*I originally published this in my older blog, “Pray, Read, Teach” directing it towards my senior girls who struggled with purpose when faced with college. I’m re-posting it for all of us that are in our middle years and facing a wall of fear that strangles us like the roots of tree, dragging us down into despair and weakness. Though I’ve taught for 20 years, every year is a challenge. This year I fear I won’t be able to do my job due to chronic auto-immune diseases that continue to knock me flat on my tush.
In my 20s and 30s, life seemed so possible. I was young and healthy. Sure divorce knocked me and my children for a loop–a loop like one of those upside-down roller coasters that leave you screaming like a banshee–and sure, I had to go back to college so I could support myself and my kids–and sure, I had to depend on my parents to help me with my children while I was working and going to school–and sure, I had to teach my mom how to give my four-year-old her insulin shot so she’d stay alive–and sure, I faced loneliness unlike anything I’d ever experienced, BUT I was young. I felt like life was still out there somewhere. God was leading me to something wonderful.
Why in the world did I think that I’d be immune from the suffering that the majority of the world goes through? I guess I thought I’d paid my dues: divorce + infidelity; daughter diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes; moving from Littleton, Co. back to Oklahoma and my parents’ property; watching my children get on a plane by themselves to go back to Littleton to spend a summer with a dad that stayed uninvolved and a step-mother who disliked them passionately (a helplessness only those who have been through will understand); watching my oldest son disintegrate into darkness and depression; watching helplessly while my middle son got stitched and casted after falling face first from a cliff; struggling in a new marriage when you have no history together and no children to irrefutably join you to each other; watching my now-grown daughter suffer through a divorce of her own (the pain is so acute–you feel like your sins have been regenerated in your children’s lives)–I guess I figured I’d fulfilled my quota of bad stuff. “Ok God, now for the good stuff.”
At 55 my dreams have never found a place to bloom. I keep thinking, “This summer, Lord. This summer I’ll write and complete my book–just one book.” And now this. Cervical disks ruptured and rubbing across my nerves, psoriatic arthritis pretending it’s rheumatoid arthritis by copying RA’s pain patterns, dealing with allergic reactions to Humira that cause my eyebrows to fall out and me to faint on a regular basis (even at school). THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MY SUMMER OF RESTORATION!
I did get in one week of biking. Did several hours of graphic design for next year’s classes. And that was it. Going on seven weeks now and just received MRI results (not good) and preparing for my next epidural steroid shot that will hopefully alleviate some of this pain and give me back the use of my left arm.
Husband in Colorado for a week, taking the vacation we were supposed to share. Instead I curl up in a ball in bed and cry because of the pain. Then I read all the wonderful blogs out there by published authors that aren’t me and I settle into a bout of self-pity.
Where did the joy go?
I’ve lost my vision. I’m still in the middle of this. I wish I could say that through prayer and Bible reading I’ve grown stronger and more faithful to the Lord, but I haven’t. I’m floundering this way and that…waiting on God to show me if I’m going to be able to work or not (and not working full-time is not a good option for me). I have no idea what is going to happen in the next few weeks. Surgery? Not being able to teach? Then what, Lord? LORD, THEN WHAT? Sigh heavily.
So this parable that I wrote about dreams and purpose is relevant now as I wallow in fear and uncertainty. I’m reading Lauren F. Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis and Margaret Feinberg’s Wonder Struck. I’m listening to Jeremy Camp and MercyMe and Audrey Assad and Lara Landon and letting their lyrics and music soothe the fear I grapple with like one of those bears on Mountain Men (my hubster loves that show).
Maybe you are in the same place. You’ve reached the middle of life and you feel invisible–like you don’t count anymore. That sounds terrible and selfish. I have a wonderful grandson that I adore and wonderful children who love me and care about me, and exceptionally gracious parents who pray faithfully and cry with me when my body hurts. I have so much. And still I’m scared. Who will take care of me if I can’t work? What if I never write? And the biggie: what if this pain is my new normal? If you are there with me, this parable is for you. I hope you enjoy it!
A Parable About A Girl by Cindy L. Camp
She lived small. A small room in a small house on a small island with a small grandmother. She loved her small room. It smelled of living things like moss and ocean water and lavender blossoms. She had very little furniture: a twin bed covered in a plum quilt her grandmother had made for her. She had crafted it from her granddaughter’s “plum period” tee shirts when the only color that Annie would wear was plum. Not purple and certainly not lavender. Rich, earthy plum.
She also had a chair. It was old and tapestry-covered. Something she and her grandmother had found at a garage sale on the mainland. She remembered watching it sway in the back of the pick-up truck as they crossed Puget Sound on the ferry. It was faded and softly green and she could rock in it. It was her favorite place to sit when she was inside. It faced out to the ocean and the forest and a cropping of stones where birds would sit and the occasional feral cat.
In one corner of her small room was a dresser with a mirror. The mirror was lined with shells and rocks she’d gathered on her excursions around the small island. Her grandmother let her glue them to the mirror. She was wonderful that way. She let Annie be Annie.
The only other things in her small room were a few rugs and hundreds of journals and books. The books were stacked according to color. The journals were stacked according to year. She had journals from 10 years ago when she was 8.
Inside each of her journals was always some sort of plan or map in which she would draw or write out her future. Her favorite journals were maps. She loved maps. On the small island there was a nautical store full of useful things for the fishermen who dominated the island’s population, but the owner, Bud, had trunks full of old maps that he’d let her have for a dollar or two. She’d take them home, cut them apart and create new worlds in her journal. Then she’d draw in her island. Sometimes her island would be next to Africa (which now rested where China once was). Sometimes it was over by Scotland (now relocated to the Mediterranean). Once she had placed the pieces of the map throughout the journal and decided on a location for her island, she would mark off her journey in red marker. She created jobs and adventures in each place. She was a nurse sometimes. Always somewhere dangerous and beautiful. Sometimes she was an artist living on her island now relocated somewhere near Sweden. She would sit by the water and paint the colors of Sweden. Sometimes she was a photographer in the mountains of Nepal or a missionary in Kashmir. Sometimes she was a shepherd in Israel, her island carefully moored in the Jordan River.
Sometime around the age of 16, Annie stopped buying maps and creating adventures. She started trying to figure out what she really wanted to do with her life. She attended a small island school, but her grandmother was the one who really educated her. She read and read. Everything from Melville to Kingsolver. She read Darwin. She read the Bible. She inhaled books like air, each one of them leaving a particle of themselves behind. Her newer journals were full of magazine pictures from National Geographic. At 16, she was going through her “I want to be a photojournalist” period.
At 17, her journals started showing her doubts and fears. She’d paste in a picture of a woman working as a nurse with AIDS babies in Africa and try to visualize herself doing that kind of work. Something so meaningful that she could dedicate her life to and feel that when she died, she would have mattered. But she was afraid. She was afraid she’d never finish college and especially nursing school, so she drew a big red X across the picture.
She added a picture of a teacher working with migrant workers in New Mexico, teaching English to the children so they could have a future in a new country. Another big red X. She was terrible with Spanish. She barely made it through two years of it in high school.
At 18, she read a book about a missions organization that worked with women and girls around the world–helping them to escape sex-trafficking. She even emailed the writer/missionary and asked her about it–but they said they needed someone who could do graphic design for them from the United States. They didn’t need another traveler. Annie didn’t own a computer. She used the island’s library when she needed to access the outside world.
Graduation loomed and passed. Still Annie sat with her journals debating her life. She worked at a small bookstore in Anacortes full-time and took the ferry to and from work. Sometimes she’d see a pod of whales breaching one by one moving towards the place in the center of the world where whales gather.
Her grandmother never pressed her about college. She never pushed her towards a career off of the island. She knew that Annie had to find her own way. She watched her granddaughter struggle with herself, but she didn’t intrude. Not then. She watched. Like the whales, Annie needed to go to the center of her world and gather her thoughts, dreams and wishes into one cohesive purpose.
Finally when Annie turned 20, her grandmother decided it was time to make a few things clear. Annie was still working at the bookstore and still writing her journals in her small room in the small house.
The grandmother met Annie at the ferry one evening. They rode their bikes quietly to the small house. Then the grandmother took Annie by the hand and led her to the bench where they could watch the ocean breathe and gather itself up and then drop itself down flashing against the shore.
“Annie, do you ever want something more than this island and the bookstore?”
Annie looked shocked. Her grandmother never asked her the heavy questions except about God and about the boys/men she occasionally dated. Now she was asking her about the one thing that she had never been able to decide upon despite hundreds and hundreds of journals.
“I don’t know.” And she didn’t, so the grandmother prodded a bit deeper.
“Do you feel restless?” Annie nodded.
“Do you feel trapped?” Annie nodded again.
“Ok, Annie be honest–what do you love to do more than anything?” Annie looked up and smiled.
“I love to write. I love maps. I want to write about what I see. I want to pick up a soft-covered book and look inside and see my words describing something ordinary that people might miss if they aren’t looking closely.”
“Like the blue-green mist that hovers around the woods on Lopez Island, or the glassy calmness of the water when I’m kayaking around the east side of the island. Or the miracle of seeing the orcas breach. Or even the market and farms on Lummi Island.”
“So why don’t you? Why don’t you use those journals of yours and travel and write.”
“But that takes money and time.” Annie sighed. “And a decent camera…and a publisher.”
“Yes. It takes all that, but is any of it going to happen if you don’t try? Is a camera and a publisher necessary right now? Can’t you just write?”
“I can’t, grandmother. I…I’m not that good of a writer. And I can’t leave the bookstore–they need me and I need the money. Plus, I’ll never afford a camera on my salary and I do need one. And besides that, there are dozens of books about the islands. We certainly don’t need another one. Who would want to ever read mine?”
“Just ok. It sounds like you are going to stay where you are and dream your dreams, but never pursue them because you don’t think you’re good enough or special enough or rich enough–when really, Annie, you’re just not brave enough.”
Annie looked at her grandmother. Her grandmother got up and left Annie sitting on the bench looking out at the water watching the gentle movement of the eternal tide. She turned over and over the things her grandmother had said. She made it sound so easy. Just do it. Quit waiting. Stop letting fear jam you up and keep you from moving forward.
That night in bed, Annie got out her Bible. She read her regular night-time readings. A little Old Testament (Isaiah), some Psalms, and some New Testament (Thessalonians).
This time she decided to read a little Ephesians. And just like that, God spoke. It was a spirit-crunching awareness that made her catch her breath.
“While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master,I want you to get out there and walk–better yet, run!–on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline–not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences…You were called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together , both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness. BUT that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his/her own gifts.”
The words touched her heart and Annie felt a bit of bravery rise to the surface like a whale catching its breath or flaunting its beauty. My gift…she thought. He gave me my love for writing. He gave me this love for words. He gave me a gift of seeing His beauty in nature. He’s given me a home I can return to when I grow weary. He’s given me a job that allows me some freedom.
Annie knelt beside her small bed. She laid her head on the plum quilt and cried a bit. She was scared. It was a big step and she might fail. She heard a voice say, “So what?” Ok. She would fail. And so what if she did? She’d keep going and learning all along the way. That was bravery. Knowing you’d fail sometimes, but doing it anyway–whatever “it” is.
“Lord, I’ll start right here–on this island. And I’ll just draw the pictures if I need to–just little sketches. Or maybe I can borrow someone’s camera…” Her mind was whirling as she fell asleep.
When she woke up the next morning, she re-read the passage in Ephesians 4 and looked at her journal. She had a choice. The glow of excitement had faded and reality settled in quickly. She could either put last night’s God-moment aside or she could act on it and see what happened.
She could hear her grandmother in the kitchen waiting for her…waiting for Annie to decide that she had purpose and vision. Annie walked into the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee with a little creamer–and then emptied the whole thing into a traveling cup. She picked up her battered backpack and stuck in a few pens, pencils and her journal.
“I am going to cover the west side of the island for a bit and just see how it goes.”
Her grandmother smiled and gave her a hug. “You are gifted for one purpose: to glorify God. Your writing will do that–now go–get out there. Do it. Don’t wait. I’ll be here. I’ll always be here.”
So Annie went.