It was two summers ago. 2013.
I would have told you, in a nonchalant tone of voice, that I was “keeping my options open.”
He and I, we weren’t official. We weren’t much of anything at all besides a few dinners and a person to report back to at the end of the night. I knew that if we talked about it then the consensus would be mutual: This won’t go too far. And it’s okay if there are other people you talk to at night.
He was sweet though. Schooled me in enchilada-eating competitions. Took my hand at the movies. Sang (out of pitch and out of tune) right along side me in the car.
You could have thought the world of him. You could have told me he was certainly “it” but my conclusions were certain and drawn already: I knew I wasn’t going to date him long-term. We wanted different things. I wanted to get out of that state. He was leaving that state. This was our summer. The only one.
We were laying down one night on two separate couches, across the room from one another, and I felt this pull in my heart. This nag. This tug. This urge to not ignore it any longer. This tiny voice that whispered before roaring, “Turn off the back-burner. Turn off the back-burner and step away.”
Game over, girl. Game. Over.
I can’t pinpoint exactly where I learned to play the game.
You might know the game I am talking about: The texting game. The “wait until he calls me” game. The “don’t respond for at least a few hours” game. I used to play that game so hard. I’m not trying to boast as if it were a good thing, I’m just trying to be honest that I enjoyed the “game” a lot more than I didn’t.
There was something inside of me that craved attention far more than real love. I craved something instant instead of something long, and winding, and sprawling. I craved curbing the loneliness more than I actually wanted a person to get to know. I don’t know why. I think I figured if I could always be the detached one then I would never need to hurt or lose when the other person turned to walk away from me; I'd have been expecting it the whole time.
And so I was the girl who my friends could not keep up with because there was always somebody new to like. Always somebody cuter. Always somebody more endearing. And I always had a reason why it was going to be over soon— falling away, but still always there like a dull flame sitting on the back-burner.
I remember that summer specifically because I was trying to forge a road between what I wanted for myself and what I thought God wanted for my life. The two always seemed to look different back then. And I am typing all of this so honestly because I never want to act like me and God are perfect and prim homies or that I've stopped sinning and needing the constant handfuls of grace he gives. It ain't true. I am very much human. I am very much learning. And I am learning that you are capable of being with God, and forging relationship with him, even if you don't feel good enough for him. He doesn't want you to be good enough, that's the whole point.
When I heard that small voice, “Turn off the back-burner,” I immediately knew what the voice was saying. It was talking about people. It was talking about people in my life I was mistreating, people in my life I was keeping around to be my safety net.
People are not safety nets. They’re just not.
They’re golden. And they challenge us. And they push us. And they make us want to be better than yesterday. And some may make us worse. But they are not safety nets.
I didn’t need another text at night to prove I was not alone but I desperately thought I needed another attempt to try to mouth back at God, “I am in control.” I am in control because I am afraid you will not bless me with the life I want. And so I want to take this into my own hands and control this situation.”
And maybe you don’t think it is a big deal but I just feel like I learned that summer how I could be so much less hasty with other humans. Sadly, it happens everywhere. We cheat. We ignore one another when we get tired of the back and forth banter. We don’t confront. We don’t commit. We slide off the radar when things get stale. We seem to reinforce this idea that our actions determine the love we think we deserve and our actions seem to say sometimes, “I am sorry you are second string. I am sorry you are just something to be caught. I am sorry you are just a game.”
That scares me more than anything: to always be playing a game and never actually falling in love.
So I had to believe God had good for my life.
I still have to re-believe that every single day. But when I nail down that truth then I must swallow the second sister-truth like medicine: If God has good for my life then that means other people deserve that same good too.
It’s easy to think that for strangers and people we see on the news. It sounds too simple and basic to even voice out loud: God likes you just as much as the person next to you.
But let me be real: I know I forget that too easily when I’ve been hurt or my ego has been bruised. In those instances I want justice. I want karma. I want that person to cry as loudly as I am crying at night. I want to be missed. I want to not be forgotten. I want all those things that will ultimately scream into the ear of the other, “You deserved this. You deserved this when you broke my heart. Be sad for a little longer.”
That’s not how God plays though. And it was hard that summer to come to grips with an even bigger mistake on my part: the fact that I was playing games with people whose hearts were just as fragile and wanting as mine.
I was afraid to not be wanted. So I kept a board full of people always hanging in the background as stale proof to myself at night that I wasn’t actually fragile and wanting.
And I wasn’t giving those people full permission to just be human. To fail my expectations (because we do that, even when we don’t mean to). I was not acknowledging how it might break my heart to be treated like something that was only meant to be caught before shoving it to the side, never fully realizing that every time we crash into one another— catch one another— we leave marks, we do damage, we take pieces.
In the past, I’ve called them the “fishing lines of loneliness.”
The ways we bait one another into communication because we are all so afraid of what would really happen if the screen shut off and we had to face ourselves. Alone. Single. Separate from the wreckage of relationships we should have said goodbye to yesterday.
The fishing lines of loneliness come out on a Thursday night or a late Friday evening when the world gets quiet. You can’t handle scrolling through the Facebook streams any longer and you feel this loneliness in your core that is hard to give words to. It makes you feel unworthy. You feel all alone. You struggle with guilt. But your iPhone reveals a slew of numbers you can text to make that loneliness disappear for a while.
They’re old flames. They’re friendships that never had any boundaries to them. They’re people you’ve strung along without ever having to define anything. They’re past relationships–broken and battered– that never needed another stir of the pot.
You send a few texts. And then you wait for the fish to catch on and the conversations to begin.
“Hi! How are you?”
“I’m good. How have you been?”
“Great! I’ve missed you…”
There’s a tone of sobriety and sadness in the conversations, as if you both know you aren’t going back to where you once were but you are trying to salvage something all the same.
I’ve brought this up to about a dozen women in the last week and every single one has raised up their hands and said, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I know exactly who those people on my list are.”
And no one feels particularly guilty about these fishing lines of loneliness if it makes the hollow feeling inside fade for a bit. And so we carry on conversations we really don’t need, and we hash out memories that don’t have a place in our lives anymore, and we cling to anything that makes us feel special, and wanted, and worthy for the moment, even if it’s two-dimensional and someone else’s feelings get played with for a while. We hurt one another because we know how to. It’s not that we ever wanted to, we simply know how to.
Back to that summer. 2013.
The one before this last one that came with all the Georgia heat. I was laying there on the couch, across from a boy who wore Vans, and I was hearing this nearly audible voice say to me, “Cut off the back-burner, dear.
The back-burner does not work for you anymore. The game does not work for you anymore.
But you won’t stop playing games until you get rid of the pawns. Unless you finally learn to look a person in the eye and say, “You are not a piece. You are not a pawn. And even if you do not reciprocate these feelings, and don’t always treat me with the love I deserve, I have to be better to you. I have to be sweeter to you. I have to be kinder to you. I have to let you go because the grey zone doesn’t fit us anymore.”
I thought maybe I was crazy, hearing these voices as he laughed beside me. Maybe I was crazy or maybe I was growing up. Maybe I was learning what I needed to see for too long of a time: people aren’t safety nets. They aren’t lifeboats. They aren’t grenades you throw and then leave before the wreckage ensues. They were not made to be left on the back-burner just because you don’t want to have to sit with yourself at the end of the day.
I made a vision board on December 31, 2014.
It’s a tradition. Every December 31, myself, one of my very best friends, and a few other folks gather together with all the scrap magazines we’ve got and we make vision boards for the year ahead (y’all-- if you’ve never created a vision board then you need to stop reading this... and go make one... pronto... vision boards are an everyday sort of thang. You don’t have to wait until December 31 for this!!). But we make ours on December 31. And we compare each board with the one made the year before. And the brightly colored collages hang in our offices all year round as a reminder, “At one point, you ripped this out a magazine because it symbolized something you wanted. Go for it. Don’t be afraid. Just go.”
And it is funny because every year I am consistently surprised by what shows up on the vision board. Last year it was a lot of kettles and pictures of homes with white walls. And this year, the board was just LOUD. A lot of LOUD words at a time when I was not feeling loud about anything in life.
I showed it to two of my friends, feeling defeated by the lack of clarity coming through the board, and I said in the smallest voice I could muster, “I don’t know what this means this year. It looks a lot like I just want to be loud. And I’m mad.”
One of the girls said back immediately, “But all of the words are in black and white.” I scanned over the board again. She was right. All the words were in black and white. “Maybe this is your year to have things be black and white. No grey zone.”
When she said that, there was peace. Peace nearly instantly. The thought of canceling a grey zone was liberating to me. Because I used to take grey in all 50 shades and use it for every corner of my life as a way to say, “I don’t know what I want. So I will just stand in the fields of No Clarity as long as I can.”
I thought to myself, “How many times have I lived inside of the grey zone? How many times have I handicapped people within my own grey zone?”
How did I get so far without realizing I am the one who gets to choose black and white? I get to choose.
It had always been my choice.
But it always had to start with me.