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Pain

This is the third post in a series on vocation, marriage, and work.

So much of this story is hard to tell because of the deep shame I experienced when I made these discoveries about myself. And the pain we experienced as we made these discoveries in our marriage.

This next part is especially hard to tell because my deepest shame is in how I applied biblical teaching and interpretations of that teaching to my relationship with Damien. And I am hesitant to talk about it because I don't want to misrepresent the Bible to non-believers. But it's not up to me to filter and spin how people interpret my experiences and my failures. I am choosing to live in the freedom that allows me to recognize I clearly don't have my act together. I'm broken. I'm loved anyway. This is the gospel.

I grew up in and have spent my adult life in branches of the Christian faith that advocate complementary roles in marriage for husbands and wives, not related to the specific work we do (who earns the income, who washes the dishes, for example), but how we lead and/or submit to each other.

A simplified view of the complementarian interpretation of scriptures is that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. And wives are to be subject to their husbands as the Church is subject to Christ. The relationship is to be mutually loving and submissive, with each spouse submitting to a different authority. Husbands loving their wives, as Christ loved the Church, even to death, and submitting to the headship of Christ. Wives are to submit to the headship of their husbands, and love their husbands as the Church loves Christ.

The complementarian viewpoint is based on several passages in scriptures, most notably Paul's letter to the Ephesians.

I have struggled here at this point in the narrative. I have researched and read different points of view, I have written many words and then deleted them as I've tried to figure out how to explain and justify this teaching.

I'm not up for that type of writing, it's not my gig. I cannot attempt to do justice to this teaching in this blog post, nor is that my intent. There are many books, bible commentaries and debate within the Christian community about this. Just as the Apostle Paul says in the passage I linked to above, "This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all."

I don't want to get into any debate about this, though I'm open to respectful discussion. My purpose in this post is to share my experience. And the last thing I want to do is misrepresent the Bible.

Because "belief" (trust, faith, convictions, positions) is difficult for Sixes to achieve, and because it is so important to their sense of stability, once they establish a trustworthy belief, they do not easily question it, nor do they want others to do so. The same is true for individuals in a Six's life: once Sixes feel they can trust someone, they go to great lengths to maintain connections with the person who acts as a sounding board, a mentor, or a regulator for the Six's emotional reactions and behavior. They therefore do everything in their power to keep their affiliation going. ("If I don't trust myself, then I have to find something in this world I can trust.")
~ Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson (emphasis mine)

I am a traditionalist, an authority-respecting person. My nature is to value hierarchy and loyalty. These are my inherent ways of looking at the world. Unfortunately, one of the false beliefs I am susceptible to, that can drive my decision making, is the belief that I'll be ok (ie: secure) if I cover all my bases and do what is expected of me.

Throughout adulthood and marriage, I've held to the complementarian view of marriage. I grew up with that teaching, and to this day it has been the perspective of the (mostly charismatic) evangelical churches I've attended. I have read very conservative teachings on the subject as well as the more liberal interpretations that many Christians align themselves with.

As I applied this in my own life, my motives for following this teaching over the years were not so much to unravel the mystery of Christ and the Church in a marriage relationship as much as they were to "do the right thing". Respecting roles and responsibilities, managing and adhering to those is the way I naturally do things as an ESTJ. (Of note: I also have a strong rebellious, authority-questioning streak in me, especially against leadership that appears unjust and power-hungry.)

But as I started to feel more insecure in my world, my motivations to adhere to this teaching started to subtly shift, not that I could have verbalized it at the time but looking back I can see the change.

Remember, one of the largely unconscious forces in my decision making is the belief that "I'll be ok if I cover all my bases and do what is expected of me". So in a place of insecurity, if a complementarian marriage is what is expected of me (by God, by people I admire and trust, by respected Church leaders) and will achieve the outcome I want: security and safety, then I'm in. And I will work my ass off to do it well. I will hustle for that security.

Average Sixes want to reinforce their support system, to strengthen their alliances and/or their position with authorities. To that end, they invest most of their time and energy in the commitments they have made, hoping that their sacrifices will pay off in the increased security and mutual support.
~ Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson

The complementarian view of marriage, and no doubt, the dirty lens through which I understood it, encouraged me to step behind my husband and follow when I felt insecure. I'm not saying that is what is "supposed to" happen. I don't know what is "supposed to" happen, it's still a mystery to me. But that's what I did. And my misplaced allegiance, which you could call idolatry, made me look to Damien to reassure me that everything was ok. I could step behind him, follow him, and it would be all right. He would lead and I would follow. This was biblical, everything would be ok.

I'm not blaming the complementarian viewpoint for my errors and faults but how I interpreted and misinterpreted this teaching contributed to a breaking in my confidence and self-assurance. The way I applied this teaching to my life in the context of my inherent personality traits and my natural bent to insecurity and anxiety; in the context of our life circumstances and decisions; and in the context of my already weakening confidence and increasing reliance on Damien led me to conclude that when things didn't feel ok for me it was because something was wrong with me.

And of course, a lot of things were "wrong" with me by this point, in my mental and emotional health. But the essence of my personhood was not wrong, and that is where I was feeling mis-aligned.

I had come to believe that if it was ok for Damien, leader and captain of the ship, then it should be ok for me. And if it wasn't ok for me then I was flawed, deeply flawed. Not just flawed the way we all are flawed and recognize our private sins and inconsistencies in belief and action, but flawed in the very traits that make me, me.

I was so confused and hurt at this point because I do believe I was knit together a certain way and yet I'm called to growth and transformation, and marriage is part of that. And I wasn't sure where the line was in that process. I didn't know anymore which of my preferences, desires, and needs were essentially me, and what were attitudes, beliefs, perspectives that could and should be changed.

I needed things Damien did not need. I saw the world differently than he did.

And from there I jumped to the conclusion, not supported by biblical texts or interpretations (or reality), that I was the wrong partner for Damien, and that I would lose him. And that was the lowest point for me, and the most difficult part of this journey.

The reason Sixes are so loyal to others is that they do not want to be abandoned and left without support - their Basic Fear. Thus, the central issue for Type Six is a failure of self-confidence.
~ Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson

I reached this point in the summer of 2014, on the Appalachian Trail. No wonder I was so depressed that summer.

In my desperate attempt to do it right, to find security, I f&*($ it up, big time. That's what I thought.

The following metaphor provides a good picture for what happened. I imagine our marriage and family life as a ship and Damien and I are standing at the prow. We're on a journey and there are calm seas and stormy ones. And over the last few years, during the storms, instead of standing beside Damien, I tucked in behind him, again and again. And I would ask "how're we doing?", and he'd reassure me, "we're doing fine". And even when it was calm, I'd ask "how's the view?" And he'd say, "it's great!" And he, as captain, felt confident that we had what we needed to meet the challenges.

Now, to step behind each other every once in a while to take a respite and reprieve from the prow, that's a good thing. For one of us to be standing perpetually behind the other, trusting the other's judgement, perspective, and view of the situation, that's no good. That was us. That was me.

I needed to increasingly rely on Damien's sense of situations being "ok" because I had lost my confidence and my inner guidance. Because so much was unfamiliar and outside my comfort zone, over and over again (sometimes we make those choices and sometimes life brings them) I wanted someone tell me it would be ok. And I looked to Damien to be that person.

Earlier I talked about how my tendency is to find security in doing what is expected of me. Damien did not expect me to step behind him. He knew I was, both by my actions and my communication. But I was not doing so to meet his expectations. I was working to achieve a standard, a measuring stick, that I set for myself, based on a certain view of marriage.

Those holding to the complementarian view of marriage might say: you read it wrong, you did it wrong, you were really messed up woman (no need to remind me), Damien did it wrong, something was wrong here. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Was it a failure of understanding, a failure of application, a failure of interpretation?

I don't have firm answers, but I'm ok with the questions. I'm ok with the mystery.

I don't know what I think anymore about complementary marriage, but I'm not seeking clarity in defining marital roles right now. And I'm not seeking my security in doing the right thing, or what is expected of me. I'm seeking Jesus.

I am unclear about some things, but here's what I know. I didn't marry an idea of marriage. I didn't even marry a biblical idea. I married a person, Damien. And I am to submit to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, with Jesus Christ as my example and my Lord. This is what I know and it's good enough for now.

Did we push ourselves too far outside my comfort zone? Probably. Did we bring this confusion on ourselves in some way? Maybe. Should I have listened more to the still small voice of the Spirit? Yes. But life, the choices we make and cards we're dealt, take us through circumstances that allow us to grow. And this path has allowed for much growth.

In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost - challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now - in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts.
~ Parker Palmer

A lot of my shame about what happened to us is around how I responded to Damien's awareness of the situation. Damien could see I was struggling, he's a loving husband. He could see that I was cowering, and he would ask me, is this what you want to do? Is this ok for you? Should we pull back, steer into calmer waters? But I was so blinded by my own sense of loyalty, to him, the idea of his leadership, and the course itself that I couldn't be honest with him or myself. I would say and write Yes but my actions and insecurities communicated No.

If we are unfaithful to true self, we will extract a price from others. We will make promises we cannot keep, build houses from flimsy stuff, conjure dreams that devolve into nightmares, and other people will suffer - if we are unfaithful to true self.
~ Parker Palmer

Remember that Who We Are list I mentioned in my previous post? It was the list I've been writing, post breakdown, which catalogues the core traits, needs, desires, etc. of Damien and myself. One of the few things we have in common on that list is our shared value of accuracy/truth/honesty. I was not honest with my husband, because I wasn't honest with myself, and this also is a point of deep shame for me.

It was the perfect storm of circumstance, choices we made, personality traits, deeply ingrained beliefs, and unconscious motivations. And as we found out, when I'm in an unhealthy place, once I've lost that sense of self and my confidence, I'm more inclined to go down with the ship than I am to change course.

We have named personality type Six the Loyalist because, of all the personality types, Sixes are the most loyal to their friends and to their beliefs. They will go down with the ship and hang on to relationships of all kinds far longer than most other types. Sixes are also loyal to ideas, systems, and beliefs... they will typically fight for their beliefs more fiercely than they will fight for themselves, and they will defend their community or family more tenaciously than they will defend themselves.
~ Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson (emphasis mine)

But with God's grace my husband had the courage to listen to his intuition (which he could no longer ignore anyway in the face of my anger, blame, ambivalence, and disillusionment) and I had the courage to admit I was wrong and bring all that shame into the open rather than keep crumbling.

We started to confess our faults and failures to each other, our immaturity, and the false idols that had crept in and damaged our relationship with God and each other. We choose to bear each other's pain in that awakening. And then we decided to change course, to learn from our mistakes and to choose self-awareness and individual well-being (spiritual, emotional, physical) as a key piece to a healthy "us".

I had rooted myself in my relationship with Damien, looking to him to be my "sure thing" in life, which included my income-earning work, instead of finding security in my identity in Jesus Christ, who dwells in me, and is the Essence of my life.

After The Breaking, as the light started to shine through the broken places, we decided to return to our original division of labor. I wasn't going to be working in the world until I knew what it was I was supposed to do, and until I had built up my self-confidence. It felt like going backwards, a regression in our story, but it also felt safe. It was known. I needed to heal and Damien, seeing how desperately insecure I had become, sacrificed some of his dreams and goals for me.

He put aside what he had been building, an income-earning dream he had invested huge amounts of time into, to return full-time to work that yielded a better immediate financial return so he could provide me with some measure of security.

This is one of the most loving things Damien has done for me, he sacrificed something of himself to care for me. Yes, we have our faults and we've failed each other, but we keep turning back to loving and serving each other, to knowing each other intimately and choosing to walk alongside each other, to be each other's number one fan and number one friend. Right now, this is how we keep our marriage growing, our relationship nurtured. Not by following a specific guideline of roles and responsibilities (though I tend to love those) but by choosing to love each other in the knowledge of self-awareness and the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It's time for the story to return to my individual work, calling, and vocation, to come into the present. But first, I haven't yet defined these terms, which was an important goal for me in digging deep into this series. So the next post is a glossary of terms and why I define these terms the way I do.

Earlier this month I went to a one-day Christian women's conference called Gather in my city of Montreal. As a rule I don't attend women's conferences because I'm afraid.

I'm afraid I won't "fit" as a woman in the mix of women there. I'm afraid I'll come away with a message of needing to do more, to be more. That I'll get (lovingly) hammered for being a Martha when I need to be Mary. That I'll feel guilt about something in my life I really must change. Get with the program already.

I don't know why I have this fear, it's mostly unfounded because I've only been to one, or maybe two, designated "Christian" women day-long gatherings in my life. In part because I don't like identifying as a Christian woman.

I know, I have issues (you ain't seen nothing yet). I'm insecure, but I want to feel deeply loved, I want to belong, and I want to remain me. I don't want to have to be someone else to belong.

In my relationships with other women I tend to feel that I should be different. More this, less that. More that, less this. Actually, I feel that in a lot of contexts. And God forbid I speak my mind, and do so without my "is this kind? is this helpful? is this necessary?" filter in place. So embarrassing and potentially hurtful, which is the last thing I want.

What I'm afraid of in going to a women's conference is opening myself up to all of that, all those insecurities, all my issues.

But I went to this one day conference called Gather because Sarah Bessey was going to be there. (Dream alert) And because I want to someday speak at a woman's gathering and I want to know what that looks like. The irony, I don't particularly dig women's gatherings, for the vulnerability I experience there, yet I want to speak at them. Hum.

Sarah Bessey is one of my favorite "Christian woman" bloggers. She's one of my favorite bloggers period, and her writing ministers to the parts of me that are mother, wife, Christian, seeker, wanderer through spiritual oasis' and spiritual deserts, Canadian, happy-clappy Jesus follower.

I went to hear Sarah; to meet her, hug her and tell her I adore her.

I did not come away from the conference feeling too Martha and not enough Mary. I did come away with some guilt that we haven't written our sponsor children recently but I also had a couple pages of very encouraging notes and truths to ponder.

Something that a speaker (I don't remember who) asked us, right near the beginning of the day, before my brain was overloaded and I still had the wherewithal and interest to take notes, was this:

What do I need to trust God with right now?

This is not a profound question but it spoke to something I have been wrestling with since moving to Montreal: our pace of living in this season of family life.

I long for a simplicity that is not practical but that appears possible in other people's curated social media lives. I am not envious of writing fame (ok, I am), or big houses. I'm envious of non-complexity.

So when I was asked that question, what do I need to trust God with right now? I wrote in the margin of my journal: I need to trust God that this pace is His pace. That God's got this.

One of my biggest struggles is that I feel the pace of life is not the pace at which I "should" be living. There is a knowing deep in my core that the state of the world, on all levels, is misaligned with its intended design and purpose; a disconnect between reality and what our hearts know to be true, right, lovely, and pure.

I just want to go back to the garden, which is the essence of what I'm searching for in a simple life, a well-tended life. Life being what it is, I will never achieve the ideal. Besides, there is work to be done. We're not here to seek a simple life, we're here to glorify God and to love people. And sometimes loving people feels anything but well-tended and simple.

But I keep trying to simplify, organize, and tend, which feels like the itch I can't scratch, my heart beating that rhythm, be still, be still, be still. (This heart's desire was part of the motivation to move to the woods and hike the Appalachian Trail - neither of which yielded the sustained satisfaction and contentment of life in the garden.)

I need to trust that this pace is God's pace for my life, right now. It feels like my heart is saying one thing, but the work I am called to do requires another thing. Though these seem like opposing forces, they are really two sides of the same coin; resting : working, being : doing. Like all kingdom principles it's not either/or, it's both/and.

I don't like this tension. I feel I have to make peace with it, daily. But I don't want to make peace. I want to make war, fighting against situations I don't like. Unfortunately, this means I often make war against myself.

Wrestle, surrender, make peace; I honestly don't know the best thing to do right now. But I feel I need to, at the very least, trust that God knows all this, that this pace is God's pace for my life not because I like it but because it's a necessary part of the work that is being done in me.


And then the shit hit the fan in the financial domain of our life last week. And on the morning after, when I was sobbing on my bed with disappointment and shame (a management failure is epic failure in my ESTJ, Type 6 brain); with self-pity and then guilt on top of pity, I returned to that question.

What do I need to trust God with right now?

This is what I wrote.

I need to trust God that this is how it is supposed to play out, this is part of the story.

My heart feels heavy with disappointment and shame. In my next breath I am thankful for the hot shower, my morning cup of coffee, my intact and loving family. I am carrying both right now. And I need to trust God with that too. It's ok to carry both, breath by breath.

I need to trust God with my frustrations, of which there are many.

I want to write a different story. I want to write gardens and flowers. I want to write travel. I want to write cozy home.

My sense of entitlement makes me feel ashamed. I feel sorrow for loss and change, and then shame at my sorrow. You have so much, why do you think your life should be any better? Why do you reach, long for, desire more?

I want to write sunshine and blossoms, the great expanse of the star-filled sky, campfire, and sleeping bags.

I don’t want to be “that” blogger, that writer. The one who writes this.

What do I need to trust God with?

All of this. All my shame, all my sorrows, all my disappointments, all my failings, all my inadequacies, all my entitlement. (What gives me the right to not experience deep discomfort? This is the state of the world.)

I need to trust God that I was knit together the way I am for a reason, a purpose. And that as these purposes bump up against each other (because they seem to compete for time, space and energy in my life) God knows this too. And that's ok.

So many days in the last month I have wished to be someone different. Not a literal someone, wishing to take someone’s shoes, though there are a few aspects of people’s lives I wish I could claim as my own: a better backyard, a bigger bank account, more readers.

I want to be different in my own life. I want to be more giving, of time and resources. I want to have different expectations. I want to not care so much about some things and care more about others. I want to be thankful. I want to be less needy. I want to not need to write so that when I don't have the time or discipline (you can always get up earlier, they say) to write I won't feel so disappointed. And if I didn't need to write, I'd never need to write this. And I wouldn't feel like such a whiner.

I want to have a new brain that sees the positive things, first. I want to be a person who writes something else other than memoir, because sharing this feels so vulnerable.

I want to be a person who doesn’t care about gardening, or cultivating beauty, so the mess of our yard wouldn’t irk me so much.

I want to be a person who doesn’t have such high standards for mothering so my failings and fumbling wouldn’t grieve me.

I want to be a person who trusts more so I wouldn’t have a lack of trust.

I want to be a person who doesn’t always think “what could I have done better, differently, to avoid this current suffering?” I want to be the person who naturally, because I'm wired that way, looks forward with optimism. I want to be the woman who views life through the lens of blessing, the first time, every time. I want to be a person who doesn't struggle with dark and difficult thought patterns.

I just want to be different so I wouldn’t feel this. This human. I want to go back to the garden. I want to be restored to what was meant to be.

I need to trust God with this too. That who I am is exactly who he made me. That everything I go through is a part of my becoming, my being.

I need to trust God with an aching heart, a worried mind, bills, things I want, things I need, a loving-but-very-human husband, three growing-beyond-my-influence children.

I need to trust God that this is the yard for me. That the desire in my heart to create beauty is a gift from God, and a gift I share, not a curse to frustrate me. I will bring beauty here, just slower than I would like. Which is basically the story of all progress in my life, slower than I would like.

It hurts to be human. It hurts to recognize how much it hurts to be human. It hurts to write about how much it hurts to be human. It hurts that hurting is better than numbing, better than drinking, better than overeating, better than addiction. It hurts that we sometimes hurt other people when we feel hurt.

It hurts that other people seem to have "this" (life) figured out, but I don’t. And that they can publish answers, and I can’t.

It hurts that I am needy and crying out to God, and disappointed in myself for the asking. God alone should be enough but I like material comforts and securities. I have a measure of both, but I could always have more, while most of the world has less. Shame upon shame.

It hurts that this is my skin.

It hurts that even though I have a great capacity to love - my spouse, my children, my parents, my friends, my neighbors - I am so selfish also. I am light and I am dark. And my selfishness, greed, and pride will bring other people pain; not if, when.

And there is nothing for this except God’s grace. And even knowing that God's grace will cover all my failings and being able to stand only in that truth, it still hurts because I want to better than that, but I am not.

So I was asked, what do you need to trust God with right now?

Just everything. Who I am and whom I’m married to and the people we are raising into adults.

The pace of my life. The fact that I need to write about this.

The things that are out of my control (virtually everything).

All the pain and discomfort I am currently feeling.

I need to trust God with my anger and my disappointment and my hurt, with life in general and with myself.

I need to trust that yes, as hideous as this feels sometimes, this is what I need to write and share. The alternative is worse. To swallow these words is more harmful, more damaging to my soul, than sobbing while I write; is worse than the discomfort of hitting publish.

Shame shrivels in the sharing. Disappointment is a pill slightly less bitter to swallow in the fellowship of friends. I trust God with this, and I know it to be true.


When I had written that all out (I've edited it for public consumption) I could see, in the pattern, in the words, in the heart, that I am in good company.

I am like every other person who has called out to God, asking to be rescued, begging to be rescued, stating my need and confessing my selfishness. Lamenting what is against what I wish.

And I felt a wee bit better, not much, but some. My crying stopped. Not because I was able to "buck up" but because I could release the tension with the release of words.

I spent some much needed, much desired time in the yard, digging out thistles as tall as my waist, and that helped too.

A friend came over for lunch and we ate in the sunshine and warm air. We sat at the table I found in the trash last summer and under the nearly-new but slightly defective, beer-branded umbrella I found in the trash behind the pub last week.

We sat in the midst of my very weedy yard, and I didn't even notice the weeds (ok, I did, but they didn't bother me) in the warmth of her friendship, the beauty of her smile, the taste of summer in our salad.

The day after her visit I recognized that I had been able to show up for friendship and I may not be as messed up as I think. We gave each other grace and presence, we exchanged ideas and experience. I was completely ok, not just ok but fabulous, in my own skin.

(That same night after the calm reassurance that maybe I'm not so messed up, I exploded from my pent-up frustration with life: the pace, the finances, the intense emotional work of mothering three teens. And I realized ah yes, I am still as messed up as I think, but I was able to remember my birthright: I am loved anyway. I am loved anyway!!)

God's grace was in that lunch with my friend, in the sunshine and the strawberries and the melon. It was in the patio furniture redeemed from the trash. It was in a friend's embrace and warm acceptance. It was in my husband asking, "do you want to talk?", and then hearing me out till the very end.

Grace oozes into all the crevices and lubricates every annoying, squeaky wheel of my life. It does not remove pain and struggle. It doesn't sugar-coat or simplify my life. But when I choose to accept it, grace seeps down into the hurt, disappointment, anxiety, frustrations, and failures. It covers my inadequacies. It covers my inadequacies!! It is the balm for life's complexity, for my mothering and my marriage.

And this is what I need to trust God with: everything.

Remember the good ol' days of blogging, where you'd feverishly write something in the forty-five minutes you had before hitting publish. Yeah, so this isn't one of those posts.

I wrote this on my birthday. Like I say in the post, it was a gift to myself to finally publish some of these thoughts. My birthday was two weeks ago. Then I had to run it by Damien for his "ok". Any time I talk intimately about our marriage I ask him to pre-read what I hope to publish, it's always subject to his approval. He said "no" to a post I wrote this summer to commemorate our 19th anniversary. I'm still holding onto it.

Once I got the approval from Damien I considered photos. I wanted to publish photos from the entire year, since this post is a reflection on this past year.

I wanted to use some of my favorites, my most beautiful nature photography. But I had made some goofs in my photography workflow early this fall in which I had "un-checked", for lack of easier explanation, my favorites.

So... in the past week I've gone through the photos I took this past year, to re-check the favs. In doing so, I discovered sets of unedited and undeleted photos, I try to keep on top of that. And that made me twitchy so I had to spend time doing all that, then choosing my favorites and now, it's the middle of the December and it's my birthday post.


It's a dull grey day, raining. The second of December, my fortieth birthday.

The weather really doesn't matter to me today. I do love the sun. I adore the sun and the angle of light this time of year but there won't be any "angle of light" to appreciate or photograph in this constant drizzle.

You can't order weather for your birthday and the weather feels nearly perfect for what I'm up to right now. Ten am, still in my pj's, drinking hot cocoa and writing on my bed. This is exactly what I want to do. Cozy is my love language and this feels just right.

And anyway, the main thing that is giving me great comfort today is that it's not my thirty-ninth birthday.

Last year was my most difficult birthday to date, that I can remember. I may have suffered a "bad" birthday as a child but I don't recall. My childhood memories are like that, mostly sweet. That in itself is a great birthday gift.

Last year's birthday landed, through no fault of its own, in the trough of a marital existential crisis.

I just had to google existential crisis to make sure I understand it correctly. In that search I came across a post on Psychology Today in which a person had an "existential" crisis one night as she was falling asleep, and she had a conversation with her half-asleep husband that helped pull her out of it.

That is not the kind of existential crisis I am talking about. Nor am I talking about the opposite end of the spectrum when a person goes off the deep-deep end and has no idea of their life purpose, meaning and value.

I'm talking about the somewhere-in-between existential crisis. In this case, a crisis in our marriage, in which we did question the foundations, or more accurately, some of the extra constructs we had added to the foundation.

I'll warn you now. This post is about to get spiritual because as soon as you start taking foundations, life's meaning and purpose you enter a realm that is no longer strictly explained by physical laws and easily articulated definitions. This is where things get spiritual. And for me, that means talking about Jesus.

This is just a heads up since my blog isn't overtly Christian, but today it is.

Waiting for the saints and skeptics (which is not the same a cynic, I am a skeptic about many things) to take a deep breath.

When Damien and I got married we sang a hymn at our ceremony. Our ceremony was not scripted by someone else, we chose this song specifically to set the tone for our marriage.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

That's been the foundation through nineteen years of marriage, three babies, many moves, living life and growing into maturity together. It was, and is, what we are both committed to. More than to each other, we are committed to a personal steadfastness in Christ. We both chose in our youth, independant of each other, to anchor ourselves to Christ. And when we met, and not much later decided to get married, we brought that commitment to our marriage to be its foundation.

So, if that was the foundation, why the existential crisis? Very good question. Finding the answer has been the emotional and spiritual work of many months.

Another question, what does this have to do with my fortieth birthday? Other than the fact that my 39th was "celebrated" in the despair of that unknowing and pain.

Here's my attempt to answer those questions.

First of all, I have a year's worth (the year 2015 to be exact) of personal writing, journaling, mediating, bible reading, and prayerful reflections which I achingly, desperately (what other adverbs can I use??) hope to sort, write, and publish one day.

Those words are a testimony of God's grace in my life. They are the story of a Christian couple (two people who have a professed faith in Jesus and are trying to follow his example), who love each other deeply and still manage to hurt and hinder, and then forgive and keep seeking together. They tell the journey of walking through a midlife crisis which is starting to resolve itself, though the future is still unknown, the direction unclear.

It's my birthday today and I'm gifting myself time to start writing this story, a down payment on the process, that in faith I will complete, though that completion may not be published here.

I am somewhat reluctant to start the process because each onion layer I peel back in my published writing, having already peeled many of those layers in my personal writing, begs more questions than it provides answers. And I can't answer all the questions in one little fortieth birthday post.

So here's a fair warning: you get what you get. It won't be the whole story it will be glimpses, not to tease or taunt but to simply start the telling.

Last year all I wanted for my birthday was to not be in the emotional place we were. Damien was in so much pain (it was my earlier pain that caused his suffering, there is no villain in this story) that he could barely acknowledge it was my birthday, that I was special and deserving of love. And at the end of the day he apologized for be unable to move past that for my sake. And he held me and I cried. And all I could do at that point was trust that we would get through this.

It hurt but I understood. It wasn't lovely or beautiful because the depths of pain we sometimes experience in loving other people is just that - deep pain.

By my definition, family life, home, is the sacred space we create that gives our loved ones the permission and space - emotionally and physically - to experience and express all the emotions.

Hilarious joy, simple contentment, fear, ecstacy (the marriage bed), anger, disappointment, frustration, pain and much more. So you could say it was a sacred-space birthday but not in the happy-happy-joy-joy sense.

Last year I started anticipating this current birthday. I wanted to be in a different place when I reached forty. There were many things I wanted for myself, that I have been working on this year, to varying degrees of success. But mostly what I wanted was to be on the path to healing. I was hopeful of reaching this point. Not hopeful of finding "the answer" by my fortieth, but hopeful I'd be on my way there.

November 5, 2014

A rainy, overcast day, just came back from a walk with my family. I am filled with compassion for who I am, who I was.

I see the girl I was and I miss her, her energy, her confidence, her zest. I want to reclaim parts of her, to have them rise again in me, but I want to move into my 40's with the wisdom of the last 20 years as the foundation.

I am so much more compassionate and empathetic than I was as a young woman. I can surrender my plans and adapt to change much easier. I am much more comfortable with my sexuality.

I am a daughter, wife, mother.

Me, always in relationship to someone else.

I used to be feisty, commanding, in control. I was dynamite, small but powerful. Quick to judge, quick to speak, quick to seek forgiveness. Eager to please. Willing to try new ideas but resistant to a change in plans.

Always looking to the future and the resolution of something there - when I graduate, when I get married, when I have babies...

Becoming a mother and a wife enlarged me in ways not possible otherwise. But I lost things also. I gained much from those "losses" but I think chunks of myself have sloughed off, for better or worse. And I want to rediscover the light inside me. That fire that attracted and was attractive.

I think I need to reclaim some of that, or simply acknowledge that, as I move forward into my 4th decade.

The girl who won Damien’s heart, how did I do that?

I feel our thru-hike caused a separation between Damien and I, a separation caused by my shame but also the gutting of myself, the sacrifice of myself.

I was barely an adult when I married Damien. I don’t regret the years we’ve had together, at all. I would have married him sooner if I could. But I think I expected and thought marriage would do certain things for me that it doesn’t have the power to do. Marriage as the panacea for all life’s problems.

I have to heal in the context of our relationship but I have to heal on my own. I have to find answers on my own.

What is not written in that entry, but is implied and in-between all the lines; what is written in many, many other journal entries is this question: who am I?

That was what I set out to discover this past year.

First, I set aside 2015 to be a year of healing, a year to focus on home, family, self, in some jumbled-up order. I had no intentions or ambitions to work-from-home as I had been building with Damien up to that point. In fact, that pretty much all came crashing down with my burn out, so there wasn't really much choice but to go back-to-the-basics of family life/homeschooling and marriage.

I like structure so I created one for the year, according to the seasons.

  • quiet, creativity, fun, and reflection (winter)
  • connection, cleaning, and hope (spring)
  • rejuvenation, exploration, and joy (summer
  • space, gratitude, and celebration (fall)

My intention was to focus my heart on these themes through the seasons and I invited some women to join me on that journey around The Kitchen Table.

That part of the project didn't work out quite as planned. The course I set out for myself, that original framework of ideas to guide me to healing helped some, I'm sure. It pointed me in a direction. And the ideas of course are metaphors for the internal work that had to be done. Cleaning was not just about purging our stuff before our move but about cleaning stuff out on the inside. In writing down these intentions I may have been hoping that my outward actions would change something inside. I don't know.

What I do know is that my healing happened on levels much deeper than Kitchen Table essays could express.

This year my heart needed to be home, that place of safety and security in our family, the axis around which we all spin, the physical and emotional space I've cultivated in my twenty years of being a homemaker.

I started there, with what I knew. And I listened to the longings of my heart. I determined to stop pushing against myself, in my futile attempt to try to meet a longing, a void in my husband's heart, that was not mine to fill.


Four specific areas I identified last winter to rebuild my wellbeing

I identified and articulated my core needs. I was courageously vulnerable with other people (I didn't hide my struggles) and tried to recognize and remind myself how so not alone I was in this journey. I looked honestly at my flaws, my failings, and my wrong ways of thinking and ways I'd messed up, and then I loved me anyway.

I got serious about my mental health and practicing Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

I did all that but I still didn't find the answer to my question. All of that soul-searching work just tilled the soil.

I went through a writing spurt of identifying all I am not, you should see the list, it's long. But that still did not answer the question who am I?

Returning to the root of who I am, finding myself again was brought about in the most unlikely way. I could not have planned it, charted it, structured it, even if I tired.

It was a simple request: I asked my atheist/agnostic (I am reluctant to label someone else's beliefs but this is what he has communicated to me) successful business-man friend to teach me how to meditate. He knew something I did not, how to quiet his mind and find focus and I wanted to learn.

I wanted to learn so I could move forward with my Mental Health and Craft a Vision part of Project Home & Healing.

The Appalachian Trail and the gut-wrenching self-examination that followed taught me that what I believe about myself sets the course for my life, my reactions spring from my subconscious, and the only thing I can truly change is my perspective and my perceptions. But how?? My mind, the part I am aware of, and even scarier the part that remains hidden, is the determining factor in my "success or failure" and how I view myself.

I went to my friend because I wanted to change my subconscious thinking patterns (my mind-stew, or whatever the subconscious looks like) so I would a) have a vision for my future, b) be successful at that wildly creative, amazing vision, and c) not self-sabatoge the good things in my life with doubt/fear/anxiety.

My friend not only extended his friendship, but asked me hard questions, and shared what he had learned in his own life.

He introduced me to his meditation technique. There was nothing weebie-jeebie about it. I'm not into that. I had a goal - to work on re-wiring thought patterns and deep seated false beliefs about myself, so I could be successful at life.

And here's where God's grace is painted like a gorgeous watercolor over the black ink outline of our feeble human efforts.

It was an atheist/agnostic, francophone, business man who pointed me back to Christ.

My friend's meditation technique is a structured thought pattern, it's not an emptying, it's a focusing. And the first gate of that technique is a meditation on "who I am".

I listened to my friend's instructions, I wrote notes, I answered his questions as honestly as I could (there's a lot more to his technique than that first question). My belly roiled with anxiety, he knew that.

I took the instructions, re-read my notes, and I started mediating. And I never got past that first gateway.

I loved the framework my friend gave me, I have every intention of following through with answering all the questions I need to finish the process, because I really want to be pro-active about my thought patterns.

But I haven't finished going through that training yet because I found the answer to the question I've been asking, the question my friend asked me, and that's all I need right now.

I have been asking the identity question, who am I? for the last few years, as I've become a writer, as we've adventured and traveled, and moved and tried new arrangements of living and earning, and as my kids have grown and my roles and interests have changed.

I've written about that quest, quite a bit. I've studied my personality. (I'm a personality-type geek.) Two years ago, I hosted a skype chat with some of you in which we ended up talking about how we define ourselves, our confusion in doing so.

I've had to craft bios for writing projects in which I've attached adjectives to roles... adventurous mother, creative homeschooler...

And yet none of that is the definition of who I am. Because what if my children reject me, or die, my husband abandons me, I lose my cognitive abilities. If I lose all that defines me, who am I then? I don't anticipate this. I don't fear these things. But if my identity is rooted in other people, and in my goodness or my self-awareness, if it is rooted in adjectives and roles, and if I lose all that, I am nothing.

But I am not nothing.

This summer and fall has been about finding my identity outside the defining context of my roles. Finding my worth, my value, my self in something other than the jobs I do and how well I do them.

My identity has nothing to do with if I’m a good homeschool mom, a supportive wife, a loyal daughter.

My identity is in Christ.

He is my perfection, where it truly matters (in the presence of God), allowing me to know my Creator, bringing me into relationship with the Father, enabling me to partake in the Divine.

This is the good news, the gospel: that I don't need to struggle with being enough, Christ is my enough, he is my perfection, my goodness.

Everything I’m seeking, he has already taken hold of for me, given to me. And he invites me to live in that freedom.

Separated from God I am not worthy. Good gracious, I hurt people. I am unkind. I am not honest. All of these injustices committed against myself and others, and so much more, in spite of my best intentions otherwise.

Jesus is my worthiness.

I am worthy because Christ was worthy of communion with God. What other worthiness is there? To know the Divine, the Creator, the Author, that is the ultimate worthiness, the ultimate identity.

I rediscovered who I really am, in a sense I returned to my roots, I re-found my identity in the righteousness, in the wholeness of Jesus.

In Christ, hidden in his blamelessness, I am not just enough, I am completely whole. Healed.

I am in Christ.

The quest to define my identity stops here.

I thought I would find confidence again by getting reacquainted with myself as a child, tapping into my feisty young adult self. I thought I might have to go back to who I was, to find out who I am now. Or maybe I needed to look forward, to craft a vision, into the unknowable future, to define myself based on who I wanted to become. Or maybe I just needed to love myself.

Nothing wrong with any of those ideas, but they weren't the answer in themselves. My identity can be known here, in who I am right now. The love I claim is not simply my own, but God's love for me in Christ.

My identity, that core me that is essentially undefinable, is hidden in Jesus Christ. Safe. Cozy. Secure. Everything I want, right there.

I don't have to be anything to be valued or loved. To re-iterate, I don't have to be a good mom, or a supportive wife, or a caring daughter to have worth. In case it's not obvious, I want to be all those things. I want those and way more. I want to be over-the-top in my affections and support, in love and kindess towards people. But my worth does not come from that. That is not who I am. Who I am is in Christ.

This is what I have been meditating on for the past five months. I meditate on images and Bible verses. And this may sound weird (like most of this post may for some of you), I soak myself in God's love for me. I picture myself being loved by God.

For most of my adult life I have actively sought to know, understand, and define myself in roles, interests and vocations. I repeat, none of these are bad. I think my family has benefited greatly that I want to be a good mom. But when I start to derive my worth, my meaning, and personal value from a role and how well I do it; when I place something else (like marriage) above being in Christ as my identity, that is a misplaced allegiance. It's idolatry.

The seed of a lie - that my life's meaning and value came from anything else other than God's love for me - was planted, that grew to a weed, that had to be pulled. And the pulling of that weed was very painful and it broke a lot of the structures that had grown up up around that weed. It caused pain in our marriage.

We come into new realizations of self as we grow. And as Christians I think we can have new born-again experiences; significant, foundation-shaking, come-back-to-Jesus moments in our life.

This was one of mine.

I don't know that I've ever really viewed myself this way before. For my whole adult life I've defined myself by my roles and my relationship with other people. This is completely human, very natural, it's how we're known and understand ourselves. It's not bad.

But when I failed in one of these roles, or even perceived a failure, when I broke because I couldn't live up to how I defined myself, I realized I can't root my identity in anything but Christ.

Back to the birthday.

The existential crisis in our marriage, which we were experiencing last year on my birthday came from having attached meaning to our marriage in things other than Christ, as we rooted ourselves individually in things other than Christ. We added to the foundation our values, our interests, our desires, which are not in themselves bad, but they are not the foundation.

The same thing that had happened in my heart happened in our marriage.

This year I sought to find an answer to my who am I question. I wanted to heal, on many levels. I'm well on my way but it's not a done deal. I struggle with anxiety because of how my brain is wired and ingrained thought patterns, those don't disappear overnight, nor can I re-wire all at once.

I'm learning how to parent three teenagers and you know all that stuff I said about providing sacred space for my people's emotional honesty, yeah, doing that is actually really hard. Also, in recognizing I'm not called to be everything for everyone, and setting my boundaries, sometimes my pendulum swings into selfishness. This is a work in progress.

My identity is a done deal but living out that freedom is the work of life.

I wanted to be "somewhere" on my 40th birthday. Not a place, but an understanding of self. What I learned through 2015 is not what I imagined I would discover or need to re-discover.

I am reclaiming my confidence, not in self, but in Christ. I am rooted in love - not my husband's, children's, or parent's (though I am so blessed I have those) - but in God's unending love for me. I appreciate that marriage and motherhood are gifts in my life, they are not my meaning, my purpose, my identity. I have been gifted with a personality, a way of doing things, for the mission of glorifying God with my whole being.

And that's what I know on my 40th that was hidden in hurt and shame on my 39th.

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