Chapter 32: That corrosive, life-changing love

My most successful relationships are the ones I never saw coming.

The ones I never wanted.

I would love to say that I always experience God as a happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies bubble of fun.

And, yes, sometimes I do.

But, a lot of the time, I experience God as a brutal heart transplant that I find offensive and corrosive.

I stumbled across this “love” quote recently. It’s not the usual happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies interpretation that one usually finds on Pinterest. It’s gutsy and daring and ferocious and threatening and upsetting and unnerving. I love it.

“Life’s good,” she said. “All I need now is somebody to settle down with, somebody to complete the picture.”

Her friend laughed. “Love is never convenient,” she replied. “And it’s certainly never comfortable or complacent. Love strikes when you least expect it. Love upsets the careful balance of a life and leaves it in absolute ruin. Complete the picture? No. Love is the corrosive that strips your canvas bare and starts all over. So if you are looking for something that will slot seamlessly into your little old life, my god, look elsewhere.”

-Beau Taplin, The Picture.

And that’s exactly right.

When I talk about the effortlessness that successful relationships need, I am talking about how they come about in the first place and how they develop. When the Holy Spirit is in it, there is an effortlessness that just works. It is not forced. It flows.

But in addition to that sense of effortlessness, it should be life-changingly ferocious and unsettling.

I know there are people out there who think I have, a) a diminished brain capacity because I believe this airy-fairy Jesus stuff, b) a blind faith based on wishful optimism and/or a fear of facing a universe of nothing-ness, or c) an affinity to overlook scientific logic and reason that apparently debunks the Jesus stuff.

And, you know what? I get it; the Jesus story is indeed a pretty crazy story…!

A bunch of prophets with funny names and too much time on their hands came up with some nice ideas for the future, which were later somehow connected to a dodgy conception, a man flouncing around with lepers and prostitutes preaching forgiveness and grace and love, claiming to be God in human form, and a death by crucifixion and then suddenly re-appearing again.

Yes, it’s weird and, yes, so much can be explained away.

Maybe Jesus never really died. Maybe he survived the crucifixion. And that’s why he was walking around with holes still in his wrists three days later.

Or maybe Mary was some knocked up teenager who was too embarrassed to tell her fiance that she got pregnant to some other guy, so she came up with one heck of a cover story.

Maybe Jesus was just some do-gooder with fancy ideas about forgiveness or an extroverted attention-seeker who badly wanted a spotlight. i.e. Not actually God in human form, but just some regular mortal who pioneered a new way of thinking which is all well and good, but that’s it.

And maybe he knew what the dead prophets had projected about an eventual Messiah, so he did a little tweaking to tick all the right boxes and – just like when you read your horoscope and you go, ‘ohhh… yeah, I did make an exciting new discovery this week, so my horoscope was 100% spot on’ – maybe we’ve all just given Jesus a little ‘nip and tuck’ treatment and worked the Old Testament prophecies to suit this Jesus guy. No more, no less.

But every time I start to wonder about the many theories that float around in the cosmos – and every time I hear human logic and reason explaining Jesus away or portraying God as an inconsistent, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Cheshire Cat – I just can’t get past one thing:

I HAVE EXPERIENCED THE JESUS STUFF TO BE REAL.

And not just once, but over and over and over and over again.

For me, Christianity is about death and resurrection. A death and resurrection that comes from beyond myself. Something that I know I can’t make work on my own.

And it has everything to do with what Jesus was saying all those years ago and is still getting across to me today.

I first experienced it with my father-in-law back in earlier chapters of this blog. You may recall, I hated the man. I hated that he made my mum cry with his wedding-boycotting antics. I hated that he placed rules and expectations on his children in the name of “the lord”. I hated that he tried to tell me homeschooling was the only way to “bring up godly children”. I hated that he had a mentality of people being “good” (Christian/saved/not of the world) or “bad” (worldly/unsaved/not Christian).

So I had my father-in-law all sussed out.

And again as you may recall from earlier chapters, I ignored him. I stayed well away from him. And if I did have to go to his house with Mr Ex for some unfortunate reason, I’d be stand off-ish and keep him at an arm’s length.

Then, bang! Crash! Kick up the butt!

In 2013, post-separation from Mr Ex… My friend Sana speaks the truth to me.

I hadn’t overcome my father-in-law’s “good vs. bad” mentality.

I had just created my very own Essie Bell version of it.

Same sorting system. Just different sorting.

I had put me on the “good” side and my father-in-law on the “bad” side. And tried to carry out my own justice accordingly.

Well, I experience Jesus regularly in the form of a friend who speaks the truth.

In the case of my father-in-law, it was my truth-speaking friend Sana back in 2013.

Sana tells me that God’s grace is not just for me; it’s for my father-in-law as well.

Sana also tells me that every time I draw a line in the sand with me on one side and that person who is pissing me off on the other side, Jesus is always on the other side.

Every time I draw that line in the sand separating me and them

Jesus is always on the other side.

Damn it.

And you can read how things turned out with my father-in-law in my much earlier chapter, Made New (Not Perfect).

~~~

You would’ve thought I’d learnt my lesson.

But in early 2015, a girl called Danielle started going to my Church of Quirks.

And she quickly began dating British Comedy Dude.

You guessed it; I didn’t like her.

Several months later, I went to a friend’s engagement party and I wasn’t feeling very well that night. I’d had minimal sleep and I wasn’t in a socialising mood.

So, I was sticking close to Annie, a dear friend who has always felt like a cosy blanket of sunshine and butterflies and we all need that in our lives.

But, I think God knew I also needed some corrosive, life-changing love, too.

Because, at this engagement party, yes, you guessed it again; Danielle was there.

And, at one point during the party – much to my absolute horror – Annie, my sunshine and butterflies, walked over and began talking to Danielle and British Comedy Dude. Grr!

I had two choices: 1) stay on my own and look like a loner, or 2) follow Annie and face possible conversation with people I wasn’t keen to talk to at all.

I took option 2. I followed. But I had zilch intention of making conversation.

So, standing next to Annie and avoiding excessive eye contact with anyone else, I thought I could slide under the radar unnoticed.

But inevitably, the unthinkable happened: Danielle said hello.

And I was now in a conversation against my will.

I thought, I’ll just fumble through some surface-level small talk, laugh at some jokes, show  interest in a few things and then I’ll be on my merry way.

Well, fortunately for me, God always has other ideas.

God never sits still in our best formulations.

Three minutes into my conversation with Danielle, I was laughing. And I realised I wasn’t actually faking it.

HUH?!

It was effortless.

Beyond-logic, Holy Spirit effortless.

We connected like two lobsters in a tank of goldfish. Two crazies in a world of sanity. Two galahs in a tree of magpies.

It worked. Our relationship really worked. And that is where my idea of ‘effortlessness’ (mentioned in earlier chapters) comes into play. ‘Effortless’ because I could hear my soul saying, “There you are! I’ve been looking for you” and it all unfolded without either of us forcing it or willing it or wanting it; Without either of us even seeing it coming.

But more than that, it also changed me.

It was God’s signature heart-transplant, where He reaches down into the depths of my dark, stubborn, vengeance-seeking heart of stone and He replaces it with a beating heart of love and life.

I had Danielle pegged. I had her sussed out. I knew I didn’t like her.

(Just like my ex-father-in-law three years earlier.)

But here we were – Danielle and Ess – literally spending two hours sitting off to one side at that engagement party, chatting and engaging oh-so-genuinely happily with each other.

In that moment, a mutual love was born.

And it didn’t start as convenient, complacent or even comfortable.

It started as upsetting and offensive and it completely, absolutely ruined my careful balance.

~~~

It’s like God loves me too much to sit idly by as I kill myself with bitterness.

God doesn’t sit still in our best formulations and I am so thankful for that.

Instead, He loves us.

And God’s love never starts off as an easy, happy-clappy, sunshine and butterflies thing. It starts with all of those things in the quote above: never convenient, never complacent, never comfortable.

It’s annoying. It’s offensive. It’s painful.

And that is exactly because it goes against our every notion of justice, fairness and right vs. wrong. It goes against our instinct of how to treat the people who hurt us.

It’s like God’s love has to break us… in order to change us… in order to save us from ourselves.

“Love upsets the careful balance of a life and leaves it in absolute ruin.”

“Love is the corrosive that strips our canvas bare and starts all over.”

That’s exactly what God was doing when He took on human skin and bones and walked among us as Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus preached unconditional love and worked both sides of the street, He came to make a change in our little old lives. He was being outrageously offensive in His notions of forgiveness and grace and He absolutely quashed our best articulations of justice, fair vs. unfair, and how to deal with the people we just don’t like. Hence, the hearers of these teachings crucified Jesus in a bid to shut Him up.

But Jesus’s life, love and lessons, as much as they ruined the hearts of the people who heard, they also changed the lives of those people for GOOD.

Did those people wish they could return to the pre-Jesus days?! NO WAY!!

And those people were never the same again.

So, that’s what God was up to when I had my father-in-law all sussed out and when I knew I didn’t want to like Danielle.

And that’s what God is up to whenever I experience a friend speaking the truth to me. When I’m in a shitty, shitty mood and feeling all sorry for myself and Sana speaks truth to me, I experience God all over again.

Jesus’s love is life-changing.

It’s rarely easy to swallow, nor is it what we are necessarily looking for.

But it’s ALWAYS, always, always exactly what we need.

And it ALWAYS, always, always comes with a certainty that change has arisen from beyond ourselves.

Because that light – as offensive as it may seem at first – is where true freedom and compassion and love and solidarity and LIFE is found. And it is something we can never reach or achieve or attain on our own.

~~~

So, when I think about love within our own friendships, relationships and marriages, I now wonder if we are looking at it all backwards.

We want to find someone/something that affirms us in a happy-clappy sort of way. We want someone to complete our picture. And while that’s great, I wonder if there’s actually far more depth and life in someone/something that changes us.

In my marriage with Mr Ex, I was closed to change.

I can say that now with 20/20 hindsight.

I hated the idea of being open to another person changing me. And I get it; being changed by another person sounds like a dodgy practice. I mean, we all get fed nice little self-affirming statements, like “stay true to yourself” and “follow your heart”. Well, I’m now thinking that maybe remaining true to myself isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and following my heart is downright dangerous.

I can say with 100% certainty that because I met Sana and Danielle, I have been changed for good.

So, I wonder – and I’m only wondering this now with three and a half years of post-separation experience under my belt – whether the real power of love and friendship is being open to someone changing us, challenging us, coming out of left field and upsetting the perfect little equilibrium of our life.

You certainly don’t read that on Hallmark cards!

But I wonder.

Maybe love (just like God’s love for us) should strip our canvas bare and leave us in absolute ruin.

Because in post-ruin freedom, the light breaks in.

In post-ruin freedom, we are changed for good.

~~~

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Danielle and I are best friends today.

And we often have a laugh about that first conversation that began through my gritted teeth which almost instantly evolved into this effortless, post-ruin magic.

This chapter is dedicated to those people (you know who you are!) who speak beautifully, wonderfully, divinely corrosive truth to my stubborn little heart, who upset the careful balance of my life, and who strip back my canvas to bare. In post-ruin turmoil, I find new depths of life, love and freedom.

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Chapter 26: Anam Cara

I think I’ll have this engraved on my tombstone: “Yes, terrible things happen. But sometimes, those terrible things – they save you.”

That is a quote from Chuck Palahniuk.

It’s now around November 2013.

By the grace of God, I had landed my dream job with a bunch of exceptional people who were fast becoming my second family. I discovered that my lifelong dream to teach was indeed my passion or my calling or whatever you call something that is simply an extension of yourself. The 5-year-old who lined up her Barbies and teddies and gave them spelling lessons, put stickers and ticks on their ‘work’, and taught them how to count turned into the 25-year-old who was living the dream. Even at the end of the toughest day, I still go home thanking God for planting me there and, with a skip in my step, I look forward to returning the next day and doing it all over again.

I’ve come to realise that is rare.

Most people just exist at work. I get to live!

When your life is on God’s course – and when you feel that God himself put you on that course – you are your most powerful. Because no matter what comes your way, no matter how long or icy your winter may be, you will be spurred on by an invincible inner springtime. Or, if you’re anything like Elsa and myself, maybe the cold never bothered you anyway.

I think Steve Jobs said it best: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

At my new workplace, Narelle was one of the first people I connected with. Twenty years older than me and a total stranger, but Narelle had the exact scars as me. Her husband left her in January 2013 after revealing an affair. Snap! Crackle! Pop! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s exciting when we find bits of ourselves in other people. Our soul says, “Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking for you!”

A wise lady once told me that a scar just means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you. And I started to realise something:

Damaged people are dangerous, because they know they can survive.

Damaged Christians are even more dangerous, because they know they can survive AND they have experienced first-hand grace and love from the creator of the universe.

“It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness.   Now I take limitations in my stride, and with good cheer; these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.” -2 Corin. 12:10.

I also quickly connected with Julia. Same scars, same story too.

And I went on to discover a whole heap of inspiring women at my new work who had scars of one form or another.

There is a compassion, a sensitivity, a depth, an inextinguishable fire in the belly of those people. And they wear their pain like they do L.K. Bennett stilettos. No matter how much it hurts, they just get more beautiful.

But there was someone missing from the picture at this point. Someone who often popped into mind.

Andrew, Cosette’s husband.

After hearing in the early stages of this whole shebang that Cosette was married too, I felt inextricably linked to him – whoever he is. Two strangers with a hell of a lot in common. My husband and his wife were shacked up and living large. What a bizarre connection to share with a total stranger.

Thanks to technology and the likes of Google, I found Andrew’s work email address. And I sat down to email him.

Holey socks!

Getting the wording right was hilariously impossible.

“Hi there, You don’t know me, but our spouses know each other wayyyyy too well…!”

LOL!

No, I didn’t say that.

In the end, I didn’t give it too much thought.  I figured I’d just get some kind of collection of cohesive English words onto the page, send it off and forget about it. I mean, there was every chance that he might not want anything to do with me.

Don’t over-think it, Ess.

It might be too painful for him to reply. Or he might actually be celebrating the end of his marriage!

But, within a day, Andrew replied.

And I couldn’t have asked for a nicer reply. He suggested that we meet up, so we arranged to meet by the beach the following weekend.

I remember feeling surprisingly un-nervous. It was a natural progression. Organic.

I arrived first and waited at a white plastic table and chairs on the foreshore. The sun was shining brighter than ever and the sea was bluer than blue.

I remember Andrew walking straight towards me; no hesitation on his part, just a 100kW smile. We greeted each other like old friends. There was this unspoken camaraderie. Instant family.

And really, that is just so damn hilarious considering we have absolutely NOTHING in common apart from Mr Ex and Cosette.

A mo-fo sized universe with nine known planets, 204 countries on earth, 809 islands, 7 seas… and I am having coffee with a 40-something-year-old (remembering that Cosette is a fair bit older than Mr Ex) Irishman with a sciencey PhD and a keen interest in crustaceans and golf.

Utterly uncanny. Bizarre. Downright ridiculous!!

And he was no doubt thinking the same thing about the 20-something-year-old Aussie figure skater and Jesus-freak that he was talking to.

LOL!

Granted, we both enjoy a glass of red. So we’re not totally incompatible 😉

But, I guess what really resonated with me was that Andrew could’ve been an asshole.

Andrew could’ve been unhappily married, miserable in his life with Cosette, and thrilled to be set free from her.

He could’ve so easily been a dickhead husband who treated her like shit.

But, reality?

I remember just thinking, Ah geez… Andrew loved Cosette.

Andrew adored Cosette.

And he’s not an asshole. He’s one of the kindest, sweetest, most generous people you’ll ever meet.

How shittily, shittily, shittily unfair is that.

In many ways, it would be so much kinder if he was an asshole. But, much like my amazing work friends with their scars and stiletto-wearing pain-threshold which makes them the most beautiful people I know, BAD STUFF HAPPENS TO GOOD PEOPLE!

AND THAT SUCKS!!!!!!

Even Jesus himself struggled with the ravages of pain and hurt (Matthew 26). Jesus said, “…In this world you will experience troubles and pain. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world!” (John 16:33).

Reading that in November 2013, I had new ears. I’d heard that verse many, many times before. But, I kind of always pictured Jesus as a high and mighty overseer who was serenely preaching about how bad we all are and how good he is.

But, as usual, I had missed the essence completely. And I’m sure Jesus has lovingly rolled his eyes at me many, many times.

How did Jesus conquer the world? I wondered.

OMG! RESURRECTION! Messy, hardcore resurrection!

And in resurrection, there is hope.

Jesus is God in human form. So, this is a God who has experienced birth, childhood, friendship, love, betrayal, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, hard work, arrest, trial, death, and burial.

And Jesus’s followers were feeling mightily depressed when he died, because it looked like the light of the world – a man who taught that goodness will always overcome evil, if only we LOVE each other – had just been successfully killed. Talk about a depressing anti-climax to the teachings of someone who claimed to be God. And talk about an epic disappointment in the good versus evil debate. It looked like evil had triumphantly won.

As Jesus’s disciples were wandering along a dusty road with glum faces and feeling rather duped, Jesus casually walks along beside them and asks what they are talking about. They don’t recognise him, so start recalling recent events of Jesus’s death. One of Jesus’s disciples then says, “We had hoped that He was the One…” (Luke 24:21) but, of course, Jesus had been dead three days and it wasn’t looking good. At all.

But here he is, resurrected! Made new. “The resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

And just as the disciples are saying “we had hoped…” in a heart-heavy, feeling very let-down, ‘this didn’t go according to our plan’ kind of way, they realise that THAT IS JESUS right there walking with them! The very guy that they saw buried three days earlier.

Jesus has come back to life! Death could not hold him! Evil did not win!

And it’s heartily spectacular that a cross of crucifixion which is a symbol of death, evil and destruction can be turned into a symbol of hope and light and overcoming.

Only a god who has bore real suffering can bring us real hope.

And that’s it!

Jesus’s take-home message is my overarching mantra.

Evil is simply not more powerful than good.

Because God CAN and DOES bring goodness out of the worst evil.

“And we know that for those who love God, that is, for those who are called according to his purpose, all things are working together for good.” -Romans 8:28.

Thinking back to Andrew’s 100kW smile as he greeted me, I was amazed at his resilience. Talking to Andrew over coffee that afternoon, I remember an overwhelming realisation that he had been just as broken, devastated and downright shattered as I was. It amazes me that humans have a strength and resilience that transcends scientific reason. And since we are made in the image of God, that points to a beyond-imagination amazing God.

I think it all comes down to having hope.

And for me, I see that as resurrection. Goodness conquering evil.

I can’t imagine looking at the vastness of the ocean or the expansive sky and putting my hope in optimistic thoughts and wishful thinking. For me, the symbol of the cross – an act of evil which was conquered by goodness – is all that I need. Resurrection is all around us.

When a child has cancer and the whole community raise funds to pay for life-saving treatment… When a murder victim’s family is supported by the killer’s family… When a site of death, pain and horror is covered in memorial flowers and messages of hope and love… When two victims of an adulterous relationship join together for coffee and support under the bright sunshine…

That’s resurrection. Hope. Goodness conquering evil.

And we joked that we should take a selfie with the sun and sea in the background and send it off to drizzly Bristol where Mr Ex and Cosette were now living.

Andrew and I chatted about our hesitation going into our first Christmas as singles. Thinking back to the previous Christmas, both of us were happily married to our respective spouses, or so we thought.

Quick flashback to Christmas 2012:

Mr Ex and I were happily married (if you’d asked me). We enjoyed a Chrissy lunch at my parents’ house. All the trimmings. Family, food, and festivities. And life was looking pretty sweet! Mr Ex was in a new position at work. I was starting my fourth year in child care.

At the Christmas lunch, Mr Ex retired to my parents’ upstairs sofa with his iPad, complaining of a headache. When I went upstairs to check on my headache-suffering husband, he put his iPad to one side, pulled me to the sofa, and I just remember him being all hands.

WTF?!

So much for a headache!

It’s Christmas Day and we’re having lunch with my family!!!!!!!

Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. And my beloved, randy husband was undoubtedly communicating with Cosette. Headache-schmedache.

On that same Christmas Day, Cosette and Andrew were visiting their homeland, Ireland. Neither Cosette or Andrew have family in Australia, but had been living in Australia for a few years, working. Going back to Ireland to spend the festive season with their family would be a special time of closeness and quality time. But, Andrew’s 20/20 hindsight made it all-too-clear that his beloved Cosette was somewhat distracted on that trip too, spending time on her laptop.

And then, around one month later, January 2013 long weekend and Mr Ex revealed his affair and bugged out. Horrible, darkness, evil, and just like the disciples who said, “We had hoped…”, I can echo those same sentiments. It’s all looking pretty glum. Looks like evil has won.

Fast-forward to Christmas 2013:

Ess and Andrew: Two victims of Mr Ex and Cosette’s relationship, single against their will, covered in cut-marks from the shattered glass of their respective marriages to Mr Ex and Cosette, and dreading the Christmas 2013 holiday festivities.

“One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own.” -John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.

So, in the spirit of goodness overcoming evil – or resurrection, as I like to say – we spent Christmas Day 2013 celebrating together.

Andrew caught a taxi to my parents’ house. The taxi driver, an Indian man, made small talk with Andrew, asking where Andrew was off to. Andrew explained. The taxi driver’s response? “Wait… So let me get this straight… You are going to your WIFE’s LOVER’s WIFE’s FAMILY’s house for Christmas lunch?!?!?!?!?!” Haha! Yep!

Sitting at the same table where, only twelve months prior Mr Ex and I had been sitting, hand-in-hand unwrapping presents together, was rather bizarre. Despite the bizarreness though, I love that my family and Andrew could all eat, drink and be merry together for that Christmas 2013. And even more bizarre is that I had this rather random new addition to my family; Andrew, my newest big brother. Andrew will always be a member of my family. And I think his arrival into my family is a way of us kind of saying, “Get stuffed!” to the evil, darkness, hurt and pain that we have all felt – and sometimes do still feel.

A year of brokenness, shattered dreams, pain, anger, evil… and yet, the shining rays of goodness and hope prevail. Resurrection.

For Christmas that year, Andrew gave me Christmas a giant bunch of flowers, a bottle of Moet, and Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.

And Anam Cara means ‘soul friend’.

Chapter 24: Plan B

So, if there’s one thing I had learnt, it is that I love making plans. And my plans suck.

Maybe it’s a human thing. Or maybe it’s just me. But I like to create long-term strategic initiatives because it makes me feel safe. I like to see where I am going. I like to have a safety net around me.

But the problem?

My plans invariably fail.

When I was in primary school, my Reception teacher wrote in my school report that “Essie is a worry-wart.” Isn’t that just lovely. A worry-wart.

But she was right.

And, just like my 5-year-old self, I do worry about things. I can’t help it. If something isn’t going according to my plan, I worry. If I might lose something that I like or want or need, I worry. If I don’t have something, I worry. Heck, if I do have something, I worry!

And really, worry is just a nicer word for fear. Unglamourous, unrelenting fear.

A fear of the unknown. A fear of loss. A fear of uncertainty.

A feeling of having no control over a situation. Uncontrollable variables or outcomes.

Definitely not something that I feel comfortable with.

So, landing my dream job was a life-changing event. I will forever be indebted to that school for taking a chance on me.

And, that unexpected, unbelievable, nothing-short-of-a-miracle event gave me a new perspective on this thing called hope.

Bear with me as I back-track for a moment.

After returning from my overseas holiday, I had a birthday celebration with a selection of dear friends. About twenty of my nearest and dearest friends who had been my front-line emergency support team over the past few months.

It was possibly my favourite birthday celebration to date.

I wore my new navy wedges which I bought from Hobbs in London, a white mini dress and a bright pink Zara blazer.

I’ve always had plenty of friends. But our truest, honest-to-God, heart-and-soul friendships are the ones that are formed during our biggest trials. The ones that we ring up at 2am in tears. The ones that see us in our mascara-streaked pain. The ones who pick up the shattered pieces of a broken marriage and painstakingly help us to rebuild.

That’s not something I would’ve understood prior to 2013.

But it’s absolutely true.

We gather our most genuine, authentic friends during life’s deepest valleys.

And they’re usually weirdos!

What I mean, is that they are unexpected. Not who we would normally meet. Not who we would usually choose. But they are everything we need!

My advice is to treasure those weirdos.

It was the best birthday celebration of my life and I had a ball!

However, that birthday celebration did – by my own diagnosis – mark the end of one chapter and the start of something scarily uncertain.

For months, I had been riding the wave of unconditional support, wow-factor new friends, travel adventures, a big birthday bash… and now it was back to reality. Now it would be time to move on and get my new life underway. That meant job hunting and relief teaching. Remember, at this point, I was still unemployed, after quitting my child care job whilst in Paris.

It was time to get on with life. And I was very, very worried about this massive, overarching, scary cloud of uncertainty.

So, after a dessert degustation and a wonderful evening of laughter and enjoyment in celebration of my 25th birthday, one of my friends dropped me home. But as I got in the car, after a superb evening, I remember rather dramatically declaring to her, “I have to go back to reality now. My life is fucking shit!”

I was happy; don’t get me wrong. But this was my “clock striking midnight” moment.

It just hit me that I was unemployed, single and facing extreme uncertainty.

Never before in my life had I experienced this level of uncertainty.

When I walked down the aisle at the mere age of 20, Mr Ex and I had our lives planned out. We had a grand master plan. Houses, babies, pets, careers and schools picked out for the kids. It was all part of our strategic plan. And we knew what we were doing. He was a successful lawyer with a staggeringly impressive income for a 26-year-old. I was working in childcare, even though I was a fully qualified teacher. We had just bought our second home, which would be our family home. The plan was for Mr Ex to continue working, while I got pregnant and was a stay-at-home mum for the next ten years. I planned to continue working in child care and then maybe I’d eventually teach once the kids were all grown up. That kind of thing.

So, now, having just turned 25 at this point of the story and living life as both separated and unemployed, I was coming to terms with a new reality; I am the epitome of uncertainty.

I remember just breaking down in tears in the car with my friend. And I also told her that “I’m never going to get a teaching job”, “no one will ever want to life happily ever after with me” and “I may as well just give up on my life, because my life is officially over!”

But, of course, from reading my last chapter, you know what was just around the corner. You know that less then two months after my declaration that “my life is fucking shit”, I landed my dream job.

It’s funny how that works.

Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life…” (Matt. 6:25-34) “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you, by worrying, add a single hour to your life?”

Easy to read. Difficult to action.

Of course, Jesus is right. Birds don’t seem to have a care in the world, yet they get everything they need AND they get to fly. Yes, Jesus. I know. I should be more like a carefree, trusting bird.

So what’s stopping me?

Maybe it’s because I like to have control. I like to have a plan. I like to know what is around the next corner.

And because I don’t like HATE uncertainty. I hate the unknown.

But probably the number one reason is simply that I get bogged down in the ‘here and now’. What I can see right now. What I am feeling right now. What the situation looks like right now.

I remember writing in an earlier chapter that, as Christians, our hope is not based on optimism or wishful thinking. It is based on a believed fact; having experienced God’s love first-hand and knowing that God himself is present in all circumstances. The good, the bad and the shit-house ugly.

To have optimism or wishful thinking would be to say, “Yes, everything is OK!”

And I get the idea that that is exactly what people think Christians believe. Blind. Wishful thinkers. Optimistic. Unaware of the harsh realities that exist.

But I call bullshit to the idea that Christians go about pretending that everything is OK.

As Jesus, God the Son entered into the muck and grime of humanity. He entered into the big, dark void of uncertainty that quite frankly scares the bejeebers out of me.

In Jesus, I see a God who dined with society’s outcasts. I see a God who went out of His way to show us that our brokenness isn’t the end of the story. He conquered death with resurrection. He gives us light for our darkness. Hope for our fear. Peace for our worry.

But I don’t think He does that by creating mortal minions who blindly go about pretending that everything is OK.

The Christian faith is actually far more gutsy and ballsy than most people realise.

I read an amazing quote the other day.  In Bruce Cockburn’s book Kicking the Darkness, he writes that The Christian faith is one that kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.

YES!

Can I get an ‘Amen’?!

I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling shitty and my future is looking uncertain at best, I don’t want to be told that everything is OK. I don’t want to be told by well-meaning Christians that they have been blessed by God and their life is great. I don’t want to be told that it’s all good.

I want to be told that we do live in a broken world. We are broken beings. And we will fail each other and God and ourselves. BUT THERE IS MORE!!!!!

Hope is seeing the reality of my daily struggles, feeling the pain of unemployment and wondering if I’m destined to live life solo for the rest of my days.  Hope is seeing, recognising and understanding that my future is uncertain. No pretending.

But hope is also knowing that there is a bigger picture that transcends the murky, uncertain reality in front of me. There is more. Always, always, always, there is more.

I’m often going on about resurrection and God’s habit of making old, crappy things new again. And that’s just it! Resurrection. New. Always more!

And, as proved by my declaration in the car after my birthday party, I have an endearingly human habit of declaring that my life is over.

That’s it! My marriage is over. I will die childless. I am unemployed. I’ll never get a teaching job. Impossible. Full-stop.

I know that is a human trait because that is exactly how the disciples reacted following the world’s most famous execution.

When Jesus’s dead body was placed in a tomb, they were bummed out. Reality was looking grim. The man who claimed to be God in human form had just been killed. Full-stop. End of story.

But, it wasn’t the end.

Ha!

Far from it actually, because it is now over 2,000 years later and there are more than 2 billion people who are still following Jesus today.

God brings life out of dead things!!!

Just as reality was looking like evil and death had conquered Jesus, God surprised us with a resurrection.

Just when we think life’s over… Just when we think something is dead… Just when we think we are broken… Just when a situation is looking hopeless… Just when reality couldn’t get any worse…

God surprises us by breathing new life into us. Resurrecting us. Adding more.

That is a lesson that I am still learning over and over again. I am a slow learner, but like a turtle going uphill through sand and seaweed, I will power on.

And I will defiantly proclaim that there is always more.

While I try not to worry – yes, I do try to be a bird like Jesus suggests – I know I will worry again. But then I will remind myself, again and again and AGAIN whenever necessary, that THERE IS ALWAYS MORE.

THERE IS ALWAYS MORE THAN OUR REALITY.

Our reality might be darkness, gloomy, broken, pain, hurt, and anger.

Yes.

That’s actually quite possible.

But there is more. There is always more.

And, that is where Plan B comes into play. Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, Plan E, Plan F… and the alphabet goes on.

Jesus’s dead body was placed in a tomb, but there was more.

I was unemployed and it was looking very, very unlikely (OK, let’s be honest; it looked darn-right IMPOSSIBLE) that I would find a job anytime soon, but there was more.

I was married and hoping for a baby when my husband walked out, but there is more.

Plan B.

For me, my Plan A was to live happily ever after with Mr Ex, have two or three children with Mr Ex, rent out our townhouse, live happily in the hills, picket fence, a dog and a cat, stay-at-home mum while Mr Ex brought home the bacon (yes, I was dreaming of the 1950s apparently…), and then maybe becoming a teacher one day when my children were all grown up. In, like, ten or twenty years time. That was a good plan, hey?! (insert sarcasm) Oh, and I also was pretty much on non-speaking terms with a father-in-law that I loved to hate.

But, Plan B: Mr Ex and I couldn’t seem to have children together. Mr Ex cheated on me. Mr Ex left me. I’m now single. I’m working as a teacher and LOVING it. I am passionately following Jesus and LOVING it. Oh, and I love my ex-father-in-law too.

The big question:

Do I still want Plan A? Would I change anything if I could? Would I revert to my former self?

The answer is a definite no.

Does the future scare me? Yes.  Do I worry still? Yes.

I see that sometimes things are NOT hunky-dory.

I see I might not ever find a bouquet-catching ‘happily ever after’ life.

But instead, I’ll kick the darkness until it bleeds light; declaring that there is ALWAYS MORE!  I will defiantly proclaim that I believe in resurrection. I believe that all things work together for good. AND I believe that God loves me.

Thank you, God, for giving me exactly what I didn’t want. And thank you that there is ALWAYS more.

“I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” (Rev. 3:8).

Chapter 22: Snowflakes and Sparkles

11_Figure21

When I got back home, I remember a deep-rooted feeling of displacement. From the Eiffel Tower in Pairs to Wittenberg in Germany, returning home to Australia made one feeling rather clear to me: Australia is not where I want to be anymore. I was returning to familiar places and surroundings that held significant memories. Married memories. But I was single now. Horribly single. And that was tough to transition back to.

My first night home in Australia, I stayed at Mum and Dad’s house. My furry friend, Rommet, still had one more night at his 5-star doggy resort and I was rather jet-lagged and exhausted, so I stayed at Mum and Dad’s that night. It was actually the first night I’d slept there since before I was married. I remember lying awake, feeling ridiculously over-tired but unable to switch off. And a damn email from Mr Ex came through on my iPad at around 11pm, just as I was trying to get to sleep.

Fuck him! I’ve only been back in Australia a few hours and he’s on my case already! It’s as if he KNOWS that I’ve just stepped off a plane and I’m trying to get some much-needed sleep! Gah! Douche-bag, you can’t ruin our marriage AND my sleep patterns!

Yes, I was overtired and hating the painful jolt back into reality.

And no, Mr Ex didn’t know that I’d been overseas and he also didn’t know that I was jet-lagged, grouchy and trying to get to sleep. That was just a happy coincidence.

In this new email, Mr Ex was asking me to send some documents. Paperwork. Something about superannuation. Blah, blah, blah.

But interestingly, I also got an email from Jillian in the next day or two. You know, the lady who worked with Mr Ex and Cosette, who had become a very dear friend of mine, as well as informant extraordinaire for Penny, the P.I.

Jill’s news? Mr Ex and Cosette were moving!

To Bristol!!

Bristol, England!!!

What the actual?!

I was surprised. Really surprised. And it totally explained Mr Ex’s email wanting paperwork and documentation.

Mr Ex and Cosette hadn’t really ‘come out’ at work.

They’d sort of outwardly maintained that they were just friends. But Mr Ex had told Jill, “You may have noticed that I’m spending a fair bit of time with Cosette.” Pfft!

A couple of other ladies from Mr Ex and Cosette’s workplace contacted me too.

They had been in a very similar situation and their hearts went out to me.

To this very day, I still catch up with those three ladies for breakfasts and coffee dates.

And, with Mr Ex and Cosette moving to Bristol, it freed up Australia to be my home-sweet-home again. And it freed me up to have those breakfast and coffee dates with Mr Ex and Cosette’s work colleagues.

Mr Ex lived in the U.K. for a portion of his childhood. In fact, those years were probably his cheeriest childhood memories because his parents were happily married in the U.K. His parents later divorced and returned to Australia where things just went from bad to worse. Mr Ex always talked with unending love and joy about his memories in Ireland and the U.K.

Cosette is also from that region. She is Irish. An interesting connection, I think.

For those really observant readers, you may remember that Mr Ex and I gave each other Irish Claddagh rings representing love, friendship and loyalty during our dating years. They’re beautiful rings. A heart representing love, held by hands representing friendship, and a crown on top representing loyalty. And Mr Ex was still wearing that fucking ring when he was having a fucking affair. Pardon my French, but the irony is unbelievable. If anyone should’ve known what the ring stood for, it was Irish-native Cosette!!!! Hashtag Vomit.

And I can still sense that feeling of anger and pain, thinking of Mr Ex and Cosette starting their life anew.

And I do sometimes wonder if Mr Ex and Cosette have exchanged Irish Claddagh rings of their own?

Or what did Mr Ex ever do with the Irish Claddagh ring that I gave him?

Vomit, vomit, vomit, vomit.

But, as I always say, every time that I dump that anger and pain at the foot of the cross, I somehow find a new depth of freedom that I never knew existed. And I experience Jesus yet again. We don’t serve a distant, aloof God who sits on a throne watching his creations feel like crap. We serve a God who enters into our suffering and weeps with us. He’s right there with my mascara-smudged face and pillow full of tears. Through Jesus. Jesus, our Immanuel.

And Immanuel means, ‘God is with us’.

I have always loved Disney on Ice. As a child, I went to Disney on Ice each year religiously and I always bought the over-priced glossy program. I remember spending hours looking through the pictures, imagining what it would be like to skate like them. I’d read the bios of the principal skaters and stare at the sparkly costumes and skating boots, wishing that I could be a part of that.

After seeing what was probably my tenth Disney on Ice show in my first year at University (FYI it was High School Musical: The Ice Tour), I started figure skating lessons. That must’ve been around 2006. I was crap at it. Total crap. I’d never skated before. Needless to say, we don’t get snow or ice or anything like that in this country. Learning to skate in my first year of Uni was hard. But I did love it. And I continued on-and-off for a few years.

But, somehow, just like that pink guitar that I bought about the same time, skating fell off the priority list. Sad, really. But it’s true. Married life took over. Day-to-day routines and the mundane existence of two play-it-safe DINKs took over.

And so, here I am. Separated from Mr Ex. Still dealing with the abrupt ending of our marriage. A superb, life-changing, self-discovering overseas holiday. Fabulous revelations and experiences in Europe. A new ring to mark those milestones. But now, jolted back to reality. Learning how to find peace in my hometown. The town where I met Mr Ex. The town where I got married. The town that held umpteen-million memories of my relationship with Mr Ex. Is it even possible to find peace in this place?!

As I was saying, vomit, vomit, vomit.

*Lay it at the cross.*

And bang! Voila! Ta-dah! Zip-a-dee-doo!

Jesus, Immanuel.

My parents gave me a card. It read, “Do more of what you love!”

How beautifully simple.

YES! I thought. And what do I love?

I love figure skating.

And so I went back to figure skating. My previous coach was no longer there. Probably a blessing because it meant that I didn’t need to explain my period of absence to anyone.

The club had had an overhaul of staff and skaters. It was new!

I do love that concept of ‘new’!

If there is anything that will give you the unrelenting drive to nail a one-foot spin, it is pain. Pain gives you a bitch of an appetite. It pushes you better than the harshest of coaches. Pain propels you further into the galaxy of abilities than any NASA rocket could ever do.

And pain launched me further into figure skating than I had ever been before.

I was made to feel super-dooper welcome by a skater called Rosie. Rosie is Mum’s age. And she was on a synchronised skating team of amazing women. All around Mum’s age, actually. But don’t let that fool you! They are sharp skaters and oh-so-fun to hang around with. And they warmly invited me to be on their synchro team. Woot!

I got to know my fellow skaters over many months. But one thing was rather God-ordained. I’m always going on about how one of the most poignant ways that I encounter God is in the stranger… well, Rosie is another perfect example of that.

There was one day when we were standing in the middle of the rink. She said something about church and my ears pricked up. Yep, Rosie is a Jesus-follower. And it was really nice to make that connection. Always nice to find a fellow follower of Jesus.

But, things got seriously amazing a month or so later. Taking our skates off, I asked Rosie about her children. Rosie told me about her children and grandchildren. She had one child in particular though, who was a teacher. Single, apparently. And a Christian. Hmm… A single, 30-something-year-old Christian? There’s gotta be a story there! And amazingly, Rosie started that unbelievable sentence that her daughter had been married, BUT…

*Ding, ding, ding!*

It’s really, really exciting when you find parts of your story in other people. That, right there, is another perfect example of my soul saying, “Oh! There you are! I’ve been looking for you!” And I am totally convinced that’s one of the many ways of encountering Jesus.

Putting on my figure skating boots post-separation, after several years away from the rink, was life-changing. Life-altering. Life-inspiring.

And best of all, Jesus was all over it!

I also met two amazing coaches, Donna and Stacey. Both incredibly talented and warm human beings. And I had so many unforeseen opportunities.

A definite highlight that came along just recently was skating in Broadway on Ice.

I’d never thought I’d get the opportunity to skate in front of people. That was always a far-away dream of my 5-year-old self who stared at Disney on Ice programs for hours on end. But in true Cinderella style, I say that a pair of shoes CAN change your life! And for me, my life-changing glass slipper was actually a figure skating boot!

Sparkly costume, top hat and tails! I’m a Broadway star, baby!

Well, not quite.

But close!

And underneath the sparkly costume and stage make-up is just a little girl who fell in love with Disney on Ice. Not 20-something and separated.

I could recreate myself in a positive, new light. So I threw myself hook, line and sinker into skating.

Figure skating is a ‘survival sport’. Much like sailing, I imagine.

When you’re doing it, you have to be 100% in the moment. Focussed 100% on what you are doing. In order to ‘survive’. If you are not concentrating 100%, you are highly likely to stack it in a rather spectacular fashion. And get massive bruises. So when I skate, I’m in the moment. No room for other thoughts or worries. No room for baggage. Or history. Or Mr Ex. It’s all about me. And the jump that I’m landing.

I do sometimes wonder what heaven is like. It kind of does my head in a bit though. Too massive, too surreal and too incredible to grasp. I wonder if there will be an ice rink there!

Think about that hobby or that task that you do, which makes you feel like time flies. That thing where you feel like you’re doing exactly what you were made to do. Whether it is painting, or playing a sport, or listening to classical music, or gardening – we all have that ‘thing’ that makes time fly. Makes our soul sing. I think that’s what heaven will be like.

And for me, figure skating – oh! and writing – gives me that feeling.

I think everyone should search and search and search until they find that.

Chapter 20: Bon Voyage and C’est La Vie

King Henry VIII had six wives over the course of his adult life.

He divorced Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves.

He sentenced Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard to the chopping block.

Jane Seymour died in child birth.

And Catherine Parr was the only survivor.

Walking through London museums and seeing famous landmarks, I reflected on the fate of Henry’s wives. I’d always thought the divorcees had the best deal. After all, they got to keep their lives.

Now, I’m not so sure.

The chopping block actually seems far more inviting to me now.

Yes, I was in London!

It was July 2013.

A very old city with an astounding history. It was surreal to be quite literally walking in the footsteps of Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, the Spice Girls and Duchess Kate.

I’d needed a holiday for a few months. A break from life. And thanks to my very generous parents, I had the opportunity to go travelling in Europe. There is nothing – quite literally, nothing – that will give you perspective like travel. Being plucked up from your little patch of the world to then be perched on the highest point of St Paul’s Cathedral in London? Yep, that’ll do it.

Travel is rebellion in its purest form.

We follow our heart. We free ourselves of labels. We lose control willingly.

We trade a role for reality. We love the unfamiliar.

We trust strangers. We own only what we can carry.

We search for better questions, not answers.

We truly graduate.

We, sometimes, choose never to come back.

-unknown.

And that pretty much sums it up.

I won’t go into detail about my adventures, because this is not a travel blog. But there are a couple of noteworthy moments from that trip.

“Sometimes I feel quite distinctly that what is inside me is not all of me. There is something else, sublime, quite indestructible, some tiny fragment of the Universal spirit. Don’t you feel that?” -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

IMG_0758On my 25th birthday, I climbed to the very top of St Paul’s Cathedral. Yes, the tip of the top. In fact, the tippy-tip of the top. That bit that’s not usually open to the public. It was freaky! But it’s moments like that that will change you forever.

And I can still sense that feeling of looking out over the vast skyline of London, realising how tiny and insignificant we, as individuals, are in this huge, massive, expansive world.

And how tiny my dramas are in the vastness and grandeur of the universe.

God said something along those lines to Job.

And I look forward to chatting with Job about it one day.

In our everyday lives, it is far too easy to become consumed with our troubles. To see the world through our own lens. Our own needs and wants. Our own ups and downs. But there is a whole lot of world out there. And we are but a drop in the ocean. So, one of my best tips for ‘getting over stuff’ is to go travelling.

Travelling changes us. It levels us. It unlocks a whole new facet to one’s self.

The amazing Alan Alda said, “When you embark for strange places, don’t leave any of yourself safely at the shore. Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory.” Ain’t that the truth!

IMG_1260After time in England, I also went to Paris.

There’s something about Paris.

I don’t think anyone can go to Paris and remain unchanged.

Walking down the world-renowned shopping street Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Mum and I spotted Swarovski.

I had been without a ring for several months now. After around seven years of wearing a ring of some kind from Mr Ex (first, he gave me an Irish Claddagh ring, then an engagement ring, and then a wedding ring), I was very accustomed to wearing rings. So getting used to my bare fingers was like breaking my arm and adjusting to writing with ‘the wrong hand’. Or trying to fold a fitted sheet. It’s just not right!! It feels WRONG!

Admittedly, I’d had days when I just. Couldn’t. Handle. NOT. Wearing. A ring!!

So, I’d sometimes put my engagement ring onto the ring finger of my other hand. Not in a sad, hanging-on-to-hope, half-dead kangaroo, missing-Mr-Ex kind of way. Not because it meant anything and there were no hidden messages about my psychological state.

It was simply that my fingers felt completely WRONG without a ring.

And I didn’t actually own any other rings. When you have three deeply significant and momentously symbolic rings, you don’t have any need to buy other rings. So I’d sometimes wear my engagement ring on the other hand just as a comfort thing.

Yes, I hear you say that I could’ve bought a cheap ring to tie me over.

But I wanted my ‘next ring’ to be special. Symbolic.

So, in Paris, I was on a mission to find that ring. To finally invest in a ring that would signify a whole new chapter. A ring that was all about me. Representing my new life as ME. And celebrating that I was complete, happy and free on my own. Without Mr Ex. Signifying my individuality. Rejoicing that I survived that which could have killed me.

I was throwing roses into the abyss and saying, “Here’s to the monster that didn’t succeed in eating me alive!”

And when I walked into Swarovski on Champs-Élysées, I knew I’d found the birthplace of my next ring.

My Swarovski ring sits happily on my middle finger. I’d never worn a ring on my middle finger before. It is white gold and encrusted in lots and lots of brilliant Swarovski crystals. Divine!

(By the way, the white gold was a very deliberate choice. All three of my rings from Mr Ex were ‘gold gold’ (I think the technical term is ‘yellow gold’). I just mean the usual gold colour, as apposed to silver-coloured gold, which is called white gold. If you just followed that explanation, well done to you.)

And that was it.

Hand is now complete.

All is right with the world. *Sigh of relief*

I was on a roll, really. Buying a symbolic new ring, climbing the Eiffel Tower, eating chocolate croissants at Cafe De Fleur… I’m not sure if life gets much better than that 🙂

So up until this holiday, I had basically been working in child care. Yes, I was a fully qualified teacher. Yes, I did a bit of relief teaching. But my main occupation was working for an Out of School Hours Care and Vacation Care service. Child care. And it was very much my comfort zone. Truth is, teaching actually scared the living daylights out of me. I had no intention of leaving my comfort zone. I liked the safety of ‘going with the flow’. That echos sentiments from earlier chapters, doesn’t it just?

Well, life begins on the edge of our comfort zone.

And only dead fish go with the flow.

No longer was I going to play it safe. No longer was I a slave to the ordinary.

So, in a my daring new mindset of “I choose to live outside my comfort zone and I choose to go against the flow!”, I wrote my resignation letter and emailed it to work. I thanked them for everything, but said that I would not be coming back.

For a few of my colleagues, they knew my current situation and probably would not have been surprised by my resignation.

But for many colleagues, they are possibly still wondering, “Whatever happened to that young girl who was married to a lawyer? Quiet. Really mature. Sensible. Had all her shit together. You know the one? She used to wear knitted beanies in winter.”

Yes, I still wear beanies in winter; some things never change. But definitely no ‘shit together’ anymore.

The truth is, I have no idea what happened to that girl. I think I left her on top of St Paul’s Cathedral or on the Eiffel Tower.

And I hazard a guess that she’s in good company up there. I bet lots of people leave old versions of themselves in places like that. Places of symbol and resonance.

“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.” – Alan Alda.

Chapter 14: I am Sad

The frustration with pain is that it demands to be felt.

There is no easy way out.

And pain is a certainty in this world of ours.

“I’ll lead with the bad news: it’s going to get worse. I’ve even begun collecting raindrops to prove it isn’t sunny all the time. I’ve spent entire days in bed and I’ve lost entire hours to lukewarm baths. It’s OK. Some days are bad. I have to get up even when I don’t want to. It happens. It is still a beautiful life.” -unknown

After a successful first solo outing and some pretty special encounters with the stranger, I was feeling on top of the world. God is in control! God is looking after me! I can do this! God is amazing! It’s easy to sing God’s praises when life is peachy. Or when things are going according to our plan.

But calm seas never made a skilled sailor!

And on that rollercoaster of emotions, there are inevitable – what I like to call – ‘downers’.

Downers. Darkness. Sadness. Pain. Dare-I-say depression.

It’s like a tunnel. An unavoidable tunnel. The only way to proceed on your path is to go through the tunnel. And you have to go all the way through. No short cuts and no emergency exits. The good news is that you will eventually come out the other end. And you will emerge stronger, more beautiful, than you ever were before. But the bad news is that going through the tunnel is never easy.

And there can be many tunnels along our path. Some are longer tunnels and some are shorter. Some are scarier. Some will freak the living daylights out of us. And some will even leave us with bruises and scars. And heck, I’m still encountering tunnels today.

But there is so much truth to the old adage that, ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!’

I am drowning. I have no air. But everyone else around me is breathing just fine.

Other people so easily engage in cheery conversations, but I don’t have the energy or the ability to engage right now.

I can’t do this. This sadness is unbearable.

I’m drained. I’m depleted.

I’m standing on the sidelines. Lonely in a crowd.

I wish I could integrate into that conversation.  I wish I could go out today.

But I can’t because I’m useless.  No one will want to talk to me.  Mr Ex knew me better than probably any other person in this world and he has decided that I’m not loveable. I’m not worthwhile.  He doesn’t want me. He wants someone else. So, clearly I’m just not good enough. And so why the hell would anyone else want to love me? Or even want to talk to me for that matter?!

“Oh, I’m just tired,” I’d tell people.

But a wise person once noted what ‘tired’ can sometimes really mean.

T is for torn apart,
I is for insecure,
R is for really faking my smile,
E is for extremely sad, and
D is for drowning in my tears.

But I became better at recognising and acknowledging when I was feeling sad. I became better at telling the people around me [and friends like Sana became experts at reading] when I was on a downer.

It might just sound like self-pity. Even reflecting after emerging from a tunnel, I wonder why on earth I couldn’t just ‘snap out of it’. But pain demands to be felt.

And I have to go all the way through my tunnel. No one can walk it for me. Others may walk it with me. But no one can walk it for me.

Valentine’s Day 2013.

Bree came to visit. She gave me a teddy bear holding a homemade love-heart with a bible verse on it. I’d never actually encountered the bible verse before, or if I had, it just hadn’t registered with me. But this time, it did.

“’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.’” –Jeremiah 29:11.

God has a plan for me.

I named the bear ‘Jeremiah’ and that little bear is one of the most precious presents that I’ve ever been given.

But Jeremiah isn’t telling me that my pain and sadness will magically dissipate into a poof of smoke.

Dark days keep coming.

Moments of grief still plague me.

Tunnels lie ahead.

Does that mean God has left me? Does that mean I’m not a good enough Christian?

NO!

God never tells us that he will magically remove all pain and suffering from us. No emergency exits, remember! But God does promise that he will never leave us. He has a plan and he will use my darkness for my good.

This is not a god who is holding a banner and shouting encouraging quotes from off the court. Not at all. This is a god who enters into our suffering. He is right there in the middle of the court with us. This is a god who became human like us. He wasn’t watching Jesus on the cross. He was Jesus on the cross.

I am sad today.

And at the risk of sounding very Dr Phil-like…

Essie Bell’s Steps for Overcoming Downers:

Step one is always to recognise the emotion. Note its presence.

Step two, experience the emotion fully. A wave, coming and going. Try not to block the emotion and try not to push it away. But be careful – don’t feed it! Don’t try to keep the emotion around or increase it. Just experience it.

Step three is to remember that YOU ARE NOT YOUR EMOTION. Remember when you have felt differently. Remind yourself that you will feel differently again. Don’t act on the sense of urgency that the emotion brings. Describe your emotion saying, “I have the feeling of _____”, rather than “I am _____”.

Step four, practice respecting, even loving, your emotion. Tell yourself that it is OK to have downers. It is OK to feel like this. It is OK to cry a sea of tears, it is OK to say “WHY ME?!” and it is OK to get angry at God. Don’t believe me? Read the Psalms. And it’s not only OK, it’s actually just a normal part of being human. It is one of the many things that makes us endearingly human. So don’t judge your emotion. Radically accept your emotion.

And lastly, step five, which is the most important of all. Say out loud, “No matter what I am feeling, God is working. God has a plan.”

“When I am overwhelmed, lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” -Psalm 61:2.

Crank some tunes too.  Some possibilities; My go-to girl Katy Perry’s By the Grace of God or Roar, The Best is Yet to Come by Sheppard, Blessed Be Your Name by Matt Redman, Oceans [Where Feet May Fail] by Hillsong, In Christ Alone by Owl City, or Whom Shall I Fear? by Chris Tomlin.

If I could go back and talk to myself inside one of those tunnels, I’d say, “Essie, I’m not going to say there are plenty of fish in the sea or that it will all get better quickly. Instead, I will say that God has a plan. It’s OK to be down. It’s normal to feel alone. But say with me now, ‘No matter what I am feeling, God is working.’”

Yes, my husband no longer loves me. But guess what? God still loves me! I’ve given God countless reasons not to love me. None of them has been strong enough to change him though. Thank you, God. And I am surrounded by a bubble of family and friends who love me too.

Today, I have the feeling of sadness.

But I will be OK. Just not today. And that’s OK.

Because no matter what I am feeling, God is working. God has a plan.

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