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If you can’t change places, change perspectives

The level of discontent in our society troubles me, especially when I see it surface in the people around me. I watch and listen as so many people bemoan busy schedules, too many chores, tight budgets, a desire to purchase things they don’t have… and the list goes on.

As someone who has ended up in a city I never wanted to live in sharing my children with an ex-husband who refuses to co-parent productively, I have plenty to complain about. I could easily dwell on being stuck in Billings, missing out on nearly 50 percent of my children’s lives, and any number of negative outcomes associated with my circumstances. But that would make a sucky situation even worse, so since I can’t change places, I choose instead to change my perspective.

It’s easy to look inward and feel sorry for ourselves when life isn’t going as we had hoped or planned–but these are precisely the moments in which we need to instead look outward and focus on the opportunities in our circumstances rather than the constraints.

Let me share a few examples. When I found myself divorced and living in a small apartment in a city far away from any family or close friends, I felt panic arise in my gut. I was stuck where I was for the foreseeable future without the ability to relocate to find a new job or to pursue graduate school or even to recover from my marriage amidst loved ones. For a wanderer like me, my new reality was a hard pill to swallow–but in it, I also recognized opportunity: the chance to finally set down roots and really get to know a community well enough to make the kind of lasting difference I had always hoped to make as a young idealist. Rather than wallow in my isolation, I became more actively involved in local movements to improve the quality of life in Billings. Through my involvement, I made close friendships and did contribute to making change in the form of a local food hub that now enables community members to purchase healthy, locally grown foods from farmers and ranchers right here in the Yellowstone Valley.

Another example: I spend many nights packing lunches, soaking beans and lentils, prepping sourdough, and otherwise ensuring that my family will have wholesome food to eat each day. While I could (and sometimes do) grumble about my lack of free time or inability to just chill out on my couch at the end of each day, I view my time in the kitchen as an opportunity to connect with women around the world, many of whom still spend a majority of their days consumed by food preparation. I feel a sense of camaraderie standing alone in my kitchen at the same time as countless women around the world stand in their kitchens, engaged in the very important work of sustaining their families. I also feel a strong sense of gratitude, for I know that many of those women have to work far harder than I do to provide far fewer calories to bodies that need much more than the women are able to offer.

Every moment of our days is an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and to be thankful for what we have, whether or not it is what we thought we wanted. There is opportunity to learn and grow from discomfort, to challenge ourselves to turn discontentment into contentment and even joy.

If you think your glass is half empty, it will remain so. But if you think your glass is half full, you will soon find it overflowing for it is our perspective on life that matters far more than our circumstances.


A Gemini sense of home

This past weekend, I visited my home town for the first time in four years. The visit generated—or perhaps simply released—unexpected emotions. When I first purchased my plane tickets, I couldn’t wait to go “home.” Then a slew of invitations to do fun things in Billings during the weekend I would be gone dampened my enthusiasm such that I drove to the Billings-Logan International Airport with a mixture of excitement and regret.

When I arrived at the University Park Airport in State College on Friday night, I still felt a measure of regret at having chosen to spend one of the last of my summer weekends in Pennsylvania instead of Montana, where I could have gone mountain biking, played volleyball, practiced acrobatic yoga, and helped friends herd cattle. As soon as I exited the airport terminal, an equally strong regret of having not been able to bring my children with me to PA surfaced upon seeing the flickering lights of fireflies dancing across the forests and fields that blanket Centre County; Libby and Paige would have so loved to run about catching these glow-in-the-dark bugs that are elusive in Montana.

Over the course of the weekend, as I relished in old friendships and the green, moist beauty of central PA, my regrets at having chosen State College over Billings faded (although I still dearly missed my children). By Monday afternoon, when I was supposed to pack up and return to Montana, I wasn’t disappointed at all to receive a text message from United informing me that a leg of my return flight had been canceled (due to “traffic control conditions,” whatever that means) and that I would instead be placed on an early-morning flight the next day. I had one more night to converse with Dr. Yapa and to watch the lightning bugs emerge and take over the lawn, trees, and bordering stream bed like twinkling Christmas lights—and to take some photos that I hadn’t bothered to take up until I was granted an extended opportunity to capture PA’s beauty so I could show it off to my husband and children across the country.

When I awoke at 5AM for my flight and noticed a message from my husband, I realized my dilemma in responding to him: how does one say she will shortly be on her way home when she is also leaving home? I ended up avoiding the word altogether and simply texted that I would soon be on my way back to Montana.

As my flight from State College to Dulles departed, I was surprised to find my eyes welling up with tears. The last time I flew out of State College, it ended up being four years before I returned. How long will it be this time? While my plan in my mind is to bring my girls and, hopefully, my husband next summer so they can get to know the people and places that I loved for two decades of my life (and still love to this day), I can’t know now whether I will be able to do so or not. It could be another four years or more before—if—I ever get back.

It is a somewhat melancholy feeling to have such deep, meaningful relationships to both the land and people in two distinct places—especially when you are the only entity connecting those two places. My husband has never been to central PA or met any of my friends there, nor has my youngest daughter. Although my oldest daughter was with me at a dear friend’s wedding four years ago, she was too young to remember it, or anyone. And none of my friends from PA have yet made it out to Montana, so they only know of my life here through my stories and Facebook posts. I feel a longing for these two worlds to meld together: for my daughters to experience the place where I grew up—to roll in thick, soft grass and catch lightning bugs like I did as a child, to play with my girlfriends’ children, and to get to know the people who helped to shape me—as well as for my friends “back home” to see and experience my current world in Montana—to attend a powwow, to hike in snow-capped mountains, to ride across the prairie and feel awe at the vastness of a land uncovered by dense forests and foliage.

On the one hand, I feel a desire to have my two worlds become one. Yet on the other, the Gemini in me enjoys having two worlds to straddle, in having parts of me that are only known to certain people in certain places, and other parts of me that are a mystery to those people in those places.

It’s a curious feeling I harbor now as I fly across the country on my flight between Dulles and Denver, leaving one world to return to another. I realize that due, in part, to my many addresses, my world travel, and my tendency to ruminate more than talk, only God and myself, and a few select people who have conversed with me at length about my ruminations, really know me very well. It is simultaneously a saddening feeling and an exhilarating feeling.

Somehow, I am both a person who longs for and relishes deep connections with others but who also finds a sense of personal intimacy in not being fully known to others. During many moments of my life, it’s just me and God, and I like those moments. I feel deeply rooted in myself and my beliefs no matter where I am in the world, and it must be that feeling that enables me to thrive even when I’m far away from people I dearly love—which happens to be an everyday experience for me.

lEtting GO

But the other part of our dilemma is to confront the monstrous self that occludes our vision, separates us from other beings, and makes death such an intolerable prospect.

Barbara Ehrenreich pens these words in her new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. An underlying thesis of the book is that we are so obsessed with ourselves—with our own health, success, and happiness—that our egos end up dominating our lives. If we are not attempting to control others, most of us are at least guilty of attempting to control every aspect of our own lives, from our schedules and expenditures to our diets and appearances, often to the detriment of the health and happiness we seek. We chide our children and others by reminding them that the world doesn’t revolve around them while simultaneously living as if the world revolves around us.

In her book, Ehrenreich quotes Susan Sontag, who wrote the following in her personal journal as she suffered from cancer: “Death is unbearable unless you can get beyond the ‘I.’” Life too, I believe, is unbearable unless you can get beyond the “I.” I remember a time in my life when my personal desires were a significant source of anxiety. I would get frustrated and cranky when plans didn’t pan out—even short-term ones like getting to bed by a certain time at night—and I held tightly to my money, doling out only tiny percentages to programs or charities I wanted to support.

Despite priding myself on volunteering my spring breaks and other weeks during the year to sacrifice my time for good causes, I eventually came to realize that my commitment to making a difference in the world was limited to times and places that were convenient for me. Sure, if a friend or family member needed me in the middle of the night or in the middle of a workout routine due to an emergency, I wouldn’t hesitate to interrupt my activity for them—but to be ready and willing to live my life for others in a way that might compromise my ability to maintain a type-A schedule on a regular basis? Certainly not.

I first realized how self-centered I was when I read Kisses for Katie, an autobiography by a young woman who gave up her college plans and settled in Uganda after being moved by the poverty she witnessed there during a post-high school mission trip. She ultimately adopted 13 young children and became a mom while founding a non-profit that ministers to thousands of people each year. Whoa. I was doing nothing like that despite the fact that my desire to change the world was strong. For the first time in my life, I realized I had a significant deficit as a Christian and as a citizen of this world: I was only willing to sacrifice myself when it worked for me.

I had a strong desire to grow beyond my self-centeredness and learn how to find contentedness and even joy—rather than frustration—from living a life devoted to the needs of others rather than my own. God answered my prayers, but not in the way I expected: he didn’t send me to Central or South America, which would have been my preference, but instead granted me two consecutive unplanned pregnancies. I think God knew that if he sent me to a third-world country, I would still end up finding a way to do His work on my terms; the only thing that could force me to truly live my life for others was to have children, whose needs I couldn’t escape at the end of the day.

My daughters are a gift from God not only for the typical reasons we consider children to be gifts—they bring giggles, joy, and unconditional love into every day of my life—but also because they finally released me from myself and enabled me to realize that it is actually quite freeing to not even have the option of fretting about my sleep or workout schedule. I still fit these things in when I can, but I’ve learned to just let go when I can’t. I’d always found joy in helping others, but until I had children, I’d never found joy in letting my time, energy, and money be dictated in large part by others and not by me. It was a big step I needed to take in my growth as a Christian and as a person, whether Christian or not, who desires to make a difference in the world. It’s difficult to make a difference when the number one priority is self—even when we delude ourselves into believing that we place our ideals above ourselves. How willing are we, really, do to dirty, tiring, tedious and self-effacing work for the sake of others?

I have a picture of Libby in a frame that reads, “While we try to teach our children how to live, our children teach us all about life.” What my children have taught me is that real change happens within the mundane and often boring day-to-day work of caring for each other. This is where people learn to trust, learn to love, and learn to let go of themselves. I firmly believe that these three qualities—trust, love, and selflessness—are a prerequisite to any sort of grander change those of use “movers and shakers” wish for the world. We can’t change the world if we can’t touch individual lives, and we can’t touch individual lives if our ultimate priority is the self.

Math as proof of God

Yesterday I was at a math conference during which one of the presenters suggested that there is no ultimate mathematical “truth” for humans to discover, but rather that the field of mathematics and its definitions, proofs, and formulas are human inventions. His assertion set my mind to wondering. Is mathematics a human invention? Or could it be that there is indeed ultimate mathematical truth for us to discover and describe?

I pondered this question from a perspective of faith. I definitely believe that there is a higher power, and I’m pretty sure that I believe in the Christian God (I used to harbor a healthy dose of doubt about this, but most of my doubts have been quelled by the book The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, which I highly recommend to anyone who struggles with belief). In any case, whatever kind of higher power exists has created a beautiful, magnificent, and confounding world that humans of all walks of life have been attempting to describe, define, and explain for millennia.

Mathematicians, scientists, sociologists, theologians, laymen, children, etc.—we all endeavor to make sense of our surroundings and to answer questions about what makes the world turn and why we exist. And as we do, we discover phenomenal characteristics about ourselves and about nature that, I believe, only a perfect being could have created and that we, as humans, are in the process of gradually discovering. Take, for example, the fact that the Fibonacci sequence that many of us learn about in middle-school math class actually appears in the spirals of sunflower seeds. In fact, Fibonacci numbers appear in numerous instances in nature.

It is interesting to me that the more I have learned about math and science, the more I have come to believe in God—not less. Despite the intricate complexities of nature, it seems mathematicians and scientists are nonetheless able to discern underlying patterns and structures that bespeak a beautiful and awesome God that has instilled the world with magnificence and wonder in order to engage us in pursuit of His perfection. I truly believe that mathematics is just one of many ways in which we are able to get a glimpse of God.

If only I were able to pose such possibilities to my math students without being fired for proselytizing, perhaps they would begin to see math as an awesome subject rather than a dreaded one! I thought about that this morning in church and smiled to myself as a student of mine sat down just two seats to my right…

Uncomfortable with comfort

It’s been so long since I’ve written on my blog that I took a peek at my last entry to see what I had written about. Lo and behold, it included advice that I needed to be reminded of today: have faith that the direction your life is taking will lead to fulfillment even if you can’t imagine it now.

It’s not so much that I can’t image feeling fulfilled now—to the contrary, I feel quite fulfilled in my roles as a mother, wife, community volunteer, and faculty member at MSUB—but there is a facet of my life that continues to nag at me and I’m not sure what to do about it. Unless you know me extremely well you’ll think I’m crazy for writing about this, but the one thing that bothers me most about my current life is my level of comfort. Allow me to explain.

As a college student, I had the opportunity to witness the extreme income gaps that exist in our world. I was shaken to my core when I traveled to South Africa and saw wealth so opulent and poverty so staggering, both coexisting within view of one another. I saw children with distended bellies and flies in the corners of their eyes and people living in cardboard boxes—literally living in cardboard boxesjust around the corner from clean, modern, air-conditioned buildings. I’d seen similar scenes in Mexico and Brazil, but the level of poverty in South Africa was far more extreme. It was on that trip that I realized the gravity of our world’s condition and became fully committed to being a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.

Yet here I am today, feeling as if I am indeed part of the problem. I am part of the five percent who consume twenty-five percent of the world’s resources while others don’t even have a stable roof over their heads or food in their stomachs. I have a four-bedroom house that consumes more natural gas and electricity in a month than some will ever consume in a lifetime. Although I bike when I can, I still drive vehicles that consume gasoline, a commodity that has caused immeasurable death and destruction in battles over rights, access, and pricing.

I don’t want this level of comfort for myself and my children. Safety, a solid roof, and food, yes, but not this much. Not while others have so little. I have a desire I will never shake to unburden myself of it all and go serve others in some backwater place without all of these conveniences. The happiest, most deeply satisfying moments of my life have been the moments I’ve spent unshackled to convenience, dirty and tired after a long day of building something for someone and sharing a simple meal in the company of people who have little but love much.

But at the same time, I recognize that the coincidences in my life have been too great to simply be coincidence: I do believe that God has me here, in this place, for a reason. He hasn’t sent me out to the far corners of the world to do mission work, at least not yet. It somewhat perplexes me that He gave me such exceptional foreign language skills then led me to Montana; as the saying goes, the Lord clearly works in mysterious ways. I’m learning to be content with the place He has put me in and the roles He has given me, and to even embrace this place and these roles, but I still can’t shake this discomfort with my level of comfort. Maybe it’s just God’s way of keeping me on my toes and not letting me become acquiescent to comfort so that when the time comes for Him to call on me to relinquish it, I’ll be ready. I can only hope that’s what He’s preparing me for because some day, I do want to relinquish it all and give my life fully to Him.

I’ve been reading Katie Davis’s latest book about her experiences living and working in Uganda, where she has adopted a house full of orphaned daughters and launched a successful non-profit organization. As I read her reflections about how she sometimes struggles with the situation she is in, I chuckle to myself as I realize that I struggle because I’m not in her situation. I long to be, but that is for another time… or maybe it’s not. I don’t know what God has in store for me years down the road, but I do know that as long as I keep my eyes, heart, and mind toward Him, whatever it is He assigns me to do, I will indeed feel fulfilled.

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.


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.