Thank You

I had my first panic attack when I was 8 years old in the middle of a swim meet. I remember exacatly how it felt; as if I was still underwater eventhough I had turned my face to breathe. My hands were shaking, my body aching, my chest tight. I mistakenly labeled it an asthma attack because I didn’t have the words to express that my out of control feelings had manifested into a full on anxiety attack. 

It wasn’t until recently, as a young adult, that I have been able to look back and recognize the extent of my anxiety over the years. Moments of intense fear and doubt and stress that I now have the vocabulary to call anxiety. I know that I am not unique in this nor am I naive enough to believe that my struggle with anxiety is as crippling as it is for some. But I am self aware enough to realize that my anxiety is more than just the poor stress management of a type A personality. 

The past 6 months or so have been the hardest of my life. I am exhausted in every area; physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially. And in that exhaustion, my anxiety thrives. It’s this weight on my chest, a shake in my hands, a catch in my voice. It is blinding and frustrating and isolating. All I want to do is lie face down on the floor and let my anxiety envelop me, squeezing with it’s powerful grip, dictating my worth (or lack there of). 

But, in this dark, dark season of my life, the most amazing thing has happened; people have been lying with me. Through text messages and Snapchats and FaceTimes. Through meals shared and art appreciated and concerts. Through hugs and prayers and  words of encouragement. Through conversations about God and football and teaching. Through generous, genuine acts of love, I have not been on the floor alone. My anxiety often tells me just that…that I am alone in these hard times. But I have seen in such a beautiful way that I am not. 

I am fine. I really, truly am. And I don’t share these honest thoughts to gain sympathy or as a cry for attention. I share because even in this difficult time, the silver lining is so great, the love I’ve been shown is so deep, that I can’t help but be grateful. Thank you thank you thank you for not letting me lie on the floor alone. 

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Chemistry and Accounting and Pigs

My first career goal was pig farmer. I remember showing up to career day during elementary school in overalls, hair up in curly blonde pig tails, toting my expansive pigs-only stuffed animal collection. Bless my poor mother’s soul; I’m sure she received a few strange looks from the other mama’s whose children were dressed much more sensibly as nurses and firefighters. Curiously, I had no interest in raising pork (I frankly had no real concept of people eating pigs), I just wanted to live like a barefoot hippie on a farm surrounded with pigs as my profession.

Soon, though, I realized that pig farming the way I wanted to do it didn’t really exist, so I set my sights on the next logical career: architecture. I consumed Frank Lloyd Wright books as a fourth grader and spent hours filling notebooks with floor plans for houses and stores and, because God loves a little bit of foreshadowing, schools. I jumped to pediatric pulmonologist when I realized how much math was involved in architecture and then I floundered during my early high school years when I discovered that anything remotely medical makes me vomit.

Teaching was an accident. I never had a magical “this is why I’m going to be a teacher” moment, no sudden epiphany or life-changing conversation with a mentor or touching experience with a child. I just felt this slow, steady tug towards teaching. I fought it HARD. I wanted more, I wanted different; teaching was too boring for someone like me (I laugh now at the ignorance of High School Sarah because teaching is the most exciting job there is). And besides, I had no teachers in my family tree. My college major orientation class made it apparent that ALL teachers go into teaching because their moms and grandmas and great-grandmas were all teachers. It’s a legacy thing, and teaching just isn’t really in my DNA.

Except it is.

As luck would have it, I come from a line of accidental educators.

My grandfather, Pawpaw, was a farm boy from Iowa. He served in the 101st Airborne Division and the 77th Special Forces in the late 1950’s, loved motorcycles, and working on cars. But he had an itch for something more. My mom tells me that education always mattered to him; he felt the weight of it and worked hard to pass that importance on to his children. Pawpaw practiced what he preached and, after years of working as a chemist in various industries, he got his master’s in science education to become a chemistry professor. He was rough and hands-on and sharp as a tack. He lit the spark.

My mom never thought she’d be a teacher, and I’m sure if you asked her today, she would be quick to assert that she isn’t one even now. But, let me assure you, she is. After high school, she set her mind on completing two degrees (accounting and computer science) in three and half years. The chaos of life swirled and, about a decade ago, she landed at a high school working as the treasurer. But on a boarding school campus, one must wear a multitude of hats, and that’s where the educator fire started to burn. Over her years at GCA, she’s taught classes, led youth leadership groups, and chaperoned trips all over the country. She’s tough; ask any one of the students she has mentored. But her students will also tell you she has the biggest heart, the biggest passion to educate as many kids as possible.

And then there’s me. I didn’t have to make a big career change to find my soul’s purpose. But teaching still feels very much like the happy accident it was for my grandfather and my mother. I’ve always felt offbeat, a little too much and still not enough, just different. And somehow, teaching affirms all of those uncertainties. The spark in my grandfather, the fire in my mother, has turned into a full-on inferno in me. And, as that passion for education burns within me, I can finally see it now. My DNA is indeed wired to teach; hands made to scribble on the board, voice made to shake with excitement, arms made to comfort playground tumbles, feet made to pace the classroom. Like my mother and grandfather before me, God created my heart to beat for the quest for more. Giving in to that calling was the best decision I have ever made.

And I can always retire on a pig farm.

On Monsters

Most kids believe in monsters at one time or another. There’s a thousand different iterations of the Boogey Man across the globe and without a doubt, we’ve all been a little spooked by the idea of him. Maybe an older cousin told a creepy story or a late-night movie lodged an image or a book from the top shelf gave us an idea; make-believe monsters seem to make their way into our lives.

But there are some children who do not have the luxury of make-believe. There are some children who know monsters to be very real.

Six of my fifteen students are Burmese refugees. They are Karen, an ethic minority group that has been at war with the Burmese/Myanmar government since 1949. This conflict is one of the world’s longest running civil wars, and it’s one that you’ve probably never heard of. Karen people have a beautiful, complicated, vast history that I’m slowly learning. But theirs is a history marred with war.

Two of my babies sat down with me today and delineated some of the horrors of the conflict. Through big, bubbly smiles they told me about things no ten year old should have any concept of. They talked about the torture that children would endure if they were taken by the Burmese. They recounted stories of uncles loosing limbs, of fathers being captured, of grandparents they never knew because of landmines. In childlike language, they spoke of concern for little girls at the mercy of Burmese soldiers.

They talked about monsters.

“Miss Theus,” one of the boys asked, “my dad can still go to Heaven, right? He’s killed people, but only bad guys.” And then, beaming with pride, “My dad is a general in the army (the Karen National Liberation Army). He’s very important in my country.” My heart burst. Of course he can go to Heaven. Of course you’re proud of him. Of course you want to be like him. Oh no, please don’t think about going back. Oh no, please don’t join the army too. Oh no, please don’t try to avenge your uncle’s death. Oh no, please don’t go hunting monsters.

They told me about their Boogey Man, a creature something like our American Big Foot. This ominous being leaves huge footprints in its wake and will eat you if he catches you.

“When you have to go to the bathroom at night, you have to take a spear with you,” one of my boys told me.

“Yeah,” a girl chimed in, “And you have to run. There’s no lights and it’s very dark.”

Running from a boogey man is a whole lot easier than running from a guerilla solider.

Blessedly, my babies came to America when they were all about five years old. And God has worked through some amazing people here to keep them in school. Their lives are okay now; significantly fewer monsters. But the monsters still haunt them, I know.

Sitting there listening to my students talk about the violence of their homeland, the terror of their past, I couldn’t help but think of the uncertainty of their futures. The odds are against them. Success will be hard-fought, and the battle starts now, in my fourth grade classroom. I love them I love them I love them and I want to fight all of their monsters, to fix all of their problems, to right all of the wrongs done against them in their short lives.

One of the boys said it so simply: “I just want peace for my people. I want them to have freedom and a place to live.” When Jesus comes, my child, when Jesus comes. No more monsters then.

 

On Future Plans

Today I received an email from the education department at my school. “Since you’re graduating in December,” the email read, “Could you fill out this form about your future plans?” The weight of that simple question hit me in the gut. Such an innocuous question, but one that I’m largely unable to answer. Future plans? I plan on getting ice cream a lot and traveling as much as possible and falling madly in love. I plan on getting into politics and being a leader in Adventist education and teaching my kids how to make snow cream.

My plans go on and on, a never-ending inventory, and that terrifies me. The list of things I want to accomplish in this short life cannot be condensed to a cute little blurb to make my department look good. My future plans are wild and whimsical and winding. My heart is full of questions and I plan on living a life that answers all of them.

This abstract nature of my plans stresses me out. I do not know where I’ll be in three months. My world is one giant, unknown oyster and I absolutely hate sea food. Future plans? I hardly know what I’m doing tomorrow. I can talk all day about my lofty goals but when it comes to the nitty gritty day to day plans, I’m lost. Future plans, sure I got them, but I’m at a loss with the current plans.

Once again, I am too much and not enough all at once. I have plans, lots of them, but somehow, I can’t seem to formulate a sentence to accurately describe them. The not knowing is the worst. I’d love to confidently report back to my department with a solid plan for the future, but I can’t. I landed on a vague if not eloquent statement about following God’s call as an Adventist educator but even that seemed half-hearted.

Future plans? Try not to be a horrible person, learn a lot, eat some really good food, and walk with God. And anything else is just gravy.

On #goals

I used to really hate the Proverbs 31 Woman. I mean, the whole passage starts off with “A wife of noble character who can find?” Some guy complaining about how he can’t find a good girl; instantly I’m turning the page. And don’t even get me started with all the “She makes linen garments” and “She brings her husband good” stuff. This Proverbs 31 chick always seemed so demure and passive and put together in ways that I could never be. She is perfect and I am a hurricane.

But recently, God has been working on this stubborn, sassy heart of mine and I’ve begun to see her in a different light. I used to get really caught up on the fact that she is only appreciated in the context of her husband. I am a Strong Independent Woman; how am I supposed to relate to this woman? But I think all of that husband stuff is secondary to who she is.

She is hardworking and determined. She is a provider. She has a generous heart. She is talented. She is strong and dignified. And then there’s the part that I’m pretty sure God put in there just for me: She laughs without fear of the future.

There’s this popular hashtag on social media, #goals, that people like to use to indicate that something is an inspiration to them. #couplegoals or #fitnessgoals or #teachergoals; the list goes on. It’s a compliment, an indication of admiration.

The Proverbs 31 Woman is real #goals. It’s so wonderfully cliché of me to even say, but oh my goodness, I mean it. I no longer see her as a conservative’s attempt to tone me down but rather as an inspiration to work towards. Who better to aspire to be than this amazing, God-fearing woman? The way I read it, she’s intense and passionate and driven and I’d bet you money that she was a hurricane just like me. 

 

On Finding Home

Out on the playground of my elementary school, there’s this big old tree that’s really a whole bunch of trees all smooshed up and growing together. The roots of the tree are tangled around each other, stretching out towards all corners of the grassy yard, like hands reaching for something more. I love that tree. I spent many a recess hiding between its multitude of trunks or balancing on the roots or sitting at its feet. That tree is beautiful, so rooted and firm in its existence.

Your twenties are a weird time. Everything you once knew to be true is somehow not quite right anymore. The axis of your life is just a bit too tilted all of a sudden. There’s so much uncertainty and questioning and rootlessness.

People like to say that young people are selfish. We are on some Grand Quest to Find Ourselves, they claim, concerned mainly with following the whims of our wanderlust and doing weird things to our hair and living in tiny houses.

But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’re being selfish at all.

I think we’re all just looking for home again. We are trying to combat that rootlessness, that untethered feeling we’re all fighting. We left home, and worked so hard to do so, but now we’re a little lost. We’re looking for comfort and familiarity and love. We’re looking for home.

Through the affected haze of grandeur that my generation loves to hide under, we recognize one harsh reality: we can’t go back home. The home we once knew has changed too much, or we’ve changed too much, or we’ve both changed and not in the same way. We have so much fondness for our childhood homes, for our roots, but now at twenty two, we have to try to find home on our own.

And so we travel and dream and pray to God to make some sort of real connection in this over-connected world. We’re not on a quest to find ourselves; we’re on a journey to find a place to land.

I’ll be honest with you; it’s a pretty daunting journey. It’s hard to navigate the new and different and stressful to pick out the pieces that bring you closer to home. It’s a patchwork quilt of experiences and passions and missteps sewn together with hard, hard work.

For me, it’s gold glitter tape and homemade stickers. It’s driving (finally, finally driving) all alone and singing fearlessly. Or when my heart stops for just a second at the thought of holding a child’s hand through their final breath. Or those people who look at me and really see me and say “Where have you been my whole life?” Or discovering the music my dad listened to as a kid. That’s my home. I have found comfort in my quirks, familiarity in using my gifts, and love in unexpected friendships.

Every time I go back to my mom’s, I drive past that tree. It’s smaller now than in my memories, and looking barer each year, but it’s still there, roots tangled deep into the earth. More than anything, I want to turn my patchwork quilt into that tree. I want to be rooted, confident in who God created me to be.

Your twenties are a weird time and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. Because when we finally do find it, home, oh how sweet it will be.

On Bicycle Helmets

Five minutes sitting in a park and it’s not hard to see that bicycle helmets might just be the root of all ill-will between parents and kids. Many an argument has been started over a pink Barbie helmet I’m sure. It’s July and it’s Georgia and it’s just the driveway and it’s not that big of a deal and it’s no one else is wearing one. When faced with a screaming six year old or a pouting ten year old or an eye-rolling fourteen year old, I’d bet that a lot of parents concede.

But my parents insisted.

You wanna ride that bike? Great, put on this top-of-the-line, 5-star-rated helmet. Every time. No questions. No options.

I had a lot of bicycle helmets growing up: Go inside if anyone pulls up the driveway while you’re playing, no trampolines, never dive if you don’t know how deep the water is, don’t talk to strange men with dogs, G-rated movies only, boosters seat until middle school, back seat not front, hold hands in parking lots, check left again.

If there was a helmet for any given situation, some sort of preventative measure, my parents made sure that it was secured properly on my head. My parents spun safety nets in preparation for the inevitable fall. I grew up cautious, a bit timid, and maybe just a little resentful. “Safe” and “sheltered” are often hard to distinguish between and I tended to view my life as the latter.

Love is a weird thing to me. In a lot of ways, it’s really abstract. It’s a feeling, a concept, a construct. But then everyone always says that love is a verb, an action. I don’t have too much experience with love, but from what I’ve seen, I think it’s somewhere in the middle, somewhere between words you can’t express and grand gestures.

It’s curfews and rear-side airbags. It’s “call me anytime” and double checking the locks. It’s forced self-defense classes and baby gates. Love is a constant stream of small, selfless actions, building and building to create the best life for the recipient.

It’s bicycle helmets.

Every time I strapped on my helmet and peddled off through Chalk City, safe and secure to explore the world created on our driveway, I internalized a vital lesson that my parents were accidentally teaching: Life is a dangerous adventure best tackled with love.

When the time comes for me to go toe to toe with my (inevitably-stubborn) child over wearing a helmet, I’m going to Sharpie on a big old heart right on the top of the helmet and send her on her merry way, pouting and complaining about her weird mom, but safe and oh-so-very loved.

 

On History

I come from a family of history buffs. Meals are seasoned with salt and stories of the past. Conversations straddle the here & now and the gone & forgotten. My sisters and I learned to appreciate this world through the lens of a world long since departed. War heroes, ancient kings, great explorers, groundbreaking scientists: these were our playmates.

I learned from a young age that history is divided into eras, chunks of time grouped together by some commonality. The Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Era. It’s a way to make sense of the past, to organize important events into neat little time slices.

My life is peppered with eras, too. The Towhead Years, the Hospital Age, the Dread Revolution. And just like with largescale history, my own history has some layered time periods, namely one overarching era that spans many years on my timeline: the Together Era.

With little exception, my sisters and I have always been in school together. If not at the same physical school, we have always been walking together on essentially the same path. The commonality of academics has held this era together. Sisters, each with our own distinct lives, but together in assignments, tests, projects, teachers, and uniforms.

In elementary school, I chased them on the playground. In high school, I walked with them to class. In college, I shared a dorm room with them. I’ve been their tree fort spy, their snack deliverer, their forgotten-assignment currier. They’ve been my study buddies, my class advisors, my personal chefs. School has always been synonymous with together.

Yesterday evening, I sat beside a sister in class for the last time.

I know enough about history to recognize that this is the end of an era.

I will never again pass one of my sisters in the hall or yell at them from across the promenade. I will never succumb to an inside-joke-induced giggle fit in the middle of a lecture or mooch off of their notes when I wasn’t paying attention. Living together will soon be limited to overlapping stays at our mom’s house. Face to face time to be replaced with FaceTime.

It’s the end of an era.

Many historians have a favorite time period to study, a slice of time they keep coming back to again and again. Maybe they are fascinated by the drama of the Tudors or moved by the heartbreak of the Holocaust or inspired by the Suffragette movement. They become experts of that particular blip on the timeline of the world.

When you think about it, “area of expertise” is just another way of saying “home” and as the historian of my own life, I plan on studying the Together Era extensively, returning to it when I feel a little lost in whatever new era comes next. Rebecca and Molly, thanks for making this era one worth revisiting.

On Relationships

The way I see it, there are all of these fine little lines connecting us and this year, I’ve been focusing on illuminating the paths between me and you, between me and the world. For the past four months, the word “relationship” has taken root in my heart and dictated my thoughts and actions. I have tried to call more, to write more, to text more, to show up more. I have worked on fostering new relationships, nurturing old relationships, and repairing broken relationships. I want to be intentional with my love and energy; I want to cherish each piece of twine that links me to everyone in my life.

But resolving to work on relationships is exactly that: work. And it’s hard work at that. One tether pulls on me harder than another and suddenly I’m neglecting one of the many precious people I’m connected to. Or I’ve ignored one path for so long that it’s hard to find my way back to that lovely soul. Or connections tug equally and I’m forced to make a choice between two people that I love.

I’ve found myself wishing for more hours in a day so that I can be everywhere, be everything, for everyone. I have this horrible habit of focusing on failure instead of success and, if I’m grading my current relationship work, I’m struggling somewhere at C level. I forget to reply or write back or return a call. I cancel plans or I make the wrong choice or I shirk my responsibilities. It feels like I’m failing.

I have to remind myself that resolving to change, to be better, is never easy. And failure is part of growth. And the simple fact that I care about my perceived failures shows that I am indeed changing and growing. The challenge now is to learn to handle the guilt that comes with loving so many people and not being able to be everything for them.

At the end of the day, it’s so easy to shut people out but it has been so much more rewarding to work on reaching out instead. And yeah, I fail sometimes (most times), but I’m trying, I’m learning, I’m growing and I’m better for it. By focusing on the wonderful web of relationships in my life, I have found my roots, my footing in this unsure world. And to whoever is on the other side of this string, I hope you feel that connection too and hope you know how glad I am to be connected to you.

Dear Jack

IMG_7027Today you are 8 years old. It simultaneously feels like an eternity and no time at all since you were born. I still vividly remember standing at home in my kitchen and getting the call from our dad that you were almost here.

I was baking cookies. And I was terrified. I didn’t know how to be a big sister. I didn’t know if I could open my heart up to a little brother. I didn’t know if I could handle the changes you would bring to our family.

Oh how silly I had been. You have filled a spot in my heart I didn’t realize was missing. You are the most magical combination of all the things I love; of Daddy, of your mama, of Rebecca, of Molly. I see so much of myself in you, too, but thankfully only the good bits.

I hate more than anything that I haven’t spent every day of the past 8 years with you. Life is weird and families are complicated, but somehow you’ve always known that and you’ve always understood. Thank you for that.

It has been, and will continue to be, the greatest privilege to grow up with you. I am at my weirdest when I’m with you, and I mean that in the best way possible. Never change.

Love,

Sarah