It rained a lot in Austin the spring of 2010. I didn't realize how abnormal the rains were because it was my first season here. It was an El Nino year. I had taught Earth Science that fall, and we covered a unit on weather, so I had some vague notion of what that meant, but the three years of drought that have followed have certainly given me a greater appreciation for the rains that spring.
I was at a lake-side coffee shop one morning, watching raindrops fall into the water- splashes that spread into tiny waves that crawled away from one another until they met other little waves and were diverted, creating cool, concentric circle patterns that looked like something in a modern art museum. It was a slow, gray rain. The coffee shop was filled with people in scarves and skinny jeans, hugging white porcelain coffee mugs and clicking away on their silver Macbooks. Many were at tables together, huddled around large textbooks whose imposing titles stared at me authoritatively. Microeconomics, A History of Art, Calculus. Students worked purposefully around them, like drones in a bee hive. In a way, I wished for one of those textbooks to command my life, as well. "Memorize this chart. Apply that formula. Learn this lesson from that story." You don't realize it when you have those books- the way that they direct your life, how they squeeze your existence into the simplistic, and yet impossibly difficult, demands of scholastic achievement. I had those books once. My dog, Gatsby, hated them. He would sit on them when I'd leave them scattered across my bed in my college apartment. He'd sprawl out on top of their glossy pages and refuse to get off, leaving me with no choice but to spend a few minutes petting him before I pushed him off and went back to studying. You think you hate those books at the time. You can't wait to go down to the college bookstore and sell them back for 30% of the value you bought them for and be rid of them forever. But if you ever get lost like I did- if you're ever searching for your identity in the darkness, you might just miss them and the order that they brought into your life.
There were also some smartly dressed men in the coffee shop. Probably early thirties. Good-looking in a professional, intelligent, and slightly creative sort of way. Very cool. Very Austin. They seemed to be convening for some sort of business. Just the thought of a meeting was enviable at the time, though I'd often dreaded staff meetings and parent-teacher meetings when I was teaching. But a meeting implies that there's something worth discussing- something on the verge of being accomplished. I imagined what kind of business the young men were into- something creative and lucrative, I mused, something that was going to make a difference in their lives and other people's.
In contrast to the other coffee shop patrons, I sat at a table by myself and looked out the windows at the brownish-gray lake. I didn't have any textbooks on my table- just a beat-up-looking green NIV Bible. And I didn't have anyone important or cool-looking who was going to meet me there. I was very much alone. The rain continued to fall steadily outside, but, inside me, there was a greater storm. One word kept reverberating through my mind, shaking my insides, threatening to tear down everything that was in there- what little was left in tact. The word was appalling. It had been written in an email directed to Andy but it was about me. The person who wrote it was so fed up with me that they felt the need to let my husband of just a few months know that my behavior was appalling. I won't say who this person was- and won't go into details on why they said this about me. All I can say is that my husband & I had a relationship of sorts with this person and a few others, and that those relationships were crumbling- painfully and quickly.
This past spring, when Andy & I went to the Dominican Republic, he and a team of guys tore down an existing wall to make room for a new paved parking area for the Makarios School staff. A lot of us stopped what we were doing the day they tore down the wall, and watched as the guys on the "Chain Gang" work crew took turns with the sledgehammer. Each full-force swing made a dent in that wall, and in surprisingly quick time- only a matter of minutes- the wall was down. For me, the word in that email was like a sledgehammer- making mighty, forceful blows into my identity, leaving me crushed and broken inside. The process of identity- demolishing had started months ago- I was getting married, I was leaving my family, I quit my job so that I could move to Austin, where Andy had a job as an engineer. I believe those circumstances were big enough to create some sort of dent in my identity on their own. But then the conflict started a few months before our wedding, and there were cutting words and then sledgehammer words, and by that gray morning in the coffee shop, I was almost completely destroyed.
I didn't know who I was anymore. I couldn't find me. I didn't even know who to be looking for. Maybe I really was the appalling person others were convinced that I was. That thought rolled through me like thunder as I sat and watched the rain fall steady as a metronome. The inside of me didn't feel gray and steady like the rain I was watching- it felt swollen and purple and threatening, like the summer afternoon storms of my childhood- the ones that forced us inside while wind splintered the boughs of pine trees, and lightning streaked the sky. If appalling was the thunder inside of me, then my reaction to it was the lightning. For every ounce of pain that word and other similar judgments had inflicted inside of me, my defensiveness compensated with an equally penetrating measure of meanness that flashed like lightning- blazing through my mind with vengeful thoughts, and occasionally striking my poor, confused and hurting husband with harsh, critical words My confusion over what was happening howled like a desperate, damaging wind. I was lost inside of that storm, and I didn't know where I was. I didn't know who I was, and I didn't know how to make any of it stop.
That morning, I sat there, with the steady rain outside and the howling storm inside, and I remembered a story I'd heard in church. The story was about a little girl- I think she was about three years old. Her dad was a pastor at our church and he told us that during the time that he and his wife were anticipating the arrival of their second child, the little girl began to kind of act out and do odd things. He didn't go into a lot of detail on that, but he did mention that one of the things that she was doing was bringing her baby photo album into the new baby's nursery. She'd plop down in the middle of that unfamiliar territory, and open the book. Her dad sat down beside her, and began to go through the pages with her. He described, snapshot by snapshot, the events in the little girl's life. "There you are and you're still in Mommy's tummy." "There you are with your Grandma when you're brand new." "Here you are sleeping in your crib when we first brought you home." What amazed me most about this story was that, at each picture, when her dad would tell her the story of who she was in that moment, the little girl would reply, simply, "I know." I know. I know who I am. Even in these circumstances that are changing, I know who I am. When we sit here together, and you tell me my story, I know that it's true. I know who I am because I believe you. I know who I am because you've told me, and I knew that it was true. I couldn't make sense of very much that rainy spring, but I knew that morning that I wanted to be like that three year old- more than I wanted to be one of the students whose next move was as clear-cut as making it through their next exam, more than I wanted to be like the young professionals in their respectable, trendy attire, even more than I wanted to go back to my life before I came to Austin, before any of the crumbling inside of me began.
I knew that little girl had experienced something that transcends age or personal experience. And her insistence to sit still in the midst of the unknown and wait for her dad to speak words of truth about her identity inspired me. I wanted to do the same. I wanted to sit still with my Father, my heavenly Father, and listen to Him speak to me about who I was. Because the thunder was destroying me, and the lightning was destroying Andy, and I was terrified of it all. As arrogant and awful as I was then, as much as I tried to convince others and myself that I knew the Bible and I knew what I was doing- inside, I was a three year old- a really scared, often petulant child- but one who needed, more than anything else- for her Dad to tell her the truth. I needed his reassurance. I needed Him to tell me who I was. Because I knew that if I listened to someone else- even myself- then I'd hear a lie and I'd just remain lost.
"Who am I?" I wanted to know. I was crying it, practically screaming it at Him- because I didn't know where He was then, either. There wasn't an easy answer. It didn't happen as quickly or as sweetly as the story of the little girl and her dad in the nursery. But it did happen. And I hope it happens for other people, as well. Because I think that there are a lot of people out there with storms inside them, too. People who have been ripped open inside by words and events far more dangerous and damaging than what I went through. Life is scary, and painful and chronically changing. What we do to ourselves and what other people can do to us has no end. We get lost. I still get lost. I am by no means an expert on any of this. I'm not permanently fixed or found. I have no authority whatsoever- a good reason for me to have not written anything more than a blog about this stuff- I don't have credentials. I'm just a person who sat- very lost, very hurt, and very capable of inflicting pain on others- in a coffee shop one day, and asked Dad to tell me- snapshot by snapshot- who I am. The posts that follow will include His answers.