The White Elephant in the Room: (Un)advice for Surviving Singleness

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Guest Post by Leah Meyer

“I just don’t get it,” my 11-year-old neighbor Zahara said, her eyebrows wrinkled with confusion. “Lots of ugly people are married, and you’re so pretty.”

A group of us were taking our customary walk around the neighborhood one evening a couple summers ago. Me—the 25-year-old single American girl—and them, preteen immigrant girls whose mothers were not much older than I was.

I had recently arrived home from grad school and once again was inundated by well-meaning friends, church family, and acquaintances with questions about my relationship status.

I always came back with plenty of stories—the boy I met at a missions summit, who was headed overseas and eager to make us official a week after meeting. Or the Asian guy who could barely speak English but starting cooking his native dishes for me after he found out I had a voracious appetite. Then there was the upperclassman who ordered me off the menu at the restaurant where I worked, and barely looked at me again after that night.

I took every piece of advice given to Christian singles as gospel truth.

I had read the books and taken pages of mental notes from my married and single friends. I didn’t want to end up alone, so I took every piece of advice given to Christian singles as gospel truth: what to look for, where to look, and sometimes not to look at all.

“As soon as you stop wanting a husband, that’s when God will bring you someone,” several people informed me.

“You find what you are looking for,” others claimed. “Keep your eyes open.”

So which was it?

“Christian college is the best place to find someone,” a pastor told me. “That’s where most people find their spouse.”

Not me, it appeared.

“Put yourself out there—you have to show a certain amount of interest, or guys won’t notice you.” But also, “Don’t show too much interest until he pursues. You can’t come on too strong.”

Still I finished college completely unattached, feeling like an outdated white elephant gift at the singles Christmas party. Was something wrong with me? How had others found someone special so easily?

I felt like an outdated white elephant gift at the singles Christmas party.

It’s easy to ask why. We want the answers so we can find a solution to the problem. Blaming something or someone seems to be the easiest solution, with God often bearing the brunt of our frustration. That way it’s out of our control, and He is responsible for our inability to find happiness through marriage. Outside of blaming another person, the other option is to blame myself. If it’s my fault, I have the power to fix it. I can try harder, go to the right places, say the right things. But sometimes in life, instead of finding the answers, we have to let go of the questions. We may never know why. And maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to.

So what should we do as we try to let go of the questions and live fully? Ignore every piece of advice? Lash out at well-meaning friends and family for their questions? Bury every desire so deep inside that not even an FBI agent could find it? Here are a few things I try to remember.

  1. Trust God—above all. He is bigger than the statistics, the hurts, and the seemingly missed opportunities. Pay attention when He is closing a door or opening a new one. Go to Him with your desires—He’s got this.
  2. Take advice—with a grain of salt. Everyone has a story, and listening can encourage you. But realize that what worked for them might not necessarily work for you. Your life, your story is just that—yours. So don’t feel like you have to do things exactly like someone else.
  3. Take chances—every chance you get. Go beyond your comfort zone to serve and play. Be open to trying new things and going new places. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Build strong relationships with the people that God has placed in your life. Be raw, be real. And you just might be surprised by who joins you on the journey.

I didn’t have an answer for Zahara that night. “It’s ok, sweetheart,” I said. “God willing one day I will, but for now, I get to be with all of you.”

That answer seemed to satisfy the girls who nodded in agreement and echoed my sentiment into the gathering dusk. “God willing.”

 

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The Secret of the Track

Track
Image from Disney’s The Brave Engineer

I’m gonna tell you the secret of the track. You know—the track that everyone gets off and back on (1). But first I have a confession.

In my February blog post “Unintentionally Living Intentionally,” I talked about getting serious with a plan to use my time and my life most wisely. For almost a month, things went really great.  But then Laura got sick. Vet appointments and daylong babysitting gigs happened. I got pneumonia. My parents came to visit, and we spent two weeks in Maryland caring for Laura’s mother who had a recent surgery.  April was the cruelest month.

Every day we talked longingly about those three weeks of keeping a schedule—working out, getting up early, eating well, consistently writing. But we had jumped the well-laid track, it seemed, and derailed our plans, like the iconic crash in The Fugitive, the cars diving from the rails in a halo of sparks, grinding and scraping, jackknifing and furrowing to a halt. We were lethargic and discouraged. “We’ll get back on track, Pal,” Laura promised.

But the longer we waited, the more clearly I understood the secret of the track:

We hadn’t gotten off track at all. We simply stopped our train.

I feel like this idiom of getting back on track is simply a way to blame the train and track for the engineer’s failure. If some part of life (unexpected responsibilities, emergencies, needs of other people, the general swift passing of time) makes our schedule “go off the rails,” we are victims of the distractions and duties of life (2). And when we think of ourselves as victims, we’re frozen in our own self-pity, never moving forward while thinking something else is holding us back.

Here are three ways that I’m beginning to change my perspective so I can reclaim order to my life and chug on toward my goals.

1. I’m the Engineer—I am not the weeping, hapless passenger in the back of the parlor car. No, I am the engineer in the cab. I get to decide when to pull the brake and when to add coal. Unlike a train’s rigid departure schedule, my best-laid plans and routines are idealic things, often upset by the unexpected or the necessary or my indiscipline.

  • I wanted to start getting up early, but I stayed up too late reading or writing.
  • I wanted to exercise in the evening, but after work I had unexpected errands and events.
  • I meant to eat healthy, but there was Chick-fil-a frosted coffee and a moment of weakness. . . okay, several moments of weakness.
  • I meant to write and handletter consistently, but I just didn’t feel inspired (oh, brother).

After a week or two of not following the schedule, I pulled the emergency brake and ground to a complete halt, thinking I was a failure and life was working against me. But since realizing I’m in charge, it’s been easier to leave excuses at the station, take the blame for standing still, and start out again tomorrow.

2. Don’t Stop for Pennies—Since trains have been around, people have laid coins on the tracks, sadistically testing the myth that a penny can derail a train. A penny weighs only a few grams while a train weighs several hundred tons. As you might imagine, that penny is consistently flattened or even pressed right into the track or wheel. It seems ludicrous to think of something as small as a penny upsetting a train. But then again it’s usually little things that make me screech to a stop. So I’m learning to identify the things that waylay me—social media, sleeping in, apathy, sugar, priorities, discouragement—and either anticipate them, avoid them, or roll right over them.

3. Watch the ETA and Destination—I keep a notebook full of ideas for my blog, advice on SEO, a list of guest bloggers and artists I want to highlight, encouraging quotes, a monthly schedule for posts, my fears—and my goals. It helps me focus on what I’m doing each day and each month. I’m still not exactly sure of my final destination, and there’s not exactly an ETA— but I’ve got to keep moving and recalculate for the days when I stop (for pennies). I’ve got a freight load of goals, dreams, and purpose to haul, and only I can make sure they arrive on time.

Casey Jones
Image from Disney’s The Brave Engineer

4. Ignore the schedule. Rather than trying so hard to stick to the schedule, sometimes it’s better to just ignore it entirely. Perfectionism is often the enemy of progress. I’ve got to stop obsessing over the ideal outcome and just focus on making as many good choices as I can. Even if I drink a frosted coffee, I can still go to bed early that night. If I get up late, I can still spend some time working out later. I decide where my train is headed, and sometimes that means forgiving myself for making choices that went against the plan and making a better choice the next time.

So if you’re feeling like your Little Engine That Could is in the ditch, remember—it’s only stopped at the bottom of the hill. Change your perspective, give it some steam, and start to climb.

I know you can. I know you can. I know you can.

the little engine
Image from The Little Engine That Could

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1. You can probably apply it to a walking track, but I prefer a train metaphor.

2. Of course I am not talking about the tragic and time-consuming unavoidable, such as moving cross country for a new job, becoming seriously ill, or recovering from the death of a loved one.

6 Messages You Should Be Writing in Your Mother’s Day Card

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Around this time every year, I stand at the rows of pink and floral and paisley cards, pulling them out, reading the message, stopping at the first line, rarely looking inside. Finally I collect a few and ask Laura, “Which one?”

But the real challenge starts when it comes time to write the personal note. This woman gave me life, raised me to adulthood, continues to be my support, yet I often stare at the vast open space of the card, drawing a complete blank.

I know I’m not alone. We love our mothers, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to spell it out in strokes. Our first response is to write, “Happy Mother’s Day,” and be done with it. But this year, why not try one or two of these meaningful messages?

1. Thank You—  We grow into our gratitude like too big shoes. First it’s clunky and uncomfortable, with our parents hounding us to remember the words at every gift or favor. But eventually we make the words our own. And in more time still, we mean it. It’s a great unfairness that the years a mother spends doing the most are the years a child is most ungrateful. When we start doing the things our mother once did for us—cleaning, cooking, mending, keeping a general balance to life—we’re at once overwhelmed yet, perhaps for the first time, deeply grateful. There will never be a way to thank your mother for everything she’s done for you (though it might not be a bad exercise to try).

“Thanks for keeping the towels clean.”

So instead, find one small thing that your mother did well or faithfully, and make it stand for something greater. For example, I’ve been to houses with towel closets that are empty or in sloppy piles (which works for some people.) But I was accustomed to towers of fluffy linens. And it’s one of the things that I still associate with my mother’s meticulous care. In her Mother’s Day cards, I sometimes write, “Thanks for keeping the towels clean.” And I hope she knows it stands for all the thank yous I don’t have space to write.

2. I’m Sorry— Though I doubt good parents live for the days that their children return penitent for tantrums and tracked mud and mealtime calamity, it does a child good to recognize her trespasses. I sometimes tell my mom “I’m sorry,” but I never feel like I say it enough. Our own memory is kind to us, so I’m not sure I fully grasp what a handful I was. “Was I a bad child?” I’ve asked her. She just smiles and says, “No.” But there’s probably more to the story, and I’m hoping that, by being an upstanding adult and saying “I’m sorry” every so often, I can make some measure of restitution for whatever havoc I wreaked on her life. You might try saying it as well—chances are you’ve got plenty to apologize for.

“Thank you for all you do and all you are.”

3. You Are. . . —I realized a few years ago that I thanked my mother for what she did for me. But I never addressed who she is. She’s a great interior decorator, a masterful baker, a sender of thoughtful packages, a washer of towels, a problem solver. But those things indicate something about who she is. She’s creative, skilled, thoughtful, organized, and indomitable. Make a list of the things your mom does, and beside it identify her corresponding quality. It might even be enough to say, “Thank you for all you do and all you are.”

4. I’m Proud of You— Let’s face it. Mothers are usually the ones doling out this encouragement. But how often do they get it back? It might have been since just after high school graduation, before she got married and had you, since she last heard it. So turn the tables on her. How can you recognize her not just as your mother (which, granted, is probably her proudest accomplishment) but as a person who still has her own life and abilities? (Perhaps call on your list from number 3).

5. You Taught Me— I’m not a mother, but I have been a college teacher (which is a bit like being a mom.) One of the most encouraging and meaningful things that my students ever told me was what they learned from me. So this might seem counterintuitive on Mother’s Day, but talk about yourself. For instance, I might tell my mom, “I decorated my room with my favorite cards that I’ve been given over the years, just like you do. Thanks for teaching me how to be resourceful with my decorations.” In other words, “I am because you are.”  You might draw from the list of your mom’s actions and qualities from number 3. Think about which ones you emulate.

“I am because you are.”

6. I Love You— I hope the power of this phrase isn’t overshadowed by its obligatory, familiar nature. You’ll never hear a more empty phrase or a more full one than “I love you.” It’s one thing to write the word “Love” as your signature, but it’s another to intentionally write the words, “I love you, Mom.” Don’t hide behind the vestigial sixth-grade “gee-shucks-it’s-just-my-mom” feelings. Spell it out.

This Sunday, don’t let the card writers do all the talking. Make the opportunity count. Say I’m sorry, say I learned from you, say I’m proud of you—don’t just say Happy Mother’s Day.

Expecting Change: 3 Truths About the Unknown

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Guest Blog by Jessica Marshall

One chilly spring evening, my four sisters and I watched our bunk beds burn.

Our brothers had simply sawed them in half, ripped them from the walls of our little room, and dumped the remains on a burn pile.

For some of my sisters, the tears flowed freely.

In case you are wondering how my brothers could be so heartless, let me explain.
My three sisters—Sharon, Joanna, Monica—and I did not suddenly find ourselves homeless that spring day. We were the daughters of an evangelist and had grown up traveling all over the country. We lived in a 40-foot bus that contained a living room, a kitchen, a shower with a changing room, a toilet with a sink, and two bedrooms. A long aisle ran from the living room all the way to the door of my parents’ bedroom in the very back of the bus. This aisle divided the couches, the refrigerator from the sink, and the bathroom from the shower room.

The bunks were aptly nicknamed our “coffins.”

This line also divided the bunkhouse where my sisters and I slept. Our minuscule bunkhouse held three bunks on each side of the aisle. The bunks were six feet long and barely wide enough to hold one body. They were aptly nicknamed our “coffins.” Tiny closets were separated into two sections; the top held shirts and blouses, and the bottom held skirts. Underneath the bottom bunks, six little drawers held socks, underwear, and other unmentionables.

This tiny bunkhouse held memories unending. Giggles. Secrets. Tears. Prayers. Hopes. Dreams. And one spring day that ended.

The decision was made to move the four of us sisters into a little motor home we had nicknamed, “The Hippie Mobile.” (My siblings and I nicknamed almost all of our vehicles. Except for the bus. Somehow, its name always remained the “Bus,” as if it had no higher calling.) We had lovingly given the Hippie Mobile its name because it was a 1973 Chevy with felt curtains the color of sunshine and little stick figures around the edges.

Our old bunkhouse in the bus was being renovated into a video editing room, where my dad and brothers would produce short videos and cable programs for TV. Thus, the bunk beds had to go. They were built into the walls of the bunk house, and the only way to remove them was to saw them in half, then take them out piece by piece. Each piece found its way into the burn pile my dad and brothers had built.

And so 12 years of life went up in smoke that day. Even though we had bought material for new curtains in the Hippie Mobile and had laid new carpet and rearranged everything—for it once had been a boys’ domain—we still found it hard to let the past with all of its memories go.

Letting go and moving on are twins—you cannot have one without the other.

I am not sure why I thought of this event in my life. Perhaps because I have faced this kind of tug-of-war before—this fight within myself of letting go, accepting, relinquishing. And I am facing change again today.

Letting go and moving on are twins—you cannot have one without the other. To let go means to turn your back on all that lies behind you: the joys, the sorrows, the memories, the regrets. To move on means you face the future: the joys, the sorrows, the mysteries, the dreams. You simply turn around and face forward.

I could have told my 17–year-old self one thing that day: there would be more change to come. The pattern has repeated itself over and over.

Every time I think I have settled in, here comes more change, marching down the path toward me. Whether it was moving out of the bus into a Hippie Mobile, moving out of a broken-down Hippie Mobile to live out of a van one hot summer, moving into a log home in West Virginia, moving to Maryland, moving to college in Florida, or moving to Oklahoma, change was always unsettling. I felt as though the moorings I had lashed myself to ripped away, or the sturdy foundation I had relied upon exploded in a blast of dust and debris.

When I find myself facing change, I have to go back to a few simple truths.

Sometimes I wonder why I fear the unknown so much. Is it because I cannot control what lies ahead? Is it because I am fearful, my mind filling with what ifs? No matter the reason, when I find myself facing change, I have to go back to a few simple truths.

  1. God already knew the change was coming.
  2. He is preparing a clear path ahead of me.
  3. I can take the next step in front of me without fear.

Any other alternative—weeping, moaning, fearing, or resisting—will only cause me more stress. Pausing a moment to take in these truths helps steady me.

I can always expect change. I can also expect that He will be there, too.

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JessJessica Marshall sat in my college writing classes for four years, always eager to learn. But I can take no credit for her raw talent and voice. The most I could do was encourage her to keep writing and keep practicing what she instinctively knew.  Since graduating in 2015 with a degree in professional writing, she has done just that. Between freelance editing and writing, she keeps The Gypsy Life blog. I’m so thankful to call her a fellow writer, friend, . . .  and, today, my guest blogger.