On It Goes

The key scrapes in the lock, turning the metal knob until the door gives way into the living room. We tumble in, suitcases in hand, bringing with us the lingering scent of holiday. Greeting us remains the staleness of an apartment left to its own devices for a week, along with the familiar smell of oldness that comes when a place has not been renovated since the 70s. A pile of wedding presents neatly resides along a bench, leftover food is carefully stored, and the remnants of a remarkable day are found in various lodgings. They seem quite out of place next to the drably stained carpet and the off white dry walls, as if their story is much more remarkable than any that could be told within these rooms.

Of course that might be true. The wedding, with its white dress and smart ties, its gay music and soft flowers, its scrumptious pies and luxurious drinks, is no doubt considered the star of any marriage. It is the culmination of months full of anticipation and planning. It is the visual representation – to all family and friends – that two people love each other desperately enough to commit their lives to one another. Guests eat, drink, and dance in merry celebration of this declaration – but they are not there after the honeymoon.

No, there are no cheers or sparklers when that week of marital confusion is finished. There are no toasts when two newlyweds unlock the door to their shared home, their shared future. The remnants of peoples well wishes lie in torn wrapping paper and opened envelopes. It’s over. The wedding is finished, the vows are said, the music is silent. On the guests go.

Day in and day out we learn to be married, we learn to live up to the purpose of that celebration. For the wedding, with all its wonder, was just a precursory party. It was a preemptive celebration of all the shared joys and trials to be faced. It was young and old, friends and family, joining hands to sing on our behalf. It was people of all sorts telling us – we will celebrate now, today, because we know what a blessing into which you are entering. I do wish however, someone told me how to mourn the hard times ahead. I do wish someone taught me as I was zipping up that white dress, how to combat the insecurities found in a secure marriage. I do wish someone wrote in their congratulatory letter “this is hard, celebrate the difficulties with joy, and mourn the hard times fiercely, because this is real, it is real and painful and true and good.” But we missed that bit. We had honest toasts, and heartfelt prayers, but no one can really convey how resilient you have to prepare to be in marriage. You have to wake up each morning knowing – the wedding is over, it’s up to us to celebrate the marriage now. The family has gone away, and our life goes on. And that is hard.

So for newlyweds wondering – how does this bliss end?? How could the joy of the wedding, the smiles, the laughs – how could all of that NOT propel itself into our future? How could that immense, cheek torturing happiness not erase all the potential discomfort and sadness??

It just doesn’t.

The happiness, those fleeting moments of purest joy, move on, they go. They’re commemorated in delightful photographs, captured in sunlit memories, but life goes on.

Day in and day out, with grocery shopping, meal cooking, carpet cleaning, working, and friend making, life goes on. It goes on without invitations to celebrate, it goes on without RSVPs, it goes on without pies and popcorn, without dresses and bare feet, it goes on without any plans at all (and that’s the most terrifying part).

But, just as the good things go, as they are meant to, the bad things go too. When you’re fighting, screaming, crying, and you think “how could this be the very thing people raised their glasses to, merely weeks ago?” Know that it goes on, the fights pass, calm comes, and love remains.

Arguments are essential for forgiveness, forgiveness necessary for growth, and growth needed for you to move forward – towards a deeper, fuller marriage, one well worth all that preemptive celebration. So yes, the wedding is wonderful, the fights are terrible, and the days are unknown – but amongst it all one thing is certain – on life really does go.

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On the 4th

I stepped out in July,

For a run, a short one mind.

As I made the first step I was quick to realize

This was the 4th, and memories flied.

 

I hear the first bang, the pop and the whizz.

With the whistle behind, it’s not so bad

But then that incessant snapping is,

And my stamina flagged.

 

Suddenly my thoughts matched my pace

And rhythmic words phrased

Sentences and stanzas carefully raced

And I knew my run would be poetically chased.

 

You light your fireworks and let off a bang.

You cheer for the sound that’s causing someone pain.

You let the loudness startle the crowd,

And watch the trailing sparkles in awe.

 

How do we celebrate something we barely remember-

With the sounds someone else will never forget?

We watch floral fires light in the sky,

And we forget for this holiday, something had to die.

 

Now don’t misunderstand me,

This day is grand, not at all protested,

apple pie and sweet tea are hardly contested.

But we celebrate emancipation with a sound that

Emanates the perpetuation

Of death?

 

Why raise red cups spilling beer, and making claims of greatness,

When in the next street over, your neighbors can’t make

Monthly payments –

and not because they’re lazy or unmotivated,

Some people can’t get hired because of to whom they’re related.

 

You cheer for your independence, but you’re not walking free.

No, we’re all walking around chained to our fear.

Convinced bullets are the only way to break out.

Determined that our carry anywhere AR15  permits are the tickets

To safety.

 

But we don’t seem to see the millions felled, the ones gunmen select

We celebrate people who died over 200 years ago,

For a country of free citizens we cannot protect

Because, senselessly we cling to something we cannot control.

 

We walk in a world deliberately armed as a militia.

Where we’re more likely to fight for the accessibility of ammunition,

Than the feasibility of a free education.

Because one means we can kill and end up on top,

And the other means we might all be equals, and,

goodness, then where would the progress stop?

 

So by all means, let us look to the fire tinged red rockets glare

See the melted popsicle stain smear into the night sky

Only if then, we can look at the ground and see the bodies piled there.

And finally admit, freedom might be a lie.

 

To some this may sound angry,

I swear to God I’m just scared.

I sit with my back to my wall and listen to the fireworks.

Listen to them all.

 

I hear the people here, crying for their murdered friends.

Begging, pleading with America to make it all end.

I see the Syrian girls, half my age,

The African children, already enslaved.

The soldiers we praise, who’s nights will never be silent,

Who will flinch the rest of their days.

 

I think of the war and the battles we’ve instigated,

Because of people we’ve envied or hated.

I shudder in horror at this culture we’ve created.

This monster of fire we’ve bred.

It was us, the engineers and the builders, it was us asking for more,

More ways to make more people dead.

It is through our fault the gun was fed.

 

And we’ve stood here before.

In wars gone by we fell

In tragedies we thought history could never retell.

And again here we stand.

Hand on throat, gun in hand.

 

Don’t you know, o people, war doesn’t make the world whole?

So if you believe, throw down your guns and pray.

Pray for those people you don’t even believe have a soul.

Pray until your knees are as bloody as the hands of the country you call home.

 

Please, I don’t say this to be mean.

It’s not hateful, or out of spite.

It’s not for the blue against the red.

It’s just from a being, female and white.

From one who doesn’t give a damn if a gun is my right.

 

I care if my children grow up safe.

I care if the babies I bear

Have education opportunities to spare.

I care if the home I create, is expected to entertain an arsenal, just to be safe.

I care if the people I vote for, can protect the country we entrust to them,

Without the people of this broken democracy, stopping them.

 

I care that someone listens to the plea of peace.

I care that my children grow up knowing things can change.

That Harry didn’t die for a fantasy world in vain.

But to teach my generation that things can’t stay the same.

 

Something’s got to give, and fighting is the age old tale.

It’s never gotten much more than blood and tears.

Let’s spin something else,

Something worth lasting through the years.

Let’s teach ourselves now, the ways of peaceful loving.

So as our children grow, they won’t be left wondering –

 

Is this world any more than a bullet ridden death toll?

On Going Home

Earlier this week a friend asked me when I was going to take Jeremiah to see my home. They were speaking of Scotland, naturally. They were asking when I was going to take Jeremiah on romantically historic trails. When were we going to sight see ancient castles and survey the vibrantly green countryside? When were we going to sit in quaint tea shops eating our soups and sandwiches while the rain lashed charmingly outside? When were we going to visit the land full of quiet houses and a surprisingly uproarious population. This is what they meant when they asked me about home.

And I cannot blame them. If one has to be named, Scotland is home now. It is where I worked during my university summers. It is where I return for holidays. It is where my parents own a flat. In all respects, it is home.

But the answer that immediately sprung to my mind when the question was presented was a simple “never.” Jeremiah will never see my home.

 

When I think of returning home to Angola, I’m overwhelmed with the amount of childhood memories I have from the sub-Saharan country. In this incident I vividly remembered the chickens.

In our second compound, we moved there within two years of living in Angola, there was a consistent hen and flock of chicks. I adored these animals as a child. I would chase them incessantly, running alongside the hen who angrily flapped her earth bound wings. I would laugh with glee at the sight of new yellow chicks tumbling over themselves in an effort to keep up with their disgruntled mum. In the mornings, before I had to study math or science, I would check on new eggs, huddled safely under the cargo containers we used as car garages. There I would lie, tummy down, head poked into a dark, dirty cavernous space. Mother hen would squawk and ruffle. But I just wanted to watch. I just wanted to be with them, and for them to belong to me. So I spent hours in the dirt, inhaling the feces infested dust, collecting feathers, counting eggs, and loving chickens that were not mine.

These chickens, of course, did not have momentous lives ahead of them. They were not nursery rhyme chickens, set out on great bread making missions. No, they were scrawny African chickens, destined for the coal heated pan from birth. I don’t remember being traumatized by the fate of these chickens. Maybe my parents remember some awful realization I’ve blocked from my mind. But I remember just knowing, some days there would be less chickens than the day before, and that was okay. The chickens didn’t belong to me, they belonged to the street, to the guards’ families. They were not entertainment, they were food. And though they kept me company for many years, eventually they were all gone, and that was okay.

Jeremiah will never meet those chickens. He will never lay on his stomach in ashy red dust and watch as angry hens cluck under a MAERSK container. But that is a memory I call home.

Home, home is waiting for that light on the guardhouse to switch on so your mum will stop worrying about the freezer. Home is begging your dad to turn on the generator so you can have coke, pizza, AND an episode of MASH on Friday night. Home is turning off the telly to listen for gun shots. Home is the acrid smell of burning rubbish wafting over a cement wall, a scent I would give all the Glade candles in the world to smell again. Home is always being a different colour, and never really belonging but not knowing anything else. Home is having malaria and fitting in with everyone else. Home is long, bumpy car rides listening to a Walkman full of Billy Joel and Dixie Chick CD’s I took from my sisters’ room while they were at boarding school. Home is melting gingerbread houses, tangled mosquito nets, and a furry, loyal watchdog.

Home is the place no one can go. My home, the house, the compound, the country that sprung to my mind after that question is a place to which I will never return. On the off chance we were to procure visas for Angola, there is no guarantee that house in Graffanil is still there. There is no way of knowing about my dog, or the guards, or the church. There would be no more chickens, and it wouldn’t be my home.

 

So here I am, with a wedding in the imminent future, waiting. People shower us with gifts and cards. Phrases such as “it’s so exciting to make a home for each other” hit hard. How am I supposed to make a home for someone else, when I can’t go back to mine? How am I supposed to make this tiny, university owned flat a home when it’s in a country foreign to me? How am I supposed to make meals, home-style dinners, when going to the nearest Kroger is still overwhelming? How am I supposed to invite people over to “our” home when I feel like a stranger in its walls? How am I supposed to make this space a home for Jeremiah, when I don’t even belong in it?

 

This thread of questions keeps me up late at night, wakes me in the early morning, grips me at work. These attacks on my future fatigue me, they call for me to give in, to put the ring back in the box, say a polite good bye and move on to the next place. But I can’t. I can’t leave. I can’t give power to the lies saying I’ll never have a home. I can’t give truth to the lies saying it’s better to run. I can’t give in. I almost do. Really, ashamedly, I’ve taken my ring off more times than I would like to say. I have come so close to pulling out old suitcases and packing them with new clothes, ready to board a plane and leave a life I don’t understand. What stops me is my question – where else will I go? Where, within this universe, can I go and say I will feel like I belong?

 

I do not have a home on this earth, and I never will. I do have a home, in the heavenly realm, with the perfect Father. I have a home free from turmoil, I have a home secured. I have a home overflowing with love. But it is not here. No, here I will not belong – not just in America or the UK, but on this earth. I will not belong. It is terrifying to know that, to think that there is no place my parents can conjure out of brick and mortar that will make me feel at home. It’s daunting to realize that daily I will walk alongside co-workers and find them complete strangers. I will not belong, but I will not be alone. Each day I will come back to Jeremiah’s waiting arms. Each night I will sleep folded in with one who loves me deeply, one who loves me well. Each morning I will wake wanting to know him more, and he will wake wanting the same. And we will go through our lives, day in and day out, not belonging to this world, but belonging to one another, and looking ahead to a heavenly, heavenly home.

On the MK Burden

Years ago, during the ages of exploration, Europeans came across people groups foreign to them. As their ships landed on the shores of Africa and South America, the Europeans were astonished to find civilizations living in manners so vastly different. From the moment of those first encounters, the pale Europeans took it upon themselves to educate and refine the darker skinned cultures they met. They called this responsibility the “white man’s burden.” They, as educated people were laden with the calling to reform the lands onto which their ships happened to beach.  Decades later, I believe, the burden isn’t gone. It has just changed. Both the need itself, and the people carrying it.

“Your parents are working for GOD. That is AWESOME.” “MK’s are the coolest kids out there – no one else has this opportunity!” “You should feel SO blessed to live this life.” These were the phrases thrown at me, and other MK’s, during annual mission meeting or school retreats. We were the wonder kids. We were the products of the Southern Baptist American dream. In the states, every church was praying for people like our parents, they were taking up offerings for our families, for our parent’s work. And there, in Africa, volunteers were handing us sour patch kids as if it was the greatest blessing they could bestow upon our sheltered minds.

But we were anything but sheltered.

We didn’t know about slushies or bubblegum inside lollipops. We didn’t know how to work digital cameras, Gameboys, or current fashion trends. And yet, because we were white and carried American passports we were supposed to be versed in this culture completely foreign to us. So, we spent one week out of the yearly 52 learning how to be America, hearing how great our lives were, how wonderful and important our parents work was, and then we were sent home. At home we met our faulty generators, dirty water, and cholera ridden neighborhoods. Our “sheltered” lives.

Yes, we were blessed. Yes, our parents work was awesome. Yes, we were the superstars of Christianity. But, as all sane celebrities say, being a star comes with a price. The burden of an MK can be two fold – guilt and silence.

And so, we all in our ways carried the burden. The MK burden. Some people carried it much better than others. Many of my friends gloried in being MKS, they were born to live on the mission field. Their feet were appropriately barefoot and their attitudes were properly enthusiastic. My feet were barefoot, and that’s where my claim to being a good MK ends. I followed my parents around the country of Angola, bumping along in the back seat for 16 hour journeys and I never felt like a “good” MK. I enjoyed the scenery, the experience, and some of the projects I was able to help with, but I also compiled baggage. As a child, I saw things my university peers will only ever see on the news. I saw epidemics, I saw poverty, I saw what civil war does to a country untouched by democracy. I saw starvation, water depravation, and the third world standard of living. All of these things were absorbed by my tiny eyes and stored in my little heart. I couldn’t tell you when the guilt started to grow, but I can definitively say it had grown exponentially by university. I saw these humanitarian atrocities accepted as the norm, and I got out. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense, most first world citizens would welcome consistent electricity and running water. In some way, to rationalize the feelings I have, I need to compare them to survivor’s guilt – a phenomenon in which tragedy strikes, some fall and some live. In my case, Angola was the tragedy. And I was a survivor, a privileged white American, able to escape on an aeroplane to a first class university, receive an education, and carry on in a western world I neither belong to or understand. The guilt of being able to plan a wedding here in America, while girls my age are on their third child in Angola, is at times overwhelming. It is one of the burdens MK carries.

The other is darker. Selfish. Introspective. It goes back to those loud statements from the volunteers. Our parents work is awesome. We are the superstars. So why are we so lonely? Why are we so desperate to leave when this work is so important? I don’t think I ever wanted my parents to leave their work until I was in high school. In Angola, I felt I had a home. My house was definitely ours, IKEA furniture and all, it was a safe, familiar place. In boarding school, nothing was familiar. Everyone has different families; families nothing like mine. Then my parents moved to the Middle East. And I was diagnosed with depression. Even then, in the midst of being lonely, very lost, and sitting in the counselor’s office week after week I never thought I had the freedom to ask my parents to leave. I couldn’t be the MK who failed. I couldn’t be the one who took two faithful individuals away from the Lord’s work. I couldn’t be that selfish. High school came and went, I don’t think I reached my lowest there, it just felt like it.

No, the lowest moments, the darkest moments came in university. New counselors, same pills. New roommates, same loneliness. And even then, in moments where I wanted to take my life, moments in which I wanted to see what would happen if I drove into oncoming traffic, or if I took the cut deeper, or took one too many Xanax, I couldn’t be honest. I wasn’t honest with my parents, my friends or myself. I buried the pain, smiled at the questions and told people “Yes my parents are missionaries in the Middle East, they work really hard and serve well.” I didn’t tell people “I’m angry, I’m alone, I wanted a home to grow up in, a home to go back to, I want to know that it’s okay to feel this terrible, even when my parents are doing such good work. I want to know I’m not an evil person for being bitter, when the life we’ve lived is the one of the faithful.” But I never said those words. I don’t know what would have happened if I had. I couldn’t say them. I couldn’t be the one MK who needed her parents to leave their work, I just needed to find other ways to get through it, shoulder the burden and move on.

This is, hopefully, the most inconclusive post I will ever write. I don’t have answers. I cannot tell other Third Culture Kids how to overcome the loneliness or the bitterness, because I haven’t done it myself. I can only tell them; I think it’s normal. I think, for some, being a third culture kid if second nature. And for others, we handle it in small, growing moments. We have moments of understanding, breakthroughs of compassion and gratefulness. We also have moments of irrational anger, confusion. We have moments where we wish we could crawl back into our past and build a safe house all around our childhood selves – a safe house that will never change, never move, never be left empty.

We move past those moments and enter reality. The truth is, my parents live overseas. Their house is in Scotland. In August, my home will reside in the heart of my husband. My parents work and serve well. It is hard. It does hurt. But it’s not the end. And, as I grow a little older, more honest words come out of my mouth, and the honesty (although I need to work on its delivery) will help to heal some of the past.

I hope someday to return to this post, maybe in ten or twenty years, and be able to add an author’s note. In it I hope to say something more substantial, something more decisive, to all the TCKs and MKs struggling with guilt, loneliness, fear – all of it. What I can say now is have faith. Have faith like your parents have faith. Trust, trust that God loves you, for what more in this world could we ask?

On Purpose

The end is coming. The time for the books to close, the caps to don, the tassels to flip. On the brink of University graduation, I sit in almost crushing silence. I sit, waiting for the answers to come – Where will I go? What will I do? With who? What do I want to do? For most, I have simple answers. I will be here. I will be a nurse. I will marry my fiancé and live with him – and move with him when the time comes. My friends will leave, and new ones will come. But as for the last, the question of desire, or perhaps better, the question of need. What do I need to do to feel purpose? To feel I am living a full life? I don’t need to be a nurse; I don’t need a nurse’s salary. I don’t need to be married. I don’t need to move.

I need to create. And to create well. After a year of working in a coffee shop I have come to express, at last, what I have been trying to tangibly explain for years. The art of process with the value of completion is at the core of being.

As children we learn simple actions of creation – we learn how to pour yellow paint into blue and create vibrant green. We learn how to plant little seeds into empty egg cartons and watch as little sprouts grow. We learn to mix flour with butter to create pastry by watching our mothers. We learn these things as a part of life, the essential aspects that make life, through our young eyes magical and wonderful and exciting. We crave this, we yearn to be the ones mixing the paint, watering the egg cartons and in control of the flour. Yet as we grow up, we grow farther away from this desire to create. We become accustomed to things ready made and simple, we ease ourselves into a luxurious life of immediate satisfaction. We delude ourselves with the corrupt whispers of society saying “this is the life, the fast track is the way, the only way to happiness.” Our professors ask how we will support ourselves, how will we make money, where are we going to work.  They do not ask how we will sustain our soul, how we will seek beauty, how we will create. The focus is shifted. We work for money, we work for status, we work to keep up with the tireless economy around us. We work, following dreams we never had in a world that never sleeps.

And I don’t want to do it anymore.

The coffee shop in which I worked was not a franchise. There was no provided health insurance, no Christmas bonuses or 12 pounds of coffee for free. No, there was only a purpose, a mission, to be a space of community, a space of intentional creation. While I worked there, yes there were days I did not want to sweep the floor – and I only did it out of obligation to my boss, but there were also days when I could not wait for someone to order a cappuccino – so I could serve them, and serve them well. There were days I could not wait to get to work on dusting, or mopping, or wiping syrup off the counters, because these were elements that affected the space – a space I was trying to create – a space of peace, thought, ingenuity, safety.

I find these same habits in myself elsewhere. When I dance, even a rhythmic and steady bit of ballet creates a space, a space of art and time and beauty. And I desire for the space that I fill, in that dance, to be filled well. When I write, I create sentences, I fill a space, on the paper, in someone’s mind, and I want it to be done well. When I run, I run to create a stronger body, a clearer mind. When I clean my room, I create a space for me, a place I know, a place of safety, serenity, unchanging. I do this innately now, and I wish to do it intentionally. To take the time each day to think about my actions, regard them with care, and move forward with good purpose – this would be ideal.

And this is truly what I want to do, to continue doing. For some, it’s their calling. My art major friends will confidently go on creating beautiful sculptures or portraits. The musicians will make music, the scientists will make discoveries, the engineers will make efficient equipment, the financiers will make good businesses. And the rest? What of me? The nurse. The writer. The longing philosopher sitting in a cap and gown that feels more like a straight jacket. The student, almost a grad, with a propelled career path, headed straight to making money. Money to pay off loans. Money to pay for groceries. Money. They ask me how much money will I make? What will you be making? What does that job make? If you measure its making on money, then it makes nothing. It spurns a desire for greed that snuffs out the creativity of man.

No, no I will create. For we are all, in some way, shards of a great Creator. We are all reflective of His will and longing to create. And so I will follow that. I will create. Be it good meals, intentional conversation, written prose, poorly painted watercolours on rainy days, good cups of coffee, bad cups of coffee, gardens, space. I will create, I will open the space for people to be comfortable, vulnerable and raw. I will create community with those like minded and those unalike. I will create a place where beauty can be cultivated, and the Creator glorified in manifest ways.

I have not held a post graduate job yet, but I imagine when I start I will be stressed and anxious and lost, clinging to some lost direction. I hope I do not lose the purpose of why I am there. To create. And to create well.

On The Skirts of Tragedy

Once someone looked at me during a conversation and said plainly, “You’ve experienced a lot of tragedy in your life.” At the time I didn’t have the clarity to contradict them. But it wasn’t true. Their statement was simply false – I, myself, have not experienced great amounts of tragedy. I have only observed it, as a spectator in the great gladiator fight of life.

 

While growing up I was surrounded, as you know, by a large cement wall. This kept tragedy on my doorstep, and never inside. When we ventured out in our Toyota Hilux I would see children with swollen bellies and red tinged hair – cardinal signs of malnutrition. I would see girls my age hauling unclean water from miles, to last their family a single day (maybe). I would see the signs of poverty, illness, the results of a long struggle against war and fate. I would see the shadow tragedy makes on others, and be safe from his strike in my generator lit, food filled kitchen.

 

During high school I saw the same sites. Outside my school borders there were people living in tin houses with tarp roofs. There were people with little farms trampled by starving goats. There were children waiting in line for hospital visits that would never save them from the ailments of being impoverished. Within my school I knew people whose parents were exiled, whose families were in danger, moving from one bombed out country to the next. I watched as my friends cried over their losses, the deaths, the sorrows they had been asked to bear. I watched as tragedy snuck around in the night and bit those unaware heels. My feet were unmarked. My prayers were for myself, my own pain, conjured within myself. I was safe from tragedy.

 

When university came, I was faced with tastes of tragedy. My heart was broken. I was lost. I made friends and I lost them, one to death, one to leaving, and some to the evils of time and fear. I remember sitting at my friend’s funeral, staring at the open casket in a state of disbelief. I remember her laughter, her conversation, the plans she had that will never be fulfilled. But she wasn’t my childhood best friend, she wasn’t my daughter or sister as she was to others. She had walked into my life for a time, and I happened to be close when her time was over. It wasn’t a tragedy. It was an occurrence.

 

I have another funeral this Friday. The mother of some dear friends, an untimely death of a loving parent and an inspiring woman. An unfair and cruel attack of the shadow I have avoided for so long. And still, this is not my tragedy. I can feel for them. I can cry for them. I can pray for them. But I will not look this darkness in the eyes every morning and choose to push through – that will be their fight. Their tragedy. I will simply stand with the outliers. Smiling with condolences.

 

Often I wonder when my time will come to be struck with tragedy. Though I know this is an unusual, possibly even psychotic thought, on which to dwell. Still, it lurks in the back of my mind. Why have so many of my friends had to bear so much and I have to stand there, with my life lined up and offer empty words of comfort? Why have I had to watch as circumstances destroy those around me, held them in their fits of crying, stopped them from destroying themselves, when I can wake each day and know – my parents are alive and they love me, my fiancé is alive and he loves me, I am alive and I am learning to love myself. These are truths I take for granted, and my friends are faced with the opposite daily.

 

Perhaps it’s selfish of me to want tragedy. I’m exhausted of being one from whom comfort comes. My compassion is depleted. My sympathy is running on empty. And my guilt is only accumulating. My guilt for observing so much depravation and giving nothing back. My guilt for watching my friends lose so, so much, while I plan for a life of growing fullness. My guilt at being happy and healed when so many I know are in the very midst of despair, stumbling around, shrouded by the cloak of tragedy – true tragedy.

 

Perhaps my role is very straightforward among those in pain – I am meant to comfort and to relieve, not to bear. As I study to be a nurse this reality becomes even more apparent. As I zip up the bags of those deceased, or numb the pain of accidents, or hold the hand of the crying, I am only one who relieves, only one who is standing on the side lines, offering what I can to dissipate some of the hurt. I can only soften the blows dealt out daily by this fallen world. I can only hold the hand of someone else, and even as they squeeze all their sadness into my fingers, I will never feel the weight of their tragedy in my being.

 

I have not experienced great, overwhelming tragedy in my life. I have had unpleasant encounters with it. I have been served the unfortunate appetizers of tragedy but never been consumed by the whole festering meal. For the sake of those I know, I wish I could give more in the way of empathy, more truth to the words “I understand” but I can’t. I’ve only even observed sweeping tragedies – from my own backyard, from reading the news, from hearing the stories of those closest to me. I’m still dancing on the skirt of tragedy, praying I never experience it fully and hoping the guilt of praying such a prayer is silenced by all the condolence letters I send.

On Not Being a Straight “A” Student

 

I’m sure we can all remember the first time we received a less than pleasing mark on a school assignment. If you’re one of those who never fails, then you’re displeasing grade was probably a B, or a B- at worst. Others of us were not so fortunate. It’s almost cruel – how we spend our first year in academics rigorously learning the order of letters and numbers only to have them hauntingly dictate our success later in life. It makes the ABC tune a little sadistic once you pass the third letter…. No one should be quite that happy singing about D’s and F’s.

While I was growing up I was a bright student. There wasn’t anything too difficult about learning how to read, or memorizing certain dates and what happened in battles and who invented what. I did of course cry over rudimentary math sheets – I don’t know who hasn’t shed a few tears over misplaced decimal points and fractions, but it was nothing detrimental to the continuation of my studies. Even when I walked into high school, I was confident in my intelligence. High grades should come easy shouldn’t they?

They did not.

For the first two years I sailed along quite happily. Nothing dreadful happens in Geometry, or Chemistry, and sophomore English was a delight with the amount of creative writing assignments we were allowed. Even my Junior year was fairly smooth, with a few challenges from AP courses but nothing drastic. No, I was abiding by my own expectations of well rehearsed studying, memorization and regurgitation on each test. The results were good –  and then there was Calculus.

I still remember receiving my first test grade during Senior year. I don’t remember taking the test though, perhaps that was a traumatic experience and my memory has kindly destroyed it. When my teacher handed me those stapled papers though, with lots of evil red writing and a large, obvious “D” printed on the front, I was crushed. I had never been a “D” student. Those students didn’t take 3 AP courses in one year. Those students were not on a varsity sports team. Those students were not in school plays each semester. Those students did not receive high marks on dreadful standardized tests. But here I was holding a paper with a letter that made all that evidence void. I WAS a “D” student, maybe not entirely, but I did now have to recognize solidarity with those who were not identified as “stellar students.” And it was difficult.

Tears of frustration fell during multiple studying sessions. I poured over derivatives and integrals. I made myself mad while scribbling out equations, double checking them again and again. I humbled myself by asking friends for help – friends who I had once believed were “less scholarly” than myself. What did that even mean? – I wondered. How could I have believed that good grades in geometry and well written essays could make me invincible to the failing grades dealt out by our teachers’ year after year?

The long hours of work paid off with a simple, honest “B” in Calculus. I thought I would never be so proud of a grade less than an A as I was of that one. Until I started Nursing School that is. I thought the days of difficult, drudging studying was behind me when I turned in my scientific calculator to another poor student. But they were not. The days of being humbled by less than satisfying grades were far from over – and in fact with my university’s five-point grading scale they had only become more brutal. High school had only skimmed the surface at my ego – nursing school excavated its entirety.

I’m not finished with Nursing School yet. In fact, I’m diligently studying for a test that won’t take place for another 3 weeks – because I need to raise my grade in the course. And that is what university has been for me, a consistent need to raise my grade, sometimes for my own satisfaction and sometimes a necessity for continuing.

This grueling labour for school is something I had never associated with myself before now. Even when I was struggling through Calculus as a teenager, strangers would make the assumption that I was smart, intelligent, bright, a “straight A student” for sure. I did not correct them. Perhaps they thought this because I like to read, or can carry on a conversation with people much older than me without much error. Or perhaps they just assumed because I’m well dressed and have intelligent parents that school would come easy to me. It doesn’t – and that is something I have only just learned to admit.

I’m not a student who can look over a power point twice and understand the content. I’m not a student who can read the chapter once and ace the test. No, I’m the late night studier, I’m the note card writer, the scrambler, the one trying to understand the concept and also just trying to pass the test. I’m the one swamped with notes and books in the library, constantly on the verge of tears due to stress, sleep deprivation, or hopelessness. I don’t check my grades until I’m alone, able to handle the disappointment or the joy in peace. And I’m the kind who has had to learn time and time again my worth is not in my grades, nor in my performance at school, but in my faith, my Father.

Although there are days when I am certain my university will send me a later saying “I’m sorry – you are not the academic scholar we expected, please find a rudimentary community college to which you are more suited” – there are an equal number of days when I am proud to work hard for my grades. Though they aren’t the best in my class, there won’t be any “cum laude” certifications for me at graduation, I will have a diploma. I will have learned the material required to pass nursing school. Far beyond that, I will have learned that I am not a straight A student, but I am a hard worker.

I hope this is an encouragement to those who find themselves defeated by the rigorous expectations of today’s culture. We are required to make certain grades, certain scores, be involved in certain programmes, have an on campus presence, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We know it’s impossible. Professors know it’s impossible. But we push ourselves to the brink of exhaustion just the same. So I plead with you to stop. As I had to learn – we cannot achieve perfection. We cannot ace every test, paper or not, placed in front of us. Some days I think we should all stop and take notice of Moulin Rouge’s famous line “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is to love and be loved in return.” If only that was the philosophy of academia – how to achieve the ability to love at your fullest capacity and accept that love in return. But that is for another post, another time.

For now, my fellow less than perfect students, let’s embrace the opportunity we have been given – to study, to work persistently towards our goals, and to practice the humility of saying “No, I’m not a straight A student, and that’s okay.”