The table is set. Fine china and crystal at all four place settings. I quickly replace my son’s glass with a less-breakable one. My mom, at 84, is bustling around a tiny kitchen. My dad, reading the paper. My eyes scan their new retirement apartment. The china cabinet of my childhood stands firm, unchanged. The buffet table too. I engraved the buffet once, accidentally, writing a thank-you note to my teacher. Then I lied about it. (Not my smartest choice.) I push away the thought that one day that table will be mine.
After dinner, on the eve of 2020, we toast to new beginnings. I ask my now eight-year-old son what he most hopes for in the new year. “Lots of presents, toys and games,” he says, smiling brightly. My mom chimes in, “I hope that everyone will be well.” I wish for lots of laughter. We turn our eyes expectedly to my dad, who shies away, lowering his gaze. “I need to think about this,” he says, before finally lifting his glass and declaring: “I hope to get rid of this cold.” Here, here, we clink.
The new year feels lighter than most, even with the mix of familiar and unknown. A week later, my sense of buoyance sinks. My parents lose three close friends. A colleague is diagnosed with cancer. Wildfires rage, drones and missiles attack, and earthquakes shake. The good, it seems, is always counterbalanced by the not-so-good. Tempted to control the outcomes with my mind, I tell myself that cancer is beatable (even though I can name dear friends for whom it was not). Earthquakes eventually stop, diplomacy can be restored. My parents are still alive.
But my logic unravels in the face of my deeper intention for the new year: trusting the divine to show up in the not-so-good as much as the good. That has not always been easy for me. Ten years ago, I landed on the wrong side of the recession. I did not intend for that to happen, but it did. I kept putting God in a box, aptly labeled “job” and “desperate,” but the divine squeezed right out the side. The more I prayed for this singular outcome, the more the divine swept out the far corners of my heart, the places I would not willingly go on my own, and radically upheaved my definition of “good.”
I remember sitting in a brightly painted lobby, one afternoon, in my standard interview suit. I was waiting to be called in. It was a group interview for an afterschool program. It wasn’t anywhere near the job I wanted, but I figured I could do it for fun, for something to look forward to as the hours of my days dragged on and on. I joined the single-file line of applicants parading into the conference room. I’d been an educator and reading specialist for twenty years, coaching principals and teachers. I’d worked with superintendents. I’d opened a charter school. I assumed the job was mine.
But when the interview questions were over, none of which addressed my background, and I learned that the position was nothing more than a disciplinarian, I chose to withdraw. The woman in charge, in her button-down shirt and jeans, seemed genuinely shocked. I wasn’t sure why. I thanked her again and walked outside. Alone in the parking lot, it hit me: No one in that room thought I was overqualified. “No one, God,” I said out loud. Then I looked around at the neighborhood, at the empty lots and boarded-up houses, and knew that I was no more immune to suffering than anyone else.
When I decided to enter the job search, I didn’t know I’d still be searching two and a half years later. I didn’t know that the decision to listen to my heart could lead me so far afield. I didn’t know that trying to let go of work that had once been my passion, but no longer fueled me, would mean I’d be competing with 350 overqualified candidates who had thirty years of experience when the job required seven. I didn’t know that I could recycle the same two pair of jeans and yoga pants week after week.
But I also didn’t know that I’d fall in love with gardening, that early in the mornings when the city was still asleep, I’d dig my hands into the earth and feel God’s presence right next to me. I didn’t know that I’d find myself tutoring a handful of my nephew’s second-grade friends and fall back in love with why I chose education in the first place. I never once suspected—nor could I foresee—that I’d finally start to heal a health issue that had plagued me for most of my adult life.
I was even more surprised that I shed my reservations about networking and learned to ask perfect strangers to coffee and actually enjoy it. I opened my heart to an unexpected ministry, one that offered community and renewal to men and women struggling to conceive. My first book went into reprints. I dusted off my second manuscript. I supported a new oral history project, one that allowed me to interview men and women who had survived the segregated South—and the segregated Catholic Church—and emerged stronger and wiser and freer.
There was—and still is—so much I do not know. I tried hard to see the hand of God in all of it, in the good and the not-so-good, although I was no longer sure, exactly, which was which. Those two and a half years stretched me beyond what I thought was possible and left me with an abiding sense of peace. I know people like to say there is a plan, and I can’t say if that is true or not. I don’t know if everything happens for a reason. But I do know that the divine is bigger than all the ways we try to box God in, to limit what is limitless.
I never did get that job I prayed for so fervently. I kept my consulting business going, and even on my worst days, I was grateful. A decade later, in the face of all that my mind cannot control, I want to keep expanding my trust in the divine, to embrace what is and still behold the scared moving in our midst. In the good and the not-so-good. In the gifts we seek and those we do not. We are all called to dwell in the mystery of the divine. The invitation is always there. So is the love.