Because You Never Left

It’s no secret: I like God better when things are going well for me. Which […]

Stephanie Phillips / 1.17.18

It’s no secret: I like God better when things are going well for me. Which makes 2017 a stellar year for the Almighty in my books. He landed us in Sydney, Australia, and provided a network of people and places to make us feel at home here: a beautiful home (actually, we’re on our second one, which we like even more than the first). A gym with childcare workers who love my kids and chat with me about movies and alcohol. Therapists for my older son who advocate for and adore him. His school, which embraces him. Friends who sit on couches and in cinemas and at restaurants and over wine with me (and even read my writing!). Mates for my kids. And did I mention the view?!

Naturally, I’m waiting for it all to fall apart.

It’s like I don’t know how to know God when things are going well. Conditioned by years of struggle, I approach him suspiciously, all “What’s your angle, big guy? Let me see both of your hands,” as though he hasn’t shown them to me countless times already. I’m Thomas with the scars, Eve at the apple tree. He can’t win for losing with me. Which means, when something unwanted inevitably does occur, I react either in the “How dare you” or “I knew it” stance, belligerent or cynical. It’s exhausting to live within such distrust, and annoyingly, I can only partly blame my nagging anxiety and lingering postpartum depression (my youngest is three).

God and I are getting to know each other on different terms these days. Not in the “I’m clinging to you because you’re all I’ve got” of my younger days, when I felt adrift in a sea of singlehood and not-being-known. Nor is it the “how the hell do I navigate this” delirium and doubt of new parenthood and all its attendant and particular-to-us challenges. No, things are running pretty smoothly right now, which means there’s more time to look around and…see. Nowadays I live with three males who know me all too well, and on the days I’m not contemplating running away from them, I’m wondering why they aren’t running away from me. We just returned from a “vacation” to Melbourne that was 20% wonderful and 80% something else, and all I wanted when I got back home with the people I prayed for years would exist? Was to get away from them. It’s exhausting to live within such contradictions.

Because here’s how it really is, even when things on the outside are generally going well: I know it looks like I don’t believe in my husband (I do) because of the ever-ready sneer I have when he doesn’t meet my exacting and unfair expectations. I shut down way too often and easily. I snap at my six-year-old when he asks too many questions, even though I waited four years through tears and pleading for him to speak at all. My three-year-old’s generally sunny nature is so like my husband’s that when my contribution to his personality pops up—a short, fiery fuse—a part of me wonders if being around me so much is going to ruin him.

These ugly truths are not the things they write about in the parenting and family books.

Obviously, I have some darkness to deal with. Which is why I think I’ve been stepping slowly away from all the dreary offerings so available on TV and streaming these days. I watched a few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale on a plane and felt like the world had turned gray when I disembarked. I needed a palate cleanser. So I turned to Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I heard it was set in the fifties! And the costumes were fantastic! And the trailer looked colorful! Also, she kind of looked like a mess, and I can relate!

As in most of these stories, she is not as much of a mess as made out to be—or at least not for very long. Midge taps into her inner comedienne and quickly turns that frown upside down, with a few bumps along the way that are mostly played for laughs—unlike the real-life bumps I’ve hit that are played for $180 an hour in a therapist’s office. Which is not a negative review—like I said, I was looking for the sunny side of escapism.

But there are plenty of gut-wrenching, heartfelt moments. (Mild spoiler ahead.) Besides the scene where Midge responds to abandonment at the hands of her husband by getting drunk and telling jokes in her nightgown onstage at a bar (which I can honestly say I haven’t done, so score one for me), one of my favorite moments of the series thus far was when said husband returned and asked for another shot in episode three. When she refuses him, he asks why, and, as though the answer is glaringly obvious, she yells—right there on the street—“BECAUSE YOU LEFT!”

This confrontation stuck in my mind for awhile. I wondered if it was because I was liking the #girlpower nature of it, the refusal of a woman—even in the fifties—to take shit off a man. But after some consideration (in between constant questions about cars and the weather from my son), I came to a different conclusion. I think this exchange was so meaningful to me because I am surrounded by men who don’t leave me, even though (unlike the devoted Mrs. Maisel, whose facial mask regime is tight) I probably deserve it.

This has been a year in which my family has been smashed together in a new place, learning our way around a new life and growing closer in the process. And anyone not afraid of the truth can tell you that intimacy of that nature is difficult. It demands vulnerability and exposes ugliness and, Sandra Bullock movie titles notwithstanding, I have found that shame often floats even more than hope. We keep waking up together, though. And sometimes this is the only gift I have to give—this staying. Because I’ve run clean out of patience and winsomeness and don’t even ask me to make dinner a second night in a row. Sometimes it’s the only gift they have to give me. But we’re giving it.

Within our weak offering, and around and underneath and throughout it, is a greater one. It’s the one I mentioned by quoting a hymn nearly two years ago at the Mockingbird conference, back when I had no idea God was going to force us to, and bless us in, Sydney.

O Love that will not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

O Light that foll’west all my way,

I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;

My heart restores its borrowed ray,

That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day

May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to thee;

I trace the rainbow through the rain,

And feel the promise is not vain,

That morn shall tearless be.

Back then, in 2016, I focused on the last verse as the truth to which I was clinging. We were coming off a hard season with our older son full of surgeries and diagnoses and I needed reminding of the Joy that seekest us through pain, of the morn that shall tearless be. I’m sure I’ll have plenty more opportunities to sing that verse. But these days, I’m drawn to the second one: to this Light that foll’west all my way, all the way to Sydney. I think about my own flick’ring torch, the one dulled by mental afflictions and distrust and cynicism, and I imagine the borrowed ray that is restored to my heart. I see the sunshine’s blaze that remains whether I trust it or not, whether I’m proclaiming it or residing in some undercurrent of shame. And I look around and see this love that will not let me go, that will not let us go. This has been a year of not being let go of. Of not being left. This is where my staying, my yes to it all, comes from—not from within, but from him.