To know the place for the first time

“…the end of all our exploring  / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot

I’ve been avoiding writing because putting it all into words means that it’s all actually happening. But I’ve been meditating on my smallness a lot recently and it’s freed me to make some choices that may not align with my imagined plan of How to Be Loved. So here goes. 

This plan’s never been written down. If it were, we could all read through it and laugh a lot at how ludicrous it all was. I am very good at inventing rules for myself. Here’s a peek into it: Don’t be a loser. Quitting something means you’re a failure. Showing up at church makes you good. Staying at one job instead of going after something else will make you safe. Vulnerability is always a mistake. Staying in the same rhythm you’ve followed your whole life makes you likeable. You get the idea.

Serenity once painted me a gift — she gave Becky, Zann and Kristen words that she thought suited us. She gave me the word “courageous”. It was, and is, strange to hold that word in my hands and try to claim it, because it is so often the virtue I feel furthest from. It’s also the antithesis to all my rules — the rules I shape my life around.

There are a few glaring problems about these rules. The one problem I’m holding up to the light right now is how disproportionately large I seem in them. An inflated importance. It’s the lens through which I’ve been looking at my community and reading the Bible; I see the problems of the world and read the impossible call of a life in following Jesus’s teachings and I pick them up like they’re mine to take on. It is an arrogance I have assumed with my faith, that the instructions of the Bible equal a life of response in urgency to God’s written commands of how to live.

That urgency is real and necessary. But I’m seeing now, thanks to some friends pointing it out in me, that my response has been coming from a place of overestimating my importance instead of sitting still in my smallness.

It’s also recognizing that I can’t demand anything of a city or a church or a job or a friend that I’m not able to be myself. I think I was standing on a soapbox on a street corner yelling at people I loved that the American church is broken and needed to evolve. Who I was really yelling at was myself. And that all of the darkness in the world that terrified me was simply the same darkness in my own soul.

Zooming way in, from a dark world to my dark self, is a good first movement. The second movement is zooming much farther out. I sat out under the stars with a friend, angry, because I am angry before I am anything else. Angry that this was the set of religious cards I was dealt, that I do have cliche church baggage. Angry at being part of a cultural system that fires gay faculty from so-called Christian colleges. Angry that two different people can subjectively read a verse in the Bible two very different ways, and that both of them apparently can’t be “right”. Angry at the arrogance of Christianity as it is often manifested in the U.S. Just, angry at my heritage and its cruelty, and knowing that I’m a part of it. Wanting to shrug it off. (And in many ways, I’m actively doing that, in the best and gentlest way I know how.)

Underneath that anger is fear: fear that I have signed up for the wrong thing, that God as I have worshipped him is not real, that I have wasted my life belonging to a subculture that I now see has wounded people. And the root of it all: that God will not love me unless I get It right, that’s he’s somehow disappointed in me.

It is very terrifying that my search for the real God and who I really am may lead me away from the traditional church in which so many of my rules have been formed, for a time, or for a very long time. I know how to do church. I’m good at it. It’s the unit in which I can plug in and feel safe and okay. Thing is, God’s much, much bigger than that. It’s kind of exhilarating to inch a toe outside of my rules (Go to church in order to be loved) and feel, powerfully, that God is still there with me, outside that boundary line. That doesn’t mean he’s realer outside of church than in. It just means, however big I thought he was before, he’s much, much bigger. And what a relief that he is. I want to put my bets on the bigger God. Wouldn’t you?

This was all a very roundabout way to tell you that I’ve left my job at the marketing agency — just at a year of working there, which was my original commitment to myself, to do something for a year. I’ve left what was probably going to evolve into an even better job with a promotion and a raise because I would have been representing a company I ethically could not write for in good conscience, within a field I think I’d like to at least take a break from. I left this opportunity for a part-time, unpaid internship at a local indie newspaper here in Greensboro. I want to tell true stories. I want to learn to write faster, better, clearer. I’m choosing to look at it as J-school without the debt. I will be working with some amazing journalists. I will somehow pay bills.

And it’s really the first choice I’ve made in a while that’s been sincerely come from what I believe is right, and claiming it, instead of where I usually come from, more of a wait til it is decided for me sort of thing. Perhaps that is brushing up against “courageous”. It certainly didn’t feel like it when I walked out of the office with my box of cubicle decorations, so, so proud of myself for not crying.

This choice was kind of the cherry on top of the “what the hell is going on in my inner life” sundae. I put in my notice but was asked to leave earlier than I had expected. So yesterday found me at a bar at 1:30pm in the afternoon reading Madeleine L’Engle, because, let’s be real, what else would I do in a time of crisis? Talk about smallness. 

Here’s what I’m discovering about smallness. It’s freeing. It’s very freeing to remember how much people are not thinking about me. How absolutely unnecessary I am to the operations of the universe in a theoretical way. How utterly fine a church or friend group is without me. To appropriately size up myself next to God. The wonder at his choice to call me daughter and friend can only be rooted in my speck-ness. I am just a little speck being held in the hands of a loving Creator force who chose to make me. And that is why it is beautiful to make a new friend, or be humbled after singing up front at church out of a deep spiritual poverty, or to walk down the street knowing that my molecules are woven together by that love, that God is choosing to think about me.

It’s also out of this smallness that I am getting some breathing room between myself and the reformed theology that I’ve never quite ever believed in. I’m going to hang out with some Episcopals. Make friends with some lady pastors. Meditate some more. Expand the tight circle of things I’ve read. And I’m going to be a JOURNALIST, you guys! Interview LGBTQ artists in the area, go to funky experimental theater, meet a hundred people I am nothing like. I might go cover a Black Lives Matter protest on Friday. It’s a really thrilling time to be alive. But also scary.

A quote from T.S. Eliot sums everything up for me spiritually right now: “…the end of all our exploring  / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” I need to do some exploring but also recognize that this in-between time, it’s not forever. What I’m seeking to shed are the rules. Don’t go backwards from a paying job to an unpaid internship. Don’t rejoice with your LGBT friend about their blossoming romantic life. Don’t stop going to church. Don’t risk anything, because God won’t be on the other side of the chasm when you jump. Lies, all of them.

And when I’m done exploring, I already know I’ll come back, full circle, to a realer Creator. He has not failed me yet. I am daring to believe he won’t start now.

It’s scary to put this out here because I know who’s clicked to subscribe to this, you confessed sometime-lurkers, too. I don’t want to put any of you in a box, but a large portion of you come from a more conservative standpoint, lifestyle-wise, religion-wise, politics-wise, etc. I respect that. That’s not true — I haven’t respected it, I’ve shoved my urgency in your face and told you you’re not moving at the right speed. Pardon my arrogance. I want to respect it now. Speck to speck, you know?

I’ve been reading George Herbert Mead, a sociologist, who talks a lot backstage/front stage living. I have spent a lot of time hiding backstage, rummaging through a lot of props. Everything I used to use on my stage is gone. The feeling of no longer having any of that is shame. I do not want you to know how ill-equipped I am. But as I come out onto my front stage, instead of standing in the center with all imagined lights on me, I’d like to sit at the edge of the stage and be still — no spotlights — and feel the hugeness of the theatre echo around me.

So that’s where I am. And, as a very beloved, tiny human, it is an honor to have you care for me by reading these words. May this be the continuation of the story of the real God drawing me closer to himself. May you feel his love, too.

Love, Jo





2 Comments Add yours

  1. tamara says:

    love you so incredibly much, friend. as someone who is also so, so proud of herself for not crying at work, i appreciate your thoughts and your expansive view. sitting at the edge of the stage can be breathtaking (and also scary). it helps to know you are not alone. i hope you will find nuance and grace in the breathing room, and know that you are loved through it all. Yes.


  2. Sally says:

    Absolutely beautiful post, courageous girl. ❤ Every word.


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