If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. – Gospel of Thomas
In the past year, the violent angry dumpster fire that was 2017, I turned 30 years old. Age is just a number, birthdays are just a day: all of those clichés are true. At the same time, the milestone has given me the opportunity to think back a decade, to who I was at 20 (the same age as many of my students) and think about how I’ve changed.
A decade is a long time. We only have so many of them in our lives, and I wanted to mark this one well. I did that with #30by30 project, which documented the ways I was trying to be present in the final days of my 20s while also trying to make sense of the past. I wrote about friendship, brain cancer, babies, oceans, baseball, podcasts, old family photos, art museums. It was a snapshot of me, at 30. Or, almost 30.
Thinking back a decade, I don’t have a clear snapshot of me at 20. I was in college, in Oregon. My family had just moved to Canada, and I spent a lot of time sitting in coffee shops drinking vanilla steamers because I didn’t yet like tea, writing on a clunky laptop because I hadn’t yet learned to speak up. The 20-year-old me was self-conscious and uncertain. Silent. Afraid. Grasping. She had to learn things in her own way, and it took her a long time. But once she did, she changed.
When I try to chronicle some of those things I learned in the last decade, I realize they have become even starker in this last year, this terrible, frustrating, frightening, infuriating year. All of my convictions, which have always been mine and held closely and preciously, have become more important. More real. I’ve had to learn how to live them differently this last year, which has been both good and painful.
I don’t always live my convictions well, but I practice every day. Someday I hope they will become as natural as breathing, as natural as the anger that I’ve never been good at cultivating but that needs to be felt. As natural as the joy that I’ve never been good at expressing but that is always there, hidden a bit under the frost.
And so, here are some things I’ve learned in the last decade and became more convinced of in the past year.
I learned the world is extremely cruel, and people are horribly mean because they are afraid. But that fear isn’t an excuse for inflicting pain on others, and until they – we – recognize that fear and address it, not letting it control our hearts or our actions, the world will continue to be cruel.
I learned even in a cruel world there is beauty, joy, light, even hope. I realized that even in beautiful places there is pain, and there can be beauty in painful places. I can choose to see both; I can hold them in tension; I can grasp the joy even while recognizing the pain.
I learned love is love, given by God, and I will never choose a side against love, regardless of the people who call it sin. I realized that life is too short to tell others how to live. I know my Jesus did, but I’m not Him and those who speak for him don’t often do it very well. And all I want to do is love in the name of God, and celebrate those others who love in the name of God. I refuse to acknowledge any validity in hating in the name of Christ.
I learned power can be stolen and taken, but true respect and goodwill only comes after hard work, kindness, and strength. I realized that religion doesn’t work as politics, and politics should never be religion. I realized that not everyone who says the name of Christ really believes in his tenets.
I realized Christianity is broken but Christ is waiting for us to crawl out of the wreckage and do his work. I refuse any semblance of Christianity that aligns with abuse, racism, or discrimination of any kind. I know some would say Christianity is founded on those principles, and I am learning that in some ways they are right—but they do not have to be.
I also learned there are not always places for me in the church—single, female, intellectual, affirming—but I need to try to make it so there are. Because otherwise, it’s a place I don’t belong. And if I don’t belong, with my relative privilege (white, straight, cis), so many others do not belong. Some have been knocking on the door so long that they’re too tired to keep going. Others just bypass the door altogether. They’re leaving the premises, saying, “If you don’t want me, I’ll go somewhere else.” And what a loss that is for the church. For us. For me. I’m not brave enough to be the person who says that, but that’s a privilege to choose. I am learning to be brave.
I learned the mystery of God is much bigger than me. I learned that the beauty of God is infinite and often corrupted by our limited minds, our faulty language, and the ways we try to put boundaries around Him. I also realized that He is not just a He, but a She, and an It, and a They, and an Everything. And I love the parts of God that are excluded, much more than I love the parts that are included.
I learned I missed out on a lot of crucial conversations because I grew up in predominantly white, upper-middle class communities. I realized that I thought I was good at listening, but it’s easy to listen when someone is echoing your experience back to you. That’s not really listening, though. I’m learning to hear, and process, and ask, and apologize. I can’t help how I grew up, and I’m grateful for my growing-up years, in which I was safe and strong and well, in communities that loved me and fostered my growth. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t missing pieces, that there weren’t voices that were silenced. Now that I’m grown, I’m trying to find them and hear them. It’s not their responsibility to teach me, but it’s my responsibility to listen to them.
I’ve learned the ways of life that made it easy for me to thrive also made it hard for others to thrive. I recognize that a life that just benefits me does not help me, or society, or this world. Change requires action, and that change will likely mean that life is a little harder for me – but a little easier for someone else.
I learned it’s easier to be mean than kind, but being kind is always worth it. It hurts more, but the result is bigger. I also realized it’s easier to not feel rather than feel, but what’s the point in being here if not to feel? Feeling is what makes life rich. And feelings are God-given, not to be ignored and suppressed. The heart and the mind and the soul are our power, and hell if I’m going to ignore my feelings because they make life hard.
I learned everything can change in a phone call, in a whisper, in a text message. And the way to deal with it is to keep moving forward.
I learned to be much less certain about everything, and I have worked very hard to make myself soft in the midst of my uncertainty instead of rigid and harsh. It is a daily struggle, because my bones want to become fused and unyielding because that makes me feel safe. But I refuse to become someone who is threatened by that which cannot be understood. And so I try to become more uncertain and live in the tension that uncertainty creates. Life then becomes more complicated, more gray, and more lovely.
I learned everything is rhetorical. By that, I mean everything, including my life choices, has meaning to various communities. It all says something about who I am and who I want to be, how I view the world and what I want the world to become. I can’t always control how my life rhetoric is interpreted, but I can make specific rhetorical choices to make my life sound as it should, to benefit the listeners, to benefit the community. That’s what the Romans thought rhetoric was for; that’s why Rome banned rhetoric and exiled the teachers. That’s the power of a well-constructed life filled with intentional words and actions.
I learned words can’t solve everything, but they can do a lot. They can do so much. They are never enough but they are always something. They can be wielded as a sword, striking down swaths of people and hearts and souls, or they can be an offering, a piece of bread or a drink of water, a way to say “me too.”
These are just a fraction of the things I’ve learned in the last three decades, and really in the last year. I can’t say I’m sad to say good-bye to 2017 and its brain cancer and surprise surgeries and mass shooting and hurricanes and new laws and reckonings. I also can’t say that I’m feeling enormous hope for 2018. But then I remember: 2017 brought me manatees and podcasts and Lillian Naomi and knowledge and art museums and joy and memories. And it brought me to 30.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and see that 20-year-old me. I wish I could walk into Chapters and see her sitting by the window with her HP laptop and her green Margaret Houlihan coat and her hot sweet milk, reading books for the first time and writing poems and journals and feeling so deeply. I wish I could sit down beside her and ask her how she is. And who she wants to be. Like an angel, or a person from the future.
I hope that 20-year-old, if asked who she wanted to be at 30, would have said something like: kinder. Smarter. Braver. And happy.
What would I do? I don’t know. I’d want to say, yes, girl, you got this. You don’t know what’s coming, but that’s okay. That’s better. It will be better than you thought. And it’ll be worse. You won’t be who you thought you would be, you won’t be where you thought you’d be. You aren’t magical, you aren’t fixed, and you aren’t new. But you will learn, and you will grow, and you’ll start to talk.
And, I’d say, at 30, you’ll just be getting started.