I just finished reading a book called Kisses from Katie, about an 18 year-old girl from Tennessee who left her home and family to work with orphans in Uganda. She had planned on staying only for a year before returning to the states for college. But she fell in love with the country and the people, and now Uganda feels like home. At age 22, she lives in Uganda and is a mother to 13 adopted children.
The book resonated with me in so many ways. Although my own mission isn’t a religious one, I believe the essence is the same. It’s what Buddhists call groundlessness, and Christians surrender. It’s about love and connection and being a part of something much larger than myself. It’s about surrendering to uncertainty and getting away from all the static and excess that interferes with that larger purpose in our modern Western lives.
As I read the book, I began to think harder about how I could create that same sense of purpose and connection in my own everyday life.
The paperwork and the monotony of the work I do as an interpreter kills me. I can feel the liveliness leave me, every time I have to say, “Please sign these 15 pieces of paper,” as I proceed to ask the same 10 questions over and over again, while pondering how many trees die to supply hospitals with excessive amounts of paper, most of which goes straight in the trash. I despise that part of my job, and unfortunately, that’s most of what I do. On the days where I have to stand under fluorescent lights, registering 20 kids for routine doctors appointments, sometimes I feel like I can barely contain my frustration as I try to merge our bureaucratic, litigious society with people who come from a totally different world where healthcare and education are never a given. Often I’m the bridge between someone who hates their desk job and a person who doesn’t know their child’s birthdate, and I feel like pulling my hair out.
But the moments when I’m sitting in the Emergency Room with a mother whose daughter is dying from a rare genetic disorder, and the doctors insist that she won’t live much longer; I watch the mother refuse to give up on her daughter, and I can feel myself come to life.
In April of last year, I fell in love with two boys who had lost everything, their home, their mother and their brother to the tornadoes, and in the few months I spent working with them, I’d never loved my job more.
When I sit with children who have been sexually abused, and I see them slowly learning to trust someone again, or I watch as parents come to therapy themselves, recognizing their mistakes and learning to be better parents. When I see a sickly, precious little girl recovering from a stem cell transplant, or I have to tell a family that their child has just been diagnosed with cancer, their pain breaks my heart, but those experiences yank me back to the present moment. I feel so connected to those people, and those moments are some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Much like the feeling of being in the woods with only my backpack, I feel at home.
It makes me sad to think about how many years I’ve spent doing less than the most meaningful things in my life. I’m constantly searching for meaning, but I wonder if I’ve been searching in the wrong places.
I’ve spent most of my adult life being responsible, trying to enjoy the moment, while I plan for my future. At my first real job, I would have them deposit half of my paycheck into my savings account to begin investing in my retirement plan. But I don’t want to obsess about the future anymore. I don’t want to be reckless or put anybody else out either, but I’ve been living as if I could somehow avoid pain and tragedy if I just planned or invested well enough. As if enough planning could protect me from the messiness of life. I don’t think it works that way.
I have rental properties, and although they probably cause me more stress than anything, my goal was to pay off my houses in another 15 years and retire. And by retire I mean, only pouring my heart, work, and energy into the things I love the most.
But I can’t wait that long! My life is slipping away while I wait to have enough money to live the life of my dreams. So I’m thinking of trying to live the life that I want and trust that the money thing will work itself out. It may or may not, but the worst-case scenario would probably just be me living with my mom and trimming her bushes in exchange for some of her delicious organic meals.
As I write this, I’m thinking to myself: “You know you have a life that many people would dream of. You get to travel, you have loving friends and family, you have your health, a decent job, a beautiful place to live, an adorable dog, a boyfriend that loves you.” But that’s not enough. It’s not enough because I’m still spending A LOT of my time, dealing with paperwork, sitting under fluorescent lights in an environment that stifles me.
And I don’t feel very alive.
After my divorce, I was in so much pain that the whole world lit up. The intensity of pain I was experiencing opened me up to a whole new world. I couldn’t possibly hurt anymore than I was already hurting, so there was nothing to run from. I could be totally open to anyone and everything because there was no need to protect myself. And that openness brought me such joy and showed me parts of myself that I never remembered having experienced.
Although I don’t miss the pain, I miss that feeling, that openness. As I move further away from that painful time in my life, I become more and more comfortable and less willing to be uncomfortable. And the more I run from discomfort, the smaller my world becomes.
I know this is not a linear process, and I’m not a linear person. I struggle to focus on one thing, and the details around what I think I want can change as quickly as Alabama’s bipolar weather. I’m interested in and passionate about so many things. One day all I can think about is building this Passive House and how much that means to me. Then the next day I want to either take off into the woods or go care for dying children in Africa, and my Passive House dream starts to feel incredibly privileged and pretentious.
I go in circles, zig-zagging back and forth, just hoping that ultimately I’m moving in the direction of my deepest desires. I know that I will continually swing back and forth between my desire for safety and comfort and the longing for aliveness that only comes from first feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Simplicity is my luxury, and I can only hope I’m slowly headed that way, whatever concrete form it may take.
I was looking at an old journal and found this poem I had written a few years ago:
I feel a terrifying peace
Something that says,
“You don’t have a choice.”
It’s something infinitely bigger than me
Yet at the same time as small as me
I realize that somehow
I’m the most and the least
Important thing in the universe
And I think maybe I don’t have to be scared
Or maybe I do
Maybe being terrified is part of it
I’m terrified of my peace being stolen from me…
It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted out of life
I believe it’s all any of us ever want
I want to spend the rest of my life
Being with that peace
And looking for it in places it can truly be found.