“I accept whatever He gives and I give whatever He takes.” – Teresa of Calcutta
It’s not something you talk about in polite company—not being quite okay and being willing to admit it. When people ask how are you, they don’t expect an honest answer. I know; I’ve been answering honestly for months, unable to sprinkle sugary platitudes over the reality of loss and uneasiness I feel.
I’ve sat in the middle of transition, family illness, unemployment, depression, and feeling completely lost in the midst of it all. And I’ve named it, called it out loud to myself and to others. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Uneasy smiles fade. Eyes widen or dart away quickly. Promises to pray are made. People run for the door.
We’ve been conditioned to hide away feelings of pain and restlessness, especially in communities of faith. We’re a little more comfortable if it can be medicated or counseled, easily solved, or prayed away. But prolonged periods of dread, of feeling the absence of God’s presence or not being sure how to pray, of not having easy answers—that we’re not so good with.
I’ve been finding consolation in an unlikely place lately, in the company of a woman who spent well over five decades years of her life not feeling consoled at all. But she was faithful anyway. She loved with abandon anyway.
For many years I’ve felt a connection to the tiny-framed, quiet woman who lived her life among the poor and dying of India. Like so many others drawn to Mother Teresa, I’ve read her words and been awed by her from afar. Perhaps it was her selfless work for the poor that first drew me to her, our common love for India.
When I was stumbling through writing and rewriting the hauntingly beautiful curves of the Bangla alphabet a fellow language student mentioned that maybe this saintly woman also struggled to learn the verbs of the Bengali people she served, the same people I lived among and loved. I laughed at the thought of the small but mighty nun struggling with anything.
It was then that dove into a couple of biographies about the Albanian woman born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, sainted as Teresa of Calcutta by the Catholic Church in 2013 and realized I knew nothing of her real-life at all...
I bristled when I received a message from an editor at a publishing house asking if I was working on any projects.
“I can’t write a book now,” I thought. “I’m still living in this messy space of transition between Asia and America, between old dreams dying and not yet discovering the new. Standing on this shifting ground, what advice can I offer a reader?”
As I debated my merits as a writer, I listened to a podcast in which poet Zach Savich taught about what he called “memoir from the middle of things,” writing about events that are still unfolding. He talked about living in moments that aren’t tied up neatly with a bow and writing from that place of unknowing.
I realized all I had been seeing was my own uncertain path as my husband and I struggle to know what starting over looks like. We moved around the world and back again and found ourselves unemployed, uncertain, and feeling terribly alone. But then I looked outwards and I saw it—unfinished stories, life lived from the middle, everywhere I looked...
They were the kind of sobs that you feel like rock your whole body in such a way that something must certainly shake loose from your heart. They were the kind of tears that feel like they reach back years in time, pulling up issues you didn’t know you were concealing. Those tears snuck up on me as I listened to “Six” from Sleeping at Last, the song Ryan O’Neal wrote from the perspective of an Enneagram six in his series of songs written to explore each type.
When I listened to that song I felt known and seen, like someone had crawled into my brain and saw what it was like to see the world through my eyes. But more than that, I felt like I was seen and loved anyway — like someone saw all my fears and said, “it’s okay. I know you’re broken you’re not alone.”
I had been late to the Enneagram trend on purpose. I avoided it exactly because it had become trendy in Christian circles. I didn’t want another fad; I longed for depth. I had been gravitating toward more contemplative and ancient practices of early Christianity for years and the Enneagram personality typing didn’t seem to fit (until I learned that the Enneagram is possibly 6000 years old).
It was my love for the works of Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr (as I slowly worked through Immortal Diamond and then Falling Upward, both of which mention the Enneagram often) that finally made me say, “Okay, okay.” He talked about the Enneagram not as a personality test but as an indicator of why you think and act the way you do and a way to uncover your path to God
It was one of those moments when you say, “It’s so crazy how everything seemed to be pointing me in the same direction; it must have been God.” Everything I read or heard seemed to be leading me into discovering my True Self, about an invitation into a deeper knowledge of who God was and the discovery of who God had created me to be...
Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had. – Richard Rohr
My sense of the self I try to project, the name I hope to make for myself, started to unravel one day when I was deep in my own thoughts, walking down Road Number 5 toward the market. I reached into the chest pocket of the bag where I kept my small bills, a habitual response to the rhythmic cry of “Allah, Allah” from the lady hunched over by the mosque entrance.
She smiled her crooked smile and started to say a prayer of blessing for me when I felt eyes on me besides hers. Four men sitting across the street, prayer mats neatly tucked under their arms, had their gaze intently fixed on me.
Their stares following my every move jarred me out of my daze and I looked up around at the bustling street. My mind started racing and I felt a flutter of worry. What did they see when they looked at me; what did my interaction with this woman who was begging communicate about me? What about all those times I was in too much of a hurry to stop and walked right by someone on the street? People were watching then too.
After that day I noticed it everywhere like that tiny loose thread on a sweater that turns into a hole once you start picking at it. I would often get in a rickshaw that would turn down our street before I said the directions; most people knew where the white family lived. I became acutely conscious of the assumptions people made about me and knew everyone was watching.
I also noticed my reactions to the attention —the way I could craft what they thought about me by the local clothes I chose to wear or the kind of places I frequented. I knew just how to act to be what people expected me to be in my various identities: non-profit worker (do-gooder), a follower of Christ (devout), family member (devoted), writer (deep), and on and on.
But there were only a handful of people who really knew all of me. It felt terribly lonely.
All of our lives are on display everywhere. From the people who interact with us at stores and on the street, to our online profiles, and in our own homes, everyone is making assumptions about us. And we are busy carefully molding our identities in their eyes by the choices we make and the things we say, by the parts of us we allow to be seen and the parts we keep hidden. We’re busy making a name for ourselves...
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...