I was out at lunch with my husband after church last weekend, and I noticed that he was wearing the same outfit he had worn on our first date. The oxford shirts and j.crew chinos he lived in while we were in college, had be gradually swapped out for the graphic tees, flannels, and jeans that fit in better at the video game studio he worked at now. I noticed, with him back in those clothes, that he looked exactly the same as he did more than 4 years ago when we got together.
“You know, today you look just like you did on our first date.”
He paused, looking at me. “You look… not older, but more mature? … no… more…. What’s a softer word for ‘grizzled’?”
We laughed. I wasn’t offended, just left wondering – was it the scar I got on my face last year from a nasty spider bite? Was it the weight I lost, that made my cheek and jaw bones harsher? My short hair? My tragus piercing? I knew it probably wasn’t any of those things. I didn’t push him about it, but I can guess that, if I had, he would have probably said it was something behind my eyes. Something in the way I snapped my fingers compulsively when I was nervous. I didn’t do that when when I was 20 and falling in love with him.
When I started my job about 6 weeks ago, my boss asked for a photo he could put on the Instagram to introduce me. I picked one of me at a coffee shop, taken by a good friend of mine, right before I left for Thailand. I had used the same one for my CYMT (center for youth ministry training) bio. At least five people told me I didn’t look anything like my picture. I don’t know what to tell you, people, its a picture of me.
But this post isn’t really about me reconciling looking vaguely different. Its about reconciling feeling vaguely different. On a meta level, looking back through the past two years of this blog is a case study in the transition through post-adolescent idealism, culture shock, disillusionment, adjustment, re-entry trauma, and into a new version of normal.
Some months to process (probably not enough) and re-entry counseling (definitely not enough) have been the keys to letting me begin to see how to really live in the reality I’m in now, as a youth worker, seminarian, and wife, without trying to smother the truth that I have also lived in a completely different reality.
I had lunch with a friend last week who was working at the IJM office in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, while I was in Chiang Mai. She had come to visit Thailand as a visa run while I was working there, and we had reconnected at the re-entry retreat in Washington this past winter. She just moved to Fort Worth, and we met at a Thai restaurant to catch up. She said something that has stuck with me.
She said, “You know, everyone wants the year with IJM to be black-and-white, like it was this amazing vacation where I met these great people and got to do really cool stuff, or it was horrible and dangerous and traumatic. But, like.. it was both, you know? Its a gray year, you can’t have one without the other. Its just more complicated than people get.”
She is so right. I loved my year in Thailand, I am so grateful, it taught me measures of mercy, grace, joy that I could have never learned another way – I saw some of the most beautiful places on earth, and probably of the 10 most exciting days of my life, Thailand is responsible for 8 of them. But I also saw and experienced things I will never be able to fully process or understand. I walked hand in hand with trauma and violence and death day after day after day. I will never have as much faith in my emotional resilience, mental health, or my own sense of justice as I did once.
As a small example: at some point fairly early on while I was in Thailand, I started to become very uncomfortable around children. All the children I worked with, and talked to and about, were victims of sexual violence and exploitation, and my healthy boundaries mutated into an deep-seated aversion. I intentionally maximized the amount of physical space between me and children I interacted with, I avoided eye contact. I’m sure it was some coping mechanism to make being constantly surrounded by horrible abuse more tolerable. But when I came home, I couldn’t turn it off. A friend of mine had a baby and people were passing the baby around to be coo-ed over. I felt my hands sweat and my feet shift, I intentionally stepped out of the group before the baby was passed to me so I didn’t have to make up a reason why I wasn’t going to hold her. The truth, that every time I was around children, my brain filled with all of the child abuse images I had seen, and testimonies of assault I had transcribed, seemed like it would hurt the joyful mood.
A couple weeks ago, a woman I work with’s 3-year-old grandson came into the office. I stood in the door of my office, trying to create a little space between us without being weird. The little boy looked up at me and smiled and waved. And the knot in my chest loosened. He was ok. He was just a happy little kid. I sat back at my desk. He came in and stood in my office and talked about spaceships and star wars and who knows and I talked to him. I listened. And my palms weren’t sweating, my mind was clear. He was ok. And so was I. He grabbed my hand to show me something and I realized it was the first time I had been able to as much as hold hands with a child in over a year. Earlier this week, our neighbors came over for dinner. They have a 3 and 6 year old who are so sweet. The 3 year old girl climbed in my lap. And it was ok, good even. I had volunteered at a nursery in high school, I had always loved being around little kids. I had kind of assumed that I would never be able to enjoy being around them again. But I was wrong. It just took time.
So what’s a softer word for grizzled? I am more than I was before I left, but I am also, in some way, less. I am now a couple months into what is truly the next phase of my life, and this phase will probably shape me in just as powerful ways as Thailand did if I’m willing to move on and really step into it. And I finally feel like I am. I will tell the teenagers I work with tales of Chiang Mai, of operations and of elephants, but I will also tell them about growing up in Tennessee, about college in Ohio, about my lovely and quirky husband. I will never really have as “normal” a story as some of the people around me, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still my community, it doesn’t mean I don’t belong here.
God didn’t give me these experiences that I might be tormented by them, that I might carry them around like an unspeakable secret, but that I might use them to help others to understand Him in a new way, that the hallelujahs might be multiplied by others who hear and recognize His hand in the story. And, maybe more importantly, He will give me other stories too. Ones even more amazing than the ones already written.
So, this is probably the last post about Thailand. It will come up again, I’m sure, but its time to set my eyes forward instead of back. The season for processing, grieving, and remembering is ending, and the next season is truly beginning. I will not miss the new song being sung because an older one is still stuck in my head.
Thank you again to everyone who’s come with me this far. As they would say in my all time favorite show (The West Wing) — What’s Next?