the things we carry

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

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I sat on the shore, looking out at the Atlantic, and I didn’t really know what had brought me there or what I had brought with me. I had taken a two-hour train ride to the beach on a whim, but now that I was there, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do next.

That seemed to be the general theme of 2018. 

We tend to save our deeper reflections for when a year draws to a close, but I found myself having my mini-existential crisis right there in the middle of June on a mostly-empty bend of sand in Far Rockaway. I was in process of wrapping up the sophomore slump year of my first full-time job and transitioning out of a lead ministry role, all the while feeling distant with God and frustrated with myself.

I had all this momentum starting out my time in the city, so why did I feel like all my dreaming had sputtered and stopped? I thought I knew who I was and what I wanted, but now I just felt like a stranger to myself, like I had sped through the past 4 years and was only now catching up to the fact that so much had changed–I had changed.

The Weight on Our Backs

In high school, I read the book The Things They Carried, and I remember discussing how the author conveys the weight of what these Vietnam soldiers were bringing into war by listing everything they carried, from the smallest, most mundane tin boxes and ticket stubs to the bigger, abstract sensations like love and disillusionment and fear that are difficult to put into words.

I don’t think we set aside enough time to catalog the things we carry everyday. These things shape how we move through the world, but we can get so fixated on our next destination point, our next plan, our next step that we lose sight of what we are bringing with us into it. When we feel weary and overwhelmed and don’t understand why, it’s often because there is some invisible weight on us that we haven’t given attention to or been mindful of.

I carried a lot of frustration into 2018. In a previous post, I shared about how I felt stuck a lot the first half of this year. It didn’t feel like anything in my personal, professional, or spiritual life was moving forward in any significant way–or, at least, in the ways I expected. I woke up, went to work, maybe hung out with friends, and then went home. Not much deviation from routine there. There were things I wanted to do-like writing or getting back into community work-but wasn’t doing, and things I’d thought I’d be doing already but hadn’t happened yet.

That’s what brought me to the beach. I needed a break, something different that I hoped would galvanize me into action.

So I stepped into the water and braced for the cold. Waiting a moment for my body to get used to the temperature, I looked back at the shore to make sure my bag and sandals were still there. Reassured, I waded in.

When the water rose to meet my hips, my feet propelled off the ground, and I laid back, parallel to the horizon. But my body tilted and bobbled with the tide, and my hands flappered in the water as I fought for balance, panicked that any second a wave would sweep over me and I would soon be choking on briny water.

I had forgotten how to float, how to loosen up and remain still and consciously move with the tide, and I wanted to laugh at myself at the simplicity of it. Trembling a little, I laid myself on the seat of the ocean and let it carry me. Dipping my head back, I could feel the waves undulating beneath me as I rose and fell with them. The dusky sky stretched above me, veiled in cloud. Everything stilled, and I didn’t know in that moment if I was moving anywhere or just set further adrift. 

Where The Quiet Place Isn’t So Bad

The realization didn’t come in a halo or some Aha! moment there on the water with a rush of emotion and the epic swell of a Hans Zimmer theme. It built and built as I kept making trips to the beach alone to just think and talk to God. I told him flat out how distant I felt and how I had no idea what to do next (or I had some ideas but was too scared to try them). I told him I felt stagnant, like I wasn’t growing enough compared to my friends. I told him I felt lonely in my adrift state because I wasn’t sure how to talk about it with anyone. I wasn’t depressed but I wasn’t satisfied either–how do articulate that when you don’t even understand it yourself? 

The more I time I took with God to unpack everything, the more I realized how many lies I had carried into 2018:

I still carried the lie that I had to accomplish all my 21-year-old dreams by age 30.

I still carried my college jeans which no longer fit as if to punish my body for changing.

I still carried the disappointment from too many dating dead-ends.

I still carried charges on my bank account from food outings I used to distract myself from the hunger pangs for affirmation inside me.

I still carried the belief that I was defined by ministry roles and wasn’t doing enough for God if I wasn’t involved in this effort or that initiative.

I still carried doubt that I could ever be disciplined or brave enough to move forward in my field or pursue a PhD or even do a conference presentation.

I still carried bills and letters and insurance notes piled on my desk unread because the future was too intimidating to sift through.

I still carried too much that had been ignored for too long. But no more. 

I cataloged the things on my back and in my heart and found that one of the greatest lies we believe is that stillness equates to a lack of progress. Just because it doesn’t seem like anything is visibly changing in your life…it doesn’t mean there isn’t a deeper tide beneath it pulling you onwards. The presence of stillness doesn’t mean your life is not in motion, and the presence of silence doesn’t mean God is not speaking into your life or working things out in you. We actually need periods of quiet and even patterns of routine because they give us the space to build trust in God and depend on him within our daily rhythms as we address the wounds and frustrations in us that would otherwise be neglected.

The work I am doing right now, the space I inhabit right now, even if it feels in-between stages, it matters, and God is using it to shape and clarify what I’ll do next. 

To surrender to that reality, I have to stop carrying my frantic need for control. I have to let go and trust that, unlike the sea which changes constantly and can hurt us, God does not change and has a plan for me that is for my benefit–and for the benefit of others. He can release the things weighing on me so I can keep going–led by faith, not fear.

What I Carry

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A shell from my first beach outing

It’s the last day of 2018, and here’s what I’m carrying into the new year:

I’m carrying each of those beach trips and the intimacy with God they led me into.

I’m carrying clothes that fit a body I have fought hard to feel comfortable with and loved in.

I’m carrying saved pictures on my phone of Broadway and movie and food outings with dear friends, the summer road trip to Florida with my family, the selfies that saw me through 6 different hair colors and even more shifts inside.

I’m carrying the scribbled notes in my journal from when I prepared for the conference session I helped lead this year in St. Louis, the college event I emceed in March, the ministry panel I spoke at during the fall.

I’m carrying the pride in my friends’ graduations and new jobs and accomplishments this year, and for the privilege it has been to journey with them.

I’m carrying tabs on my computer as I seek out venues where I can take my writing next.

I’m carrying my now worn-out green Toms because there is more of New York City I want to explore and invest in.

I’m carrying hope for romantic love in my future and gratitude for how much time I’ve been blessed with to get to know myself and also to do so many things as a single woman.

I’m carrying (literally) the children I got to help care for this year and watch grow up.

I’m carrying a peace with my own multi-ethnic identity because I no longer feel split into percentages.

I’m carrying the letter from the testing center confirming that I passed the social work licensing exam, the test I put off taking for 2 years.

I’m carrying my cat Darcy, who reminded me that things you never thought could happen…they happen.

I’m carrying the spirit of my friend and mentor Rodney who died only a day ago, but in whose memory I’ll persist in advocating for students in higher ed and making my office as safe of a place for them as his was for me.

I’m carrying a calendar app with blank days in them for 2019 and the expectation that those days are going to be filled with good things, hard things, but things that will ultimately glorify God.

I’m carrying contentment in my chest for where I am now. I’m carrying stories of my wounds still healing and dreaming still to be realized.

“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” ― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

I’m part of a bigger redemptive Story God is still writing, and there’s more to come and there will be more to carry. What will YOU bring into 2019, and what will you leave behind? 

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Sunset at Rockaway Beach

7 thoughts on “the things we carry

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