The Unmasking

When I was seventeen, I started an internship with one of my favorite authors. At our first meeting, I showed her my hidden words on the note app on my phone. We talked about my stories and starting a blog. Of course, I objected. “My words have always burned bridges or made people ask questions, and I just don’t have the capacity to handle it.”

“That’s why you’re supposed to Taylor-Swift people,” she said back.

She showed me how to write without hurting people. But it’s been five years, and instead of hurting other people, I think I may have hurt myself.

That was the day I learned how to lie. That was the day I became a mask-maker. That was the day I learned how to turn my pain into something people could dance around. That was the day that I created The Boy with Blue Eyes.

So you could call this an unmasking. Because I gave him a new name six years ago, and what took me too long to realize is that I let him hijack my story, too. I wrote about what it felt like to play God when you felt like you couldn’t save something, but really I had given him the role no one is ever meant for: the sun.

He moved, I moved; I was brave because he said I was; I could do it because he said I could. And when he was gone? You can imagine.

Now, it all sounds a little too religious. Still, the world understood it, from Florida to London. Because, I think that if we’re being honest, we want our own tangible version of God without having to play the part ourselves. So we let someone else swoop in to take the spotlight and do the saving and the fixing.

But this is the unmasking, a reckoning, and it starts with calling myself out— The Boy with Blue eyes was just a boy, and I should have never been allowed to make him more than that.

I don’t remember how we met. I remember what school I was at, so I know I was in the fourth grade, and my first memory of him is the two of us sitting on the roof of a storage unit. When I think about it now, I remember he was always so still with me, even when we were that little, like he knew what I needed. I remember him at my family’s lake house and how he pushed me in with all my clothes on the second we got out of the car; I remember the night we told him to go hide with the girl he liked during a game in my back yard, and how we never came to find him so that he could have his first kiss. I remember when he joined the football team, and he suddenly wasn’t around anymore; I remember driving an hour to see him score a comeback touchdown, how the crowd went wild, and how I thought that now everyone loved him half as much as I did. I remember reading the story of Troy out loud in my living room with my legs across his lap, and the way his voice sounded when he told me about all the things he thought I deserved in this life. I remember how he never left my side the whole night that we celebrated my sixteenth birthday, and I remember the day he bought his car. I remember my eighteenth birthday, how he bought me my favorite cake and lit a candle in it, a white rose in one hand, waiting for me when I walked through the door to pick him up for lunch; I remember the night he got his heart broken and I showed up to take him to get a tub of his favorite ice cream—we ate right out of it with plastic spoons in a gravel parking lot that I still drive past sometimes. I remember how he took me to prom so I wouldn’t be alone, and how we ended up playing cards with my family all night, all dressed up. I remember when the panic attacks started coming, and the way he would talk to me on the phone while I laid on my bathroom floor at three in the morning.

I remember all of it: eleven years celebrating, dreaming, showing up; every inside joke, late night texts; all of those Waffle House meet-ups and haunted houses, and how many photos I was in at his graduation. I can still smell his living room couch, and I can’t forget how we always just took care of each other. When nothing had meant anything anymore, he meant everything to me.

And I remember our last day together.

The weather was cool, so we sat outside at my favorite dinner spot in town. We had made it past what I thought then to be the impossible: the things he had said when he walked away from me just a year before, a kiss he said had meant nothing so we both acted like it never happened, and me somewhere between thanking God for giving him back to me but wondering why He had. People would have looked at us and seen how unhappy we were, me sitting there trying to figure everything out and him not caring, but not leaving the table, either.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” he said, taking his last few bites, and at some point after that my ears started ringing until I couldn’t hear the rest of his story at all.

With the golden sun setting behind me, warming my back, he spoke words over me that welcome my worst fears up to the table there with us. And he was laughing about it.

I blinked, and for a moment, we were sitting on that storage unit rooftop in fourth grade again, our knobby ankles knocking against each other, when the only worry we had was how we were going to get down.

Then I got up from the table and left.

There’s this story in the Bible about the earliest years of the people of Israel. They had the World-Maker protecting them, providing for them; they were recovering from their past as slaves, thriving and conquering; they had walked through a split sea and seen God come to guide them as a pillar of fire, had begged to know His presence, and He had given it to them. With the world and power of the heavens in their laps, the people of Israel looked around at all of the other nations and said, “Wait. We want a king, too. A real one.”

They wanted to trade the Creator for the created.

God told them no, that they didn’t understand what they were asking for. But they kept asking, ceaselessly.

For the longest time, I thought I related more to God than Israel in this story. I could imagine Him throwing his hands up and looking around in shock — “But you know Me,” He would say, “I have always come through. I have done the immeasurably more. Look at all we have been through and how far I carried you. Am I not enough? After all this time?”

Yeah. I got that. Those same questions kept me up at night. Those questions followed me through my childhood and into my early twenties, and I can’t tell you how many times I asked them out loud hoping the answer would save me.

I wonder if the heavens shook at the sound of God’s breaking heart—He had made a whole world that didn’t want Him. He had stood there with them through everything, and they forgot.

Sound familiar? There’s a lot more God in us than we are willing to slow down long enough to notice. Maybe, if we did, we’d be a little kinder. Maybe we would forget Him less.

Except, He’s better.

In the end, He gives Israel exactly what they’re asking for.

Even now, I can still recount all of the prayers God never answered better than I can remember all the times He showed up.

So I wondered why God had chosen to answer the prayer to give me my best friend back.

It took some time, but I finally realized that, in the story where Israel asks God for a king, I’m not God—I’m the one asking for a counterfeit. I’m the one who doesn’t choose God back. I’m the one who looks at what He’s offering and tells Him that it’s good, but not enough. I’m the one who asks for a king, instead.

Sometimes God doesn’t give us things we ask for because He knows that we aren’t ready for them or that they aren’t any good for us anymore; other times, God gives us the things we ask for to remind us why He took them away in the first place, why they don’t fit, why He is better.

Sometimes He doesn’t give us the things we ask for because He wants our full attention, and other times He does give us things because He knows we won’t move on until we see what God already saw in the first place—the reason He didn’t want to answer our prayer.

If I’m really, embarrassingly honest, I’ll admit that I don’t know when I would have finally gotten the point and stopped asking God to have him back. When people asked me how I was, I thought of him. When I met someone new, I thought of his words. When I felt anxious, I felt his absence. His was the story I told. Not mine, not hope’s, not love’s, not God’s.

He had spoken my whole world into existence when I needed someone the most only to take a step back when it counted. We like to point fingers at God, saying He’s not there, that He just sets our world spinning and then walks away—but really, I think we’re the ones who don’t know how to stay after we’ve built someone up.

I made an idol at the foot of God’s mountain, and I gave him blue eyes. When the wind and rain came, he got swept away, too. But God’s mountain is still there.

Sometimes, I wonder if—when Jesus talked about moving mountains for us—maybe He meant people, too.

Anything to bring us back to Him.

God gave me what I wanted just to show me that it could never be as good as Him. He gave me what I was convinced I needed just to show me that I didn’t.

So, let’s not make this more than it was—The Boy With Blue Eyes was just a boy. His name was Sam, and he was my best friend.

And that’s all people are meant to be—people.

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A Letter To My Little Sister: 2019

Dear little sister,

I am unforgiving.

I hold on to things.

I have hard lines in my relationships.

In the final few months of 2018, I talked to you a lot about grace, but I’m not so sure I always know how to give it to myself or others.

I’m worried that my pain in endings is probably my own fault.

Because I am unforgiving.

Because I hold on to things

Because I have hard lines in relationships.

Little sister, you and I look at our parents and their stories and we preach that no one has a darkness too heavy that Jesus can’t change their stars, but I wonder if we, too, are just the byproducts of the wounds we were born into.

It’s a nice gesture to say that what’s happened to people is not the defining factor in who they can become or the life that they can have.

But do we believe it for ourselves?

Because we used to sit on the edge of our seats during family dinners, straight backed and polite, trying to finish before people started yelling.

We used to lay in the dark and talk about the people we missed while our mother sat down the hallway, stricken with fear that had been instilled by family.

Our favorite uncle died, and we never got to tell him goodbye.

Our cousin left.

Secrets were whispered in the light of our living room that would change the dynamic of our household and finally make sense of our past.

I told you things too late.

And while I was old enough to shuffle through what hurt and take what I could handle, you were just growing up.

I became unforgiving. I stopped letting things go. I formed hard lines in my relationships.

But you? The little forming parts of you that were still learning about family, friendship, staying—those were the little parts that watched.

You were shaped by absence.

While the rest of us were learning how to cope with loss, you normalized it.

Me? I took my church pews and tried building sanctuaries out of people.

You? You never saw the point in that.

2018 took its best swings at you, little sister.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not still trying to figure it all out. I’ve played a very unbalanced game over the past few years: caring too much and saying, “at least I can say I gave it everything I had,” or searching wildly for the worst in everyone so I could have my list of reasons to not care at all.

But it’s 2019, and now I have another list, and this ones just for you, little sister:

Don’t build a guest room for loneliness to stay in.

Don’t leave a spot at your table for Goodbye, because goodbyes aren’t normal.

Search for the best parts of people.

Don’t hold on too tightly to those parts, but God, clap loudly for those parts.

Give it all you got but accept when peoples’ arms are just too full to accept what you have.

I think we thought we would be the types of people to have lifelong friends, but now I think that we might need different people for different seasons.

Its okay that people change. You’ve changed a lot, too.

Send the text, little sister. Get in the car. Say yes to the invite. Get dressed up. Buy the shoes. Go on all of the first dates until you know exactly what you want. Don’t close your eyes for the breathless moments—open them wide.

And most of all, little sister: that thing inside of you that walks away before, “goodbye”? Run against it, fast and hard. When you feel that pull in your stomach that wants to keep you from getting close, run towards what it’s trying to keep you from.

It’s okay to make new inside jokes with different people. It’s okay if someone doesn’t already know the name of your favorite band or how you got that scar on your chin, and you don’t know their favorite color or that they snort when they laugh.

It’s not about people staying. It’s about sitting down at the Waffle House booth and not thinking about loosing them for even a second because you’re too busy letting them get to know you.

Because little sister, you’re someone worth knowing.