Saturday, September 26, 2015

Dear Christians: We Need To Talk About Broken Engagements

By now, I think everyone knows my entire life story. Usually upon meeting someone new, I don't bother to use a "don't spill your guts!" filter. "Hi I'm Starleisha! I'm adopted, my family is white, I have two cats, Tater-Tot and Cricket, a beagle named Sweetie and until the end of this past January, I was engaged!" 

At this point, if the poor person's eyes haven't already glazed over, I can usually predict their next facial expression. It's a shifting mix of shock and compassion and concern. For the first few months after my relationship was over, the most common response was, "Wow! You are so brave." "That was such a brave decision." "I could never be that brave!" It finally got to the point where I turned to a friend and said "I swear if someone says brave one more time, I'm going to punch them in the face!" 

To me, my decision wasn't brave. It was simply a necessary decision; for our collective and individual preservation. In a sense, it was as if you gave the keys of a car to a stunt man and said, "Okay, Rod. Two options: no protective gear, or all the protective gear we have. But either way we are going to light the car on fire. What'll it be?!" If Rod is thinking clearly, he'll at least take some of the gear so when he has to bail out, some of his bones stay intact.

For the sake of this analogy, I am Rod. My engagement was the car. My impending marriage was the inevitable fire; wearing no gear was walking down an aisle towards divorce lawyers and a year of tears and hurt, and taking all the gear and bailing was breaking the engagement.

No one faces fire without doing something to keep themselves and the ones they love from getting burned.

Right now you might be thinking "Okay, but how did you know?" "What if it was the wrong choice?" "What if D was the right guy for you and you were his perfect match and you RUINED EVERYTHING FOR THE REST OF FOREVER?!"

I'll tell you, honestly, the answers to those questions.

1- How Did You Know? How do you know that you don't like jalapeños? I'm assuming that at some point you tried them accidentally (or on purpose, you psycho. why would you do that?!), and you didn't like them. They burned. They hurt. They weren't pleasant at all. You learn what you like and dislike, tolerate and hate, love and loathe through the same process: personal experience. I'm not saying that you should go accepting proposals willy-nilly, but what I am saying is that being engaged is recommended before marriage for a reason.

All of a sudden, two people who think they know each other have to agree on how one single day, The First Day Of The Rest Of Their Lives, should look like, sound like and taste like. No one tells you this, but planning a wedding is hell. I know people who have done it and escaped seemingly unscathed, but they will eventually come clean and tell you that there were fights over napkins. Literal pieces of cloth almost ended a lifetime commitment. That's terrifying. No one wants to be known as the couple who couldn't agree on napkins. 

But that's what happened. Things weren't falling into place. We couldn't find a venue. We couldn't agree on a time of year. There was a lot of "number crunching" and ice cream eating to avoid the bigger issues. The issues that, as we sat on our counselor's couch that July afternoon, I could feel, she could see, and D was avoiding.

I didn't think I was strong enough. I didn't have closure from a previous non-relationship. I didn't this, I didn't that, all while on the inside I was screaming that I COULDN'T. But the months went on and these fears were shoved deeper because "we are planning a wedding, we can't just stop!"
But I knew. We both knew, because the experiences we were having were hurting us. Burning. Not pleasant at all. Just as we thought it was all falling apart, it got better. We found a kick-ass venue, we began to communicate better, he got a job, I got a job, and then the single spark that would eventually illuminate the bigger problem, caught flame. 

2-What If It Was The Wrong Choice? You know that stupid saying "if you love someone, let them go."? I'm here to tell you that while I think it's the most cliché thing anyone could say during this situation, it's also one of the more welcomed and "reassuring" things people can say.


I grew up in the age of purity rings, and "save yourselves until marriage," and "pass this chewed gum around and that's what you are if you don't save your self/love/heart for one person," I've recently realized that there was one big part that was left out of these teachings. And that part is, "What To Do When You Obey God's Will And Things Go Wrong."

Because of course all Christian couples go through hard times, but if you marry someone who has lived by the Red Letters and has never even THOUGHT about glancing at porn, nothing will go wrong. I'm here to say HAHA BULL. It's utter crap, you guys. We are ALL sinners. I don't care how devoted you are to the Lord. You're still going to screw up.

And the well-meaning, possibly unknowingly manipulative, adults who taught you that "married sex will be perfect sex" might say "well, maybe you weren't trusting God enough. Maybe he had a 'rough past.'" (Which we all know is Christianese for "he had sex once.") And that will make you feel ashamed. It will make you want to hide under your covers on Sundays and attend Church of the Box Spring. 

But what these adults are missing in their youth group lessons is the fact that shame is not from God. This summer I heard exactly what I needed to hear on this subject: "Guilt says 'I did a bad thing.' Shame says 'I am a bad thing.'" If you've ended a long-term engagement with a mixture of turmoil and shame, listen:

You did the right thing. You are not a bad thing.

You have not wasted yourself or your heart or your love. You are not a chewed up and spit out piece of gum. You are God's masterpiece. Whether you believe this or not doesn't make it any less true. In fact, I'm inclined to say that those of us who have loved so deeply with our whole hearts, and haven't been afraid to be vulnerable are probably the most beautiful. Usually we are artists, and we are mishmashed anyway, so what's a broken engagement? It's just another part of the mosaic of events that make us who we are.  

*Don't read me wrong here, friends--I do think that God blesses obedience/hard work/etc..., but I don't think that just because someone couldn't stay engaged or married it means God is punishing them for past or present inequities. Sometimes staying together isn't the right or obedient thing to do. Sometimes God is more subtle than we expect him to be. It's more proof that He can't be put in a box. I think many of us, myself included, want God to be bigger and louder in our lives. But sometimes it's the tugs in the corners of our heart, the Still Small Voice, that we should be paying attention to more and expecting more readily. 

3-What if D was the right guy for you and you were his perfect match and you RUINED EVERYTHING FOR THE REST OF FOREVER?! He wasn't. I wasn't. I didn't. But occasionally, almost 8 months to the day later, I still ask myself these questions. Some people might read that and think "Well she obeyed God so she should just let it go. The past is in the past!" To that I say: YOU ARE NOT QUEEN ELSA STOP IT. And, just because I think these things doesn't mean I'm not trusting God. 

And that brings me to the heart of this post. (You thought I forgot!)
As Christians, we need to stop trying to fit our expectations of marriage and couples into a box.

I will say this until I'm on my deathbed: No one is perfect. We are humans. 

After I accidentally found out about The Ring, but before we even began planning our glorified Fancy Party, I was researching videographers. I stumbled across a video of a Picture Perfect Christian Couple. I recognized this PPCC because I had seen their wedding in The Knot magazine. I fell in love with the venue that was close to where we lived, the cute groom's sweater and the beautiful bride's furs that she and her maids were wrapped in. It was late and I was supposed to be studying, but I HAD TO click their video. I wept like I had never wept before. Perfect music, snow, candles! THE FURS YOU GUYS. But what got me were The Vows. They promised to lead one another in Christ, to submit to each other in Christ, to be an example, to love, protect, serve, pray for, and honor each other purely... No joke, I cried for an hour, and watched the video eight times. After doing some creepy Facebook stalking, I found the bride's business website and sent her a long email detailing every.thing.I.felt about their Vows. I never heard back and was crushed, but showed the video to my sister who cried with me, sent it to all my friends, and to D, who promptly said "oh I know her." It was the typical small town Pennsylvania response. I huffed and told him that I wanted our wedding to be exactly like that PPCC's wedding. 

It wasn't until after The Ring and after I met people who were at that wedding (one person, who I now know and love dearly said to me "it wasn't that special...."), that I realized that I was idolizing their wedding. Intrigued, I dug deeper and realized what it really was: I idolized their relationship with each other and their relationship in relation to God.

 These perfect strangers had become my gods for how I wanted D and I to feel about God. But we weren't there. Because we weren't right for each other and because the whole thing was wrong. We didn't rely on the Still Small Voice for anything in our lives. I was waiting for the Winds and the Fire and for some Disaster to force one of us to end it. 

Sometimes the Still Small Voice comes in the form of your Mom. Sometimes the Fire is in the form of SisterDear who you fought with relentlessly which ended in a panic attack and regrettable words and slamming doors. Sometimes the Winds are your best friends...your Council who have held their tongues until they've bled and they are forced to finally break their silence with love and honest words. Sometimes the Disaster is finally taking the ring off before you end things, and praying you don't see anyone you know so you can avoid answering the dreaded question that comes after the Left Hand Wedding Band Glance: "Is everything okay with you and D?"
Sometimes it's laying in each other's arms in moments of vulnerability and sacredness and exhaustion and knowing in your heart of hearts that this isn't Forever. It's just Right Now. And that's what I think we Christians don't talk about. That sometimes Right Now is okay. It might not be in God's long-term plans for our lives, but this is the path He has led us on, and sometimes Right Now is all you have to remind you that God is in control. Sometimes Right Now ends and becomes Not Anymore. And that's okay too. 
God has gone before you, into every place you will step foot as an engaged person, a married person, a divorced person, a single person, a mother, father, sister, brother, etc...he blesses your obedience but in order to be obedient you have to let go of the shame that we as Christians, for whatever reason, carry around surrounding the issues of broken engagements or long-term relationships, and truly listen to and feel and acknowledge the areas of your life where God is asking for your obedience. 
It's hard, but it's good.

It's hard to talk about, but it's good to talk about. You wouldn't believe the amount of women I've run into over the last 8 months who have said "I was engaged too. I understand what you're going through. It's hard, but it's good." It makes me wonder how many people we miss in our daily encounters who, no matter the event, can lend a truly empathetic ear.

What if we gently normalize broken relationships? What if we say, "Sometimes life doesn't go as planned. Sometimes you think you're following God's plan but he gently leads you down another path, and that's okay. It's hard but it's good." How many of us would find a companion to walk through the storms with us, if we were willing to just be okay talking about this openly? 

Truthfully, I've found that sometimes not having a filter pays off. Sometimes all we need is a little too much information to make a solid connection. I'm open, and I'm asking you to be open to the idea of telling your story as well. Don't worry about it being messy. It's important and beautiful. Let's share them with each other, together. 

Photo Credit: Svatia Michelle Photography

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Welcome Back! [Welcome to My Life in Lancaster!]

Welcome back everyone! I've reinstated my blog now that I have found a full time job. Today I'm writing about transitions, and My Life in Lancaster. (That sounds like a great book title...) This one is a little long, but I have months of life to catch you up on, with a good resolution at the end. Join me, and stick with me during this new chapter! Love you all!

Transitions are hard.

Whether you’re starting the next level of your schooling, a new career, or a new chapter of your life, it’s hard to deny--change is tough.

I have always had an immense amount of pride in my ability to handle change. My top StrengthsFinder is Adaptability...I go with the flow, and whisper that first part of the Serenity Prayer. You know, “God grant  me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” If I were brave enough, I’d tattoo it on the back of my hand as a constant reminder.

But recently I’ve come to realize that “change” and “a time of transition” aren’t always the same thing. We often use them interchangeably, and this of course varies for everyone…my definition of “change” is something that happens unexpectedly and throws off my routine or balance. And my definition of “a time of transition” is something that has been anticipated.

This new chapter that I’ve started is undeniably a life change, but it’s more of a transition. I have been anticipating moving to Lancaster for 5 years. It was the summer of 2010 when I made my first long-term visit. I stayed for a week with Liesl and we had our inaugural year of kids theatre camp. I met so many people who have influenced the woman I am now and I will never forget that. Each year since then, I’ve made the trek back and forth for various reasons, and about 6 months before I got engaged I knew that I had to spend my engagement in the city of Lancaster.

That didn’t happen. Instead I had to deal with change. He moved, I stayed. I was plagued by crippling panic attacks for weeks after he left. I shoved the idea of moving to Lancaster out of my head and tried to tread water for as long as I could. 6 months later, our engagement ended, and a friend who knows absolutely everything about me looked at me and said, “you should move in with me. It could just be the change that you need.”

I said a bold "yes." Forgetting that my bank account had barely enough money for a shopping spree let alone rent and a security deposit.

In June, we found a place.

In August, I moved in.

And here we are, September 15, 2015. I've been here exactly one month, and I have not stopped to breathe. And I don't regret it at all! I'm doing audience services for PRiMA Theatre, which was the best leap of faith I could have taken. I've transitioned from working part time in a theatre (Shout out to my State Theatre family! I miss you guys!) to working full time in a boutique as a stylist (getting paid to suggest clothes to people? Absofreakinglutely up my alley.) And this time next week, I will have started training at my new full-time job at the American Music Theatre as a box office associate! A job in my field that I LOVE and that I'm darn good at too!

I have had one day "off" since August 15th, and honestly, as someone who has [regrettably] taken pride in being a bit of a slacker, I'm enjoying stretching myself thin. (Although I'm exhausted beyond words.)

But sometimes being busy is an excuse to not focus on the hard parts of transitioning.

In the last two months, I've had my heart broken, I've had to wrestle with issues of race in the outside world and where/if I fit into those hard conversations, I've been misjudged, argued with, and have argued with myself about my own intentions, convictions and integrity. All of these things are hard to deal with. And then add moving on top of them! I was a mess! I still am. And that's okay.

Admitting that you're a mess (yes, YOU), is the first step to recognizing where you are in life. My roommate has this little window decoration that says "Your beautifully messy complicated story matters. (tell it.)" and I'm pretty sure that's become our motto over the last few years. It's ok to feel lost. It's ok to not know what's coming up even if you have it seemingly altogether. Even though I might seem "set" career wise for now, I'm anticipating more changes and transitions coming up. Because that's the way life works. 
You can't avoid change, you can only react to it the healthiest way you can. Maybe for you that means having someone "on call" who you can vent to--a friend, mentor, or therapist. Maybe that means a visit home to see your mom and have her make you a good home-cooked meal. Maybe that means going on a dating hiatus and figuring out yourself. Maybe (UGH) it means deactivating Facebook and digging into the Bible or a good book study. Maybe it means getting a dog or a cat!

Figuring out what you need to do to keep yourself intact is the only way to survive transitions. Everyone copes differently, but I'm confident that you cannot and should not do it alone. I have my Council of women who I can go to whenever life gets scary. And as weird as it might seem, I'm finally seeing that my mom is one of them. Your mom is less intimidating once you get into your 20s. Trust me.
Having people who know you and that you trust is essential, and super helpful. I'm thankful for all those people in my life; without them I would have drowned in an ocean of uncertainty. Everyone's story is different, and that's what keeps the world so beautiful. We connect over the mess, over someone saying "you too?? I thought it was just me!" Be vulnerable. Surround yourself with like-minded people. 

So, all that to say: change is hard. But it's inevitable. Deal with it the best way you know how.

If nothing else I've written sticks, remember this:
Your story, changes and transitions are important. They're messy, but that's ok. So are everyone else's. They matter, but more importantly, you matter.

Hold on, everyone. We are all in for one heck of a ride!