Temporary Insanity

A few years into our marriage, my husband started to pick up on the fact […]

Carrie Willard / 5.31.16


A few years into our marriage, my husband started to pick up on the fact that certain words and phrases bothered me. There were the typical words that everyone hates: the “m word” that means “not dry,” and the “p word” for women’s underwear. But then, there were some words that sent me over the edge that would only make sense from inside my brain. “Repair” used to sound like nails on a chalkboard to me, probably because I was practicing family law at the time, and there were so many divorcing couples fighting over household repairs. “Temporarily,” however, was the word that topped the list.

“Temporarily” was the word my husband used every time we put something where it wasn’t going to reside permanently. “We can just put those pictures in the garage,” he’d say. “You know, temporarily.” The “temporarily” placeholder got marched out a lot when we undertook an interstate move. “We can just shove those boxes on the porch … temporarily.” It became shorthand for “I don’t want to deal with that at all, so let’s just pretend we’re going to deal with it later.” The “later,” I knew, would not be fun, and the items and tasks piling up felt like an unfinished sentence waiting for closure. While some people shy away from permanency and “settling,” I longed for it. I wanted everything in its place, and I wanted it to stay there. It wasn’t so much a fear of change as it was a fear that things wouldn’t change – that they would stay where they were without another thought.

I recognize this aversion to unsettledness as my own anxiety and slightly obsessive-compulsive tendencies weighing me down, and (mostly) not any external circumstances. (Just don’t tell that to the “temporary” piles of paper on my husband’s desk.) I know that the irritation I feel at the loose ends is something that comes from within me, whether I like it or not. Truth be told, I sometimes do kind of like it. Would Monica Geller on Friends settle for “temporarily”? Hell no. Felix in The Odd Couple? Not likely. These over-the-top fictional characters are hilarious in their insistence on order, and I like to think that I’m equally entertaining when I’m putting things away and cursing under my breath. My insistence on having things put in their place, at least semi-permanently, is probably one of my more adorable ways to be annoying, at least in my mind.

community-silver-47-swscan01903-copyThe injunction on “temporarily” is charming, however, only so long as it’s useful. Once it gets in the way of real life, it becomes like any other nagging anxiety. This type of angst tends to hit the fan when major life decisions are in the balance. This brings me to another of my least-favorite words: “discernment.” My husband is an Episcopal priest, and in the church world, discernment usually means that somebody is looking for a new gig, or if you want to put it nicely, “working out what God has in store” for them next. In marriage, this becomes a group activity.

I don’t know how it works in other clergy families, but it has never happened in my family that someone just announces that they’re ready to enter a discernment process to seek out a new calling. There are usually some nagging clues–a long commute, a dissatisfying season, or a telephone call from a different diocese. Some people might call this the Holy Spirit at work. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but call it what you will, it usually takes some time to brew, and then there are a series of odd conversations about whether you’ve ever been to Montana, and do you think you might want to live there?

What follows can be months of unsettled agony, punctuated by moments of forgetting that you’re discerning anything. It can be a very lonely process. Your current circumstances may seem unbearably good or unbearably bad, depending on the day, but everything is magnified because it might change soon. The fact that you may be there temporarily is highlighted, underlined, bold-printed, and italicized.

During one of these moments of heightened clarity, my husband looked up from the computer screen and said, “What about Paris?”

“Paris, Kentucky?”

“No, the American Cathedral in Paris is looking for a new dean.”

“We don’t speak French,” I reminded him.

This seemed to be a minimal road block, at least in the moment. We spent the weekend poring over books about Americans in Paris, and dreaming about crusty bread. Where would we live? The cathedral has an apartment! Where would the kids attend school? In a very expensive private school for Americans, which isn’t convenient to the apartment or anything else, for that matter. Could we drive there? Who knows? But who cares? PARIS.

The weekend of dreaming about Paris came quickly to a close, when we woke up and realized that it would have been the least practical decision ever, and people who don’t like to live in the world of the temporary don’t do very well with large, impractical decisions. But in our zeal for our dreamed-up life there, I bought a handful of books about Americans living in Paris. I kept them even after I woke up from the dream, knowing they’d be entertaining reads, and a good reminder of That-Weekend-We-Thought-We’d-Move-to-Paris-Ha-Ha-Wasn’t-That-Funny.


Some time later, when we moved to Houston, Texas (not Paris), I was unpacking boxes in my zeal to get everything put away when I found the Paris books. At that point, everything in Houston still seemed foreign, and even our bodies were rebelling against the different water, the different smells, and the different climate. (As it turns out, our bodies might have also been telling us that the ice cream so popular among Texans was laced with a good amount of listeria.) We might as well have been across the ocean from everything we knew, and everything felt different.

As I placed our familiar books on the unfamiliar shelves in the church-owned house, I imagined myself doing the same thing in another city, in another country, worlds away. If we had moved overseas, it most certainly would have been temporarily. TemporarilyWhat seemed chaotic suddenly felt exotic and exciting. The shifting sand of where we lived didn’t seem to matter so much as the adventures we would have had there, at least in my imagination. There still would have been mail clutter in a probably-overcrowded apartment, and LEGO bricks everywhere, no doubt. The itch of “temporarily” would not be scratched, and it wouldn’t seem romantic and exciting for long. But there was also something very freeing in this thought–that the experiences we were having mattered more than the address where we parked ourselves at night.

I began to think of Houston as our own international destination, and the rectory our version of a Parisian pied-à-terre. Look, kids, breakfast tacos! Tasty! And these potholes–how quaint! Why yes, that is a giant armadillo statue just blocks away from our house. This traffic–I don’t know how the locals do it! Within a few days of our move, I saw a Land Rover plow into a crepe delivery van, and I never felt more like a stranger in a strange land. And oh, don’t think I overlooked the rich irony that the crepe van was from a restaurant called Sweet Paris. My Franco-Texan adventure was just beginning.


Some things weren’t temporary at all, though. On one of our first nights in the new-to-us house, we tucked the kids in bed in their new-to-them room. I was resting next to my then-three-year-old when he asked me, “Are we getting a new mom, too?” I’ve never actually been kicked in the gut, but now I think I know the feeling. “No, baby. I will always be your mommy, and we will always love you.” In our reassurances to our kids that our love for them was not going away, we sought out the familiar, very permanent lesson of God’s love for all of us. We read to our children from The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones, which reminds us of God’s “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.” There’s nothing in there about temporary, but there’s nothing in there that says that God’s love can’t grow and change with us, either. If there was freedom in the temporary, in “this transitory life” as the Book of Common Prayer says it, then there’s comfort in the permanent, too.

I have found freedom in the temporary, because of assurances of the permanent God who loves us. Do we belong in this strange place? We do, as much as anyone else does. Will Houston ever feel like home? It does, as much as anywhere else has. I haven’t completely given up my aversion to the concept of “temporarily,” at least when it comes to household objects. But I’ve warmed up to the idea that our place on this planet is temporary, and we might as well embrace the place where we’ve temporarily landed, in the arms of the One who permanently loves us.

Just please don’t say discernment. Or that m-word. And for the love of that loving God, please don’t put your shoes on the dining room table…temporarily.