Failure and Other Names for Things (Part 2)

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“Failure is certainly one of these strange angels”

This quote comes from an Anne Lamott book I was reading a couple summers ago on a flight between my Grandmothers’ house in Missoula, Montana and my temporary residence outside of San Francisco, California. I was sitting next to this tall guy named Andy who was probably Dutch. The truth was, Andy was really outgoing and nice, but he was really wanting to take advantage of the free beer on the flight and I was wanting to cry. So I read my book and wondered what Anne Lamott was talking about in relation to failure.

Eventually the feeling of needing to cry went away and I rested my head against that awful airplane pillow that gives airplane hair and stole glances at fidgety, drunken Andy and wondered how much I cared about failure. There are so many times I have really messed up bad in life, and I try not to keep these things secret from myself. I try to keep them vivid in my memory so I can learn from them and so I can relate better to people groups who are interesting.

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But here in Korea, I think one of the things that made the end of the summer and the beginning of fall so difficult is my fear of failure. Or more specifically: my fear to not succeed. Really the only difference between those two is a shift in definition. But that is exactly what this part of the story is about: the shifting of my definitions of things. The shifting of my ability to define and name what is and was going on in my life.

Fear of failure should not drive anything we do.

So on some nights I will climb the stairs of my little apartment, click the lock to the right on my door, boil some water for tea and stare blankly into space because of how poorly I did that day. I stare, usually focusing on the steam blasting out of the tea kettle’s little silver snout, because I want to be the best teacher ever but something in the day has shown me that I am not. And so I sit on my bed as the water boils and think about how some day I am going to end up in Southern Ohio in a house with chipped paint. My yard will have twisted metal and a rusty, old Dotson that hasn’t moved for years in the yard. I will have neighbors who blare country music from their garages and my husband will drink bud light, and my kids wont wear shirts or shoes. There will be orthodontic issues in my house because no one will have the where-with-all to do anything about it. And by the time my kids go to High School, they will be intimidated  by the kids who play sports, and have nice teeth, and wear Abercrombie and Fitch.

And so I have a freak out  because of how bad a given day has been, I sentence myself to this doomed  sort of first-world hell that I have imagined while taking Amtrak through various parts of the United States. So I feel really proud when I scribble down in my journal that I am not scared of failing, I am scared of not succeeding. Like, somehow that is a healthier definition of the whole thing.

One of the things that was really difficult to get used to was living in such a busy, crowded city. There is always this thrum, this thud, this throb. And people push you because they have important places to be and there is no other way to get there other than physically moving you. So when you stop because you are hurting and you are hurting because you have failed its actually really good. The same way scrubbing your face with that gritty St. Ives stuff is good: it hurts, but it gets all the bad stuff off your skin, and your face glows a little after.

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So I curl up in my apartment with my tea and my Misty Edwards and call it my cave. I ask God to open my ears and my eyes and my arthritic, stubborn fists, and hope my cave makes me as sharp as Elijah’s cave made him. But then I realize, Elijah probably didn’t use his cave to remember people like Andy, or fear a chipped-paint house with twisted metal in the yard.

And so we are at the part of Korea that has taught me a crucial lesson:

  1. Caves are necessary for Spiritual growth
  2. It matters what you do in that space of your cave: you cannot agonize about your looks, or professional development or even your Spiritual maturity… you have to ask the Lord what He is agonizing about in your life, and then you have to listen.

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I should have learned this earlier on. Every day I pick up at least one screaming and crying 5-year-old. “It’s ok to cry in 6-1b,” I will say to them, “but until you tell me what’s wrong, I can’t help you.” And so it seems, the rules are the same with this cave situation. Unless we enter into these conversations with God and tell him what’s wrong, and answer His questions, instead of demanding answers for ours, I am not sure we will get very far.

And so this is a primary part of the journey of my first year in Korea. Learning from 5-year-olds, making use of my cave space, experiencing how quiet and still the presence of God can be in this rushed and brash and loud world.

And so I have gone about my days here: with colder hands than I have ever had, drinking more coffee that I can probably afford, hugging and loving small children who are guests in my life and temporary but deeply meaningful characters in the story being written for me. And renaming these moments of failures as little grace gifts that I don’t deserve. Possibly at the end of this season in my life, I will be able to see this theme of failure and name it as an angel who guarded me and taught me.

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Or it might take until I’m  50 and deep creases around my eyes begin to form. But either way, the transformation from shame over my failures to gratitude for my intrapersonal lessons has been the cadence that gently sings itself over what has been going on “over here”.

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On Moving Across the World Part 1

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It took me about three months before I could answer the question my friends and family were asking me.

“How is it going over there?”

There were about 8 consistent people in my life asking me that question. Same question, which asked me 8 different things.

Then finally, one night after church, it happened. Probably sometime around the end of June. I was skyping my Hope and she asked it. My exhale was cut short. It got stuck on its’ way out… in the back of my throat and began to twist. The twisting happened all over: my gut, my heart, my chest… until it reached my face. And like a messy, unsure human new born who just received a nasty smack on the hiney from a well meaning doctor; I began to cry. I pushed my computer forward on my desk and put my head down to spare Hope the spectacle. She sat patiently as she has these last years, silently letting me display my heart in melodramatic form.

Finally I caught my breath, and blew my nose, and just stared at her.

“Why is it so hard Hope?” I said as I began shoving TP up my nose.

“I don’t know McNay, I’m not there.”

“Am I losing my mind?”

“No McNay, there is a reason most people don’t leave their own culture.”

” Why is it so hard?” (I fancy myself in being like the Little Prince sometimes)

“I don’t know McNay, but it has always been hard, and it probably won’t get easier… so maybe get used to it?”

More tears. More snot. More tissue….

“But McNay- there is grace. You will always have more grace than you are allowing in. How can you give yourself grace today.”

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The two months following that conversation were the hardest of Korea . I would miss my sister’s graduation, my closest friend’s wedding and lose someone in my family far to early. I would miss moving my sister into the same college dormitory I had moved into. She had been there for me. With her 14-year-old freckled face and braids, wearing cut off jean shorts. On that day she moved me in, right before my parents left, she gave me her black sandals we had spent the summer fighting over. Yet here I was in Korea. Not there. No piece of me to will to her as she embarked on her first season of independence.

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Everyone from Auburn had graduated or fallen in love or gotten their heart broken. Libby was moving to Mexico, Reagan moved into a new house on Fulton (ON FULTON!), Katie was coming home from Egypt, Leah was going to Romania, Sarah committed the rest of her life to a very kind, humble man that time did not allow me to know very well.

And so I would hear of these stories. Of how founders isn’t the same without me, of wedding plans, and moving plans and job change plans and things I would kill to be apart of (I would never kill a human being, I was thinking more like a squirrel or a water bug or something). I would hear the cool things my church was up to and long for that free community and the lovely drive to church in the morning.

I missed Grand Rapids a lot. I missed going to the symphony and eating treats at Kava house. I pined for  autumn Sunday afternoons walking up and down Eastown sidewalks with big woolen sweaters and hot coffee. I longed for my study room at the GR public library.

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I missed driving my 1993 Jeep to really wealthy neighborhoods for babysitting gigs. There is something in meeting the gaze of someone who is out to water their lawn and looks up to see you and genuinely thinks you will deliver to them their first experience of a drive by.

So I spent a lot of time listening to Etude in E major by Chopin and thinking about what a waste this was. Coming here. So stupid really, I am not doing anything “professional”, I am not learning a new language (like, really… my attempts are few and feeble), and I am definitely not figuring out how to live for the values I decided I would die for while I was figuring out life in California.

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I also spent a lot of time making a fool of myself. Using the Men’s bathroom at random, getting lost everywhere I went. Bowing randomly to try to get my way (they do bow here but, yeah it was weird of me), saying the wrong thing, inserting the wrong joke. Giving some guy in my apartment building a diva-sized stare down because he was suspect of looking up my skirt, and then completely wiping out on the sloshy, wet stairs (actually, that happened today).  You know, stuff like that… stuff that makes you feel stupid.

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But here is the thing: God told me to come here. I’m not willing to offer theological commentary or any sort of defense at this time. But I knew He wanted me here. And that should be enough. In every situation it should be enough. But sometimes it is hard to feel like I am not the only one in the room who stands up when its time for worship and my arms hang heavy from my shoulder sockets because it just isn’t enough for my mustard seed quotient.

This is all very dangerous. It gets better, don’t worry dear reader-friend. I pray with a friend and  mentor and have a typhoon day off of school and find a coffee shop that these sisters own and a friend from Michigan comes so that Lauren isn’t the only one I am driving mad with all of my antics.

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But we are not at that part of the story yet. We are at the sucky part. So this is what happens when we lose control and begin to believe that God is ripping us off: our pain begins to lose its worth. We go numb and check facebook too much and get bad skin and eat too much street food. We go numb.

Or at least I did….

(to be continued)

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*all photos of my students have been posted with consent

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Monday Evening Thoughts

I keep trying to visualize  what I want this next year to look like. It’s an awful preoccupation to take part of really. Especially since I have no real grasp on what to expect within the next year (does one really ever know what to expect?) But tonight as I have my hands immersed in hot soapy water, scrubbing dishes that have been victimized with a nasty bout of procrastination, and listening to Bob Dylan sing about his version of God and Abraham’s relationship. I remember this poem that was introduced to me my sophomore year of college, and it has challenged me– or, more so haunted me ever since. If I was trolling the blog world on this sudsy-Bob Dylan-Therapy-Monday evening, it is the exact thing I would want to come across. It comes from Wendell Berry. May it ignite and incite you to set down cultural chains until your left with only your faith and a cup of tea.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

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Old man winter, be our friend

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The time has come. My contract is up in 37 days. In 37 days, I will be either switching jobs or on a flight home to the U.S. I don’t know which one yet.

These tightrope-breath-holding-squint-your-eyes-and-grimace moments are not my forte. It’s a tension of feeling the impending moment of saying goodbye to my current students and welcoming new ones. Of knowing that my morning cup of coffee won’t be spent in the same beam of new sun that slants in through my window. The reality that I could be stepping into a completely worse or infinitely better situation hits me daily. And between the pros and cons lists, and between the tears of unknowing and the gasps for a quiet moment and a sip of coffee, my worst enemy comes for a visit.

With no invitation at all, at the front door of my thoughts, relentlessly walking through and into my conscience (or subconscious).

The enemy of comparison. I compare how I would feel if I worked at one school. I compare what it would be like to go home in March as opposed to June or August. Or to just go home and stay there. I compare my qualifications with anyone else I know who is looking for a job. I compare my thighs to any girls’ in the room. I go through the long list of alternative decisions and scenarios that would have brought me to this same place and time and swim in the I should have done this… I compare what books I want to read with other books I want to read, then I remember I have no time to read. And here is when my friends’ words fall over the dirt of all these comparisons like snow over mud in a Michigan March: “when you compare, you lose. Every time.”

So I try to talk myself down. I try to talk to myself instead of listen to myself- to all of the unwelcome guests I have let in and out of my aching head. And I am tortured with the occupation of naming this season. Is it a rest season? Is this where I just need to back off and learn one more time how to just be instead of do? Or do I need to get to it. Put my nose to the grindstone (what does that mean?) and, as T.S. Eliot would say, push myself as far as I could go just to figure out how far I can go.

As a child my mother, in all her left-brained-brilliance would frequently advise me based off of her previous evening at work. My mom was an ER nurse for many years in a prominent college town. One morning, over oatmeal with cream and currents my mom told me and my siblings about a car accident the night before. “it is always better if you don’t see it coming,” she would say “people who see it coming automatically tense up every muscle in their body and get injured worse.”

So how do I do this? I see the change coming. And I don’t know what to brace myself. But it turns out that bracing myself would cause more damage than the actual impact.

So maybe this is a season of rest. Maybe I have lost my mind.

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How do we do this? In these times of wait and see how is it that we lend our voices to freedom instead of what it is we wish to be freed from (yes I am listening to Jewel these days– it’s so much better to be disappointed in the degradation of her art as opposed to mine). I found I need to just revel in the reality that waiting is a reminder to live. Just like loneliness can be turned into solitude so can waiting turn into a pause button that allows us to live. It is a reminder that I am living even though the purpose of this season hasn’t been revealed yet.

The tricky part is, it is just so natural to brace. To tense up and grip tight before the inevitable collide. And I am not yet a master of defying the automatic. The human nature per se.

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So I let it come to me and I let it remind me: even though I don’t know what is going on in my life, I can still marvel and revel in life. I can still paint my toenails even though I wont be wearing sandals for what seems like years. I can try new recipes and go for walks after work. I can let my kindergarteners do the dinosaur dance even though its not on the syllabus. I can eat pomegranates because they are almost out of season. I read Psalm 16 over and over until I can realize what it means that there are boundaries in my life that cant be crossed and that doesn’t mean I’ve failed at something, it means God is good.

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So it seems I find myself at the same place I have been finding myself since I got here last February: In Seoul, South Korea… and in a desperate need to put on the habit of gratitude during my days. As it turns out this ensemble tends to be less of a freshly ironed white and black garb, and more of what I can find in a dark, cold morning that’s clean.

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Something like that… On the topic of Christmas

I was writing an answer on the board for my kindergartners phonics time, and a sudden realization arrived  at the front of my mind with severe urgency: My Christmas CD.

My 2011 Christmas mix. Last February, as I was tearfully running around my parents’ house before we left for the Detroit airport, I had demanded this melodic mix from them. None of them knew where it was, they all waited patiently, solemnly, not knowing what I was even referring to, but waiting nonetheless. Drinking in deep sighs.

These moments are so familiar to my family. These rushing-around-the-house-slam-into-the-van moments. We found it. I packed the 4 CD’s the Hope made me last year. A sort of life-jacket she tossed me from her little boat of faith.

Detroit-Phoenix-LA-Seoul. At each point I saw the CD’s in my bag, and I knew I had made the right decision. I knew I would want to hear these songs in December in Seoul. I had this whole life planned where my apartment was spacious, with my brilliantly creative mind showing itself across my walls in the way I made my home.

My classroom life was going to be peaceful with a golden hew  over all of the scenarios  that played out in my mind. By this time, I thought, all of my procedures would be fool-proof and me and my students would be in a comfortable rhythm.

These days, I come home, and  after I summit Mt. Rebekah’s-shoes at my front doorstep, I am greeted with un-watered plants, undone laundry, forgotten morning toast in the toaster. My class has a rhythm but it has become more like the mallet for a bass drum thrumming into my skull.

I found the CD buried in books and papers I have collected throughout this year in Korea- a sign that I have taken to living here.

And as I click on my stove-top range to boil water for tea, and put in the CD. I am caught red handed.

I am spent. I have not stopped going since Chu-Seok.  My life has become an exchange of given and received expectations from every person and situation around me.

I didn’t remember this CD. I didn’t remember that I owned something so special.

This probably seems especially unimportant, but there are a list of sad reasons as to why my ownership of the gift occurred so late in the Christmas season.

  1.  My desk is too messy
  2. I am not home enough
  3. There is not enough space in my brain to process the small, beautiful gifts I have been given.

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This may not be sad for you. And you may wonder why it is sad for me. But I am pretty disappointed in myself.  I have not set out in this world to be “successful” as it were. I have already thought about this. I do not care what I achieve, or a checked off “to-do” list, or even the amount of connections I can make in a season of life. And I definitely don’t care or want to care about money.  I care about knowing people’s stories, and living a worthy story myself, and knowing God, and reading books. But right now, my life does not reflect those sentiments.2012-12-24 16.26.28 (1)

So while I hate the hustle and bustle and dumb songs, I am so thankful Christmas came this year. Because it brought the deepest gift I could have asked for: time. Time to talk to my Dad for an hour and a half. He told me how he knows God and that he’s proud of me, and I didn’t have to interrupt him to finish something or go to work. Time to take a long walk and not have to look at the time. To watch rays of sun stretch themselves between the few trees that grow tall and sturdy in Seoul. To let the chilled wind hit my lungs and breath deep the ice of a season that will be gone soon. Time to  eat a long, slow meal with friends.2012-12-24 16.21.58

And isn’t that so Christmas-y and Jesus-y? Time. Jesus was a baby. My savior was a baby.

And He brought me time unimaginable. He brought eternity to me. So here I am at the beginning of Christmas, tired and weary and moody. And this gift of life and time transforms me.

I was right. My February 2012 self was so wise to know that I would want to listen to that CD. But I the reasons I love this gift are so different from the reasons I loved it last year. I am so thankful.

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be. been. being. am.

Summer is holding on for dear life in Seoul. The smell of the waffle shop next to our school no longer clings, sticky-sweet to the air, yet it drifts easily through the cooling into the open window

of my classroom. Reminding me that no matter how hard it holds, it will lose its’ grip entirely and give way to fall. I do not object to this holding.
This tension.
A wind of cool, and a wind of warm in the same breath.
It has been my prayer in these last months. To be held. As I eat at my dinner, sip at my wine, I scour the podcasts I am subscribed to because I want to hear voices falling over my meal. I want familiar voices to drift over me and around me not expecting me to join the conversation unless I want. I long to hear my family converse about things that are otherwise inconsequential to the rest of the busy-fast-moving-important world.
But that’s the thing about moving to the other side of the world: there are some moments when you are left completely blank.

And in that there really is so much pain when you are blank.

Emily Dickinson said that “pain has an element of blank.” And I couldn’t agree more with my dear Emily. Possibly the hardest part of pain is the inability to name the depth or the specifity of what is wringing your soul of joy.

And even thinking on this leaves me more blank.

But then there is this thing; this gratitude thing. This thing I have been pressing into, my Hope has been asking me about; my eucharisteo. Where is it? Is it lost in this blank? Can blank swallow things whole the same way that pain seems to?

No. I don’t think so. Or at least, whatever ability Blank has to erase, and make empty, gratitude has a far greater ability to fill and make full. Maybe that is why people started “giving thanks” in the first place before meals. Because it centers.

This. Now. This bread, this wine, this is what we can start with. Even if there is no chorus of loved ones floating through the house. There is a kumquat tree, and a picture of my students, and a funny calendar from my best friend and fresh feta in my pasta. Then it is there.

There. I am held. 

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New

frost fades to dew
new shades. From white, stark, crisp.
to light blue, hint of white wisp cloud
pale hints of color. Spring.
A vulnerable time: Mother nature coming down from her dense numbed state.
and she is born again.
reborn, unfair-in the haze of Spring.
a state of becoming instead of being.
springing ahead in all vulnerability to unknown haze of warm
wedding season. graduation
gone.
moments go so fast.

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