2017 was the year the shit hit the fan.
Well, if I’m honest, I suppose it started drifting upward in 2016, so maybe we should start there.
Two Februarys ago, on my 34th birthday, I took a long shower. If you’re a mom, you’ll know how a long shower is a pretty great birthday treat. I always do my best thinking in the shower, so there I was, washing my hair, thinking about being 34, and I heard it.
“This is your book year.”
I threw a towel around myself, and ran downstairs to tell Simon.
“My book year,” I said. “I think God just told me this is my book year.”
I imagined myself sitting blissfully at my desk, hair in a long braid (even though my hair wasn’t long enough to braid – but doesn’t a long braid just seem so writer-y?), typing away. Drinking coffee. Chewing on a pen as I searched for the right words to compose a book about…what?
Maybe a re-worked version of the memoir I’d started in 2009 about meeting Simon? Or some fiction idea I hadn’t even thought of yet? Was God going to give me my great idea to make me the next JK Rowling?
Weeks went by after that, with no writing of any kind…yet. My big idea will come, I thought. Except it didn’t.
What came instead was the worst year of my life.
Two months after my 34th birthday, I found out one of my best friends had cancer. Three weeks later, she was dead.
Doubts I’d been having about God, questions about whether He’s real and whether what He says is true, got louder and louder in my head until I couldn’t do my life anymore while still listening to them, so I stopped. I stopped listening. I stopped praying. I stopped asking. I stopped hoping.
If you don’t hope, you can’t be disappointed.
What’s your worst fear? Mine is that I’ll ask God to speak to me and be met with silence. Mine is that I’ve built my entire life on a fable.
By 2017, I was buried deep in depression and anxiety. Without my faith to lean on, I was left adrift. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it because, as much as my friends mean well, they sometimes say things like, “Just trust God,” and when you don’t even know if you believe God exists, that is not the right answer.
My friend Cathy was my only confidante. She lost a son, Michael, to a heart defect when he wasn’t even two years old. So when I looked at her and said I feel lost, she didn’t say, “Just trust God.”
She just let me cry on her couch and handed me a fresh coffee. You know, I think, when you’ve met your worst fear face-to-face, that sometimes there aren’t any words to be said.
When you ask me what happened last year, I can’t even remember. On New Year’s Eve last week, Simon and I sat around the table drinking prosecco with some friends, and he asked everyone what their highlights of the year had been (if you know Simon, you know how he always asks questions like this).
When it got to me, I could barely remember anything that had happened. One night, maybe, in the summer in North Carolina when I sat around the dinner table with my best friends from college and drank wine and laughed hysterically, and the phrase “my people” swam through my head like one of those banners airplanes pull over Myrtle Beach…
Other than that, I copied Simon. Yes, that holiday we took last winter (that our friends paid for for us because we’d had such a hellish 2016 and I’d literally burst into tears on a FaceTime call with them).
My third thing, I think, is this. That I feel like I might be coming up for air. That the darkness is lifting. That I stood in a church service a couple of months ago, and I heard a voice for the first time in a very long time, and it said this:
You don’t have to save yourself.
I stood there, in the pew, for a long time. Shaking. Because there have been a handful of times in my life where I felt like God was saying something and it wasn’t just for me. Like I needed to say it out loud because it was for everyone.
I whispered, “I’ll write a blog post about it.” But still I shook. And I felt almost like something was pulling me toward the front of the church. And I couldn’t fight it anymore.
People were singing, eyes were closed, and I walked slowly, slowly to the front row where the pastor was sitting. I wanted to throw up.
I whispered in his ear what I’d heard, and he handed me the microphone and patted me on the back.
And I said it out loud, with my eyes closed, in front of 400 people, but really only just to myself:
The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still. (NIV)
The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm. (NLT)
The Lord will fight for you, you have only to be silent. (ESV)
The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace. (KJV)
The Lord will fight for you, you must be quiet. (HCSB)*
Adrift. That’s what I have been in 2017. Unanchored.
I read a book called Prototype this year by Jonathan Martin. It was one of the things I picked up a few months ago, after I cried on Cathy’s couch, and told her how I’d been reading all these articles about how God isn’t real and maybe they’re right. Maybe we’ve all been deceived.
And then she said gently, “It sounds like you’re really affected by what you read. Maybe you could read a few things that build your faith instead, and see how that feels?”
So I picked up the advance copy of this book Jonathan had sent me years ago, when he’d first written it, for me to review on my blog…and I’d never gotten round to it because I was knee-deep in diapers and running on no sleep. And I devoured it.
I cried all the way through it. I read it in the bath and soaked the pages with my tears. You know when you try and read a book once and can’t get into it, and then you try again later and it just feels like the right time?
This was that. It was the right time. And I could write an entire blog post about this book, but I will just write about Thomas. About the way Jonathan writes about doubting Thomas, with whom I had never really identified before now…
It’s true that Thomas was a doubter, but he was not a cynic, and that’s an important distinction. Cynics often look for reasons not to believe and won’t be moved by something beautiful—just to make a point—even if it’s staring them down. Thomas wasn’t a cynic, he was a hopeful doubter; he’d believe if he could.
Perhaps the difference between “doubting Thomas” and cynical Thomas is that Thomas doubted in the direction of Jesus rather than away from Him. That makes all the difference.
I spent 2017 lost, but I have never felt rushed. I have never felt the need to hurry up and sort it out before it’s too late. I have never felt that any truth lay in any of those “Repent for the end is nigh” billboards you sometimes see dotting I-95 near where I grew up.
For a long time, I felt I’d been lied to about my Book Year. I was supposed to spend my 35th year composing my masterpiece, and instead I spent it just trying to stay alive.
I was in the shower again a few weeks ago, thinking about all of that, when I felt the strangest assurance that my Book Year had gone exactly to plan. On that first February day, when I’d naively imagined a year of blissful writing, I hadn’t know what I would write about.
And now, as the fog lifts and the shore comes in to view, I can see it more clearly.
You can’t write a book until you have a story to tell.