My breasts and bottom were fair game for open discussion; I learned this early in life. I was small for my age and the youngest in my class so I was teased for being a “shrimp” and called “2×4” when other girls had already started to develop but I had not. “Just give Nicole two band-aids to cover up those mosquito bites on her chest,” a male family member joked. Everyone laughed while I died inside.
As I grew, so did the jokes. If I was too thin, I was mocked for not being enough. When my curves started to fill out and I worked hard in private lessons for a year to gain the position of drum major of my large marching band, it was still my body (and not my talent) that was on display. I was then seen as too much. Comments about my large bottom in my white uniform pants made me blush, but by then I knew this was just normal behavior. Family, friends, and strangers—anyone—had the right to comment on my curves and their proportion to what others expected me to be.
Before I’d barely begun to realize the difference between boys and girls, my admittance into the dance world sent conflicting messages about my sexuality. Dress it up in sequins and put it on display with high kicks and gyrating hips. It was normal for drunken men to gawk at my teenage body dancing at the Superbowl halftime show.
Hide it under a waif-like ballerina body, the carefully placed neckline, and perfect posture. It was normal for my friends to starve themselves for a role, to be the perfect combination of desirable but just out of reach. But always the message was clear – your body is ours to look at, to scrutinize, and to judge. It’s your weapon to wield. It’s our prize to view.
The church added to the messages my mixed-up teenage self kept hidden like the A-cup bra straps I needed to keep tucked away under modest clothing. I was told not to let my brother stumble but my brothers kept coming at me anyway. Their comments were acceptable. People laughed them off. But somehow I had to keep them at bay with longer hemlines.
The night I fell asleep next to a friend on the bus and woke up with his hand under my shirt, I pretended I was still asleep. I just let it happen because I was too ashamed to call my body my own, too naïve to know to call it abuse. It was just another normal step in a culture that gave others ownership of my sexuality but asked me to be its guardian...
Surveying the damage, they can’t imagine life again after the storm. They can’t yet see the trees that will grow to replace those pulled up by their roots. They can’t picture anything flourishing again in this place of devastation.
Looking out at the endless sea of cars sitting on the interstate, I felt restless and foolish. What was usually a five-hour drive was now entering hour nine. Stretching my legs at the rest stop, I chatted with others fleeing the coming storm. Like me, they weren’t native to the Gulf Coast; I didn’t know one local person who was heeding the mandatory evacuation.
But when news of the hurricane barreling towards the Mississippi Coast hit the airwaves, the call came. My dad on the other end said, “Either you come now or I’m coming to get you.” The evacuation of everyone below I-10 included the little stilted guesthouse where I lived on the edge of the bayou.
I dutifully packed a few belongings. As I drove away I achingly looked back at the green live oaks tendrils framing my rear view mirror like fingers trying to pull me back. My friends laughed: “Yeah, she’s not from around here.” There were parts of me that wanted to defy my father and stay like everyone else. I believed it was safe to stay but my sensible, fearful side agreed with him. So, I ran.
It was a pattern set early in my life. When the storm clouds started to gather on the horizon, I took the path that promised to take me away from the squall. I don’t know why fear has always been my default. Broken relationships, abandoned dreams, and chances never taken out of fear were evidence of my cut and run tendencies.
I wanted to stay and ride out the storms. But time and time again, I didn’t believe I was strong enough to endure the floods. So, I ran.
That time I evacuated, the storm turned to the east (like most locals assumed it would) and ended up bringing heavy rains directly to my parent’s house, missing the Gulf Coast completely. Downed pines clogged the roads and made it impossible for me to return home for a few more days.
Less than a year later I said “see you later” to the sticky heat of the Gulf to return to Georgia. I lingered a moment, running my hand over the peeling paint of the living room of that little house I loved so deeply in the short time I lived there. I closed the slatted windows that let the salty air waft through the house, the crank creaking as it turned. I glanced at the pond to the right of my porch, hoping I’d see the leathery nose of our friendly neighborhood alligator rising out of the water one last time. The surface was like glass.
Little did I know I wouldn’t see that apartment again, nor many of the places I frequented in town. The next time I visited, I couldn’t even find the road where my first apartment by the beach had been located. Everything around it had been flattened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and there were no street signs, no landmarks. Only destruction...
When we read and talk about presence, there are usually peaceful undertones to the conversation. We can be talking about slowing down, self-care, and finding holy in the mundane. I imagine the beautiful farmhouse of Ann Voskamp. Not that she has an easier life than anyone else but to gaze upon her poetic words and photos is to believe she has found a way to choose presence over productivity. We believe we too can mine the deep wells of life for beauty in every day. I think of Emily Freeman’s admonition to find life in simple Tuesdays. I picture her park bench imagery of sitting still when the world around us asks us to hustle.
It was with these images of letting go and letting joy into life in the back of my mind that I chose I present to be the word to guide my year in 2018. My life was far from peaceful (nor did I have access to a park bench or farmland) but I imagined metaphorically finding this kind of place to be present in my own life. Thoughts of presence begat images of foundness, of knowing my place and finding my way. I dreamed of relishing in the beauty of diversity and even in the difficulties of a different kind of life than I’d ever known having moved my family 8500 miles away from home.
But less than two months into the year I could already feel myself going under the ravages of culture shock, language study, anxiety, and depression. I not only didn’t know where I fit anymore, I wasn’t sure who I was. Could I still be a writer on top of being a wife, mom, non-profit-worker, and immigrant? The dark parts of me that rose to the surface under the stress made me question everything about who I was…and consequently who God was. Plainly said, I was lost.
It was then that Jan Richardson’s words (from her Walking Blessing) became the soundtrack of my life. I wrote them in my journal. I cried them in my prayers. I read them while I washed my face in the mornings. I dreamed them when I slept fitfully at night…”Let yourself become lost.” Being physically lost (as someone with little navigational sense) is one of my greatest fears. Whoever enjoyed the feeling of not knowing the way ahead? Who lets themselves become lost?
A life-long achiever trying to find presence instead, lostness was just what I needed. And the last thing I ever wanted.
“Progress is not the goal anyway,
to feel the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you…”
Instead of on a peaceful park bench, I found myself becoming present in the eye of a hurricane. Instead of writing words for others to read, I drowned in the reading of ancient prayers and scribbled out my confusion to God alone in my room. How could You call me beloved when I am not producing anything? How could You call me beloved when I am falling apart?
The places I wanted to run from, there I stayed. I wept and I raged. I prayed and I remained silent. I asked for help and I talked endlessly to a counselor, to my journals, to friends that never missed a day to text me even if just to say, “I love you.”
I never expected the places that God asked me to stay present to be places of such deep rending and stripping of all I knew before. But as I dug my feet into the ground and forced myself to stand when I wanted to collapse, my loving Father held me. My gentle Mother consoled me.
Just as I had reordered my life around lostness this year, found my peace with not knowing…the storm continued. A family crisis back home reminded me that we never truly know the way forward. It doesn’t take an international move to plunge us into the ravages of unknowing. And yet we move forward, assured of God’s love for us and of His knowledge of the paths that will shape us into our truest selves.
I experienced the coming of two autumns this year, my favorite time of year. My unexpected trip to America allowed me to stand still for a few moments on familiar soil, the soothing crackling of dead leaves underfoot a song that has long eased my soul. I stood in the woods and breathed in David Wagoner’s words from the poem Lost:
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.”
Two weeks later I returned to Bangladesh to the first cool morning breezes of Hemontokal, the late autumn season. More like Spring in America, hemontokal brings clear skies and the songs of the magpies, the blooms of marigolds, and the rice harvest. I reminded myself to stay present to this autumn and what God is saying in it, divided though my heart may be. It is this path that God is using to reshape me. My Father knows where I am. He knows who I am.
I am not lost when I remain Here.
We like our warriors a little wounded, flawed. It makes for a more interesting story when the hero has to overcome their demons to win the day. Wonder Woman goes on despite her broken heart and disillusionment. Odysseus had to deal with his hubris to complete his journey. Paul continued his ministry, never rid of the thorn in his side.
For a writer, this is Storytelling 101. Your protagonist should have a blemish that makes him relatable. As our own stories unfold, though, we want to glide through the battle unscathed. We think that our wounds disqualify us. We can’t let anyone see our flaws or they wouldn’t believe we are competent.
I was fresh out of my first big battle with anxiety when I interviewed for a role that eventually took me to live overseas. I talked about my coping mechanisms and downplayed my pain. I didn’t understand anxiety’s grip on me then, the way the dark worry would wrap it’s tendrils around my heart over and over again like a monster lurking in the depths for its unsuspecting victim. But still I knew that I needed to gloss over these issues if I wanted to appear capable.
A decade later we have come a long way in our collective conversations of mental illness but still I feel apprehensive every time I tell a piece of my story. I have learned the art of smiling and saying “I’m okay” when my insides feel as if the sea beast is squeezing them until they turn to dust. I know all the typical responses that will be offered, down to the Scripture verses people will quote. I know those who will insist I pray harder or those who will suggest medicine at the first anxious thought.
In some recent quiet moments amidst the ongoing war, I had retreated to tend my wounds. I was listening to the prayers of others when I couldn’t find any words of my own. These words from an examen offered on the Pray As You Go app became a salve I daily applied to the hurt:
“You love me as I am. You touch my life with healing. You call me to bear fruit. I give my wounded self to you to be a channel of healing to others, to be a wounded healer with Christ who died, and rose, and comes again.”
I started to realize that my wounds don’t disqualify me and that my scars make me like the Wounded Healer I follow every day of my life.
When Jesus arrived in Israel, even those closest to him wanted him to be something he was not. His followers were expecting the Son of David to come in fury, to throw off the yoke of the Roman Empire. They wanted a warrior King; they got a suffering Savior. They put their hands in his wounds and then watched him ascend, victorious over death.
I started to realize that not only do my wounds not disqualify me, but also my scars make me distinctly able to be a healer to others who struggle as I do. When I started talking about my anxiety and depression there were whispers, however they were not the kind I expected. I was met with the quiet admissions of “me too.” Others trusted their stories to me and we realized our wounds looked the same...
I noticed the Krishnachura trees in early Spring. It was hard not to notice the fiery blossoms that colored the streets. Green is not hard to come by in this country. The reason the background of the flag is green is that this land of many rivers has an abundance of the color in its countless river deltas and rice fields. But the vibrant blooms of these trees is quite unique. They reminded me of the Bradford Pears of my beloved Georgia home. Like the Bradford Pear trees, I noticed this tree was full of blossoms for a short time and then the petals became a shower of red bursting forth in the wind and trickling down to the street below. I asked around and discovered the name of this tropic tree and enjoyed its blooms for a short while.
For months my heart has been downcast and so have my eyes. As my spirit fell low, my gaze followed. My walking can only be called trudging for the past few months. It wasn't my surroundings that brought the pain. I am no stranger to these feelings of anxiety. But in the midst of a downward spiral, I stopped seeing any beauty around me. The heat bearing down on me, the crowds pressing in, the broken sidewalks occupying my vision—I watched my feet going places I didn't want to be.
Last week I walked under the Krishnachura tree that looms overhead every time I walk to the market. I walk under it often but haven't really seen it in months. I felt a rare gentle breeze and I stopped to notice it again. Its red blooms have long since fallen off but it is still one of the most beautiful trees I've ever seen. It shades the entire street under tiny leaves that weave together to make a tapestry of color above me. In that breeze and in those leaves I felt the tingling tendrils of something else wrapping around my heart—joy. It was as if God was saying, "Hang on. It's coming like the cooler weather" (that is still three months off here). It was in those moments of the walk, when I looked up again, that I decided to do what I could to find my way back to joy step by step.
It is easy for me to only see concrete in this city. We are a good thirty-minute drive by public transportation to a decent stretch of land on which to play. I miss walks and playgrounds and riding bikes. And on hard days all I can see is overcrowded and unsafe roads that my kids can't play on. But on a good day, on a day in which I decide to look for it, I see green everywhere. In this city of 12 million people scrambling for any patch of land they can get and buildings going up on almost every square inch of it, there is still green everywhere. It is creeping through the sidewalks and up the side of buildings, hanging over verandas, and shading the streets. All this green is telling me that life finds a way no matter the surroundings, the difficult circumstances. Joy can find a way too. So today I'm looking up.