Saturday, October 26, 2013

Broken and Beautiful

It would be easy to call myself a failure. I, who value love above all things, have failed in my marriage of eight years. I am 30 and single for the first time since college. I am getting by, but my not-quite-two-year-old daughter has more money in her savings account than I have in mine. I am drawn towards friends who have other priorities, and I want more than they can give me. I am pining for the soulmate I've yet to meet. My heart is full of love, and I have no one to share it with but my young daughter who can only understand the edges of it right now. I am overweight (as I have been my whole life) and growing more and more gray hairs, and I frequently feel mediocre and unremarkable, despite my talents and passions. I don't have a lot of hopes for career advancement because I have already arrived at my professional target, which is unfortunately in the rather underpaid nonprofit sector. I recently learned that I am the target of derisive gossip—by at least one member of my church, no less—and that people are sitting around speculating about my love life (or lack thereof). My friends are constantly warning me not to do anything that will cause me more heartache because they know how impulsive and openhearted and frankly foolhardy I tend to be. I have plenty of reasons to feel like a loser.

It would also be easy to call myself a success. I have recently been promoted to the job I've been working towards my entire career, and I'm doing very well in it. I'm handling responsibility in tough situations and have gained the trust and respect of my colleagues. I am using my musical talents to contribute to my community. I am a good mother who enjoys spending quality time with my beautiful daughter—even when she's having one of her stubborn toddler days—and I feel that I have really learned to slow down and appreciate moments with her instead of always being in a hurry. I live a pretty sensible and responsible lifestyle, I spend lots of time with my friends who care about me, and I have the chance to do good things for the people I love. I am challenging myself to acquire new skills—like learning crossovers in my ice skating lessons—and there are many days when I feel truly happy when only a year ago that was rarely the case. I am smart and resilient and learning to live alone for the first time in my life, something I used to be terrified of but am handling remarkably well these days. I've been getting lots of compliments these days on everything from my appearance to my choir solo audition to my performance at work. I have plenty of reasons to feel pretty good about myself.

The truth is that I am both broken and beautiful. I fail sometimes and I succeed sometimes, but in the end I am simply me—a remarkable yet flawed creation of a loving and forgiving God. I am both a stumbling sinner and a saint walking in the light of God. I have doubts that bring me to my knees and faith that makes the sun shine brighter. I am full of love and sometimes fear, and I am well-known for both falling and stubbornly getting back up again. You can count on me to both despair in the night and sing with joy in the morning. Sometimes I shiver in the rain and sometimes I dance in it. I am weakness and strength, flesh and spirit. I will never be so broken that I am beyond God's love or so beautiful that I do not need God's mercy. I will never be such a failure that I am ashamed to look my friends in the eye or such a success that I think myself above them. I will just be one more person trying my best to follow God and use my gifts to His glory. One more girl trying to love and be loved. Sometimes I won't succeed, but, oh, sometimes I will. And that hope is worth holding on to, no matter how many times my heart breaks. Praise be to the God who simultaneously humbles my pride and makes my scars lovely to behold.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Different Kind of Love Letter

Today I saw a video about a psychological study showing that expressing gratitude is one of the best ways to increase one's happiness. To demonstrate the point, they did their own experiment in which they had people take a test that rated their happiness and then asked them to write something about the person who influenced or inspired them the most. Then they had the participants call that person and read their statement. Then they took another test that measured their happiness again. Those who were able to call their person rated between 2% and 19% happier on their second test. The most dramatic increase in happiness came from the person who was least happy when he arrived.

It's a fun video, so check it out:

As anyone who read my previous post will know, I have recently been divorced. I legally became Kayla McGrady again on August 16, and I am on my own for the first time in my adult life. I was always terrified of living alone—I always had roommates in college—but it's turned out to be not quite as bad as I feared, although I'd be lying if I said it was easy. My beautiful daughter helps a great deal, and I also have a new housemate who lives in the basement, but sometimes at night it still gets awfully quiet. Those are the moments when I remember how I don't have the life I wanted—a close, loving relationship with a kind Christian man who loves me inside and out—and I feel sad and, frankly, ugly and disappointing.

Those are exactly the moments when I try to remind me of the many beautiful things that I do have and value very much. However, this study shows that increases in happiness due to gratitude are much higher when the gratitude is actually expressed. So I have decided to make it my mission to express my gratitude to the people who inspire and influence me most. A friend of mine marked her 30th birthday last year by writing letters to all of her loved ones thanking them for their contributions to her life. I thought it was so beautiful, and I was incredibly touched when I received my letter. I wanted to do the same thing for my 30th birthday, but when it came along—five days before I was legally divorced—I couldn't find the resources inside myself to do it. But there is no time limit on gratitude. Now that I have had a few weeks to adjust, I feel ready to take on this task. I will write letters to the people who have touched me. I will tell them what they mean to me and how much I love them, no matter how long it takes me to get every last letter written.

But I can't really send letters to all of them. Some are dead, and one of them—the person who inspires and influences me most, in fact—can't read. That's because that person is my daughter, Noelle, and because she is not yet two years old she can't read. She wouldn't even understand if I read this out loud to her. But it doesn't matter. It needs to be expressed, so I will say it to you, my faceless Internet readers, instead:

Dear Noelle,

In the two short years that you have been part of my life, you have changed my life more profoundly than anyone else ever has. Before you were even born, you hiccuped every day and made me laugh, reminding me of how amazing life really is. You kept me company, nestled under my heart, while I wrote the first novel I have been able to finish since high school. You lay in my arms—tiny and perfect—on the most magical Christmas Eve of my life, helping me understand the joy of the season in an entirely new way. You were my own little Noelle, my all-year-round Christmas, my joy made flesh.

At first it was just that you existed. I had been afraid to have children for so long, and then the peace finally came to me and I felt ready for you. And there you were, the tiny little person that I had never been quite sure I would have. I learned how to take care of you, and it wasn't as impossible as had thought it would be. I changed your diapers, and they weren't as gross as I had thought they would be. You slept so easily and smiled so often from such a young age. I remember holding you in my arms while I was alone at home one day during maternity leave watching The Help. Poor Celia kept losing babies, and as she carried her poor miscarried darling out in a shoebox to be buried in the front yard, I cried and cried, looking down at your tiny sleeping form in my arms. I cried to think of the women who couldn't have children, the women who lost their children, the women whose bodies betrayed them and to whom the world was not kind. I cried to think of what it would feel like to lose you, that tiny child I had only known for a couple of weeks, who slept most of the time and didn't really do anything. I loved you before you were born and I will love you until the end of my existence, and I believe that everyone should get the chance to experience that kind of love. It is the most powerful and beautiful gift that God has ever given me or any person.

But it's not just that you're my daughter, Noelle, although that would be enough. You've also changed me by being you—a joyful little girl who laughs and dances and loves to play. You love twirling in my arms, and I love it too. You love dancing around in the living room, and I love it too. You love touching my face and naming off all of its features—eye, nose, chin—and I love it too. Perhaps you think that I am cuddling you in my lap, rough-housing with you on the floor, bouncing you on the bed, and holding your hand as you walk down the stairs all for your benefit, but the truth is that all of those things make my heart swell with happiness. Getting one of your loud "mwah!" kisses and seeing your angelic little smile makes me feel like stepping outside into spring after a long winter.

The first time I hurt you you were only about six months old. I was trying to get you to take a bottle, and you were being really fussy about it. I was trying a different angle and tried to position myself above your head as you were lying on the couch. As I pulled my foot under myself, I clumsily bumped your head and scratched you with my big toenail. You screamed. You bled. I felt like the stupidest clumsiest idiot who ever lived. I cleaned up and disinfected the scratch and tried to stay calm so you wouldn't be scared. I thought about how your father would berate me when he saw what I had done. You stopped crying and only five minutes later, when I was still talking to my mom about what an idiot I was, you smiled at me. A brilliant, wide smile that said this injury from only a few minutes ago was already forgiven, forgotten. You reached out your hand to me and giggled. And I loved you so much in that moment that I almost burst into tears.

When I was struggling through the later days of my marriage, just before I decided to get a divorce, I thought about death once or twice—wished God would send down a lightning bolt and put me out of my misery. "Just make it an accident so that the people who love me will know it wasn't my fault, so they can get over it," I thought. But then I thought of you. I knew your father loved you. I knew you would be all right without me. But I didn't want to be without you. And although I didn't want to have to live through divorce or experience life as a single, divorced failure, I did want to live through your childhood and experience life as your mom. So I decided to take care of myself so that I could be a good mom for you, so I could teach you about love and God and joy. I decided to try to love myself more because I wanted to be able to show you how to love yourself like I love you. I wanted to do what was best for you, and I realized that meant doing what was best for me sometimes so that I would be healthy and positive for you. I saw your bright spirit and I wanted to foster it, cherish it, help it grow. You, in your childlike innocence, were what I wanted to be. So I decided that I was going to be with you. I was going to be silly with you and patient with you and loving with you. And I have been, for the most part, because you inspire me to try and to feel every single day.

Even now as you are heading into your "terrible twos" toddler phase, complete with all the frustrations and anger that come with being able to do so much and yet so little all at once, you are still a ray of sunshine in my life. So many people are touched with happiness when they see your smiling face. Yesterday I was nearly an hour late to work because you were just so precious, so adorable, that I couldn't leave you. I just needed to cherish that moment in your presence, see you giggling, feel your soft warm skin snuggled up against mine. (Thank God I have a salaried job where I can get away with that from time to time...) You are everything that I ever wanted when I contemplated parenthood. You remind me of the value of what Jesus said about having faith like a little child. You trust me and your father. You are adapting to your new living situation—going back and forth between homes—so well. Your affection for both your father and me is so touching. You love us, and we love you. You remind me what it means to love unselfishly and to give for the benefit of another. When I look at you and love you, I remember that other people are worthy of love and service, too. Everyone is someone's little boy or girl because all of us belong to God. I look at you and feel so glad that you are beloved by so many people, and then I remember that I am beloved, too. I am still someone's little girl. You and I are both so well loved, Noelle. Thank you for reminding me of that every single day, my darling girl.


To the rest of you, thank you for reading my blog. Thank you for taking a moment from your day to share my thoughts. It means more to me than you could ever know.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Once Upon a Time, I Believed in Love

Once upon a time, I believed that love could conquer anything and that all people, deep down inside, are capable of love. Then I saw people reject love and stubbornly cling to prejudice, pride, and solitude. I watched as people rejected my offerings and feared my intrusion into their emotional isolation. I was baffled as people did terrible things to the ones they claimed to love, things they would never want done to them.

Once upon a time, I believed that marriage was beautiful and holy. Then my parents got divorced after 30 years of marriage and my sister got divorced only one month later, after ten years of marriage. I didn't understand how things could just break down like that—until I arrived at the place where I am now, in the middle of my own divorce, utterly brokenhearted.

Once upon a time, I believed that the core of Christianity was love. Then I noticed that Christians all too often focus less on love than they do on things like politics, convoluted theological arguments, worship styles, and behavioral rules. Christians love to argue and judge each other and talk about what the Bible says while disparaging someone else. Just like everyone else, Christians love to be right.

Once upon a time, I believed that I deserved love. Then I realized that the man I loved did not love me the way I loved him. He did not trust me the way I trusted him. He did not value kindness and generosity that way I did. He made me justify myself to him, and I felt like I was always taking a test. I didn't understand why my constant attempts to win his trust and affection were falling short. I didn't understand why he didn't respond to my love.

Once upon a time, I believed that love was the number one priority in my life. Then I was forced to admit that no matter hard I try, how much I pray, or how much I study the Bible, I still mess up. My love is imperfect. I get jealous and angry and hurt. I committed to my marriage and fought to keep it alive year after year, and I still failed. I could not love without expecting something in return. I could not be as selfless as I wished to be.

Strangely enough, I still believe all of these things, despite the disappointments that I have endured. I believe in love, Christianity, marriage, and myself as much as ever. I believe that God is helping me and others in spite of our failures. I believe that the wisdom I have diligently recorded in this blog is true, even if I can't live up to it every day. I believe that God will guide my stumbling steps to new love and brighter days. I believe that darkness will come, but then it will pass. I believe that suffering will be a part of my life, but I know that love will outlast it.

Once upon a time, I was an optimist who believed in the power of love and the brilliance of possibility. The world has shown me otherwise, but I still believe.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Your Mercies are New Every Morning

It is New Year's Day—a day of new beginnings, fresh resolutions, starting over. We survived another crazy year (including the so-called Mayan Apocalypse) and we're ready to dig into 2013. Or at the very least, we try to convince ourselves that we are ready.

I, for one, do not feel ready. Not at all. When I tried to come up with a list of New Year's Resolutions, I didn't know where to begin. There is so much that I feel I need to do that I no longer know what to prioritize. I no longer know what's best for my own health or for others. I just live day to day now, trying to survive, trying to do what little I can.

Those few of you who read my little blog may wonder what's become of me in the long months since I last posted regularly. The simple answer is that this blog is about love, and for the past year or so I have had very little to say about love because I often feel as though I am failing at it. I strive to follow where God leads, but my efforts rarely result in success. I struggle in my marriage. I flounder with my family. I wrestle with depression. I seek to serve others only in the quiet gaps when my mind stops screaming at me that I need to take care of myself. I am categorically unable to shut out my own fears and pain and anger except when I am caring for my daughter, who is such a beacon of sunshine that no sadness can stand before her for long. Even when she's having a fussy day I feel peaceful when I am with her, but I still feel tired. Bone-achingly, mind-numbingly tired.

What then can I say about love? I, who could not even live by my own advice when times got tough? I, who prayed and prayed and prayed but could not find comfort or direction? I, whose wisdom has failed, whose church attendance has plummeted, whose heart is heavy? I can say only this: God's mercies are new every morning. I fail again and again, but I am not lost because God forgives. I get hurt day after day, but God heals me so that my pain is not too much to bear. I live to struggle on, to fight another day, to seek love and to give it. I am weary, but I do not fall.

"I am pressed but not crushed, persecuted not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed. I am blessed beyond the curse, for His promise will endure. His joy's gonna be my strength. Though sorrow may last for the night, His joy comes with the morning." —from "Trading my Sorrows" by Darrell Evans (a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 4:8–9)

So then I hope that this New Year's Day reminds all of you about God's unfailing mercy. Today really can be a new day for you, and tomorrow and the next day, too. We do not have to carry the full burdens of our failures and scars with us from one day to the next, because God will gladly ease them for us. No matter how many times we fall or fail, His mercies will still be new every morning.
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