Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Balance: A Reflection on the last two years -- and a launch into the next chapter

I have forever gravitated toward adventure, and my pull to explore and to know difference has made me feel like a restless wanderer. I perceive myself as one who loves deeply, but sporadically, and because of my desire to explore, I never trusted myself to be near to another consistently. The myth that guided my life was that I was my best when I was wandering or discovering. My myth impacted the way that I perceived and understood God: God, to me, existed in the moments when the universe seemed to be wonderfully syncretistic. And those sweet, honeyed moments were sporadic. My moments with God occurred exclusively when I was experiencing newness and delighting in difference.

My cross-cultural experience was invigorating: I was living into the myth that guided my entire existence. I was moving, constantly, and enjoying myself tremendously. Each day offered new choices and I was able to give of myself in moments with strangers on the streets. I felt stretched and tied to new places each day, and every moment I savored the reality that what I had was only temporary. I was close to the God that existed in blissful and excruciating happiness, but far away from the God that dwelled in suffering. I listened to stories of experiences in Communism, baiting my breath, waiting for the speaker to reveal the joy and the excitement that I expected the story would ultimately hold. When the stories did not hold a silver lining, I found myself unnerved. I wanted my experience to reveal that my God was a God of Goodness. From my juvenile perspective, stories that highlighted suffering were merely incomplete: God was still about to work.

About three-fourths of the way through my cross-cultural, our group went to visit a mosque in Istanbul. On the bus, I checked my email. I had received an email from my grandmother, telling me that she had been diagnosed with melanoma as well as breast cancer. I shuddered when I saw this message, and immediately, I put my tablet away. I refused to recon with this reality. I took the reality, and stuck it into the back of my mind. I wanted to plunge forward, into a new experience again. More than anything, I wanted to engage with my adventure in the way that I had been before. But I could not. My world and my myth had been shifted.

Our cross-cultural group wandered through the mosque. I still remember attempting to engage with the experience in the ways I knew I wanted to. When we walked in through the doors: I romanticized about the details, taking pictures of the design in the doorframe, the carpet, and the windows. As we walked into the mosque, we were asked to take off our shoes, to cover our heads, to don skirts. It was so clear that we were entering into a holy space. The entire mosque was ornate, intimately and carefully decorated. And there I was, entirely vulnerable. I was without my camera, without my notebook, and I felt entirely bare: sock-footed and simply cloaked in fabric that was not my own. Our group was asked to take a seat on the carpet, to take a few moments to marvel at the interior of the mosque. I sat cross-legged on the floor, close to Rachel. Rachel is a woman who has journeyed with me for years, who has proven to me time and time again that I can be steadfast. Having her near me, in my moment of vulnerability caused me to unfurl. Wordlessly, I inched toward her, and knowingly, she enveloped me in her arms. I cried and cried, and in doing so, I let go of my desire to constantly be the most exciting or happiest person in the room. It was in that moment that I bound myself in relationship to Rachel, to my grandmother, and with the harsh realities of life. I finally allowed sadness to reach me at my core.

I spent the next week crying. My tears would come in moments of transition, when I realized that I would not be able to love everyone or all places as deeply as I desired. Suddenly, the impermanence that I had loved so fiercely made me feel deeply discontent. We were travelling through so many different places, and I realized I was only seeing the briefest glimpse into others lives. I craved depth. I wanted to live in the villages we visited. I wanted our hosts to be my family. I wanted to date the people that I flirted with in passing. I felt extreme dissonance between wanting my adventure to continue indefinitely and wanting, and needing, quite desperately, to be home and close to my grandmother. I did what I could: I poured myself out over emails and I let myself be cradled by those who knew me well. I worked on acknowledging when I was not okay. A triumphant moment for me was when I revealed that I was deeply sad. Before my cross cultural experience, I never would have been willing to admit that I was anything less than exuberantly happy.

As I became more comfortable, I simultaneously became more appreciative of the stories that I was soaking in. Once I had reckoned with my own suffering and loss, I was able to listen to other’s stories. Before I knew the depths of myself, I was uncomfortable listening to sad stories. I would listen only to interject when I found a silver lining or a happy moment. I could not bear to feel discomfort or sadness for too long. But, I learned to listen, and I learned that we cannot heal without acknowledging the depth of our hurting. And, I realized, that all healing had to happen within the context of a community. Bearing scars is so deeply important, and unites us together.

I came home, and miraculously, my grandmother was cured of both her cancers. When she greeted me at the door of her home, she immediately pulled down her pants to show me her eight inch scar she gained from having her melanoma removed. She laughed about how lopsided she was now, after having her breast removed and the large scarring on her leg. Seeing her, I immediately noticed her sturdy shoulders and her bold rimmed glasses. She was still so familiar to me, still so steadfast, so loving. I came home to her, and I experienced healing as well. I came to know God in the suffering, in the healing, and in the holistic joy that sprang forward in me.

I spent a semester rooted at EMU before I felt an overwhelming need to explore again. I wanted to learn another context, and I wanted to learn another story. I applied to work at MCC, and was given an internship in Quito, Ecuador. There, I worked with refugee resettlement. Each day, for a few hours, I would facilitate entrance interviews. In these interviews, we asked refugees to tell their story, and from that, we were able to understand what circumstances they were fleeing from and a bit more about how we could give assistance. Sitting through those stories was often an excruciating experience. When it was difficult for me to listen, I found myself watching their eyes and where they would drift. Or other times I would watch their hands, noticing how they held themselves. I also noticed how consistently I would hear stories encompassing horrific tragedies, and when the stories were winding down, they would say, “All is well, thanks to God.”

I was astounded to see that the faith of these individuals persevered, although they were experiencing such horrific tragedies. I was humbled, daily, when I realized how little I knew about suffering. I was also humbled to realize how little I knew about the heart of God. And I was most humbled by realizing how little I knew about joy. I spent much of my summer listening. From listening, I saw that the refugees who were ultimately rooted in the community, were the ones who ended up thriving the most. This astounded me: the ones who seemed the most joyful, the most whole, were not necessarily the ones who had been given the most money or the most food. It was the individuals who joined the church, and grew in relationship with the Ecuadorians. The native Ecuadorians that were rooted in the church were also close to their own suffering. When they conversed with the refugees, it was never from a position of privilege or authority. They were existing in an egalitarian, entirely loving community. This was the most beautiful community that I have ever witnessed.

Being in one place for the entirety of this year has been challenging for me. I had told myself, again and again, that it was important for me to be rooted in one place, at least for awhile. I felt as though I needed to deepen important relationships, I felt a deep need to be near. But I have felt stagnant. I felt as though I returned to the suburbs, after living in the jungle. Parts of myself have fallen asleep, parts of myself feel dry. I have felt agitated and restless. I have felt discontent when I hear myself saying that I will be domestically based for the next year. I have felt so stuck. I feel the deepest dissonance about what to do in the next year: I have known that I want to be near to people I love, but I also feel the deepest call to form new relationships. I feel a deep calling to love and to hurt in new ways, and in ways that I do not believe I can achieve within my hometown.

My wonderful grandmother spent the entirety of my Spring Break asking me what my plans were for next year. My answers were unsatisfactory for the both of us. Finally, I told her that I did not know what I wanted, all that I knew was that I needed to be near to heart of hurting. I told her that I wanted to be vulnerable in community, and I wanted to love deeply. I also told her that I wanted to be close to her. I could not bear the thought of being away when she was hurting again. All of my answers were said in earnest, in almost an anguished fashion. At this point, it seemed obvious that our conversation was not going anywhere, because answers were no longer easy or obvious. We stopped a gas station, briefly, and when my grandmother and I were alone, she pulled me close to her. She told me, succinctly and definitively, that if I needed to travel and to be elsewhere to be happy, that she wanted me to go. She squeezed my hand, and told me, deliberately, to go. I found myself identifying, fiercely, with the quote from the text that stated, “The problem is partly ideological, for it is impossible to believe wholeheartedly in both balance and commitment at the same time. A thoroughgoing commitment to anything or anybody involves some kind of imbalance.” And now, I take it as integral to my faith. I am continuing on, existing in an awkward imbalance, but trying to love with depth, everywhere I am and am not.

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