüėČ


He stuck with me through all of that and has continued to be a man of his word. A person with limits and his own array of “issues,” but doggedly honest and willing to speak the truth to me even when I can’t¬†believe it. Can’t trust.

Can’t.

Not something I like to hear myself say. But it’s the right word. Because sometimes I believe things against my better judgement. Sometimes my head can believe something hard, but my emotions don’t get in line. I can be¬†“double minded.”

I both do and don’t trust Matthias with my inner thoughts, my most vulnerable self-expression.

I both do and don’t trust God.

The sadness etched on the face of God as He searches and knows¬†me‚Ķ It’s because He knows. He knows that He’s not in my trust circle.

I want to cry out and tell Him it isn’t true‚ÄĒthat I really do trust Him to help me. But I don’t. Or, more truthfully, I don’t trust Him to be consistent. He’s helped me a lot‚ÄĒan awful lot‚ÄĒbut there are also ways in which He has let me down. Not come through on His end of the deal, at least as I understood it.

I am disillusioned. No prettier way to say it. The grand causes and gorgeous truths I fought so hard for do not look at all like their photographs, their descriptions in faith’s encyclopedia.

I am angry and so, so sad.

So instead of sleeping in my bed¬†in¬†my Father’s House, where I see His grieved face, I fly away and feast with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys on imaginary food, whooping¬†to cover the grumbling of an empty¬†heart.

My favorite illustrated Peter Pan (it is abridged, however). Gorgeous pictures!

My favorite illustrated Peter Pan (it is abridged, however). Gorgeous pictures!

I am just so afraid of The Future. So afraid that life is not all it’s cracked up to be. Appalled by the yawning chasm between my dreams and what I see all around me.

And since I know God is all-powerful, I wonder why He isn’t doing anything‚Ķ It makes me think He doesn’t believe in our dreams. Or that He gave them to us, but is not planning to fulfill them. Because for some reason it will glorify Him more, or teach us something. I know the theology of suffering so well I can turn it inside out and get lost in the bunched up sleeves.

If the Christian life doesn’t offer freedom from suffering, from pain, from no-way-out circumstances, then why‚ÄĒWHY‚ÄĒdo we have to keep dreaming of joy? The dreams are a torment, a mockery. At least, they are on a day like today.

I see in my mind the headlines from the conflicts in Africa. The brutalities in South Sudan. The kidnapped girls in northern Nigeria, the bombings in Jos. And I think, They also have dreams‚Ķ Those girls. They wanted to grow up to be something, be someone‚Ķ The peoples of South Sudan. They wanted to peacefully live out their days according to their own pattern…

There are just as many gushing stories of miracles as whispered admissions of desperation. “You have never let the righteous go hungry.”¬†Yes, yes You have. I’ve seen the hungry.

I lie awake in my hammock, listening to the Lost Boys snore, and I ask a lot of questions.

Will we ever live in Western Europe? Will we ever live anywhere but here?

Will we ever get Matthias back in school?

Will I ever pass a driver’s test?

Will we ever have enough money to buy what we really want at the grocery store?

Will we ever be able to replace the stained and sagging couches? Get Matthias the laptop he needs? Have enough money to go on vacation?

Will we ever screw up the nerve to have a kid?

Will I ever experience sexuality the way “normal” people do?

Will I ever be excited about being alive?

No matter how hard I look at “The Facts,” no matter what new vantage point I try, ¬†I can never, ever be persuaded that my desires are remotely likely to be fulfilled. So I extend my stay in Neverland, where it’s easier to quell the voice of despair. La la la la la. If I don’t think about it, maybe I’ll stop wanting it.

I think I may have trusted God better in the past, before a lot of crap happened. But then again, I might just be more honest now. More self-aware. The deeply held fears I still have today have the sort of root system that might just turn up under the floorboards where you wouldn’t believe they could possibly extend. I didn’t just wake up one day afraid that womanhood is a cruel joke. My fears of intimacy, and my accusations against God that He did a pretty shoddy job inventing sexuality and gender and childbearing aren’t new. Neither are my fears of being nothing but a disappointment to myself. But I can admit them now.

I can’t find the words to reassure Matthias that it will all come out all right. That he’ll be have his doctorate one day. That we’ll live somewhere we actually like. I’ve become too honest.

I could say that trusting God over many years finally got to the point where I could discover that I don’t trust Him.

God, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I don’t believe. I’m sorry I’m hedging my bets.

We sit on the edge of my bed, the smelly socks forgotten. And I wonder why, why, why? What is this life all about? What can I look forward to with any certainty? I think to myself, if there were only a middle way. A way of oblivion. Of no desire, and no sadness for the holes desires leave behind. I would take it. I shouldn’t, but I am afraid I would. So I could be free of The Hard Questions. Free of longing for what I can’t have.

What are you thinking?

Don’t You know? You know. I wish You didn’t need to know, but you do.

Feasting on imaginary food still leaves a lot of dirty dishes and it doesn’t sustain. But I don’t know how to sit at the Table. When I try to, I can’t. Because if I sit down, I won’t see the wrists, pouncing on the back of the chair and pulling it from beneath me. I will fall again.

Do you really think I would pull your chair from beneath you?

Well‚Ķ I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know WHAT¬†You will do.

Surprises are not all bad, Tineke. You don’t know the plans I have for you.

Mmm. Exactly. And surprises are not all nice either.

A big wave hits me full in the face. When I am in a group of strangers, talking about the fruit of the Spirit.

I don’t have what I need to trust Him. To be content in all circumstances. To be brave in the face of adversity. To dwell with Mystery. Because I don’t have. I have come up empty. I don’t have.

And it’s not about the couches I don’t have. Or the Anthropologie pants. Or the plants for the hanging baskets. Or the nuts and yoghurt I wish I could afford at the grocery store. It’s that I don’t have¬†peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.¬†The reach of God from within my life. His Life in me.

I don’t have what I need to trust.

I can’t trust because I don’t have what I need to trust. And there’s an answer for that.

Put on then, as¬†God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,¬†compassionate hearts,¬†kindness,¬†humility, meekness, and patience,¬†bearing with one another…And above all these put on¬†love, which¬†binds everything together in¬†perfect harmony.

– Colossians 3:12‚Äď14

I don’t need new clothes. My apartment does not need new clothes. My soul does, though. You better believe it needs new clothes.

Matthias and I reach down to lower the kneeler in our pew. And we kneel. Say the prayers of the people. Confess our sins. Prepare for the Table.

Laden with real food.

This is my Body broken for you. This is My blood, shed for you.

Peter Pan has nothing on this.

If I keep doing this kneeling thing, maybe one day I will actually sit down, without fear, and find a sturdy chair beneath me. Maybe I will look up and be surprised to see Almighty God in my circle of trust, in spite of all His Mystery.

That would be such a GOOD surprise, God.

Yes. I do know.

 

I love stuff. Do I have a problem?

I did it AGAIN? How did I do it AGAIN?

Staring at the numbers, I take a deep breath, reach for my massive old-school calculator and tap everything in a second time. Maybe this calculator will be nicer to me; after all, it’s known me since I was a kid.

Nope. I am still in the red.

Again.

bedroom

This is exactly how my bed DOESN’T look when I am depressed.

I do my shopping where I do my banking. In bed.

Bed is a good place to be when there’s danger of getting depressed. Feather duvets make curling up in a fetal position that much easier.

Well, I’ve been broke before.¬†In fact, I do broke so well by now I’m a pro.

Don’t know that obsessing 24/7 over the next Anthropologie must-have, moping as I click through my email coupons, or wandering aimlessly around the apartment wishing I had something to sell is anyone else’s definition of “pro,” but I’m nice enough not to point that out to myself in the moment.

Time to make something. I dig out an old pair of jeans and chop them into shorts, on a 5-second whim. A few minutes later I am busy at the sewing machine.

There, I have something new. Shorts!

duvet cover

In the Netherlands, duvet covers are made of sheet fabric, so you don’t need a top sheet. My husband (who always gets tangled in bedclothes) fell in love. So I sewed two top sheets together, added button holes (surprisingly fun!) and used ribbon off of Anthropologie bags for corner ties. Cost me $5, for the buttons.

This is how the pillow cushions happened, and the re-covered lampshade, and the pine cone garland, and the curtains in the living room. Although it’s also how I shattered the glass in a massive picture frame (so much $$ to replace!!) and how lots of my clothes have ended up snipped in pieces that can’t be put back together again.

Stuffing up a hole in my wellbeing in a hurry has led to casualties. And torrential tears.

I know better. I know so much better.

I know that I know that I know that things don’t bring lasting happiness. Every time I finally get something I’ve pined for, I realize it anew: there’s always one more thing I have to have. And that’s where the lie spills out into the obvious: Stuff is never enough.

But.

Buying or getting new stuff is my coping mechanism. When I’m sad or restless¬†or insecure or lonely‚ÄĒor even happy‚ÄĒI just want to buy stuff. Hey, at least I don’t go to alcohol or binge eating, right? (Seriously though, it could be worse. I could be a shop-o-holic and rich.)

So what should I do? Forswear all shopping forever? Preemptively sign away all my future earnings to charity? Become a nun? (Too late for that one.)

No. That would be at once too hard and too easy. And it would not deal with the root of my struggle. Because stuff is not the problem. Having stuff is not a problem (or is it?). Stuff is great (right?). My inner conflict about my love of possessions is the Big Issue.

grade 11, dorm room

Grade 11, my dorm room. Yes, I had a hope chest. Sorry, self.

Since I was a little girl, I’ve always been the kind of person who will sit in a room and just look at it.¬†Enjoy for the thousandth time the exact colour match of a blanket to a rug. Go over again in my mind the symmetry or asymmetry of every piece of furniture in relation to the rest. Recall with pleasure how I discovered the books on the shelf, or the print next to the window.

It has something to do with moving so often. As the daughter of missionaries, I moved constantly, and I would recreate my safe space by taking the same things with me wherever I went. Each one had its story. Each one held up a corner of my peace of mind.

grade 11 dorm room

Yes, I am wearing a jean jumper. Sorry, self.

But the peace sometimes all but disappears in the nagging self-reproach for being so attached to material possessions.

“I am a materialist.”

I tell my husband this, trying the word on for size.

Calmly making this pronouncement from the sturdiness of an armchair, I am happy. This admission has been growing in me for a long time.

I wish I could say I am a dialectical materialist. Because it would be much more fun‚ÄĒseriously, what a great¬†name for a philosophy!‚ÄĒbut that wouldn’t be true. Because I am not a materialist in the philosophical sense. Come to think of it, I am precisely a materialist in a theological sense.

(Ha. That sentence was a mouthful of word-vegetables. Without cheese sauce.)

It’s not that I think matter is all that there is. It’s that I believe matter matters.

Brooding over this inner conflict, I’ve come to a conclusion: If God were really only interested in matter to “get the job done” and meet the planet’s “basic needs,” He wouldn’t have bothered making the world so absurdly beautiful and full of variation. If we weren’t supposed to love things, why has He been going to so much trouble to rescue the earth? If we weren’t supposed to care how things look, He wouldn’t have made the effort¬†to make us see in so many colours. Or made us in His image at all. To create is to care terribly about stuff.

Stuff! Stuff! Stuff! Stuff is gorgeously solid and important.

Hm. No one is surprised by my radical declaration.

Have you taken a look at your apartment, Tineke? No one who’s ever gotten to know you has thought you anything *but* a materialist.

Oh.

living room, paper globes

I am in love with the paper globe installation piece. Made for our wedding.

living room hearth

It’s not that I’m¬†surprised to find myself a materialist. But it is a big deal for me to say it aloud. Materialism is such a nasty word.

I’ve spent my life loving things, but feeling conflicted about it. I mean, I’m a missionary kid who grew up in the African bush. It doesn’t get much more conflicted than that. No one knows the Is-it-really-all-right-for-me-to-have-this better than me. I had this conversation with myself and God every single day,¬†about owning four porcelain dolls when my African friends had none, about having such a pretty bedroom (I was obsessed with Americana¬†quilts) when my neighbours slept on straw tick pallets on the floor‚Ķ

The fact that my family actually lived much more simply than most missionaries I knew didn’t make me feel better, because our quality of life was still better than the¬†neighbours and was that okay?

I felt guilty all the time and I have to admit I still don’t have all this figured out.

IMG_0385Every self-aware person knows it is bad for the soul to place your value in things. Bad for the soul to hoard. Bad for others and the self to be selfish. But… is there a point at which even having stuff is bad?

The Bible, and other holy/wisdom writings clearly warn against the dangers of loving money too much. The famous “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” and “Money is a root of all evil,” texts are pungent. All the deodorizing sprays of denial can’t quite clear those warnings out of my head.

And money = stuff

Or does it? That’s where I crack my skull. It isn’t that simple, but it’s also not the kind of complex that can be dealt with by recourse to a Venn diagram, pie chart, cupboard, tupperware set, or any other neat form of organization. And I like organization.

Here’s what I’ve got: Money in itself isn’t evil. Matter‚ÄĒold quilts, acorn lockets, porcelain mushrooms, stuffed sky bison‚ÄĒin itself isn’t evil. And we’re supposed to have a healthy respect for the value of money‚ÄĒof the things we need‚ÄĒso we can be responsible and grateful stewards. Yup, yup, yup. I’ve got that all down.

Woodsy mushroom sculptures - StudioByTheForest, Etsy

I so love my porcelain mushrooms. By Studio By the Forest, Etsy.

But what do I make of a person like myself???? Because I believe in eternity and the soul and have sworn off life choices that put making money first, but I love me some stuff. Seriously. And not just stuff I need. Tons and tons of gorgeous “stuffs” that are nothing more or less than beautiful decor. Most of it isn’t even practical. It’s just matter for its own sake.

Oh, how I love my things! And lots of things I wish were mine!

The thought of losing all my earthly possessions in a fire or a flood‚ÄĒas has happened to people I know‚ÄĒis a nightmare. I know that’s not the sort of thing I need to have grace for ahead of time, but gosh. That would be a tall order of grace. I had better subscribe¬†now for special deals.

When I read on the news (or, let’s be honest, Facebook) that people’s houses or apartments have burned or collapsed into a sink hole, I pray useless prayers like “God, please let them not be like me.” (I am not sure prayers work like that, retroactively.)

This is going to be good for me. I give myself the same sermon each time I come up short on funds. This is a perfect opportunity to focus on what matters.

Sometimes I unsubscribe from my top three online haunts. Or tell my sister to keep me accountable.

“If I send you any shopping links, please ask me whether I actually have any money.”

She’s not¬†thrilled because, she says, I’ll be cranky if she asks. And that’s honestly why the plan works. Because I really hate being cranky.

But two weeks later, when I get paid, I find myself subscribing again.

Self-denial is good, but it hardly ever works unless I also apply myself to something else. In the past, this has pretty much always gone like this:

I’ll read my Bible more.

I’ll start running again.

I’ll go for walks.

I’ll blog.

But it doesn’t honestly work out that well. And why would it? After all, I’ve suddenly put these activities I otherwise enjoy in the uncomfortable position of playing “consolation prize.”

I have a new idea: Since I’m such a materialist, why not deliberately enjoy the stuff I have?

We are in a pricey gift shop full of my undoing: hand-thrown ceramics.

“Gah, we should never have stepped foot in here!” I say.

As we walk out of the shop, my aunt pronounces, “Well, that was fun. We’ve just confirmed what great¬†taste we have.

throw pillows

Yes, the original pants these throw pillows came of had TASSELS on the hems!!

I like that. I like it a lot. Chances are the reason I’m hankering after $150-dollar wind chimes (but the haunting sound!), loose-fit ethnic pants, and the Skyrim soundtrack is that I have such great taste. Taste that is evident all around me. In the throw pillows I made out of weird thrift store pants. In the wall hanging I stretched over an old canvas with push-pins (push-pins can make almost anything happen!), in the art prints I’ve carefully selected on Etsy¬†through painstaking searches.

Dutch art prints, IsaBella, Etsy

Two of my favorite Etsy prints, by a Dutch artist, inspired by her childhood in Amersfoort (Etsy shop: IsaBella by Margriet)

Jahna Vashti winter print

Also a favorite :), this one from the bathroom. Etsy shop: Jahna Vashti.

Lord knows I need to form new habits for dealing with stress and disappointment.

But Lord knows I’ve also got to stop feeling guilty for my gift.

I am gifted at loving the world. Loving things. I really am good at finding and growing beauty. It may sound presumptuous or arrogant. But I say it because it’s true and I need to hear myself admit it.

If I’m not careful to practice my art‚ÄĒmy gift‚ÄĒI will lose the joy of the extravagant Garden. Putting myself in time-out to punish myself for loving stuff is not teaching my heart the right way. It’s stealing joy. It’s stealing the message¬†of the world: I made all of this for you. You are so loved.

I’m going to thank God for the stuff I love. The stuff I get to love.

I’m going to recognize that each room in my home is a garden. A room I have grown, from bare space into bloom. Each one is beautiful. A small world created out of nothing. An important world created with¬†passion. A beautiful world that pours forth speech, that proclaims with the Lord: “Peace be with you.”

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Mantlepiece (made that wall hanging myself by stretching West African fabric over a canvas)

Mantlepiece (made that wall hanging myself by stretching West African fabric over a canvas)

 

When My Life Won’t Grow Ranunculus

ranunculus in vase

Ranunculus – what roses would be if they were less full of themselves and had a sense of humor.


 
What do¬†I¬†do when my¬†life won’t grow the flowers¬†I¬†love? Do I grow the flowers it can grow?

No.

I have¬†a meltdown in the greenhouse of Suburban Lawn & Garden and decide I won’t garden after all. In fact, I¬†will never give gardening a chance again.

Enter my husband.

“We are not walking out of here without flowers. Do you like any of these? If we can’t get ranunculus bulbs right now, why not grow something else to start off? Then we can do some research and figure out how to grow ranunculus later?

No.

“You don’t like any of these?”

“They’re pretty much all lilies. I don’t really like lilies.”

“What about gladiolus? You love gladiolus.”

“No… I just don’t feel like growing them.”

“But they’re one of your favorite flowers!”

“Yeah.”

His puzzled look says all. I escape¬†into the next aisle and pretend to shop for garden kitsch. Because that’s believable.

Gladiolus may be one of my favorite flowers, but I want to grow ranunculus.

bouquet or red ranunculusGod, why can’t I? Why does every store have to be out of bulbs? Why does it have to be too late for them in Kansas? Why do the gardening staff have to look at me like this? As though I am ridiculous for coming in here asking about ranunculus in the middle of April! As though I ought to know better.

How could I know better? I am just starting out.

We walk out of the greenhouse into the gusting day, valiantly trying to shelter a pot of begonias, two African violets, and a little mint plant. The last thing we need is for these strong winds to carry off our newly-acquired petals, bought with spending money I don’t even really have. Their luminous colours are keeping my spirits only just above the water. I guess these are all right.

The cardboard tray box the cashier handed us sags.

I bet I kill them. How do I know I can do this? I am just starting out.

“Well, I guess if we don’t murder these plants, maybe we can actually make passable parents someday,” I say. We both laugh. And fall silent.

I am thinking that at least babies cry when they need something. And stop when they’re satisfied. Plants? Whatever experts say, it is not always easy to tell if they are happy just by looking at them.

herbs

Matthias’s herbs. After the ordeal.

Repotting is messy; Matthias and I work by the lurid fluorescent porch light, well after nightfall, “because it’s today or not at all.” (He knows me so well, Matthias.) The porch runs with potting mix and water. I am sure I have murdered the flowers. Pulling them out of their pots is so, well, physical. I feel like I’m looking at the poor dears in their underthings. Placing them in their new box, I tamp them down with a firmness I hope inspires confidence.

I hope they like me.

I spot an exposed root and panic.

“How much should I water these?” Matthias asks, leaning over the herbs.

Do I look like I know?

The porch screen door whines closed on its tracks. I flick off the porch light. And I cry.

Because I know what this is about. I know why I’m freaking¬†out.

I am so afraid of being defective, of failing, of disappointing myself. With everything in me I dread that awful grind-in-the-gut feeling of not making the cut. Not belonging among the blessed.

Those privileged few who get to experience life as it was designed. In the Garden.

[I know, I know. There are no such people. Suspend your disbelief. Do it. For me.]

I just want to grow ranunculus! Like other people! I just want to be able to grow Beauty. To grow new life. To do what You created me to do. Is that really so much to ask?

Silence.

Or at least, that’s what I¬†hear.

I’ve always known walking out my intimacy issues would be, well, a long walk. But I really wish I were done now.

Every summit reveals another one to climb.

I am so tired of walking. I am just no good at this.

Next morning, I don’t want to look. I want to bury myself in work and deny that I ever cared about gardening. But I make myself.

I scan the pots for any sign of change since last night. The not-ranunculus flowers seem to be doing fine. But are they really? I push down the thought. Poke about the base of the stems to check the dryness of the soil. Breathe, Tineke.¬†You’re doing the best you can‚ÄĒand more than what you can.

This is not going to be like all the other times. You’re going to persevere. Even if you’re¬†lousy at it.

Arguments about why-do-these-flowers-even-matter die. I know my avoidance strategies pretty well by now. Too many dreams have gone down the drain because I “had more important¬†things to do.” Read: Things I am already good at.

I think about¬†what my husband said. “Why not grow something else to start off? Then we can do some research and figure out how to grow ranunculus later?” He’s right. Not-ranunculus plants are still a start.

3 weeks later

porch view

Small beginnings.


 
I’ve had to tweeze off some browned and crisped blooms from each plant. But that’s all. They’re alive.¬†Every last not-ranunculus one of them. I am dubious about one of the African violets. But I have a backup plan for it¬†if it¬†continues to look so anxious. Wait, that’s me.

African violet and begonia

The African violet I worry about.

Sigh.

I’m still struggling to break even at the end of each day, when I count out the worries I’ve spent and the hopes I’ve gained.

3 weeks isn’t really persevering. But it’s still a start. I mean, I’ve looked at the plants every day. I haven’t denied their existence. I’ve watered and cared for them. In the face of failure.

When will this start to pay off in the rest of my life? I pray. When will daily acknowledging and watering my not-ranunculus find me daily acknowledging and watering my longings? Is this really working? Is this really helping me stop avoiding my dreams?

3 weeks is not really persevering. I am just starting out.

Yes.

The bills in my drawer all face left. I have counted them so often, they are leathered with the sweat of my compulsive hope. Hope that my life might someday grow ranunculus. Might someday be a Garden tended.

I want so badly to find out that hoping is worth it. People I trust¬†me tell me it is. But deep down, is the Question:¬†Sure I might be capable of¬†growing African violets and begonias. “Strength made perfect in weakness” and “everything working for good” and all that. But¬†will my life ever grow ranunculus?

There’s only one way to find out. And I can’t let my terror of hearing “No,” keep me from gardening.

On the chance that I’ll hear “Yes.”

On the chance that I could be at peace either way. A possibility I entertain with disgust, but entertain anyway.

I should be more reverent, more trusting, shouldn’t I? But how could I? I am just starting out.

Hey, where did this twenty come from?

There’s a note safety-pinned to the reverse.

“Accept¬†grace.”

Apparently the Silent One wan’t ignoring me. He was just writing.

Since He’s gracious enough to count my writing as talking to Him, I begrudgingly save¬†His note.

free flowers from church

How do YOU practice hope? I hope you’re better at it than I am!!

The Burden of Purpose – When You’re Haunted by Your Creative Gift

Do you ever feel paralyzed by the “Grand Purpose” of the talents and opportunities you’ve been given? Are you haunted by your creative dreams?

The Burden of Purpose by Tineke Bryson

A new post about the burden of purpose ¬Ľ

I really struggle with this, as I’ve tried to express on The One Year Adventure Novel blog today. I hope you enjoy it! Those of you who read my posts with some regularity, may notice some subject overlap with the Narcissism, bully of hope post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic!