My brother wrote a song recently and within it exists my childhood. With the opening lines, memories flood into my mind's eye in soft dappled light. The song starts soft and beautiful and my childhood is quietness and melody. The windows of Illinois graduate student housing and screened doors that lead out to porches overlooking cornfields. German walking paths and a trampoline. Learning to say prayers and goodnight songs singing the ABCs. I see four heads, my siblings and I together. Moments on the couch, in the woods, in the back alley - shades of brown descending into blonde, blue eyes melting to brown.
And then chaos breaks loose and the memories move in rapid motion. Movement is everywhere and childhood becomes one large scream that contains all of the joy and anger of growing up. I am throwing rocks at my siblings, afraid of their togetherness against my isolation. We are playing tag and catching fireflies in summer evening hours. We walk the dog endlessly around neighborhood blocks. I am left at the table to eat food I don't want. Roller blades, scrunchies, and beaches. The American landscape whizzes by outside a minivan window, there and back and there again. We try to learn to listen to each other as we're told to do, but tears, depression, anger, yelling, and fear are so much of what we hear. Porch swings and thunderstorms. Junker cars and flat tires. Teasing about early romances, helping put the pieces back together when the heartbreak comes. We have each other’s backs at school dances. We compete with each other and it hurts. But always pride, pride, pride for the wins of each individual.
And then at the 3:45 mark my mother's hands appear in a benediction over us. The chaos of life parts and over us is spoken a blessing. Sanctification works itself out in painful and brutal slowness. But she is there, speaking peace and kindness. A moment of silence, a pause in the storm, and my father's bass breaks through to push us all ahead, deeper than we knew we could go. With my mother's hands over us and my father's bass keeping us in motion, we four go forward into the world and see what lies therein. It is terrifying and amazing, a beautiful melody and a chaotic reality entwined together.
And as we embark on transcontinental visits, weddings, and graduations, we four stay banded together. There are long distances and years of ache, but I see the dappled light go with us and we four still descend from brown to blonde, from blue to brown.
Lives unknown by fame.
And it’s tempting to hope
In the dream that caught your eye
But it’s left your heart undone.
These shoes are all worn out
From chasing flawed designs
And they’ve left me alone.
Now I’m bold enough to trade
Ambition for some rest.
Hearts restored through shame.
I envy your peace.
There’s nothing left to lose
When all your pride is gone.
The simple things in life
Are all that’s left to do
When you realize your heart
Has hope for something more
Than all your dreams can give.
Souls unseen by time.
Now it’s waiting for you,
The life you’ll have again
When this sorry world is gone.
I was recently remembering a few shocking conversations I had about love in the months leading up to my engagement to Trey. As with everyone seriously considering whether or not to marry a particular person, I was having a challenging time really knowing if I loved my boyfriend, so I occasionally asked married friends when they knew they loved their spouses. Most of the answers I received were pretty standard, pat answers. And by now, I've forgotten every one of those answers. Except for two.
My brother got married a year before I did. He had been pursuing the same girl for seven years, since the middle of high school. I figured that if anyone understood knowing when you love someone, it was him. So one summer afternoon while I was feeling particularly stressed over my relationship, I found him out on my parents' hot and stuffy third floor and asked when he had known he loved my now sister-in-law. In typical fashion, my brother cut straight to the chase. "I knew I loved Bethany when I asked her to marry me."
I was shocked and incredibly displeased with the answer. I told him to make sure Bethany never heard him talk like that, but he laughed at me. I pushed for for further explanation and he struggled to go into more detail. But eventually he landed on telling me that you don't really love someone until you decide to love him or her. Romance and dating have uncountable feelings associated with them, but love doesn't exist without the decision to love. His answer didn't really satisfy me, but I left with a lot to mull over.
Sometime later that summer, I was out for coffee with an acquaintance. We weren't close friends, but we talked for a long time about my dating life and whether Trey and I would get married. I asked her the same question - when did she know she loved her husband? Without any hesitation, she bluntly answered, "I fell in love with him when we got married." Again, I was shocked. If I remember correctly, I almost choked on my coffee.
How could anyone give such an answer? How could anyone give it as shamelessly as she did? She wasn't embarrassed to make such a statement. She didn't blush and say, "It's kind of sad, and one of my biggest regrets, but sadly, I didn't really love my husband until we got married." No, instead she was honest, forthright, and giggled! This was her experience and she wasn't shy about it. Along with my brother's answer, I was now very confused. But I didn't immediately dismiss these thoughts. I continued to contemplate these answers and ponder over their meaning.
By the end of the summer, I had agreed to marry Trey. I still didn't feel like I had great insight to the definition of love, and I sometimes felt fearful that I didn't know what it meant to love someone enough to marry him. But I knew I wanted to marry Trey, even if I still felt confused. I didn't doubt that I wanted to marry this particular man and spend my life with him. But I couldn't quite put a finger on whether I knew, really knew, that I loved him. Marrying my husband was the single greatest step of faith I have made thus far in my life. Not because I didn't deeply respect, or enjoy, or feel attracted to him. But because, as with all skeptics, I didn't feel like I could know what love for him really was.
Looking back on the first six months of our marriage is looking back on one of the strangest times of my life. In so many ways, those six months were magical. Truly some of the best times of my life. We were long-distance for the entirety of our dating and engagement, so simply being in the same place brought with it a certain kind of heady joy. Everything seemed so relaxed now that we could just sit next to each other on the couch and watch TV, rather than talking on the phone every night. Being in each other's physical presence was a treat. Discovering sex together was incredible. Not incredible because it was instantaneously everything it would ever become, but because it was the entrancing exploration of virginal youth. Even fighting together was good. It was painful, and at times bitter, but it was good, so good to be working towards unity and understanding, laying the foundation of our lives together fight by fight.
And yet, throughout all of this wonder and growth, I was still nagged by the question, "Do I really love Trey? And if I do, how do I know I do?" This question that lingered on in my mind was the single most difficult part of my first year of marriage. I didn't think about it often, but sometimes it would enter my head late at night as I tried to fall asleep. Or when I felt incredibly homesick and wanted to go home to my family. Or when a fleeting attraction to another man crept across my consciousness. It wasn't rational, and it wasn't predictable, but every now and then this question would arise and it would leave me deeply disturbed, sometimes for days.
I wish I could tell you about the one spectacular thing that completely erased this question from my mind. Instead, it was a totally random and quiet night. I can't even recall what took place that day. But one night about six months into our marriage, I lay in bed as Trey fell asleep as I asked myself the same question I had been asking for almost two years. "Do I love Trey? Do I know that I love Trey?" And without any hesitation or any explanation, I knew that, yes, I loved this person more deeply and more truly than I had ever loved another person before. I knew that this new certainty didn't invalidate or belittle the love that I had felt for him before. But as an intense warmth of emotion washed over me, I knew I had reached a new place in our relationship. I wanted to love him, not just be married to him, or have sex with him, or enjoy life with him, but I wanted and decided to love him. And so I did.
Being the internal processor that I am, I never told Trey about any of this until sometime this past year. One day I tentatively told him that I didn't think I really, truly loved him until after we were already married. It didn't surprise him and he kind of laughed when he heard it. He knows me in ways he himself often doesn't understand.
We celebrated our third anniversary in May. I've been thinking a lot about how hard it was for me to know if I loved my husband and how simple the answer to that question now is. I've been thinking a lot about the difference between knowing you want to marry someone and knowing you love them. I've been thinking a lot about my culture's inability to distinguish between the two and how much that stunts my generation's ability to healthily consider marriage. I've been thinking a lot about how previous generations lauded the growth of love, describing it as a blossoming flower - there, in existence, but needing to grow beyond the bud into its full glory. Love is not something that comes upon you, but rather it is something you choose, and once the choice is made, it springs open into a radiant splendor.
I love you, Trey Nation. I know I do.
I used to tell people that autumn was my favorite season, but I've come to realize in the last couple of years that really isn't true. There's a certain romance to the season that I can't escape. But it's also always a dark time for me. As I've come to realize that I'm very much impacted by the season and lower light, I've also learned to cling more strongly to God's promises when my spirits are low.
My brother wrote a song last year and the first time I listened to it, I cried and cried. It perfectly captures my feelings in seasons like this one. The words are Tennyson's and the melody all Daniel. Siblings are a mysterious thing - they are so oddly similar to you. The good thing about it is that when my brother expresses his soul though music, a medium I'm not gifted in, it sometimes feels like he is sharing my heart as well.
So on a dark, autumnal day, I hope you enjoy these words and this music as much as I do. I find a certain refuge in them and I hope they bring you solace, as well.
"Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being, slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is Life, a Fury slinging flame.
But what of that? My darken'd ways
Shall ring with music all the same;
To breathe my loss is more than fame,
To utter love more sweet than praise.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last―far off―at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
Forgive what seem'd my sin in me;
What seem'd my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be."
I spent the past weekend with my mom and sister. As Ruthie stated in her post earlier today, it was a long time coming. The last time we had a true girls weekend was when I moved back to the United States after living in China for two years.
That was an amazing time together, but also challenging in its own ways. I was going through extreme culture shock, my sister was at the end of college, and my mom was just getting used to life as an empty nester. It was the first weekend we had gone away just as the girls and it was the starting point for us learning how to settle into our own and each other's lives.
And settle we have. Many things about who we are today feels much more familiar and comfortable. Though all three of us still have great challenges and uncertainties ahead, we are all three much more certain of where God has us right now in relationship to ourselves and to each other. It's a beautiful thing.
The most beautiful thing to my mind is how we talk with each other these days. Thinking back over the weekend, I realize that we talked about a lot of really deep and important things - things about our lives, things going on in the family, things pertaining to friendships and community, things concerning the church, things concerning our biggest hopes and dreams. But I can't pinpoint one time and place that we discussed these things. The conversation freely flowed in and out, meandering along with us around the city.
These women know me and I know them. We don't have to worry about being open with each other, because it's all just out there to see and understand. And that is something for which I am truly grateful.
I've been really busy the last couple of days and haven't had much time to write. Even now I'm pretty tired - I've been spending a lot of time with people and even though I love every single one of them dearly, this much time interacting with folks makes me want an adult sized hamster ball in which I can roll around without bumping into anyone. Don't worry, I'll be fine once I've had 24 hours to reset and then I'll be up for whatever society may throw at me!
It's at times like this that I am particularly thankful for who my parents are and the ways they instilled their value of people in their children. Neither of my parents are really people persons. That may surprise some of you who know them - they are constantly surrounded by people!
My mom and dad are really different from each other. My dad is a scientist who loves academic discussion and debate, especially when it intersects with faith matters. I wouldn't (and nor would he) say that he has the most natural people skills. His mind is always off in another world, thinking thoughts. My family often jokes that he wouldn't have made it in this life without my mother to look out for him in all practical matters.
He is one of the least judgmental men I know, in the truest sense, meaning simply that he will not harm or reject you though he may strongly and harshly disagree with you. I have never known him to believe a person couldn't change and for that I respect him deeply. My dad believes every person is complex and worthy of grace. Even though he jokes about his lack of people skills or inability to enter into people's emotions, I have seen him serve those in deep distress in remarkable ways simply out of conviction of his responsibility in Christ regardless of his particular gifts.
To many, it would be shocking to think of my mom as anything but a people person. It's simply impossible to count how many women she has let cry on her shoulder. Her love for and patience with young women, and in particular young mothers, has left a mark on her community. From my best friends in college to the strangers she sits next to on planes, everyone I've ever know has loved talking to my mom. Just as we tease my dad about his absent mindedness, we tease my mother about her incredibly ability to not only strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone she meets, but to strike up such a conversation that she somehow induces them to tell her their whole life story. She always claims she doesn't do anything to induce this phenomenon, but we all know that isn't true because she's an expert at the strongest magic of all people skills - listening.
Despite all of her gifts, though, I'm not sure my mom is truly a people person. At the core of her being, in her heart, my mom is hobbit. Whenever she has a day to enjoy simply as she pleases, she gardens and piddles around the house in relative solitude, singing along to her favorite music while she cooks something truly delicious.
And this gets to what I appreciate about my parents. They are not amazing people. They are not the people who get singled out as natural movers and shakers. They are not the people who enter a room and attract people magnetically with their presence. Rather, they simply believe that people matter. And they have made conscious, sacrificial, and sometimes painful decisions according to that belief in order to make people the priority.
To my mind that is what makes a difference in this world. Living in Boston and witnessing on a daily basis communities that do not make people the priority has sobered my perspective. It's so easy for Christians to think that the most important thing is for people who are gifted at relating to people to excel at using those gifts. We assume that caring for people is just one of many potential gifts people can have. If you are a people person, use that gift. If you are not a people person, use your the other gifts you have been given. But what the world needs is not more people with perfect people skills. We do not need more professionals. What we need is ordinary people who, whatever their gifts might be, are willing to make people a priority and bear the burden to whatever degree of discomfort that might inflict upon them.
I don't find it easy to spend all day every day interacting with people. As the child of my parents, I inherited both their good and bad traits when it comes to people. In some ways, I am gifted. In others, I am not. But at the end of the day, it's not the particular gifts from my parents that matter. When I am tired from the people I interact with from work, and church, and community, and life, it's not my excellence or failings that make a difference. What matters is the knowledge that the God I serve and to whom I give my allegiance sees the human beings around me as of paramount importance. And therefore, as his servant, I have no right to do any less. Like my parents, if that is my motivation, feeling tired at the end of the day from all of the people I've seen will seem small and insignificant in the light of eternity.