The Hidden Grief of Singleness

I caught myself staring at my husband the other day. Gray is creeping into his full head of hair, small wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes, a tiny patch of white in his beard. There is a dignity in aging for men, I think to myself, as I think ahead to my next cut and color, dabbing vitamin E oil onto the darkening age spots of my face. Men grow more attractive the older they get and I think women do too, but the world is telling us our bloom came and went, it is time to droop and drop and become the ground from which the next crop will come. 

The name Eve means "the mother of all living," but it does not mean "always mothering all that is living." There is not a woman among us who does not feel the age of fertility closing, the gap between fully alive and to dust we shall return ending. Most of us have a monthly reminder of one more opportunity lost. We are all coming to the last chapter of motherhood, whether we bear children or not. 

I am leaving in a few hours to pick up my oldest friend from the airport. There is no one in the world who knows me as well, as deep, as long, and as wholly as she does. How could anyone, even my husband? She held me through fitful nights after my brother was killed. I have listened to her for years mourn things she cannot control. She was equal parts older sister to my youngest siblings and I to hers. There is no scent in the world as familiar to me as hers. I have always assumed she would marry first. She is cute, vivacious, tiny, adventurous, nurturing, full of life, bringing joy wherever she goes. She gives of herself in every possible manner, always pouring out, never lacking in love to give. I have learned more about motherhood from her than anyone in my life. And yet, she is not married, and I am and it pains me. I physically ache for her in this sometimes. She was made to mother, to be a wife. I don't know anyone made for it more. 

. . .

It occurs to me more and more recently that the barrenness of singleness is a silent pain. In our singleness we feel the lack of a partner often and others' suppose it is our deepest ache. It can be tempting to see it as the only barrier between today and joy. Yet there is another, sometimes more difficult, pain unmarried women face and this is the pain of barrenness. Some find ways around this ache, adopting or fostering children. But for most unmarried women that monthly reminder of aging reminds them again and again that time is running out. Men can prolong marriage as long as they like, but women know there is a deadline and it is half of a man's life-span. Men wonder why, sometimes, some women are anxious to be united? It is no mystery to me: we are dealing with only half the time and must move doubly fast if we are to become mothers of what is living. 

The older I grow, and the more familiar I grow with my own body's failure to make and hold a child, the more I talk to my unmarried friends, the more I hear it is not the lack of a partner that pains or has pained us all most, it is the lack of motherhood. 

There is a very real ache for children that cannot be replaced by mentoring, discipleship, practicing hospitality. Nothing can be substituted for hearing the words "Mama" or "Daddy" from the lips of a child. Yet, I think, we cannot look at the substance of our being mothers as only within the gift of children. Nurturing others is not some consolation prize for the barren, it is the call for every Christian. Our problem is not that we are being withheld from, it is that we view the gift of nurturing too narrowly. We think it is only—and best—done with children we bear, but that is not the call to the New Testament family. In the Old Testament the family of God was nuclear and extended, but limited to one lineage. In the New Testament, the family of God is corporate and available to all, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters—this is the language of the New Testament Christian. We are all family now. 

Eve was created to be a helpmeet, but she was named to be a mother. She was called to a man, but called mother. Her very identity, the way she specifically imaged God, was to conceive, birth, mother, nurture, grow, care for, and gather her offspring to herself. We may feel called to marriage (even if we have not been given the gift of it yet), but our identity, our substance, who we are is not some future event: it is now. Mother. Now. 

If you are unmarried today and the secret pain of barrenness haunts you, I want to encourage you to face that pain. It is a very real and legitimate ache. You were made to ache for this. A friend of mine talked recently about how the pain of singleness/barrenness doesn't haunt her, but sometimes it hits her and I loved that. I think God wants all of us, regardless of our season in life, to be hit by true, real, and good longings, but not be haunted by them. This friend went on to talk about a situation in which I've found myself too: buying a baby gift for a friend and going out to her car in tears. 

John Piper said, "Occasionally, weep deeply over the life that you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain. Then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life that he’s given you."

The Bible gives us permission to weep deeply over the life we hoped we would have, and to not feel ashamed of that hope or disappointment. It is okay to grieve those losses and feel that pain. Go out to your car armed with tiny onesies you just bought for your friend, the scent of powder and sweet baby things still on you, and weep, cry hard aching sobs. You were made to mother. You are built for it. And it is not happening for you right now. And that is sad. Deeply sad. And that is okay. Really okay. 

. . .

I'll pick up my friend today, my oldest and dearest friend, and for the next ten days we will do all the things we love to do together, make, create, laugh, cry, be, dream, cook, talk, or not. She will nurture me and I will hopefully nurture her. It is our identity to do so. We are daughters of the post-fall Eve, bodies broken, dreams unrealized, fears alive, but we are also the daughters of pre-fall Eve, imaging God, tending to life, nurturing growth, mothers of what is living. 

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We Were Going to Move to Chattanooga

A year ago today Nate and I were standing on the pinnacle of a familiar mountain, a place I called home for years and a place that still holds a piece of my heart. We were quietly dreaming, after a year of crushing disappointments, heart-ache, trauma, and loss. We were asking the questions "What if?" and "Where might?" It was the first time I felt hope in over a year. We made the beginning of a plan that weekend: to move to Chattanooga and settle there. 

There's a lot that happened between Labor Day 2016 and Labor Day 2017, but the shortest way to say it is that we're back in Texas, in the place we met and married, but not the place we fell in love.

The place we fell in love is everywhere and everything. 

It was honeymooning in the Aspen trees and buying a house on July 4th and learning things weren't as they seemed at my new job and losing a baby we didn't know was beginning and losing his job we thought was certain and coming home to a police-taped home near Thanksgiving and cutting down our first tree together in the Rocky Mountains and witnessing the shooting of a cop on my birthday and and losing the beginning of another life we were sure of and navigating a church conflict we felt blindsided by and being disappointed again and again and again by hopeful job interviews and no call backs and packing all of our stuff again and moving again to another side of our country and losing more money than I'd ever dreamed of even having and living in our second 1800s home with creaky floors and uneven doors and charm and still feeling so alone every single moment. It was bringing home Harper and struggling to find a church home and learning the Chattanooga job market was another Denver job market and our dreams of moving there would not be realized. It was packing again, and moving again, back to the south. It was unpacking in a home we knew wasn't guaranteed or our "forever home" or secure or would be full of children or dreams coming true. 

What I'm trying to say is we can make a lot of plans, but our hope is in the Lord and he carries us through—and grows our capacity for life and love within it all. 

I get a lot of emails from you, dear readers, asking about love and marriage and singleness and how do you know and what is settling and all that. I guess I just wanted to say to you today: you can make a lot of plans and have a lot of dreams and just envision how your life should be and think it is all somewhat certain. Because you have a certain "call" or a certain "desire" or feel you were made by God for a certain "purpose," it can become so easy to believe life will turn out that way, all you have to do is make the people in it and the jobs you take and the decisions you make fit within that call or dream or purpose. 

I want to say to you, friends, that this is a lie. It's a sneaky one because it sounds good to have purpose and to aim for it straight. But the lie is that we think we're somehow owed the life we desire, even if God has not yet granted it and might never do so. 

You may feel called to be a mother or a husband or a pastor or a teacher or a writer or a wife or a single or a speaker or a counselor, but a sense of calling does not mean God will fulfill things in your order or way. The way to be a successful wife is not to have the perfect husband, the way to be a successful pastor is not to have a pastor's wife, the way to be a successful writer is not to have a successful book, and the way to be a successful single is not to be undistracted by the opposite gender. No. The way to be successful is simply to be faithful with today. 

And tomorrow.

And the next day.

And the day after.

Someday, when you are very old, or maybe not very old, and just in the middle of your life, you will look behind you at a series of crushing disappointments, plans that went awry, ways you felt stolen from and lied to, and you will see the faithfulness of God pressing you into the way of a faithful servant. This is the mark of a successful child of God. 

The answer to the questions we're all asking can be summed up with another question: What is the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of you—within the confirmation of Scripture—telling you to be faithful in today? 

That's it. That's our answer. 

Your life will take many twists and turns and near fails and falters and wins and losses, but if you're pent up inside trying to situate yourself in such a way for success as you determine it, you will feel lost on the way. No matter how strategically you play the pieces of your life, you are not guaranteed the win you envision. You are only guaranteed the win you have been promised in Scripture. The sooner we can all learn things won't turn out like we planned because life is not some choose your own adventure book like we all think it ought to be, the sooner we can rest in the comforting presence of the Spirit, the true promises of Scripture, and the beckoning care of the Father. 

Whatever decision it is that's tying you up in knots today? What does it look like to open your hands around it, obey the Spirit (as hard as it might be), and let the trajectory of your life take an unexpected and—perhaps—painful turn? I promise you, no, Scripture promises you! There is the joy of your Master at the end of the story of your life—a story you can't even imagine today he would write for you.  

That time we made a plan to move to Chattanooga and didn't. 

That time we made a plan to move to Chattanooga and didn't. 

Throwing Stones at The Glass Castle

I think I can say with nearly 100% accuracy that I have never written about a movie on Sayable. I'm not sure why I'll venture to today except that I watched The Glass Castle last week and haven't stopped thinking about it. 

I first read The Glass Castle six years ago and loved it. Jeannette Walls is a talented writer and storyteller, and as with most good memoirists, takes unremarkable life and makes it profound. I won't give too much of the story away, but the basic plot is the story of a dysfunctional family. There is no beginning, middle, or end to their story, and if it sounds hopeless it's not because it is, but because we are so predisposed to sore beginnings and happy endings. Eternity is written on our hearts, the Bible says, and the way that plays out for most of us is we want the feast, the Father, and an eternity of joy. (Spoiler alert: Children of God get all three.)

The critics did not like the new film version of The Glass Castle and so while I was looking forward to my viewing, I also was setting my sights low. When is the movie ever really better than the book? The main complaint, it seemed, was not on the acting, the setting, the scenery, or even the story, but on the ending. After a lifetime of dysfunction, years of neglect, abuse, alcoholic rages, and spots of joy so tangible you could taste them, the children in the film, now grown, seemed to forgive their parents, even laugh about their childhood. The book didn't portray their joy quite so tangibly, so if the critics complaints centered mainly around the disparity there, I could understand. But they didn't. They critiqued the neat ending, the tied-up ribbon, the tears and laughter around the Thanksgiving table, remembering their father. How could these children seemingly forgive the monstrosity of their parentage? 

I am not a movie critic, but I do think about life quite a bit, and what I can't shake is that the strings of unforgiveness are so woven into the fabric of our lives and culture that we can cannot fathom life as a mixture of pain and joy, highs and lows, brokenness and forgiveness any longer. People become the sum of their actions instead of humans first and broken second. This is everywhere around us, in the news, in our living rooms, in our marriages, in our friendships, in political sides, in theology, in lifestyle. And as we spit nails at the injustices of others, we become what we behold: unjust justice police. 

Life isn't so neat and orderly as the critics of The Glass Castle want it to be. Forgiveness doesn't mean there isn't still a bittersweet taste in your mouth when you think of your father. Laughter doesn't mean there is no trace of regret. And coming around a Thanksgiving table with the brokenness of seven lives and worlds and histories behind you doesn't mean none of it ever happened. It did happen and it shapes things and changes them and shifts them. It doesn't mean they don't tell the truth about the kind of man their father was. And it doesn't have to mean they can't take the hand of that dying—and broken—man and smile at him through their tears. 

The beauty of The Glass Castle is not that it ends too neatly, but that it ends messily and complicated, just as life is. We want clear delineations and boundaries and decisive clarity on whether folks are in or out, but life is not like that.

I read this morning in II Corinthians chapter one, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

Hurt people hurt people, and Paul says those who are hurting from any affliction can be comforted with the comfort we've been given by God. That's messy, friends. There's no way that's not messy. To enter into brokenness, where years of hurt has induced hurt, and to say, I'm going to offer the comfort of a smile through my tears, laughter through my pain, and the hand of peace to the hand of neglect. That is messy, but that is also grace. 

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Marriage is as One Long Conversation

The old philosopher said, "Marriage is as one long conversation. When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time you're together will be devoted to conversation.” The old philosopher was right, but as with all bits of rightness, it ought to be understood in its place. 

I have always known marriage was not an easy conversation. I am of Scotch-Irish descent; men in my family love their beer and asserting opinions, and as for the women, there's a demure outside but on the inside it's all fire and spit. Most conversations were spent seeing who could talk the loudest the longest without throwing the first punch—even if the punch was merely metaphorical.

When I began to grow outside the incubator of family alone, I saw the long conversation of marriage through a different lens. These marriages were built on the scaffolding of details: who is supposed to be where and when and how, who needs to be picked up, what's for dinner, what should we do about this child or that one. There was an ordinariness to the conversations of marriage, unaccompanied by emotive, defensive jabs at the other. It seemed simplistic. I know now it's because I was not in the middle of those marriages as I was in the middle of the marriages in my family, and when we are in the middle of something all our own, we see all its inconsistencies and broken-places.

As I stepped into adulthood and was able to see my skewed perspective of childhood and adolescence both, I began to see marriage was a long conversation, but the tone of voice could change it from a pleasant one to a violent one. Armed with this newfound knowledge of tone, intention, nuance, and even love, I began to assume all the long conversations of marriage could be blissful. A constant sharing of ideas and delights and hurts and confusions, a true partnership. Whenever I thought of being married it was the long conversation I looked forward to most. 

Marriage has been that for me and Nate. The cusp of our friendship was on deep conversation, leading to dates full of long, easy talks, quiet pauses, intentional listening, and slow responses. This was the long conversation of marriage I wanted, I could see that clearly from our first date. 

The long conversations become subject to the tyranny of the urgent, though, as most things can. A few weeks ago there were twelve decisions that needed to be made and seven of them required quick conversations but the other five required depth, time, focus, and charity. We were short on all of that, though, and so if the conversations were going to be had, they were going to be had on the surface, quickly, while we multi-tasked, and were short with one another. As with most conversations built on bedrocks like that, we needed to repent later to one another. 

The urgent doesn't let up, though, does it? There is always someone who needs an answer or thinks they need an answer, or wants one. There is always something that must be signed up for or paid or responded to or agreed upon. There is always something left unfinished, unsaid, unsealed. I have learned to say to others, "I want to talk to Nate about that first," but the when of talking sometimes comes slowly or is mingled among the other conversations, never finished.

Nate and I practice (and by practice, I mean we are very unproficient at this and must practice) the discipline of saying "No," to ourselves, our minds, our friends, and the tyranny of the urgent. If, in saying no, we find ourselves disappointed or others disappointed by our lack of a quick answer—this is the discipline of the practice. This is the sacrifice, the hurt, the pain. This is where we admit to ourselves and to others that we are not God, as much as we sometimes think we would like to be. 

I think about Jesus in John 16. He says to his disciples and friends, "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you." I think about how often we fill conversation simply because we do not want to feel the lack of the incarnate Christ and we do not want to wait for the Holy Spirit to do what only he can do. We are uncomfortable with the long silences, afraid the Spirit will not do what He does: move. 

Yesterday morning, in the early hours of our day of rest, Nate mentioned some conversations we've left unfinished this week, answers others expect. And then he said this: I want to pray about these things, ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom, humility, and a direction, even more than we simply talk about them. And then, for the rest of the day, we didn't talk about things we could not solve on that day. We left space for the Spirit to enter in, give peace or withhold it. 

Marriage is one long conversation, but it is not, primarily, a conversation between two, but three. If we find the conversation to be focused on just two, it may go the brawling way of my family, or it may go the stoic way of my checklisting friends. But, I think, if we move ourselves away from one another for a moment, stop talking and begin listening, not primarily to one another but to the Holy Spirit, we may find that conversation more robust, full, and gentle than we could have imagined before. We may leave more things unfinished, more things unsaid, more events unattended, and more lists unchecked, but I do not think we will leave less full. 

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If you're married today, what might it look like to still the conversation—even about the rudimentary things or the things that seem pressing and necessary—and begin to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in this longest conversation of your life? 

If you're not married today, what might it look like to trust the Spirit is still at work in all the seeming silences of your life? In the lonely places where you long for conversation, how can you exercise listening to the Helper, learning from him, and obeying him as he perhaps prepares you for the long conversation of earthly marriage and definitely prepares you for the long conversation of eternity? 

Living the Whole Life

I am working through two books concurrently (three, if you count fiction, which I do, but not for today's purposes). One is Eugene Peterson's As Kingfishers Catch Fire and the other is Curt Thompson's The Soul of Shame. Both were gifts to me from friends who read them and knew I would need them or love them, or both. 

For many years I thought of myself first as an artist, a spinner of words. I lived in a place full of natural beauty, with never enough words to describe the way the blue heron dipped his head into the quiet riverbed, amidst lily pods and sodden sea grass. Waterfalls and mountains and quiet piney woods and apple orchards were mere minutes away, ripe for inspiration. I drew my cues from poetry and the contemplative. 

Then I moved to the other side of the country and my mind began to be captured by the intellect of theology, ideas, concepts, and I began to think of myself as a thinker, and lost the artist within. I was valued for my mind and ideas, and less valued for art. And I thought myself okay with this because I thought intellect was better than art. 

A friend turned 30 a few weeks ago and felt the things we all feel when we pass a marker in life: fear, anxiety, inadequacy, the question of "Have I wasted my life?" I remember feeling all of those same things on the eve of my 30th and in some ways those feelings have increased, but really it's just that I think myself more aware of their presence and less aware of their power. Turning 30 was hard, but being 30 wasn't. There is hopefully a settling sense of growth, maturity, and the temporality of life that no longer frightens you as much as invigorates you. If being in my 40s or 50s or 60s only brings an increase of that, I await it eagerly. Age brings the disparate pieces back together again, I think, or it should. All the scattered feelings and identities and questions come more into focus with a quiet, settled yes.

So I am reading Peterson and Thompson and both of them wrote about the union of these disparate pieces, namely the body, spirit, heart, and mind. How when we only address one of these, or address it more than the others, we begin to live lopsided lives. I am thinking of a man who skips leg day at the gym, whose body is strong on top and meager on the bottom. Or a comic illustration I saw many years ago of a man who only lifted weights with one arm so it was bulky and disordered from the other which was skinny and limp. We laugh because it's laughable but we also do it more than we like to admit. At least I do. I exercise my mind because it's easier than exercising my body. I engage my spirit because it's easier than engaging my mind. I entreat my body because it's easier than giving my heart. I am lopsided piecemeal. 

The growing awareness of these malnourished pieces came into focus over the past year in the void of anything to feed them (affirmation is such a powerful feast and we are such hungry paupers). We have been trying to begin seeing ourselves as whole creations intended for wholeness, instead of limping along at breakneck speeds without the equal use of our limbs. What does it mean to slow the growth of one part of us, in order to give attention to another? What does it mean to set aside the mind for the flourishing of the spirit, or to prioritize the health of the body when the spirit is strong? Not to neglect the other at its own peril, but to acknowledge that we are more than one appendage and therefore must attend to all of them? 

We are by nature legalists, always adding to the laws of God because we fear he will overlook us otherwise. But what does it mean to trust the Creator made us for wholeness and not half-ness? I cannot answer that for you and most of the time cannot even answer it for me. It takes time and trust and some times are easier than others. But I know I want it. 

I wonder, sometimes, if one of the reasons we're constantly searching for meaning in everything is because we're discontent with our under-exercised limbs. I read this recently and it's funny because it's true: 

"It’s easy to believe that if we look good enough, perhaps it might be true that our lives are meaningful or even blessed. Everywhere we go, we can see evidence of this. Walking along the Seine, one sees dozens of people from all over the world standing with their backs to the view, smiling hopefully up at their iPhones. Millions of selfie sticks are purchased out of hope and fear."

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car waiting for someone and a girl sat on a park bench alone nearby. For nearly twenty minutes she posed herself with her phone camera, shooting image after image, and deleting, I'm sure, all but one. There were probably wrinkles or glints of light or too much chin or not enough hair or someone in the background or any number of reasons why being a whole person with wrinkles and frizzy hair and among others would not do for her. I don't know her, but I wanted to sit with her, make conversation, distract her from the myth of Narcissist inside her for one moment. Tell her she is not less than a body, but that she is certainly more than one. 

Someone asked me recently how we help young teens not obsess about perfection and I don't know the answer. I think it starts with teaching them they are whole people, whole image bearers, that their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies are all made by God and he called all of creation good. I think that's where we start, by not neglecting what God called good—even if it's frightening to engage. I don't know what you'll find there, when you begin to stop counting calories and running incessantly, when you begin to engage your mind instead of only your body. I don't know what will happen when you set aside the books and papers and themes and dig out the painful occurrences of your childhood, ways your spirit was crushed and hasn't ever recovered. 

Yesterday morning I sat on the couch with my husband and confessed some shame I've been feeling about something that happened when I was nine years old. I had wronged and been wronged and couldn't differentiate the shame I felt from doing wrong and being wronged in the same scenario. All I knew is, years later, confessions later, I still feel the clinging shame of those moments. Most of that is because I've neglected that space, have been afraid to enter into it for fear of what I'll find there. It's easier to engage my mind or my body than it is to open the door to my heart. But I must go there, I know I must, because wholeness cannot happen when only half-ness thrives. 

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31