dweller by the river

sojourner of earth attempting to understand the journey home

Category: Family

Look Around, Look Ahead, Now What?

So we’re supposed to have been pondering these questions for discussion tonight: Where am I in my spiritual journey? Which area in my spiritual journey do I think God wants me to focus on in 2018?

Where am I? The short (and safe) answer would probably be: At the start of a completely new phase but having to get back to the basics and relearn some things I’ve forgotten in the past couple of years.

I can’t really see how else to sum it up. The long answer requires elaboration of historical context, and the listing of a truly complex web of factors including relationship/marital issues, emotional and mental health concerns (possibly mild clinical depression), stress and fatigue. It’s not that I’m denying culpability in the decline of my own spiritual health – I’m saying that I’m probably a classic specimen of a woman who’s had to (or took it upon herself to?) carry both hers and her husband’s responsibilities for some time, and crumbled under the weight of it all.

I’m not supposed to be the leader of the household, I shouldn’t be the one pushing for a lifestyle that integrates more with what we say we believe. I’m not supposed to have to be the spiritual barometer in the household, I’m not supposed to be the one pushing for some sort of regular family prayer or scripture reading time.

I shouldn’t feel awkward singing worship songs to or praying over my child. I shouldn’t feel out of my depth and anxious about wanting to pray as a couple or a family over anything, good or bad. I shouldn’t have to feel left out and lacking, wishing that my husband would pray over me like I know other men pray over their wives. I shouldn’t be battling tension and anxiety and insecurity about whether or not I actually married a Christian in the first place, or whether being Christian really means anything real to him at all, and whether that is grounds for divorce.

But I do. All of it. And I’ve spent much of the last few years pitying myself and letting my anxiety and frustration grow to a point where I’m having trouble with resentment and bitterness and finding it hard to give him the benefit of the doubt in anything. And it was probably definitely and obviously a stupid move but I deliberately let my own spiritual discipline slide in the process, thinking that if he realised how absolutely shitty things were getting, he’d finally wake up and get his act together.

I’m struggling to reconcile the need – and the scriptural command – to submit to him (and to the grace and mercy of God), and the staring-me-in-the-face-screaming-me-in-the-ear need to hold up the crumbling foundations of what should be a God-centred, Spiritually-led household. At least, what I think makes a household a God-centreed, Spiritually-led one. I think that what we are now, is not… I don’t really think I’m wrong?

I’m struggling to reconcile “wait”, “rest”, “trust”, “hope”, and “submit” with the physical situation staring me in the face – the fact that in a lot of the ways that matter, we’re really no different from a family of atheists or agnostics.

So… what does God want me to focus on this year?

I think it means something that we’ve made the decision to settle the family in this church. I think it means something that all the signs are pointing to it being the right move to quit my job despite the risks and uncertainty. I think it means something that we feel this is the right cell to stick with. I think it means something that the cell mainly comprises families that are a little older and more experienced than us. I think it means something that we both feel a connection with the cell leaders, a sense that it is safe to trust them. I think it means something that he’s been willing to attend a 7.30am men’s meeting.

I think the sense I’m getting is this phrase: Hold on.

You’ve come so far. There’s no turning back. Hold on.

And there’s this part of a song (Eyes On The Prize) by Sara Groves that’s coming back to me now:

I got my hand on the gospel plough
Won’t take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

Ain’t no man on earth control
The weight of glory on a human soul
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

The wait is slow, and we’ve so far to go
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

When you see a man walk free
It makes you dream of jubilee

When you see a child walk free
It makes you dream of jubilee

When you see a family free
It makes you dream of jubilee

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.

Allies are Temporary

I grew up with my maternal grandmother. My earliest memories are of her: Lying on a mattress next to her bed; watching her sleep; being sulkily patted to sleep by her when I wanted to be tickle-stroked by my grandfather (my grandparents’ home had a males-only bedroom and a females-only bedroom); learning to work in the kitchen (my first encounter with raw meat); learning to weed in the back garden of our church (she was the church gardener); watching her work at her sewing machine (later, at age 5, I would learn to use that huge iron machine); watching her at her embroidery (at age 4, I would pick up sewing from her,  starting embroidery at age 5).

I lived with Ah Mah from the time I was a month old till the year I turned six (my mother wasn’t prepared to look after me, and she didn’t want to stop working). In those five-odd years we made a lifetime of memories, and Ah Mah taught me skills that I’m using and honing to this day. She made skirts and dresses that my cousin H and I fought over; she taught me to love the outdoors and trained me in toughening my feet so I was comfortable walking barefoot on all sorts of terrain; she taught me to appreciate the bounty of fruiting plants; she taught me how to make my own stuffed toys; she taught me hospitality.

In her care, I grew up a vivacious, curious child: I have memories of fearlessly striking conversations with all sorts of strangers, anywhere (hawkers, bus drivers, bus conductors, neighbours, car workshop mechanics, store owners, fellow passengers on public transport), of bugging the church staff (we spent a lot of time in church; my uncle was the pastor) to teach me to read and later, to provide me with reading material; my kindergarten teachers reported daily that I was borderline rambunctious when bored (which happened all the time because I was ahead of everyone else in my class) and “asked too many questions”; I was never happier than when my grandmother was entertaining, because then I had a kitchenful of captive adults of whom I could ask more questions about anything and everything I could think of.

Then I had to move back to live with my parents. They’d not taken me back when my brother was born, but when my sister followed a year later, my mother decided to stop working, they decided to hire a domestic helper, and I was retrieved from Ah Mah’s home.

On hindsight, I wonder why nobody seemed to care about the drastic toll this took on my emotional well-being and developing personality. Almost immediately the report cards from school showed a difference: I was “reticent”, “shy”, “retiring”; I “showed pride in written work” but “needed to gain more self-confidence”; I cried if called on to read something or answer a question in class; I developed stage fright so bad that I visibly shook and stuttered; I was a loner, a bookworm, the teacher’s pet who had few friends. Eventually I made friends with the neighbours and developed friendships with the other nerds in school, but I continued to be socially awkward and self-deprecating well into my twenties. I wonder why nobody who knew me in my earliest years asked themselves why that bright and precocious child turned so suddenly into a hermit crab.

Visits to and from Ah Mah were some of the brightest spots in my older childhood, teens and young adulthood. I could count on her to understand, to support me, and to advise me with kindness. But this didn’t last. Probably because I had begun the process of extricating myself from my mother’s insidious influence, by spending more time away from home (mainly in school, especially the library, and also serving in church), earning my own money (I gave private tuition, since she routinely forgot to dole out my allowance and blew her top if I asked for it, saying all I knew was to ask for money), developing poise and confidence (taking up responsibilities and leadership roles in school, church and para-church organistions), and looking to start my own separate life (I started dating, with a view to marriage), my visits grew less frequent, and my mother had the opportunity to start working her case. I didn’t notice anything was amiss because I was busy. And then I got married, took up a crazy new job, and got even busier.

Somewhere in 2010, during one of my visits to Ah Mah’s place, I realised that my mother had turned my childhood confidant into a flying monkey. My grandmother sat across from me at her familiar old dining table and what came out of her mouth was a litany of accusations and admonishments that echoed my mother.

I didn’t listen to my mother, therefore I was disobedient and ungrateful and rebellious. I didn’t care about her feelings, only my own. I was a selfish and spoilt child who needed to grow up; why hadn’t I grown up in all my so-called important roles in so many places? Had it all been a pretence to show my mother that I didn’t need her? I had to stop trying to show my mother that I didn’t need her. I would always need my mother. I should respect her more. I should talk to her more. I should spend more time with her. I should be kinder to her. I should be more understanding of all the things that she had had to suffer. My avoiding frequent contact with her was a sign that I wasn’t filial, and that meant that I wasn’t being a good Christian. Did I want my testimony to suffer?

For about an hour, I sat there and took it. Stunned. And then self-preservation kicked in and rage began to flicker at the edges of my terror and horror.

Why didn’t you notice that the child you raised had begun to change in the first place, Ah Mah? Why didn’t you wonder about her obvious delight in visiting you (or anyone for that matter), her complete lack of homesickness (so common to young children), and her reluctance to “go home” with her parents? Why didn’t you care when the child you managed to teach discipline without the use of pain and fear was suddenly being subjected to frequent caning for infringements that she hadn’t grown up knowing about? (Different house rules, obviously.) Why didn’t you draw on our early bond and call me out for my dwindling visits when I first started getting too busy? Why didn’t you trust me enough (since you raised me) to ask for my side of the story instead of simply believing everything my mother accused me of? Was it simply because she was your daughter, and I was only a granddaughter?

I got up and took my leave. Our relationship was never the same again. That night, and for several nights after that ruinous afternoon, I grieved my Ah Mah as though she had died. And in truth, something had broken inside of me and it did feel a little as though the grandmother from my childhood had passed away. The grandmother I now had was clearly not the same person. Not to me, at least.

It wasn’t that I stopped visiting, or stopped talking to her. But a wall had gone up and I couldn’t pull it down. When she died, I felt the loss, but I couldn’t cry. I’d already mourned her. On the last night of her funeral vigil, I went alone to the foot of her casket and danced for her, a long slow series of choreographies that I’d always wanted to show her, but which I hadn’t been able to bring myself to while she was alive. I’d taken up Hawaiian hula some time after our break, and it had been a source of healing. Dance had been a solace for me, and I’d feared, after that watershed incident, being vulnerable in front of her again. But she was dead now, and if all we understand of the afterlife is true, she no longer saw with the flawed eyes of the earthbound, and I could let the wall crumble at last.

When Family is the Problem

Last last week I met up with JH, old friend who was in the country on a whirlwind one-week stopover enroute to her honeymoon destination. She was here with her fiance (goes without saying), and her parents who were on their way elsewhere. I had last seen them in 1998, before the entire family moved to the US (for ministry purposes – JH’s father is a pastor).

We haven’t really been in regular contact over the years, but our fondest shared memory of our real-time physical friendship remains the long walks we took at the landscaped canal path that was halfway between our homes. I have a handwritten note from her father too, thanking me for being a friend to her because she was somewhat unpopular at first when the family first joined the church I was attending at the time. But it seems that after all these years, her parents have forgotten who I am – I had to be reintroduced to them as my mother’s eldest daughter (I hated that, to be honest).

That said, it was a pleasant enough meeting over dinner, though I spent more time entertaining a mutual friend’s eight-year-old daughter than actually catching up with JH. We promised to keep in better touch. What nearly spoilt  the evening was when her mother suddenly asked me what church E and I are currently attending. I hesitated to tell the truth – that we aren’t interested in attending church at the moment and aren’t in any hurry to change our minds – and said that we’re currently in-between churches. She immediately gave me a look of pitying concern, advised me to make a decision as soon as possible, adjured me not to deprive my family (especially my children) of fellowship with the body of Christ who are important extended family, and said that she would pray for us not to backslide or lose our relationship with God.

I know she meant well, but I bristled and had to fight really hard to laugh lightly, thank her blithely, and change the subject instead of telling her to mind her own damn business.

It’s not that I hate church or that I no longer value the larger Church. It’s not that I don’t believe that fellow believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ (metaphorical and spiritual family members). It’s that I’ve almost completely lost faith in organised religion, the Christian church in particular. I have no issues sharing and worshiping with others; it is having to adhere to a man-made hierarchy of spiritual authority and practice that I baulk at. Being part of a community of believers is mutually beneficial in many ways, with the caveat that it is important to frequently and regularly evaluate the mutuality of that relationship and redraw boundaries where necessary.

Blood family isn’t sacrosanct either.

I’m aware that these beliefs may come across as selfish to some., but then they’ve not walked in my shoes. I know the saying about how you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family, and the one about blood being thicker than water, but such statements no longer carry much weight with me. I no longer believe that the simple circumstance of being related by blood (whether genetic or metaphorical/spiritual) is reason enough to keep trying to build bridges with individuals who refuse to hold up their end of a relationship by behaving decently. Actions speak louder than words, and if by either or both word and deed you’ve communicated to me enough times that I don’t matter (but that what you can get from/via me does), then don’t be surprised if I steadily reduce contact to a level that I’m comfortable with.

Take the past eight years into consideration. Individuals in various churches have proven time and again that their meticulously set-up illusory badges of honour, or the reputations of their particular institutions, are far more important than the mental/emotional/psychological/spiritual health of “troubled” persons or actually carrying out clear directives found in scripture. We have been betrayed, deliberately misrepresented and accused, maligned, written off and cast out; deceived by false appearances and shocked by revealed vices; forced to undergo rites and accept policy changes we did not sign up for and which were nowhere in existence when we agreed to sign said membership contract; lured by outwardly pastoral behaviour that hid multiple narcissistic traits which eventually came to light. Take the fact that evangelicals in the US – even people we know and respect – are able to throw their support behind Donald Trump and still face themselves in the mirror.

Take also my history with my mother. She aborted what would have been two elder siblings and was on her way to abort me when she had a panic attack about losing her fertility due to having had too many abortions. She told me this shortly before my wedding, which incidentally she declared nobody would be interested in attending, yet demanded seating places for a number of guests that, if I had actually accommodated, would have filled more than half my entire venue’s capacity (and I didn’t even know who 80 per cent of them were). Her first three questions when my then-fiance and I announced our engagement were: “Is it shotgun?”, “Is the diamond even real?”, and “Who paid for it?” She gave him, via me, a bunch of old stamps from her decades-abandoned random collection as a wedding gift (his mother gave me gold jewellery). She tore a tendon in my neck by wrenching at my head because, according to her, my keeping still in one position because it hurt to move (I slept badly) was just me being dramatic; even after I ended up in the hospital, she insisted that I was just playing things up. She accused me publicly of hating and disrespecting family and having never loved my grandfather just because I wanted to attend a friend’s wedding in the morning before attending his funeral in the mid-afternoon (my friends were fine with it by the way).

Those are just a few of the big, standout events. I no longer initiate any contact, and when she does, I am careful to keep my boundaries clear. I do not volunteer any personal information, I do not expand on my answers to questions, I block all meandering in conversation. I do not allow her to be with my daughter unsupervised; it is preferable that they interact at a distance, if at all.

So you could say that my concept of “family” is drastically different from what it used to be when I was younger and much more naive and idealistic. Right now I adhere to this definition by author Jim Butcher (in Proven Guilty):

I don’t care about whose DNA has recombined with whose. When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching – they are your family.

I’m very thankful that I get along well with E’s family. I have a great MIL in his mum and his brothers are sweet. 🙂 Certain friends and ministry partners are family too. 🙂

Reminder to Self

Your husband doesn’t have to earn your respect

Ignorance, Misinformation, and Being Misled

Okay, I admit it, that title approaches clickbait status. But it does represent the three things that have been on my mind since my brother A’s visit last night.

I have a rather weird relationship with A.

When he was a toddler and preschooler, I was his favourite person in the world. Once he got over his initial fear of school and over-dependence on my mother and/or me (depending on the situation), though, he became pretty independent — and also rather uncommunicative.

In their adolescence our sister, M, was the family member closest to him, and in recent years even she has had no real clue what’s going on in his life. His decision to speak and act in my defence one day in 2008, against my mother’s outlandish and unfounded accusations, is the only thing that really stands out in the last 16 years of our relationship. He has sought me out occasionally, more to get an alternative opinion than to actually converse, but no more than that. And the frustrating wisecracks he typically made in response to attempts to draw him out contributed to an image of a an otherwise apathetic tech-and-fitness freak who lacked ambition.

E has, interestingly enough, proven able to engage A on some level through the years, though neither E nor I can quite put a finger on what precipitated last night’s sudden outpouring. Apparently my brother is a lot deeper, wiser and more eloquent than we thought; he also has pretty strong views on ignorance and one’s responsibility to self-examine and self-educate.

What struck me the most, out of the many surprising political, psychosocial and religious comments A put forth after dinner, however, was his statement that his greatest fear is that he will become a copy of our father.

Because one of my greatest fears is that I will become a copy of our mother.