Progress is so incremental and slow-moving, it's usually hard to notice change as it's happening. But return to a guidepost or starting point, and suddenly it's clear.
I had a moment like this a few weeks ago, the day after we moved back into our little Indonesian bungalow after over a year in the States. I was unpacking suitcases and rearranging furniture when Anders emerged from his playroom and asked if he could have an Oreo. I told him no, bracing myself for what would follow. He said, "Okay, mommy," and then went back to his playroom to work on legos. I stood there for a moment, stunned.
A year and a half ago, Anders would have burst into tears over the Oreo. He's been steadily growing and maturing in that time, but since that was my last experience of Anders in this house, It felt like I turned around a corner and suddenly had a different kid. One who has the capacity to listen and who lets me do more than two things in a row. Like I blinked and the rough edges of parenting smoothed into something gentle and pleasant.
The next morning I was sitting on the couch, writing. Pete walked behind me, kissed the back of my neck, and then handed me a cup of coffee. He makes me coffee every weekend, but on this day I had to choke back a lump of gratitude in my throat. The last time we were in this house, we were fragile and scared and didn't know if our marriage was going to make it another day. And now, just like that, it was an ordinary Saturday morning and we were sipping coffee to the sound of rain. It was as if I woke up one morning and the dark corners of my marriage were suddenly covered in light.
And then, just the other day, the little girls in my English class were gathered around my dining room table singing "This Is The Day That God Has Made." They were smiling and clapping; their faces were open and eager. The last time I was here in Tarakan, I felt like I was dying of claustrophobia. Now, suddenly, life here feels vibrant and spacious.
Of course nothing actually happened suddenly. And if I think about it, I remember it all. Months of therapy and pastoral counseling. Social media fasts, books, homework. Long nights spent talking, processing, crying, fighting, forgiving. Exhausting afternoons where I held firm when Anders burst into tears over something he wanted. Breakfast meetings at friggin' 5:30 in the morning. Sunday mornings when we forced ourselves to go to church when we wanted to watch Face the Nation and call it close enough, maybe for good. Moments when all I could do was show up, just for the sake of it, clinging to the barest thread of faith that it would be worth it.
There was Boise, Chicago, St. Louis, Wisconsin, New York, Maine, D.C., L.A., Orlando, Grand Rapids, Seattle, Boise again, Orlando again, Seoul—all the places the last year-and-a-half took us, and the many more long, non-photographed days in between, spent in a small town in Pennsylvania, where I mostly stayed at home all day in a home that wasn't my home, wondering whether I was doing this right or messing it all up. Wondering if we'd ever figure it out. Wondering if this was adding up to anything at all. Wondering what to make for dinner.
If I can point to one thing over the past year that I finally got, deep down, it's this: I am a child of God. I am accepted and loved, just as I am. There is nothing I could do to make him love me any less, and there's nothing I could do to make him love me any more. I don't need to hurry up and matter, because I already do. I can slow down and rest, and I'm okay. I can take on something ambitious and exciting, just because it makes me joyful and gives me a sense of satisfaction, and I don't have to worry about what success or failure means about me. Me is fine. Me will continue to unfold, but me is not waiting to be defined or proven.
The other thing I learned is that the only way worth living is honestly and authentically, no exceptions, and that truth is worth whatever cost. Always.
Those two little (huge) revelations are what's making all the difference. I didn't have to come back; I would have been just fine if we had stayed back in the States. God would have been with us in that. But the moment I felt the freedom to stay was the moment my fears of returning dissipated. And as soon as that happened, I wanted to come home.
So that's a bit of the journey that led me back here. But since the memories of it are tucked away on the other side of the planet, spread over 16 months and stretched between coasts, it also feels like it never happened. Like I've been here the whole time, but I pressed fast forward and now—suddenly—everything is better.
Not perfect or fixed (I'll never be those things). But further along.
This is why we write, yes? Not because we ever have it figured out, but to remember how we got here.