Invisible Life

I’ve just finished reading the novel The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. It is a story about a woman who cannot be remembered. As soon as someone leaves her presence, if she disappears from sight, the memory of her fades and the person no longer recognizes her.

I am reading this book as I prepare to move from the city where I’ve lived for the past 11 years. Each day I look at items in my house and think about how I will price them for a household sale, who I can offer particular books to, who might appreciate gently used towels. All of these items that make this apartment our home, that help us live our daily lives.

A friend who will buy some of our furniture told me, “It will be nice to have something of yours and we can think of you when we use it.”

We can think of you.

Ah, what a phrase. To know that we will be thought of.

Because what tugs at my heart is not the stuff in my house. Those things collect dust and get scuffed or cracked. Items need replacing after time. Items are left behind when the suitcase gets too full.

No, what squeezes my heart as I look around my home are the thoughts of leaving the life we have built here. 

Addie LaRue leads an invisible life, free to love others and able to remember each person she meets but no one can remember her. Truly, she cannot build a life. I think this is a nightmare of existence. Human beings long for connection, to know that we matter and that we have purpose. Sitting here thinking about leaving behind our friends and our church, the kids’ school and my husband’s office, people’s faces fill my mind and I think “How long will they remember us after we leave?” And I’m thankful we did not live an invisible life. I’m thankful we have been able to live a life of purpose here.

The world will keep spinning. We will leave Cairo and start over in Texas.  

It is the way of life (especially our overseas life) and I am not fearful of this pattern. We leave our marks as we are able and imprint on our hearts the impressions of our loved ones. Some memories fade, but not all. This is the way of creatures bound by time.

And yet, even bound by time as we are, we can touch eternity. Faith, hope, and love will remain. How we love others has the ability to reach beyond our years. This life we lived here – founded on faith, established in love, constructed in hope – leaves its gentle mark in the cement of ever after.

God sees beyond your strengths

Math has always come easily to him. Even from the beginning stages, when we counted wooden blocks on the living room floor, the numbers just came to him.

“How many blocks are there?” I asked him, pointing to the scattered row of blocks. I expected him to count them. He was only three or four years old.

“Six,” he answered promptly.

“Yes…but how did you know that?” I asked hesitantly. He had not taken the time necessary to have counted them.

“Three and three are six,” he replied.

And on it went. The math came easily, and he quickly became the “numbers guy” in our family. He had to work hard at creative writing. That one did not come easily. But numbers were his fall-back.

Until 5th grade. The math itself is not difficult for him. It’s the process that is difficult for him. The curriculum wants the students to solve the problems using a particular method and then explain that method. That’s not the way his brain works. He can’t explain it the way the workbook asks. He dreads math homework.

The report card comes home. His grades are good, but he is disappointed. The lowest grade is math. He doesn’t understand why his grade in math is lower than his other grades. He works hard, he knows the material. It must have been that one test, that one section where the explanations didn’t come.

I begin to think about what kind of encouragement to give him. I don’t put pressure on grades, and I know he’s not worried about my approval. I want to validate what he’s feeling and help him to keep going, to keep working hard. But I don’t want that to be the only thing I say about this situation. There’s more that could be said.

I think about him being the numbers guy. I think about how sweetly content he had been latching onto that title. He might not be verbal like his sister, but he could do numbers like a boss. I think I need to speak to his heart.

“Hey buddy,” I tell him later in the kitchen. “I’ve been thinking about your math grade. I know how disappointing that is to have that as your lowest grade.” He nods.

“I’ve been thinking about how sometimes we can take one of our strengths and make it an identity for ourselves. We can become the numbers guy and then we don’t see more of who God created us to be. We claim an identity for ourselves that we like, that makes us feel good and feel strong. I think it can be a mercy from God to remind us that we don’t need to find our identity, the core of who we are, in these other things. “

I tell him that it is a mercy from God to remember that you are not defined by your strengths nor are you valuable because you are the “fill-in-the-blank” guy. I remind him that he is a child of God and that is the core of who he is. God made him good at math, but that’s not all he created him for.

This conversation is a reminder to me to speak words of life to my kids. Not just words of encouragement about their strengths, but also words about who they are at their core. I want to remember to ask them questions about who they want to become – not their vocation but what kind of person they want to be.

I don’t think that the wisdom I shared this afternoon in the kitchen settled the question of identity for my ten-year-old. I fully expect to revisit this topic of identity in the future. It’s one we all struggle with at some point. He and I started the conversation that I hope to continue during his life. We started the conversation that God sees you, all of you, and knows exactly who you are. And who He says you are is better than any identity you can create for yourself.

(First Published at Her View From Home)

The Tourist Market

“A special deal for you today. What are you looking for?” The vendor speaks louder than necessary as I try to inch past him. We have entered the giant maze of the Cairo tourist market after threading our way past restaurant proprietors pushing for business. I lead the way down the narrow aisle. Colors of every shade scream at us from the left where the scarves hang from racks reaching two meters above my head. Cluttered shops with souvenir trinkets loom to our right. Vendors call from either side.

“How can I take your money today?”

“Come inside and look, no charge.”

“Good prices, right here.”

Two of my children hold onto my arms, turning me into a larger, lumbering elephant through a narrow passageway. I glance back to make sure the youngest child follows with my husband. She’s there, touching everything she passes and calling out for her siblings to look. My teenager hangs right at my heels.

We make our way like salmon, against the current of tourists moving the opposite direction. I try not to jostle anyone with my backpack as I turn to see what my friend has stopped to consider. The crowds push against us and the vendor entreats us to come into the store.

“Thank you,” I say forcefully and we keep pushing forward. Looking at all the possible purchases, my mind struggles to remember what we came for.

A thin young man with a tray of tea glasses weaves his way through. I frown as I consider the improbability of carrying a tray of tea through these crowds.

We make a left through the kiva with the lanterns and candle holders. We pass the antique stand, where old rotary phones, ancient radios, and a couple record players sit on display. My kids all talk at once, asking questions or telling me their observations. I nod in happy confusion. Our destination lies up ahead, if we can just reach the slightly hidden alley that will take us to the camel bone shop. But there is too much to see on the way. The kids point to chess sets. My friend shuffles through a stack of decorative boxes, weighing her options of which will match her home décor most closely. I continue to fend off vendors with my polite and serious “thank you.” I keep an eye on the child who touches everything and nod my head at the continuous chatter of the others.

Ten more steps. Past the handing display of colorful cotton pants, dodging the table of delicate glass, and into the slightly dark alley. The noise dies away as we wind our way back to the shop and greet the camel bone man.   

The loud, the lovely, the slightly chaotic. I love the market.

A Father’s Honor

Dressed in his new suit and dark red, velvet necktie, my 10-year-old son was crying. My daughter found me in the bridesmaid room where I was waiting with the other bridesmaids before the ceremony. She didn’t know why her brother was crying. I rushed out to find him and there he was, sitting in the lobby of the venue, his younger brother beside him.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, trying to hug him, a bit awkward in my formal dress. He tried to shake his head to indicate that it was not a big deal, but I knew better. I encouraged him to tell me, wiping his cheeks and looking into his sweet face.

“The man who is doing the wedding retied my tie.”

“OK, did that hurt you?” My mind tried to connect the dots.

“No, it didn’t hurt me. But he said whoever tied my tie didn’t know how to tie a tie.” His lip quivered.

Again I wondered, why would this upset him? Then the pieces fell into place.

“Did Daddy tie your tie first? And the man said whoever tied it didn’t know how to tie a tie?”

My son nodded.

“And that upset you?”

He shrugged. But the truth was out. My sweet son was upset about his father’s honor. Another man had criticized him and his father was not there to defend himself.

My husband, and the father of this boy, was on an errand for our daughter and not able to address the situation himself. I hugged our son, validated his feelings, and told him we could talk to the offending man a little later when we found him. Wedding photos would start soon.

Fortunately, my husband and I knew the officiant. We knew him to be a man worthy of respect and someone who knows the importance of respecting others. I was sure he assumed one of the 20-something-year-old groomsmen had helped tie my son’s tie. He probably thought he was making a joke. Instead, he stepped right into an insult.

As far as I know, this is the first time my son was faced with such situation. He is not regularly around people who would insult his father. A humble, easy-going man, his father rarely gets offended by others. I don’t know that we’ve even talked specifically about defending someone else’s honor.

I realized that deep inside my son is a sense of honor and respect. Even if he could not have articulated it as such, he was distraught at the thought of his father being disrespected without the opportunity to defend himself.

As we were about to enter the reception room, the opportunity to address the situation arose. The officiant and his wife were about to enter ahead of us. I got his attention.

“I need to tell you something,” I said. “Earlier, you helped my son tie his tie. You told him that whoever tied it didn’t know how to tie a tie.” He nodded that he was tracking with me. “His daddy had tied his tie.”

Understanding immediately hit home and I watched the man’s face register his mistake.

“Oh no,” he said, eyes wide. “Do I need to apologize?”

“I think it might be good,” I said.

Immediately, this man turned to my son, he looked him in the eyes and told him that he was sorry for insulting his father’s honor and that my son was right to be upset by that. My son nodded and smiled and accepted the apology with as much grace as a shy 10-year-old boy knows how to manage.

The officiant faced me and I thanked him. “Well done,” he told me. He knew the importance of addressing wrongs. In that moment he came alongside my husband and me as we raise our boy. He helped me give my son confidence that his feelings of honor are good and right. He helped me validate the man my son is becoming.

Raising our boys means seeing the men they can become and giving them the confidence they need to reach for that identity. There are many images of what a man looks like. I hope that he will choose to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before his God.

An open letter: To my friend, on her wedding day

This will be a beautiful day. The ceremony, the decorations, the details, the bride — all beautiful. You have done a wonderful job preparing for the wedding you dreamed about. All the work and planning are worth it. There will be fun and laughter, dancing and celebrating.

More importantly, you and your groom will make promises today — promises to each other and promises to God. All beautiful and so daring. You stand in faith making promises about an unknown future. You commit now to the choices you will make on days that are months and years from today. Choices you will make come what may. All of heaven bears witness as two broken people commit to choosing the good of the other over convenience, to choose love over easy.

And this would be foolishness, this promising on the future, but for the God who has made a covenant with us. He renews His promises to you today — to you personally and to you and your husband as one. You don’t walk into a future alone and untethered. We have an anchor that enters into the very presence of God, holding us there with the One who has promised Himself to us.

Today will be beautiful. There will be days to come that do not seem beautiful. The tempting thoughts will probably find you, thoughts that other circumstances would be better or easier. That the greener pastures lie with a different spouse or in the free days of being single. That if only he would do or say the things you’ve decided he needs to do or say, then life will be better. And that’s why the commitment is a choice, a choice we keep making.

This is the beauty of the commitment — the decision is made, the choice secured. You will choose your husband over and over again, not because you are beautiful and strong, but because of the anchor holding your promise.

Say, “I do,” and then do it again and again.

This is a beautiful life you have chosen. This is a beautiful day.

Leaving the Shallow End

We were standing on the seashore, watching our children playing in the water when my friend told me about her summer camp experience growing up. Each summer the campers were required to swim a specified distance and tread water for a set amount of time in order to pass the test. Passing the test allowed the campers to swim out past the shallow end during recreation time.

My friend admitted that for many years she would not attempt the swim test. She could do it – she was a capable swimmer. But the thought of people watching her attempt the swim and the possibly of everyone witnessing her failing the test kept her from taking the risk. Instead, she stayed in the shallow end of the lake for years.

Perhaps this sounds familiar to you as it does for me. Fear of failure has a way of keeping us in the shallow end far longer than is reasonable. The stats out there cite about 31% of adults are afraid of failure (Linkagoal). And many reasons for the fear come up for discussion – perfectionism, overcritical parents, self-doubt, performance anxiety.

I’ve had similar fears, not wanting to try something new because I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.

The funny thing about this is I know I’ve taken plenty of risks before. (Moving overseas comes to mind) I’ve faced down the failure-fear to step out and give things a go. And yet, I’ve also been held captive in other situations, stopped by the lurking questions:

What would failure in this area mean to me? What would it mean about me?

When the new adventure means opening up to an integral part of myself, when the failure could attack something deep in the core of who I am, taking the risk to swim out into the deep water feels overly risky.

If I fail, it could change how I see myself.
If I fail, I might have to give up a dream.

Never mind that I’m not really acting on that dream in the shallow end anyway. Oh sure, a few splashes here and there, a little back stroke. Sure, the games in the shallow end can be fun for a time. And yet my heart longs to be where my feet don’t touch ground. I desire it and I’m scared of it.

It is hard work swimming in the deep end. But that’s not what scares me away.

Just like my friend who was afraid to take her swim test, I’m afraid to put myself out there, and then let everyone watch me when I can’t pull it off.

The fear says that if I can’t pull it off, then maybe I’m not cut out for it. The fear says I will look ridiculous for trying.

Time for a new voice in the room. The one that says to give it a shot. The one that says you never know until you try.

My friend laughs at herself now. “Why did I spend so much time in the shallow end?”

Why do I?

I’m going to take courage in knowing that failure is a part of anything worthwhile.

I’m ready now. I’ll take the plunge to see what I’ve got. Don’t mind if my teeth chatter just a bit. It’s time to leave the shallow end, do the hard work, use these muscles, and see if this dream is worth working for.