To Andrea on Her 29th Birthday

I waz missin somethin
Something so important
Something promise
A layin on of hands

At 5am, I jumped out of the bed and ran into the hall. I sat on the carpeted floor outside of our hotel room, panting as if I had kicked myself up from the depths of the ocean floor. My heart beat anxiously while I tried to sense her presence. I began to pray. Are you there?

It was April. I had moved to Guatemala eight months ago, but this weekend I was in Boston for my choir’s 45th reunion. I was sharing a hotel with two of my best friends, friends who had become family. I had been missing them, these friends who had been my refuge many a day, so it was odd that I wasn’t in the room soaking up those precious few hours in their presence. Instead, I was seated on the floor, trying desperately to commune with myself.

To understand this early morning meditation, I have to rewind the story to the previous spring. During the last semester of my 3L year, my friend and I took the bus to Coolidge Corner to see Enough Said. I loved the film. (I don’t enjoy the boy-meets-girl-boy-marries-girl romantic comedies as much as I used to. I love the films that focus on beyond happily ever after. They are richer in dialogue and content.)

As the film drew to a close, a thick sadness settled in my chest. I wanted to be back in my dorm room. I wanted someone to hold me until it didn’t hurt anymore. I tried to pull it together, but my friend could tell that something was wrong. She tried to get me to open up, but we didn’t have time for a heart to heart. She was seeing a new guy and he was currently in her apartment, cooking dinner. She had to go.

We started walking home, on the look out for the bus. When we got to the next main street, she suggested that we stop for a drink at the bar. “I have time,” she smiled reassuringly.

We did not have time. That movie had unseated my deep-seated mommy issues that I don’t like to acknowledge, much less discuss. And then what would happen if I found the strength to lay it all on the table? It would be time to go. She was asking me to put my cards on the table, just to leave me alone, staring my hurt face-up in front of me.

But, I didn’t want to be a jerk. She was trying. So, we went and we talked. She listened and engaged. She called for another round, keeping an eye on the time. Eventually, she grimaced at me. “I’m sorry, Andrea. I really have to go.” In the cab on the way home, I stared out the window. When we got to her apartment, she reached across to hug me, squeezed my hand, and then got out of the cab. Back at the dorm, I got in bed and pulled the covers over my head. Before sleep fully claimed me, I lifted up a weary prayer.

God, I’m tired. I can’t keep doing this. All of my joy and sorrow is caught up in other people. I’m tired of being so externally focused. This is not sustainable. I need something else.

A few months later, I moved to Guatemala and during one of the orientation sessions, the board president asked us to write down one thing we were excited about and one thing we feared for the year ahead. I wrote that I was excited about how much I was going to grow as a person, but I was nervous about what it was going to take for me to achieve that growth. I feel like God heard my prayer and eased me slowly into that wilderness experience.
My first year in Guatemala was fine. I made some friends and had started to build a life for myself there. I was excited about staying another year because then I could focus on depth over breadth; I could really build community, a passion of mine. But then a friend called to tell me about a job opening in Boston that she was recommending me for. She arranged for the interview to take place the same weekend as the reunion weekend.

Suddenly, I was torn. I had enjoyed my time in Guatemala, but I didn’t feel deeply connected to the place. Should I take this job? Or should I stay in Guatemala until I felt this deep connection? But what would be the point of that, considering the fact that I wasn’t trying to see forever there? The point would be that I would leave the country, confident that I could build community anywhere. I don’t have a permanent, geographical home. I need to know that I can build them wherever I land.

I left for Boston that April, not sure what decision I would make. And then I found myself on that hotel floor. I was worried that I was losing the me I had discovered in Guatemala. I had only been in the States for twenty-four hours, but I was still worried. I have a habit of losing myself in my friends. I used to be so thirsty for love and affection that I could completely disappear in whomever was around me. Their pain became my pain, so desperate was I to make myself indispensable. If I could convince them that they needed me, then I could make myself a priority in their lives, not merely an option. But it never really worked.

My deepest shame is that I always feel like people’s second choice. People want me around, but they never put me first. Whenever I get my feelings hurt and start lashing out, it’s because someone pulled that trigger of inferiority. I don’t handle my hurt in a healthy way because I’m too embarrassed to address it directly. I feel like I can’t pray about it because I think God will just say, “That’s what you get for putting your trust in man. If you kept your eyes on Me, that wouldn’t happen.”

My first year in Guatemala, I confided in my friend, Kylie. She had invited me over for dinner one Sunday evening and I felt like I could trust her. I had been wary of her when we first met because she was our chaplain. I was uninterested in someone else spewing scripture at me, but she had shown herself to be someone who lived in the world. She wasn’t too heavenly bound to be of earthly good. I shared my shame with her.

“I don’t know how to be with people. I’m at one extreme or the other. I either try to cut them out and focus on myself, but eventually, I let them in and they hurt me. And then I don’t know what to do. I can’t talk to God about it because it’s my fault. I don’t know what He wants from me. If I’m supposed to only focus on Him, why does He keep putting people in my life?

She turned to me with a pitying smile and said, “Andrea, no, there is nothing wrong with wanting connection with people. We are humans and we are social creatures by nature. Think about Hagar. When Hagar ran away because of the way Sarah was treated her, God appeared to her out there on that road. Hagar named her son Ishmael, which means ‘The God who hears.’ What do you imagine God said to her for her to name her child that? It can’t have been, ‘That’s what you get for putting your trust in people.’”

All my life I had been hearing about a stern God who wants His disciples to be stoic warriors, unfazed by the world around them. I had tried and failed to be that person and here she was, extending to me an invitation to know a different God. A God who cared about my heart. I wanted to know him. I wanted to experience that kind of love — I wanted to give that kind of love.

I started with myself. I tried to be more compassionate, listen to my heart, and allow it to feel what if felt with no risk of judgment and condemnation. I was learning how to be gentle with myself.

In the hotel hallway, the answer came softly, but fervently. I knew what I had to do. I had to go back to Guatemala. I was talking to a friend about the decision later, musing over the point of this job offer coming out of the blue after I had made a decision to stay another year, just for me to reject it and she replied, “Sometimes, after we make decisions, God presents us with another option, not to trick us, but to force us to actively make a choice. You said no to that and yes to this, so you don’t get to be a victim in your own life. This is your choice.”

Her words came back to me often the second year. I was so angry and so sad. I wanted to scream through the streets and write on Facebook about how much I hated Guatemala and how it was oppressing my spirits, but then I would look up into the gorgeous sky and remember that I chose to be here. I wanted this; I need this. I would soothe my mind with Rilke’s reminder to the young poet that sickness is how the body rids itself of an infection. Let the sickness break out.

I wanted to jump out outta my bones
& be done wit myself
leave me alone
& go on in the wind
it waz too much
I fell into a numbness
Til the only tree I cd see
Took me up in her branches
Held me in the breeze
Made me dawn dew

Year two in Guatemala felt like the death of my past and the birth of my future. I felt like I was carrying both the pain of the phoenix bursting into flames before his rebirth and the pain of a mother pushing new life into the world. It was as if the moment in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Harry is fighting off the grip of the Horcrux inside of him under Dumbledore’s encouraging eyes had slowed down and stretched itself over the course of nine months.

Recently, my baby sister was reminiscing about the the first book when Harry looks in the Mirror of Erised and see himself winking back. She sent me a text, talking about the realness of Harry’s self love. He always has his own back. She went on to distinguish his self-love from Voldemort’s. Voldemort’s self-love was isolating. It prevented him from trusting others and letting them in his heart whereas Harry uses his self love as an opportunity to open himself up to others.

I called her back the next day. “I wish my self-love always looked like Harry’s,” I said. “But, I ain’t gon lie. Sometimes, it looks a lot like Voldemort’s.”

She laughed, “That’s ok. Harry’s did too, sometimes, remember? The whole fifth book and parts of the next two, Harry is in that place.”

My mind went back to Harry’s fight with the Horcrux. That scene is so important because it directly affects the baby that Harry and Dumbledore abandon at King’s Cross after Harry is killed. The Horcrux remained a baby because Harry stopped feeding that demon that told him that people weren’t good and that he could only depend on himself. If he had listened to that demon, that baby would have grown as Harry grew and there would eventually be no separation between him and the Horcrux. But, he chose love and as “[his] heart filled with emotion, the creature’s coils loosened, [and] the pain [left].”

I had to grow within myself the loving person I had been searching for all my life. This new bond I developed with myself is different from that Voldemort-type hatred masquerading as self-love. That me-against-the-world mentality is rooted in the belief that the world is out to get me and since I can’t do any better, I might as well stay here with myself and give the finger to the rest of the world. No, when I fall prey to that mentality, I’m not my best self. I am really nasty and vindictive.

But in this blossoming unconditional relationship that I am developing with myself (Yes, come through, Pema Chodron!), I find all this extra love bubbling out of me. I can love and appreciate others for what they can provide without resenting them for not being able to give me what I felt I was denied so long ago. When I think back to that morning in April, I recall this faint voice in my chest, softly whispering, “Let it be me, Dre. Give me time and space to grow and I can be that friend, that mother your heart longs for.”

Not a layin on of bosom & womb
A layin on of hands
The holiness of myself released

I see my current relationship with myself reflected in my interactions with a friend’s daughter, my little-baby-sister-friend. She is two and is hands down, my favorite part of being back in Boston. I love her energy. When we go on walks, she turns her fists towards each other and then raises her elbows as if it’s 2006 and “Knuck if You Buck” just came on at a party. She then proceeds to George Jefferson her way down the street.

She walks into rooms and commands attention. When I babysit her, I just sit in a chair and let her do her. She runs around, interacting with any and everyone. Sometimes, she gets frightened and will scurry between my knees until she feels confident enough to face the world again.

One Sunday morning, we were at church and a one-year old was trying to play with her. Little-baby-sister-friend was wary of this infant reaching for her toys. I was just about to encourage her to share when she snatched up her Eeyore and Piglet and turned to me with wide eyes. She held out her toys and pleaded, “Auntie Dre-ah.”

I melted. The lesson on sharing died on my tongue. I held Pooh’s friends and she – confident that her treasures were safe – resumed her life of the party routine.

Inside, I am the young child eager to explore the world. I am also watchful adult who can evaluate perceived threats to the child’s joy and acknowledge when they are not intentionally causing harm, yet is compassionate enough to carry her heart until she can pick it back up again. It has taken awhile to grow that compassionate and objective adult within myself, but mercy, I’m so glad I finally did.

I see how my interactions with others have evolved in response to these internal changes. The loving mother within can look past my hurt feelings to see the wider context and remind me that people are good and that we are all doing the best we can, but also holds me and encourages me until I find the strength to open my heart again.

For my 29th birthday, I went to New York and had dinner with friends. I looked around the table and smiled at faces I loved so dearly and grew excited for the days ahead when our friendships will flourish now that they are not in danger of being suffocated by my abundance of shattered expectations and resentment. I sent up prayers of gratitude for the gestures, small and large, that friends and family, near and far, made to show me that I am loved, that I am valued.

But above all, I was grateful for the friend that I had discovered within myself. I am thankful for the voice inside that tells me everyday that I am good enough, who chooses me first, and celebrates the unique woman that I am. I guess what I’m saying is that I found God in myself. And I love her. Fiercely.

Happy Birthday, Andrea. There is no one I’d rather go through this life with than you.

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