Breaking News: “Top Nine” Doesn’t Capture Most Important Moments

I use Instagram fairly regularly, probably with more regularity now that I have opted out of Facebook. I know, I know, Instagram is owned by Facebook blah blah blah.

Everyone’s been posting their “Top Nine” recently – the most liked photos in their feeds. Once again, social media panders and quite frankly takes advantage of our desire to be liked and seen and celebrated.

I share my Top Nine, because why not? But I have to add that my top moments most were not shared on Instagram for the world to see.

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I can make quite a few assumptions about 2018 from these pictures. I traveled a lot, spent some time in the hospital, exercised a bunch, and am apparently still in love with my spouse. These are all true, but there’s so much more that happened in 2018 not pictured here, like that kid who was absent on picture day.

I will spare the weary reader nine things that happened in 2018. But I will share that one of the best memories is sitting with my sister on my parents’ porch late at night pondering the recent death of our grandmother and watching an amazing Midwestern thunderstorm. I will share that the reconciliation of a friendship was culminated in lovely time spent with her and her family. I will share that the financial and childless freedom to travel to new places has really helped me settle into my unforeseen reality. I will share that my husband and I are indeed more in love than ever. I will share that modern medicine is amazing and I am forever grateful to the surgeon who listened to me and finally was able to diagnose me with endometriosis.

All those moments and more made up a painful, wondrous, family-filled year. They say that one’s formative years usually happen before age 25, but I argue that all years can be formative, some more than others. I’m thankful I have the maturity and wherewithal to really appreciate the important work that time and openness can do for our souls.

Here’s to a blessed, wonderful, hard 2018. And let’s welcome 2019 with open arms.

 

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Who Am I?

This question makes me think of the character Jean Valjean in my favorite musical of all time, Les Miserables. Prisoner 24601. That’s how he was known for years and years. And I think up until his dying day, it’s an identity forced on him that he carried to his grave.

We all have identities that are either chosen or forced upon us. Up until I was about 30, there was always an epithet after my name… Elizabeth the oldest daughter of Jon and Melissa. Elizabeth, Eileen’s granddaughter. Elizabeth the honors student (again and again and again). Elizabeth the piano teacher. Elizabeth the college student. Elizabeth the wife, and then Army wife.

Alternate identities can be a welcome invisible shield from who we really are, especially if the underlying being is of an unsure form. Like me. I grasped onto any positive or powerful or proud name I could through my childhood and early adulthood. I really wanted to please people, anyone: my parents, my grandparents, my sisters, my teachers, and then my boyfriend now-husband.

I wanted to look good on social media, on Christmas cards. I wanted to convey a sense that I had my life together because it was much easier than being honest with not only myself but everyone. It hurt to be honest, to myself especially because you have to live with yourself.

So for years I hid behind my shield, and I had an acute awareness that hiding was exactly what I was doing. But I didn’t know how to put that cloak on the floor. I’d be naked. I’d be seen for who I really am. (FWIW I know this all sounds cliche but guess what? I don’t care. It’s honest.)

I remember a distinct moment when all my alternate identities no longer were serving me. I was “home” in Illinois visiting for Christmas. Earlier that year I’d just graduated with a Master’s degree (a welcome accomplishment and identity to add to the list) and I’d landed a job as a professor.

I made sure that everyone knew I was a professor and not “just” a teacher, like I’d started my career years before that. I felt I had really made in the world. Even if during my ridiculously short tenure as a professor I felt like an imposter the whole time. I didn’t even had a PhD. I wasn’t “Doctor”. Hell, I’d barely even studied much of the subject of the department I was a part of. But I was all of a sudden an expert in my area. No pressure, right? But I clung to that identity as Professor as tightly as I could.

The tidy list of accomplishments that I thought made up who I was began to really unravel for me when we were trying to get pregnant and couldn’t. If I’m honest, my whole life all of my identities were just placeholders for when I’d be a wife. And then they still stayed tight in their places until I would become a mother. But in the same time of about six months, I lost my title of Professor due to moving and having to resign from the job, and then I really lost the possibility of being a Mother when we decided to not pursue treatment and live without children.

That moment during a winter break, I was just Elizabeth, Elizabeth who was loved and who loved her family. Elizabeth who barely wore makeup except mascara or changed her earrings or went on runs before Christmas dinner or watched silly movies with the kids while the adults played games. Elizabeth who likes to read and play music and drink wine and talk about deep things. Elizabeth who’s been in love with the same man for almost half her life. Elizabeth who loves deeply and a little recklessly and takes almost everything personally. Elizabeth who is generally anxious and has a penchant for situational depression. Elizabeth who has big opinions about a few things and doesn’t care much about the rest.

When I realized all the other identities, or rather, qualities that made me up as a whole person, it began a search for truth about who I am, what’s important, and why I’m on the earth. And the answers to any of those big questions really don’t have much to do with my alter egos, my other identities I hide behind in order to not face the fact that most days I am confused about my purpose on the earth. And least of all it doesn’t have much to do with whether my uterus will sustain a child or not.

At first taking off the cloak of epithets was difficult. Painful. Soul-wrenching. I grieved. And then after awhile it was freeing, and now I’d never dream of putting the cloak(s) back on.

 

The Day After

Long have I despised the day after Christmas. All the hype, expectation, and anticipation ends even before midnight on Christmas, because soon we understand that the magic of the season is over.

This is the attitude about the days following Christmas I grew up with. Often as a family we would take down and put away all the Christmas decorations the day after. If I’m not mistaken, there was even a year we began on Christmas night.

As an adult in my own house with my own family (of three) and my own traditions, I keep up the decorations as long as socially acceptable, which for me is right before I go back to work as a teacher, or even the weekend after that. It’s an act that has rebellious roots, and it’s an external way for me to keep the spirit and warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas alive in light of my childhood traditions and the after-Christmas sales.

The truth is, the wisemen were still searching. Purportedly, it could have taken them up to two years to finally visit Jesus. In a cursory search about this, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the length of the wisemen’s journey. What I take away from it is that after Jesus’ birth, they were still searching. The story wasn’t over.

Another external observation that helps me not fall into a post-holiday depression is that the days are now becoming longer, if only by a couple minutes. This year the winter solstice really meant something to me. The longest night of the year was far from the darkest: there was a full moon. In another cursory search (I’m ashamedly a fan of these quick Google searches…), it’s believed that the sun dies and is reborn. In fact, in .many cultures, a god or goddess of sun is born.

So on the day after Christmas, I’m still pondering what it means that God was incarnated onto the Earth in the form of Jesus. It brings all of Advent, and quite frankly, this whole crazy year of 2018 into perspective.

The Gift of Enough

Sometimes I do the torturous math and think that if we had had a child soon after we started trying, he/she would be a preschooler. And sometimes I think that maybe we’d have had another one by now, too. I guess I aspired to be a mom with kids close in age, and voluntarily participate in the (observed) crazy that goes along with that, especially on Christmas morning.

More children, more gifts, bigger house, more shoes, more socks, more laundry, more…

But my life years not just later but apart from those possibilities is, from a bird’s eye view, empty.

Our Christmas table has four place settings, two more than it usually does. Actually, four more than it usually does since Aaron and I generally sit at the counter on stools to eat almost every meal.

After our Christmas Eve meal and time with friends yesterday, our sink was full of coffee mugs and wine glasses… with more than there usually are. After opening gifts from each other and then with friends, our tree stands alone in its simple glory: white lights, red ribbon, and matching ornaments, not to be outshone by a plethora of gifts below.

It can be anxiety- or depression-inducing to think of all the ways that our life is not enough, but I’m here to tell you (and most importantly myself) after years of infertility and a whole (blessed) year of therapy (thank God), this is all enough.

My one now-dirty coffee mug lovingly embracing my second cup of coffee is enough. Our house, quiet though it is on Christmas morning, is enough. My artificial pre-lit tree enthroned by a beautiful sunrise is enough. Our small Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gatherings are enough. Our simple yet rich meal today will be enough. My husband and I are enough. I (and my empty womb) are enough.

Last night at the candlelight service, our pastor preached on how Jesus met people where they were. That Jesus’ birth in a manger was announced to the shepherds because they would know to find a manger in a stable. That the wisemen were given a star because with their knowledge and wisdom of the cosmos they would be able to find Jesus.

And on this quiet Christmas morning with just my sleeping husband and dog upstairs, Jesus has met me where I’m at, and that’s enough.

“Good with children”

I’ve always been this way, good with children. If there’s such a thing as a maternal instinct, I have it. As much as I’d like to say I always played with Legos and didn’t prefer my Cabbage Patch Kids and doll house and play kitchen, I’d be lying if I did.

Not that having a maternal instinct and being domestic, as it were, go hand-in-hand, but for me they do.

So when I was first in the throes of infertility after its discovery, I for awhile believed that my being good with children was a farce, and something forced on me. But truly, it’s not.

I internally cringed when my therapist told me that I’d find ways to ‘mother’ others. I did not want to mother other people’s children, you know. I had wanted to mother my own, dammit.

But here I am to say that she was right, and I have known that this thing about myself is real and true and I can’t divorce it from my empty womb and healing heart.

I act on it all day long in my job with elementary aged students, attending to their sad faces and knee scrapes and tattling about their classmates. I act on it when I ask the youth if they need a ride home. I act on it with my many nieces and nephews, even from afar. I act on it when I run with a friend’s daughter during a 5K.

It’s just manifesting itself much differently than I thought it would, but I’m so grateful for those opportunities that other afford me with their children because infertility or not, it’s who I am.

A Little Bit (of) Sad

Today during a lesson with a newcomer student, she and I were chatting in Spanish and she said that I seemed a little sad to her. I told her, I was a little tired actually. And in her sweet Honduran Spanish, looking down at the letters she was tracing with her adorable dark pigtail braids, she told me that in her heart and mind she knows I’m a little sad.

She’s right.

In addition to being a little sad, I’m also so touched by the perception of a seven year old child who for all intents and purposes acts like a drunk adult, hiding under the table, jumping out from behind the door, skipping in the hallway. But still she (and I’m convinced all children everywhere) has an innate and intrinsic knowing about humans. They see straight to the truth.

How presumptuous we adults are, thinking that kids aren’t listening, or that they’re too young to understand. But their amusing and sometimes downright frustrating behavior belies the knowing in their hearts.

I have no idea the trauma or struggles this student of mine has gone through to now be here, on the East Coast of the United States, immersed in a language and culture she hasn’t fully grasped yet. But she knows what sad or hurt people look like. And she calls it out.

I think I’ll always carry this little bit of sad with me. I think everyone has a little bit of sad they carry with them as well. Some are just better at hiding it than others, stuffing it deep into lined pockets. Concealing it in between the couch cushions.

But unlike adults having to dig to find the little bit of sad, children can see exactly where it is and hold it gingerly for us to look at and ponder.

How interesting and providential that the absence of children broke me and now their presence has been aiding in my healing.

Catalyst

I went through a few years playing faith and going through the motions. I felt I really had no viable option otherwise. I hadn’t lost my faith but I didn’t feel connected either. The time after my first grandma died was also the time I was initially grieving children we would never have, and for its entirety I felt like I was watching faith and religion be played on the big screen after I had given away my ticket to the show.

I prayed, most definitely I prayed. I felt God’s presence, but more as an obvious thing, like the fact that on a sunny day the sky will also show itself to be blue. I believed, but believing in Jesus was believing the sky is blue.. an obvious fact without depth.

About these references to the blue sky. I spent, and do spend, a lot of time viewing, admiring, and analyzing the sky – particularly sunrises and sunsets. On summer days I was convinced that the sky was just not as poignantly blue as it was in El Paso.

And then I’d start to reminisce about El Paso and begin to miss it. But not the physical city itself.. the feeling of belonging and home. In a city where I was the minority for once, I still made sure to make it my home. Inevitably in my mind I’d get off on a tangent about what am I doing in Maryland anyway. What is my life amounting to. What’s the purpose of my life anyway.

That thought of purpose brought me back to sitting on Mimi’s deathbed with a fuzzy blanket. A literal bed where her death occurred. There have been very few times in my life where God has revealed himself to me. But in those last hours before we left her, God was there. Just as He was there when she came into the world as she left it: alone. He was orchestrating the entire event. And before my heart had broken with the finality of her loss he’d already begun to mend it.

To be completely honest I had no other option, and He knew that I think. It was all or nothing at that point for me, and I needed a catalyst to not be a wallflower to my faith, or my life, anymore.