I am You.

Last week was your birthday but I tried not to think about it. I didn’t want to pause my day and think about you because I was enjoying my family. But the next day I stood in the shower beneath a steady stream of water and the thought occurred to me that I’d not let myself grieve and I needed to.


I cry a lot. Often I don’t know why I’m crying but there is an invisible pressure, almost like a knot that won’t come undone unless I surrender. Yet, when it comes to crying about you, I am endlessly eluded. Because I’ve forgiven you hundreds of times, and for each moment I choose to lay down my resentment, I find myself in another moment, crying, hating you again.


I didn’t always hate you. It was more like idolatry- your gifts, your talents, your stories, all on a ginormous pedestal of perfection. I didn’t care that you were an addict, that you walked out. I didn’t care that for more than half of my life you were homeless. I used forgiveness as padding for my heart, not allowing you to hurt me.


I knew pain, but not resentment. It was a quiet loneliness, a feeling within that no one could understand me like you, had you given me a chance. I was different than almost everyone else in my family- quiet, contemplative, content to be lost in the pages of a book, or outside, lost in my thoughts. I knew you’d understand me. My mom told how quiet you were, that the happiest she ever saw you was sitting on a porch with your guitar. I knew you loved the ocean, how you often ended up living there. I loved the ocean, too. I loved music. I loved culture. More than anything, I loved to write. You loved to write too. You sent me several letters throughout my childhood and I read through them until they disintegrated.
I grew older. My hope swelled. I wanted you to come for me, to know me as a fourteen-year-old. A fifteen-year-old. I wanted you to read my poetry, hear my stories. I wanted you to hear my voice. But the last time I heard from you I was thirteen. You called to tell me I had a brother. Then you said you were homeless and happy in the woods, and you wanted the entire world to leave you alone. And I still hoped. I still believed that you were not too far gone. I have always believed outrageous things, about love, about possibility. I used to be brave like that.I grew up attending Al-Anon alongside other children of addicts. I learned that you had a disease. I learned it wasn’t my fault. I knew the concepts and one-liners, but I never stopped believing you could just choose to love me. And I could choose to wait for you.


Then you died.

You were 36 years old. You killed yourself living on the streets, numbing your pain with drugs. You killed yourself.I still wasn’t angry. I took the idol I had built and told myself it’d never die. I would live a life worthy of all that you were. I would embrace creativity and freedom. I’d play music. I’d love men on drugs, give myself to them, and swear it didn’t hurt me. I’d give them money, spend the night at crack houses, clean up vomit, do whatever it took to show you that I’d never be offended. I wasn’t angry. I forgave you. Then I waited- hoping, believing- that the theory of my childhood would prove true. Someone would turn from their addiction and choose me.


But it never freaking happened. Instead, I wound up pregnant. Single. Alone. I had to quit school.


And, somehow, I still wasn’t angry at you.


God began piecing together my identity, my heart. He began putting me back together. The symptoms of abandonment resurfaced again and again and I dealt with it methodically. AcknowledgmentForgiveness. This has been the most frustrating part of my Christian journey, convincing God, convincing my pastor, convincing myself that I’m not angry.

I’ve dug into your past, the truth of what happened. Your parents abandoned you in a house without food and water. You were torn away from your siblings, placed in foster care. You were starved. You were abused. Later you were adopted by a family that meant well but was immediately overwhelmed by your baggage. They sent you back to the orphanage before trying one more time. You started running away when you were twelve. You started inhaling fumes from the lawnmower when you were thirteen. You married my mom when you were nineteen. 


I knew you were broken and it was easy to forgive you. I remembered when you tattooed my name and birthday across your back. To me, this was the very essence of love. I blamed you for nothing.


But last week I was sitting in therapy crying because I cry all the time and I never know why. My therapist asked me what I needed and I told her peace beyond the pain. Also, hope. How do I hope anymore? All of my hope, a lifetime of hope, was spent on you.

I don’t know where the heavy pain has come from. Maybe transition? When life shakes, I can no longer lie to myself about how safe everything is. Maybe it’s because I met my brother for the first time and I’ve seen and heard how abandonment affected him. I could forgive you for leaving me, somehow…but not him. It wasn’t okay that you left him.
What is clear to me is my Enneagram test results and how this has affected my life.I am a 9, the Peacemaker.


Enneagram 9, The Peacemaker
Key Motivations: Want to create harmony in their environment,to avoid conflicts and tension, to preserve things as they are,to resist whatever would upset or disturb them.

The minute I tested for a 9, I knew you were a 9. I realized for the first time that as much as I’ve idolized your better qualities, I’ve never been able to look in the mirror and see your flaws.


But they are all over me. This was really why I went to see a therapist. I don’t know how to face pain. I don’t know how to feel anger. I don’t give myself a voice. All I know is how to protect peace, which often results in numbing myself to this beautiful life. I have missed so much life for having locked myself in the bedroom to be quiet. I thought I was being creative, but I have no idea what being honest looks like. I thought I was being contemplative, but I actually don’t know how to be still. Perhaps most telling of all was when she asked me if I’d ever been suicidal.

“Do you want to die?”I said no right away because it’s true, I don’t want to die. Still, I squirmed in my seat. “Sometimes I think the world would be better off without me.”

It hit me like a freight train. I am you. I am more than eloquent words and a quiet soul. I am more than compassion and tenderness.


I am a runner. Like you.


I hate this about myself. And for the first time in my entire life, I realized that I hated you. I cried in the shower the other night because I hated you. I am angry. I don’t even know what to do with this emotion, how out of control and empty it feels. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt the full force of it before. But I have to let myself feel it.


I have to stop telling myself that you running was for my own good. That you made everything better by your poor choices.

Rehab would have been for my own good. A therapist would have been for my own good.


dad.


I’m sure it was torturous to know what you’d given up for man-constructed peace, my brother and I. In that way, I have compassion. I’ve felt a sliver of this in the last year, having escaped into my inner-world to avoid pain. I miss my kids. I miss laughter. I miss the quietness of God’s voice. It is torture to run. It is torture to avoid stillness. I actually think we could sit and have a conversation about this had you not checked out of your own life, let yourself die. 


I just wanted to tell you that I am angry, finally. I forgave you yesterday and I’ll probably have to do it again tomorrow.

Yet, even though I’m angry, I still find myself grateful… a strange dichotomy. I like being a Peacemaker. I’m grateful you gave me a brother, a little piece of you to know and love.I imagine the three of us would have really enjoyed one another’s company.
But I’m tired of romanticizing it all for comfort. It can’t happen, because you’re gone.All we have left is our own lives, our broken hearts. A million questions. And still, a choice: to be engaged in our lives… to heal…. to feel…. to be present.

To stay. No matter the pain, I will stay.  

The Flippancy of Love

My love once burned 

with the intensity of a thousand suns,

white dress and golden ring adorned.

The passion fanned to flame,

but it’d been easy to feign, 

so I let it shrink to nothing, 

disappear,

like a balloon lost in the atmosphere.

And you asked if I was willing to 

touch the flame, risk the pain,

believe in love again. 

So I reached in 

until it was cold to me,

the cavern of my heart empty,

and hope for us burnt out.

 

The flippancy of love.

How suddenly a fire escapes, 

engulfing a landscape.

Siren sounds, 

waters burst from the belly of a plane

until the assault retreats,

smoldering with promise,

until we stomp out the embers,

leaving singed debris 

and shattered dreams.

The remnant of ash heap

seeping into the soil,

a bed for fertile seed.


For the sake of love

that can’t be quenched,

for wildfires that catch and burn, 

hotter than a thousand and one suns. 

If that’s what it takes,

scorch what remains,

and let me begin again. 

A Love of My Own

“The clouds parted over her,” he’d tell in his southern gentleman’s drawl. “Nothing could be clearer, as she was the one I was meant to marry.”
     This story was like a banner over my childhood—my father’s insistence on love at first sight and destinies we hardly choose for ourselves. I suppose I expected my own story to come about in this way, with spotlights and cheeky cupid himself making an appearance when I saw her.  Instead I was at a weekday church group for singles, serving God, tradition and my parent’s expectations. My father was a retired pastor and my mother was the perfect wife. I learned from them that love and Christian duty were synonymous and back then, this was good enough for me. However, though it seemed my years had once crawled by, toward the end of my twenties they began to quicken the way book pages released fan together in a forward momentum.

 “Will you ever marry?” my father would ask. My mother was different, simply reminding me what an eligible bachelor I was, “tall as a steeple, and sensible, too.”

In response to this prying and implying, I started to wonder if their story created some sort of pressure, like the very moment I met my true love I’d know. Perhaps that’s why I hadn’t settled down. I never knew for sure and though it pained me to admit it, no one was as good as my mother.

     Especially not Annie-Rae Gentry.

 I know her name sounds sweet as pie but I’d heard she spent a year or two in a juvenile detention center and I was ashamed for her the day she stood outside the church with a cigarette wedged between pinched lips.

“I remember you,” she said as I unavoidably stepped closer, for she was all but blocking the entrance. “Peter Stevenson.” 

   “I believe we went to school together,” I answered her. Before you went to jail. I eyed the snake tattoo coiled about her bare arm and gulped. She was all skin and bones, dark hair that floated around her shoulders and eyes like a stale green creek. 

    “I moved away,” she said.

 “Where’d you go?”     

“Does it matter?”   

 I made a face at the ground because I was out of words.

  “Hotter than Hades out here,” she said and tossed the cigarette butt onto the pavement. The tip of her sandal extinguished the orange glow, scattering tiny sparks.

 I considered her review of the churchyard with a sideways grin. “Ironic.” Her eyes lit at my joke before she turned towards the door.

“You going in?” she asked.
I simply followed her.


     We sat together in the back row, her taking the first seat. This was preferred territory for me as I’d grown up forced to sit in a front pew. An organized band sent a melody of worship through the room and I mouthed the words. My eyes occasionally flickered towards Annie, curious if she knew them. It turned out she did and quite well, as the harmony of her voice reached my ears smooth as honey.  The service began and the pastor spoke on forgiveness, a worn out subject I could quote forward and backward. But sitting next to Annie-Ray had me feeling all sorts of conundrums.

After church, we walked.  She smoked. I couldn’t figure out why I followed her except that I could see a story in her eyes and I wanted to know it.   

 “You sing like an angel,” I said.     

She flicked the cigarette away in an arc. “I grew up in the church too. Got so hurt by life. So lost. I finally took off.” She stared at a line of trees to which we headed.     

“You’re back now?”   

“Can’t run forever,” she warned, her subtle smile arresting my reservation. 

   “I don’t intend to.” I’d never run from anything. Always forward and desperate to please my parents. Yet it seemed the harder I tried, the more I faltered. Lately they’d harbored hope I’d join the ministry but I was happy working with my hands.  Again I found myself drawn to the snake about her arm.  She caught me and bit down on her lower lip before speaking.

“Snakes mean wisdom, you know.” 

  “Sometimes.”     

A burst of bumpy laughter disrupted the quiet as she crossed her arms. “I have another. Designed it myself.” She turned her back to me with not a hint of warning, lifting her shirt to reveal what appeared to be a bouquet of bluebonnets, the pride of Texas. I noticed the delicate ribs stacked along her side and drew in a quick breath. There were no clouds parting overhead and if anything the sun was gradually taking its post for the night, faint starlight dotting the sky. She tugged her shirt back into place and faced me again.   

 “Did it hurt?” was all I could think to ask.     

She shrugged. “Sometimes you need pain to make something beautiful.”   

 A cool breeze sucked up the last bit of sweltering heat and caused the leaves of a thick forest to dance alongside our trail. We walked further, enjoying the miracle of a wide-open bronze sky and genuine company. Annie-Rae studied me, her eyes squinted in curiosity. “You’re quiet,” she said.   

 I was quiet but that didn’t mean my mind wasn’t reeling. I imagined bringing her home to my folks, this messy-haired, wild-eyed artist who also smoked and only God knew what else. At once I realized she was the first girl I’d ever imagined bringing home and my feet stalled in the street. I tipped my head and scanned the sky, mustering hope for just one remaining ray of sunshine to come down and tell me if I’d done well.   

 “You’re gonna hear lots of rumors about me.” She stood at my side, her grin sideways and endearing. “A good bit of them are true.”  Her gaze traced me, as I was a head taller. Though darkness settled, I noticed tawny freckles speckling her cheekbones. There was not another girl like her.  “But I’m not who I was,” she spoke plainly and gulped.     

“I’ve never broken a rule in my life,” I started. “Not sure I’m better for it.”   

 “I don’t know about rules,” she said. “I want to be good though.”   

I considered what this meant, my forehead folded as I tried to decipher her dazed expression.   

“I bet you could teach me. I bet you know all about goodness, Peter,” she said.

I know she was hoping I had something to offer her but I didn’t. Our conversation took a turn as I told of the failure I’d become. Not married. Not a preacher. Just another church-goer hoping for destiny to intercept me somehow. I told her the story of how my father found my mother and Annie-Rae bent at her center to laugh.   

 “That’s hogwash, love at first sight.” She swatted a hand through the air before rummaging in her back pocket for another cigarette. “There’s just people like you and me, taking a chance.”   

 “My father’s no liar.”   

 “Of course not. Only a romantic.” She took a drag and eyed me. “You want to fall in love, don’t you?”


     “Someday.” 

   “Well, falling is an accident, Peter.” I thought for sure she was challenging me but instead she laughed. I realized how right she was, that I’d always been a thinker. A realist. My infatuation with idealism came only as a result of my parents prodding, their own story inflaming my notions of what love was.

“I’m almost thirty,” I informed her.     

“What’s the hurry?” she asked. I felt like she read my mind. 

We turned and walked in pursuit of our vehicles, everyone else long gone. Then we stood outside her dented car for a suspended moment of time, our eyes locking and understanding one another.   

“I think you’re gonna be just fine,” she said to me.     

I nodded, for this became true. I had encountered a purer sort of destiny, one without pressure. One that had Annie-Rae Gentry at my side, causing my heart to beat out of my chest. 

 Forgiveness.  I forgave my father and my mother right then. It wasn’t for fantastical stories that held some degree of truth, but for how they expected me to live their story as some sort of predestined sequel. I pre-forgave Annie, whatever that meant, for all rumors that might possibly find their way to my ears. Then perhaps most profound of all, I forgave myself.  She stepped forward once, pressing her ear against my chest in a half-bodied hug. We separated and she slipped into the driver’s seat of her car, eyes bright and lips pursed. She slammed the door and rolled down a window. “Alright, Peter. We’ll talk soon,” she said, and she revved her engine and drove away.


     I continued to stand in the quiet parking lot reflecting on the evening. A subtle smile tugged at my lips and I jangled a handful of keys, tossing them from one hand to the other. I didn’t know everything about me and Annie-Rae, but I knew enough. More than I’d ever known before. I had stumbled upon something special, the beginning of what I truly wanted. A love story of my own. 

It’s Okay to Change

Recently I read a meme posted by a conservative homeschool site. It had a picture of a child scribbling happily in the background and said in sweet curly letters, “Remember: Your worst day at home is still better than their best day in school.”

Homeschool mothers chimed in, grateful for the encouragement. Last year I would have been one of those moms, desperate for even the tiniest morsel of confidence. The last two years of homeschooling had been absolutely brutal. It was like being locked in a cage with no key. Multiple pregnancies. Our rental house nearly sold out from under us. My grandpa’s cancer diagnosis (that ultimately took his life). More than two months out of one year spent in North Carolina. And I’m supposed to do school?

Other moms encouraged me that there was grace, that we would catch up. The days slipped by and at the end of each one, I’d lay in bed in the evening feeling like a total failure. It wasn’t only that I’d miss a day (or three) doing school, but when I completed school with my kids I felt like I was ruining their lives. Our time together would start gracefully and almost always end with one of us crying. I’d changed curriculum dozens of times and even found a curriculum I loved, but balancing the subjects, with a social life, with plain ‘ole housekeeping was draining me of my will to even face another day [Feeling like you are failing your children is THE WORST].

Why did I persist?

Because I felt called. I felt convicted. I felt I belonged with this forerunning generation that wanted to have big families, live on homesteads, and have homechurch. There was this cliche that became so attractive to me because it looked wholesome and good. Please don’t hear me putting down this way of life, because I’m not. My point is, I came out of the jungle of 6 years of homeschooling and realized what I was doing was not working for me. It took almost two years of tears and shame and hopelessness to figure it out because I lauded the idea of doing hard things, of leaning into grace, and persisting whatever the cost.

 I’ve realized in this season of my life that sometimes the HARDEST thing is giving up the life you thought you wanted to do what works best for your family. If you want to know what that looks like, it’s the sound my kids fixing their own lunches in the mornings. It’s the sound of my son messing up and making it right. It’s my daughter thanking me for putting her in school. Or my son, who said recently, “Putting me in school is the best thing you ever did for me.”

And I’m a good stay-at-home, Mom! I know that about myself. I make homemade snacks, we play board games, we sing and dance in the kitchen, we have fun. But one thing I’m not great at is challenging my kids. I’m also not great at getting out of the house for activities because I’m a homebody. My kids were desperate to get out often, which piled on the shame that I couldn’t be who they needed me to be.

Since my big kids have been in school, I’ve had the quietest days. I jump on the trampoline with Phoenix. I play at least an hour of board games a day with Trinity. I color with Cori and we’ve started on phonics and a workbook. And when I’m face-to-face with my littlest ones, I feel grateful, first of all, that I had that same opportunity with my big kids once upon a time. As they grew, however, the responsibility to school them PLUS discipline them and be present in their lives was removing the energy and time I so desperately wanted to give to my middle children.

Today I played Go Fish and cried. Why? Because I wanted this so badly for so long. I wanted to give this time to my sweet Trinity, who is only going to be 5 years old once.

One thing I have so loved about homeschooling is keeping my children close. But I’ve realized that at times I do that against their will. I clip their wings, so-to-speak. Again, this is ME. This is my experience. I’ve watched them the last several years trying to pull away from me but I just couldn’t let go. I couldn’t swallow my pride. It was never about rebellion or hurt or conflict with my kids- it was about maturity. They were ready.

So when one of my children says, “This is the best thing you’ve ever done for me,” regarding school, I take enormous offense to memes like I quoted above. It keeps moms like me stuck. It keeps us serving a movement instead of our children.

Do kids know best?

Not always. Obviously, I am the parent and I navigate what is in their best interests. I’m writing from the perspective of I know, now. Even on the worst days at school, they’d still rather attend school.

Jake and Sonora attend a hybrid school that only meets three days a week. It has been the perfect option, AND I still get to homeschool on Fridays. However, we are soon to be relocating to Austin and I am already on the hunt for the perfect school- not just for Jake and Sonora, but Cori, too. If it’s full-time, we’ll explore that route. My kids are worth it…and I’m starting to realize that I’m worth it, too.  All those days I went to sleep weighed down by shame that I wasn’t who my kids needed me to be, now I don’t feel that. Now I feel good that my 2-year-old is my buddy, not the greatest hindrance to my day. I love to play games with my little kids in the morning, and my older kids after dinner. I still love being a stay-at-home mom.

Guess what? The whole giving up who I wanted to be still hurts sometimes. Every now and then, shame will attach itself to that and take me down a dark road (why wasn’t I enough for my kids?). But now I know that doesn’t matter. If I take each season for what it is, make the best decision I can, that’s what matters. Looking at each kid and asking myself what they need and how I can best fulfill that need, that is the kind of parent I want to be.

Intuitive. Flexible. Trusting. Safe.

And for myself, at peace.

Memory

Figs dripped from the limb, 

plump and purple royalty.

Clusters of majesty.

But I was the true queen,

Perched on the shoulder of my grandfather,

Reaching towards the tip top,

Swatting the fuzzy skin until several detached

And fell to the earth.



Bursting like a balloon filled with syrup, 

The fruit is a color I can’t quite decide,

Earthy maroon or sunrise red,

Hugging a pale center, layers like tiny tentacles

I try to ignore the oddity of.

To taste a fig is to quiet the questions

And be present,

To savor the gift that summertime brings. 

Eventually birds devour the leftover fruit,

And winter comes to shrivel the leaves

And scatter them.

The bare bone tree lies dormant, 

Shivering like the elderly, 

Sapped of vitality.

And we wait. 

I reminisce over this process,

Especially of summer,

Of time spent being held, lifted, 

Encouraged to explore the sweeter side of life. 

What I wouldn’t give to go back,

Before the cancer whittled you away like winter to our tree.

I suppose I’ll never a taste a fig again, 

Because I’m satisfied, like a child,

From only the memory.