Skip to content

Change of plans

A few months back I purchased a throw pillow that reads, “Sometimes our plans don’t work out because God has better ones.” It seemed a fitting motto for my life, which has taken directions I never would have imagined as a college student majoring in Latin American Studies fifteen years ago. Had someone told me I would be living in Mexico, Brazil, or Argentina by 2017, I would have eagerly believed them and anxiously awaited my future abroad.

Had someone told me, on the other hand, that by 2017 I would be a divorced mother teaching math in Montana, I would have been taken aback–and maybe even cried. What would I use my foreign language skills for? Why would I be teaching math? How on earth would I take care of two children on my own when I wasn’t even sure I wanted children?

As I drove across Interstate 90 last night between Billings and Livingston, where my boyfriend resides, I reflected back in wonder at the unexpected twists and turns my life has taken. Passing the Crazy Mountains, still capped in white above the greening prairie below, I recalled my first trip across Montana in 2003, when I hitched a ride to Seattle with several students from the University of Washington who had volunteered on the same construction project in Lame Deer as I had. At the time, I had never before seen snow-capped mountains or driven across mile-high passes; I remember thinking that the Continental Divide between Whitehall and Butte resembled the set of Indiana Jones in MGM Studios because I had only seen such massive boulders as replicas back east.

Now I drive past the Crazies several times a month and, although I am still awed by Montana’s magnificent beauty, it is no longer a novelty but rather home.

Had someone told me the mere facts of my current life over a decade ago, I would have tried to change it–but had they told me the feelings I would enjoy (and suffer) and the incredible growth I would experience, I would have left God’s plan well enough alone. I never would have guessed that I would make my difference in the world in the middle of Montana, but this is where God wanted me, and I know this to be true because I feel an indescribable sense of belonging and purpose in this place even though I have no family history here and no childhood memories that connect to any state west of Ohio.

And this is why God doesn’t allow us to see into the future: because we can’t predict the ways in which either the expected or the unexpected will shape us and change us. Just like no mathematical model can perfectly predict climate change because there are simply too many variables to consider, our non-omniscient human minds could never hope to map out our own futures and know that we would be sending ourselves down a path of fulfillment.

I ended up in Montana because I acted on a gut feeling to take a job teaching math on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. I have no doubt that “gut” feeling was, in fact, the Holy Spirit whispering in my ear to make the move out west and abandon my personal dreams of living abroad. Had I taken an overseas job with the federal government (I was, in fact, offered one), I would have made great friends, increased my language fluency, and thoroughly enjoyed South American music and cuisine–but those are all personal pleasures that wouldn’t have satisfied my core desire to contribute something significant and positive to the world. In fact, it likely would have done just the opposite because the information I would have been gathering would have been out of my hands and in the control of the federal government, which would have done God knows what with it (and God surely knew, which is why He gave me the gut feeling to decline the NSA job and accept the teaching job).

Now that I have met a man who shares the unique blend of passions and interests that I have–and, most importantly, a faith in the same God–I am even more convinced that I am right where I am supposed to be.

The moral of the story is to twofold: for one, have faith that the direction your life is taking will lead to fulfillment even if you can’t imagine it now. Believe me, I was struggling mightily a year and a half ago when I was newly divorced and wondering what the hell I was going to do in Billings, MT, for the next 16 years while my girls went through school (because I wasn’t going to move them away from their dad). But I maintained my faith and my prayers, and almost magically, a position at the university was offered to me despite not having the full credentials (yet) for a tenure-track position. And somehow, I’ve managed to both perform well in my position and maintain quality time with my girls, who have taught me about the tattoo I got on my back before they were even a thought in my mind: “The greatest of these is love.” Oh, what we think we know before we have children!

Second, learn to trust your gut. I believe this comes along with prayer, because my most convincing gut feelings have come when I’ve first taken the time to pray earnestly about my situation, as I did during and after my divorce. The most helpful prayers for me have not been of the form, “Please God, let x happen,” but rather, “God, help me to sense your will and have the strength to follow it.” I sensed, I followed, and I honestly don’t think I could be happier, especially not if life had gone according to my own plan.

Amen.

Advertisements

Sick days

My four-year-old woke up with a fever this morning so I kept her home from preschool, meaning I had to miss a day of work. For me, this isn’t a huge deal–I am able to do some of my work from home and can communicate with my students through email to keep my classes more or less on pace in terms of content and assignments.

For other parents, however, missing a day of work is a stressful choice, one that means important bills might not get paid (at best) or a job might be lost (at worst). As I lied next to Libby in bed tonight while she fell to sleep, gently stroking her hair, my heart ached for parents who are forced to choose between caring for their children and making ends meet. What a painful decision it must be to give your feverish child Tylenol in the morning in the hopes that his or her fever will stay under the radar long enough to make it through a day of preschool or daycare so that you don’t have to risk losing essential income or your job.

As a society, we shouldn’t be forcing parents to make these decisions. Children end up feeling unwanted and unloved and parents end up feeling guilty–and other kids end up getting sick because they’re exposed to ill children that our society is too pressed for time and money to properly care for. Children, whose hearts are by nature so tender and innocent, end up hardened at younger and younger ages because they can sense that adults care more about productivity and the bottom line than about quality time.

I’m not one to support an expanded welfare system–I’ve seen the pitfalls of government handouts in low-income communities where I’ve lived–but I do support living wages and more flexibility for parents in the workforce. In the meantime, when you kiss your children goodnight, say a prayer for those parents who have to make painful choices between giving their children the gift of their time or the necessities of food and shelter. Given what I know about global economics, I’m pretty sure those of us who can do both at once are in the slim minority. Let us recognize how extremely blessed we are and do our best to support and fight for better rights for all parents and their children.

Double life

Being a single parent often makes me feel as if I’m caught between two different worlds. On the one hand, I have wonderful mom friends who can empathize with what it takes to be a good parent–but having husbands, they rarely have time to see me on my days off from work because those are their husbands’ days off as well. On the other hand, I have an amazing group of non-parent friends who are almost always up for fun when I don’t have my girls with me–but who get to see each other far more often than I get to see them because they don’t have children to take care of 60 percent of the time.

I’m not complaining about my situation and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love my children and they have taught me my most important lesson in life: that it isn’t all about me. Ironically, having my life become tied to my children has been one of my most freeing experiences because it has broken me of my habit of feeling in control of my life and of becoming aggravated when things didn’t go as I had hoped or planned. Although I’ve always been a conscientious person who endeavors to make the world a better place, I was once very particular about my personal schedule: I wanted to help and care for others on my terms and at my convenience.

I now expect that most things likely won’t go as I hope or plan and instead live by a motto that adorns one of my throw pillows: “Sometimes our plans don’t work out because God has better ones.” Indeed, the fact that, on most days, I feel extremely happy and content with where I ended up in life must indicate that He knows what He’s doing–because being a single parent in Billings, Montana, was certainly never a part of MY plans! But I’m happy nonetheless.

That being said, it can still be tough to live between the starkly different worlds of parent and non-parent. When I’m spending time with my non-parent friends, I frequently feel pangs of longing for my two beautiful girls as I pause between conversations and realize that several days will go by before I again see the two people I love the most. When I have my girls, I sometimes feel pangs of jealousy when I hear of an event or gathering that all of my friends will be attending without me because I’ll be at home giving baths and tucking in my children, then quietly reading or working while they sleep.

Most of the time the Gemini in me doesn’t mind jumping between these two different worlds every 4-5 days when my ex and I exchange our girls. But sometimes, on days like today, when no one else is around and it’s just me in my apartment, the solitude feels oppressive. So I write to flush out the emotions that periodically build up inside, knowing that they shall pass and I will soon feel gratitude and optimism in my heart again. In fact, I already feel better…

Live simply so others can simply live

My mom recently shared with me a motivating op-ed from the New York Times about ways in which folks can react productively to Donald Trump’s election. The op-ed lists 12 steps a person can take to bring about positive change to confront the discouraging outcome. Were I to write my own list, it would look much like this one–but with one major addition: I WILL live more simply.

I believe that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, fail to recognize the connections between our lifestyle and dirty politics. Americans, on average, consume FAR more resources than any other people on the planet: we drive more, we live in larger homes, we consume more processed foods (which require more packaging and transport than raw foods), and we spend gobs of time utilizing energy-consuming devices such as televisions, computers, tablets, and smart phones (yes, I recognize the mild hypocrisy in sharing this message on just such a device–but I will shut it down and unplug it when I’m done).

How does our level of consumption connect us to dirty politics? All of our politicians are charged with upholding our “quality of life,” which amounts to defending our nation’s claim on resources (including people, such as low-wage workers) around the globe. Neither party can truly pursue economic or social justice if we all expect to continue consuming approximately 20% of the world’s resources when we make up only about 5% of the world’s population–as a math teacher, I can assure you the numbers don’t work out.

I am not advocating that we all abandon our homes, jobs, and hobbies to retreat to the woods, but I AM advocating that we learn to relinquish some of our so-called luxuries as residents of the wealthiest nation on earth. I, for one, do not own a smart phone (the phone I do own will go for 4-5 days without needing to be charged) and, although I own a personal vehicle (two, in fact), I rarely drive one unless I’m leaving town (which isn’t very often): I choose instead to ride my bike wherever I go, even on frosty mornings like today when everyone else is running their cars for 15 minutes prior to even driving so that the occupants won’t have to suffer a moment of chilliness during their morning commutes.

I also make sure to turn off lights when I leave a room and unplug all of my devices and appliances when I’m not using them. Surprisingly large quantities of “phantom” energy is wasted while our microwaves, TVs, computers, coffee makers, etc., rest unused but plugged in; unplugging them prevents this waste. I also reuse as much as possible: I use old wash cloths and tattered clothes to clean up spills and messes rather than wasting paper towels; I use glass jars from previous food purchases to store leftovers. I bring these jars to the food co-op to purchase bulk items such as beans, rice, honey, and peanut butter so that I don’t have to waste plastic containers. And, speaking of spills, I use water rather than chemical cleaners for most household cleaning (except for toilets, which I DON’T flush every single time I tinkle, and tubs–they get an “eco-friendly” cleaning product). A sterile environment is terrible for our gut flora anyway 😉

Most important, I don’t buy much of anything except for food–and most of the food I do buy comes from within a few hundred miles of where I live. Although it costs me more to purchase local and organic foods, I do so because it is better for our farmers (living wages) and better for the environment. My food budget is easily my second-largest expense after rent, and I can make it work because I don’t spend much money on clothes, shoes, makeup, accessories, or household items. Almost nothing in my apartment matches because I’ve bought it used or received it as hand-me downs, but it’s functional and that’s what matters. My clothes are surely not in season (unless the season they were purchased in years ago happens to be back in style) but they keep me covered.

I am not sharing these ideas to toot my own horn, but rather to offer suggestions for ways in which others can begin to cut down on their consumption as well–and, in turn, to begin to cut their ties to dirty money and dirty politics.

Live simply so others can simply live. It’s the best way that I can think of to achieve social justice, and it doesn’t require waiting four years to make a change.

What do white and minority men have in common?

I’ve been reflecting on this question ever since a lengthy conversation I shared with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago about the social issues surrounding public education in the United States. During the conversation, my friend commented on his experience growing up in a small Montana school district in which it was “uncool” for boys to be smart. He expressed feeling like somewhat of an outcast because he was (and is) indeed smart, and his fellow classmates knew it. His comment struck me because a similar phenomenon is commonly documented in minority communities, where black students can be labeled “white chocolate” or “oreos” and native students can be labeled “apples”—colored on the outside but white on the inside—for excelling in school, suggesting that if one is good at school, she or he is less authentically ethnic than others of their skin color.

This parallel prompted me to begin questioning my perceptions of dominant culture and what exactly constitutes it. The typical assumption is that white males are at the helm of society and that the dominant culture is therefore defined and shaped by them. But is it? If it is, why do we see this resistance to education—which advances one within the dominant culture—among so many white men?

I am not a white male, so I cannot presume too much here, but my theory is that there is a large swath of the white male population that is, like males of minority populations, excluded from dominant culture in a way so significant that it stimulates visceral reactions against anything that smacks of white, educated elites, prompting them to reject even common-sense opportunities like public education. This theory makes sense in light of the widespread support for Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate.

So how are certain white males excluded from dominant society? They enjoy all of the benefits of their sex and skin color, don’t they? Why would they have any reason to feel threatened? My sense is that some very similar dynamics have played out in white communities in the old industrial belt and in rural America as have played out in many minority communities over the past several decades, during which manufacturing jobs have diminished and farming has been overtaken by multinational conglomerates. Thousands of white men, like minority men, have lost their livelihoods and their dignity as the jobs they once relied upon have been shifted overseas or to corporate control. They can no longer provide for their families without a second income or government support, and in our culture, when men feel wounded, they are taught to fight rather than to reflect upon and process their emotions. Since there is no single identifiable villain to physically fight, they fight both by scapegoating AND by resisting those who are still seemingly successful: white educated males and females (which explains the vehement opposition to Hillary Clinton).

What I’m suggesting here is that we begin to recognize the ways in which these white men have been made to feel devalued much as we have made it a national priority to recognize the ways in which minorities are sidelined and mistreated in our country. I am not suggesting that their experiences are identical (or that we forget about the very real history of racism in our country), but I am suggesting that white men will only become angrier if we continue to focus our attention on minority issues while diminishing the loss of dignity experienced by white men simply because they are white and we therefore assume their problems aren’t as important or worthy of attention as those of minorities. All human beings feel a strong desire for recognition and worth, and most will fight for that recognition and worth if it isn’t offered to them. So let’s include white men in conversations about marginalized groups because many of them have been marginalized—and we’re only making their feelings of marginalization worse by treating them as if they all enjoy the same benefits that educated white men from wealthy family backgrounds enjoy, because they don’t.

Wanderlust

Wandering brings us to the wild edges of life, where things are no longer neatly or safely contained. We have to embrace more chaos, more messiness, and discover the sacred even there.

Christine Valters Paintner

Indeed it does. Wandering across the globe has stretched and shaped me into the person I am today, forcing me to confront my own privilege, bias, and, at times, naivety. It has tested, and in many cases, upended my assumptions about people and about life, and it has even tested my faith, for I have wandered to places where people believe differently than I do.

Interestingly, and wonderfully, however, it has never shaken my commitment to the core values I learned as a child growing up in church: that there is no greater purpose or calling in life than to love and care for others and for the planet. Witnessing blatant discrimination, seeing abject poverty, experiencing emotional abuse–none of these things has caused me to abandon my belief in the power of love; to the contrary, they have only served to strengthen my resolve, for there is already too much pain and too much drama in this world for me to add to the negativity.

Although I no longer wander much in the literal sense, my thoughts still often wander to the places I’ve been and to the people I’ve met. While I sit here in my chair in Billings, MT, I yearn for others to achieve a peace as deep as I’ve discovered in coming to understand that this life is not about me but about far greater and more mysterious things, and that feelings of love are at the center of those things: love for family, love for friends, love for neighbors and strangers alike, and love for Creation and the Creator, whoever he or she may be.

There is an intangible order to this world that we haven’t yet achieved as a human race but are hopelessly striving for in all the wrong ways. Order will not arise out of political, economic, or legal systems but rather out of meaningful human relationships. By simply loving one another and embracing ourselves and those around us in our current state of affairs and loving one another to the point where walls and fences come down and bridges go up, we will both fulfill our natural cravings for connection and create harmony in this world.

It may seem like a pipe dream, but I believe very strongly that love is the only way. Indeed, as William Barclay wrote in his study of the Book of Mark,

Every economic problem would be solved if men lived for what they could do for others and not for what they could get for themselves. Every political problem would be solved if the ambition of men was only to serve the state and not to enhance their own prestige. The divisions and disputes which tear the church asunder would for the most part never occur if the only desire of its office-bearers and its members was to serve it without caring what position they occupied. When Jesus spoke of the supreme greatness and value of the man whose ambition was to be a servant, he laid down one of the greatest practical truths in the world.

The rest of the world may continue to seek solutions to its problems by electing the right people and passing the right public policy, but as for me, I will continue to strive to love and serve others with a full and open heart whether I change the world or not, and whether it loves me back or not. Call me crazy, but doing so feels so right to me that I know there must be a God out there planting the seeds.

Loneliness

Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.

~Henry Rollins

I recorded this quote years ago because it resonated so strongly with me. It captures the way I feel when I hike up to the top of a hill on my own, or when I bike or drive across the countryside with only God as my companion. Traveling alone has opened me to opportunities and conversations I never would have had traveling with a partner, and living on my own grants me the peace and quiet I need to reflect on life.

But loneliness also has its drawbacks. I read a post today on a friend’s Facebook page entitled “Being single is hard.” The article linked to the post discussed the usual pros and cons of singledom but zeroed in on the author’s perspective of the worst aspect of being alone: never getting touched. She went on to write,

Did you chuckle to yourself when you read that because it sounded like I was talking about masturbation? That’s not a coincidence. That is part of the problem.

We don’t even value platonic touch enough for it to exist in our lexicon without a sexual overtone. Most people in relationships have their need for touch met incidentally, but when you are single, it is very hard to get this need met. And, I have it better than most. I am female, I do massage trades sometimes. I have the type of liberal friends I can talk to about this openly with, or liberal friends I’m even a little cuddly with sometimes. I have a cat. But like, my god, years of not being touched is fucking hard and no one admits this.

After reflecting on the article for awhile, I realized that this is not the hardest aspect of being single for me, although it is certainly challenging: the hardest thing for me is not having someone to talk to about the ups and downs of my days. Yes, I can talk to friends. And yes, I can always talk to my mom. But there is no single person in my life who is primarily concerned with me. I don’t mean that in a selfish way, as if I want someone’s life to be devoted to me. What I mean is that I am not the person anyone else is calling or texting just to say “hi” in the middle of the day; I am not the person anyone else is checking in with about dinner or weekend plans; I am not the person someone else is rooting for when I leave for work in the morning and checking in with when I return home at night.

I realize that my circumstance is partly a predicament of my personality. As an INTJ/INFJ (sometimes I test as one, sometimes as the other), I hover somewhere between a loner and a socialite, not really quite one or the other. Indeed,

INFJs are deeply concerned about their relations with individuals as well as the state of humanity at large. They are, in fact, sometimes mistaken for extroverts because they appear so outgoing and are so genuinely interested in people — a product of the Feeling function they most readily show to the world. On the contrary, INFJs are true introverts, who can only be emotionally intimate and fulfilled with a chosen few from among their long-term friends, family, or obvious “soul mates.”

To complicate matters more,

Beneath the quiet exterior, INFJs hold deep convictions about the weightier matters of life.

…meaning I am never thinking about the sorts of things that are conducive to finding a best female friend that could preclude the need for a male partner. I don’t think about clothes or makeup or hair–not that that’s all other women think about, but it’s certainly an “in” of sorts to get a conversation and a relationship going. Few people–except for other INFJs or INTJs (and we are apparently in the extreme minority) want to launch right into a discussion on the meaning of life or on what it will take to save the world the very first time they meet someone.

So, I’ve never really had a best friend. I’ve had good friends, but they’ve all had someone else who is their best friend. They have someone else they call or text first to vent about their fight with their boyfriend or husband, or to tell about their latest parenting victory or job promotion.

I’m not complaining, and I’m certainly not criticizing anyone in my life for my circumstance. I am who I am and most of the time I’m happy to simply sit by myself and listen to my little girls breathe quietly in their sleep as I read into the evening. But on some nights–like tonight, when I’m without my girls–the loneliness gets to me just a little, and so I do what most INFJs do best: I write.