Last summer I spent 10 days in Ukraine at a camp for kids with disabilities. On one of my last evenings there, I sat for two hours on a little slatted wooden bench painted in primary colors and made for butts much smaller than mine. It was July. It was rainy. I was tired.
That night, all the volunteers gathered in the camp’s modest multipurpose building to worship and pray by candle light. Some shared stories, some sang along. The energy was both calm and waiting, like half inhale/half exhale. Every person in the room was some level of exhausted.
As soon as I walked in and took my seat, I started crying and didn’t stop for two hours. Not cute keep-it-to-yourself crying. Like snotty, streaming, can’t-catch-your-breath crying. I repeatedly wiped my face on my crinkly raincoat. It was definitely not a memory for the slideshow.
On an uncomfortable bench in a candlelit room, for the first time in 10 days, I had allowed myself to really, fully process my experience. I was a sponge that had soaked up every drop of gratitude and grief without letting myself wring any of it out. Then all at once, I found myself twisted and twisted and twisted up until all of it spilled out everywhere (mostly all over my face).
I didn’t want to think about my camper returning to an institution for orphans with disabilities after I left. I didn’t want to be mad at God because this was his life. I didn’t want to think about coming home and going back to work and living a life less meaningful than it could be. I didn’t want to think about trying to explain my time in Ukraine to a bunch of people who would never really understand.
I didn’t realize that my heart hadn’t caught up until I didn’t have a choice but to let it.
* * *
Every December, as the year draws to a close, I’m faced with the last page of my calendar. Forced to take inventory of the previous months, I try to remind myself that I actually did some stuff. In the dead of winter, it can be hard to remember sunshine, let alone specific moments spent with friends, meaningful conversations, evidence of growth. I hate that these annual reflections take place when I’m lacking vitamin D and rarely feel like the best version of myself, but I’m thankful for the cycle of time that ends every 12 months. Even in the rare occurrence that looking back is nothing but pleasant, I find comfort in the finality.
In the last months of 2018, I felt a little like I did that night in Ukraine. All of a sudden it was November, and I started to panic. Things I had been avoiding were really just building up and growing new layers, like a cartoon snowball rolling down a hill. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the end of the year was so close, and I still didn’t have it together the way I had hoped 11 months prior. I had missed the arbitrary deadline I set for myself once again.
What’s “having it together”? My very scientific definition is this: Someday I will reach a point where I’ll have more permanent fixtures than fluctuating seasons. Where I’ll feel confident in describing myself as “responsible” and “stable” (i.e. not eating candy for dinner or buying more underwear instead of doing laundry) and I’ll point to all of my solid foundations without fear of one of them crumbling before my eyes. That’s a thing, right?
The panic started as it usually does, with a thick layer of loneliness. Time is running out for me.
Add to that an ongoing deconstruction of my faith — an element of my forever-identity that I never anticipated would be challenged or threatened — into Category Unsure. What if this changes everything?
Throw a growing discouragement and uncertainty about my career path on top of that. I’ll never be good enough.
Then slide in 10,000 negative messages about my body, capabilities, usefulness, desirability, and general effective human functionality, and the whole thing becomes too heavy to carry.
Months went by, and I absorbed everything til I had no choice but to start twisting up to wring it all out.
* * *
The holidays can be chaotic and busy for people with families, so I rarely have expectations of seeing friends on a regular basis toward the end of the year. But I have to tell you — and I don’t want to brag here, but — “I have the best people.” Every week I had meaningful, intentional dates and conversations with some of the coolest lady friends I know: all diverse in their strengths & stages of life, all real and authentic, some old, some new. Emily, Hayley, Lenda, Bailey, Brittany, Shana, Amie, Leah, Jessie, Allie, Amanda, Trisha, Annie, the list goes on. I never even had to say that I needed them. They were just so effortlessly there.
In my time with these women, I did my best to suss out whether they “had it together.” I was never blatantly like, “Hey, on a scale of 1-10, how awesome is your life right now?” but I’m a pretty decent question-asker, so things just happened naturally.
Some of them were also going through changes in their faith.
Some were experiencing challenges in their marriages.
Some were nervous about the future.
Some were still trying to figure out what they’re good at.
Some of them were lonely, too.
Even the ones with foundations that seemed immovable from afar (families, relationships, fulfilling careers, self awareness, self discipline, faith) had at least one cracked brick that either needed to be repaired or removed & replaced. Even though I was sure I would leave every conversation thinking She totally has it together and I am a hot garbage mess, I never did. Not even once.
If I had to make a Powerpoint presentation to the world about what I learned, this is what it would be:
- It means everything to have women in my life who are willing to show me the cracks in their foundations. In a world of filters and #goals, there’s nothing better than sharing a meal, telling the truth, and listening to what someone else is dealing with.
- Even though I don’t wish pain on anyone, especially not my friends, it makes me feel
betterless crazy to know that I’m not the only person who’s still trying to figure out life. Even if I find out that someone is only a lukewarm mess by comparison, I still feel a little less alone.
- The pursuit of “having it together” is an endless, pointless, painful one. And I may never be able to fully give it up.
* * *
One of my favorite songs of 2018 is Work Out by Chance the Rapper. It’s about things that don’t go according to plan sometimes. 10/10 CAN RELATE. There are so many great lines, but these are my favorite:
Doesn’t it get dark right before the sun peaks and bares its face?
And doesn’t it get so hard to breathe?
But it’s gonna work out.
It’s gonna work out. People say that to comfort each other. “Plan A didn’t happen, but something will work out.” It’s the exact same thing as “it’ll be ok.” Never my favorite thing to hear, but always, always, always true. And it’s all I ever really need to know.
I’m going to turn 35 in a few months. It’s a bit of a heavy thought already, but I don’t want to spend any more time than necessary soaking things up and letting them sit and do nothing but weigh me down. It’s not a conscious decision to let my heart fall behind and postpone the processing process (the process of processing, of course), but my hope is that I can begin to release my grasp on “having it together” by a certain deadline — and someday let it go completely.
It’s a tad late for New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t really believe in them anyway. But maybe this is pretty close to one: I want to be a woman like the ones who have filled me up over the past few months: open, honest, messy, seeking, humble, aware, connected, brave. I want to reach the end of 2019 without swirling into a panic over my own unfulfilled expectations.
Please check back this time next year. It’s gonna work out.