At last I'm enjoying a gorgeous summer's day in England. The temperature is somewhere around 70 degrees--quite warm by recent standards--and the sun is shining. It was another day to hang out the washing on the line and be grateful for the warmth. I remember with disgust the day two weeks ago when I hung out my laundry only to watch it get soaked...three times...by sudden, inexplicably heavy showers. It took a full two days for everything to dry inside the house.
In the longer essays I posted last month, Laundry Lessons I and Laundry Lessons II, I used this anecdote hanging out my washing instead of throwing it in an electric dryer to explore some of the themes of this year in England. It seems apt, now that Discipleship Year has ended and I look ahead to another year of service here in Nottingham, that I now conclude these thoughts with Laundry Lesson III.
I wrote in the last essay about my grandmother Patricia Young Smith, who did all of the washing by hand while raising three toddlers as a single mother and getting a university degree in small-town Minnesota during the 1950s. Grandma's emphasis on education and self-realization has been a steadfast theme in my life, often taking the form of useful gifts: from the children's version of an Edmund Spenser tale I received at 7 and my first Jane Austen novel at 13, to when Grandma took me on college tours and even sent me a check to cover college application fees. Even now her influence continues. Grandma recently sent me a list of novels she recommends from her book club (a formidable, brilliant group of retired professors) and when last month that same group of academics read an Austen-inspired play I wrote several years ago, she flooded me with emails passing on their comments and urging me to keep writing.
It is because of Grandma--and the encouraging messages I've long received from my mother's parents, parents, and bevy of aunts and uncles--that I am here in England at all, actually. Nobody in my family has had a very easy life, yet all of these adults who've shaped me have a passion for learning and, more importantly, temper that drive with wisdom and compassion. Grandma and the others have taught me to take the challenging road, the one I know I'm meant to follow, even when it flies in the face of common sense.
There were a few raised eyebrows when I left a teaching job in Phoenix back in 2002 to get a master's degree in journalism at Northwestern, but they all supported me. They rejoiced with me when I got a great job as a features writer at Pioneer Press in 2004, and, amazingly, gave me their blessing when I left that job three and a half years later to move to England in September. Those who I thought would most protest were the most supportive.
"It'll be a great adventure," one aunt told me. "Do it now, while you still can."
I wasn't sure of the reception, however, when I announced to them a few months ago that I would not be returning to full-time journalism, at least not anytime soon. As a Christian, my sense of personal calling is always inextricably entwined with where I feel God is leading me, and this year of service at the active, vibrant church that is Nottingham's Trent Vineyard has shown me that my place for the near future is within a church setting, learning to serve and help lead members--and the greater community--into the transformation I see possible through Jesus Christ.
I will keep writing for both profit and personal satisfaction, of course, as I've done this year as a freelancer, but I have committed my next year to more work with the church in Nottingham. I am planning to spend one more year serving at Trent Vineyard here before discerning the next step and so, after I spend a month in Chicago and Phoenix, I then return to England in mid-September.
This year out, then, has turned out not to be a year out at all, but the beginning of a new way of life. My time in England has dramatically altered the path of my life--as I think all of my friends and family and even my Pioneer Press colleagues knew it would do when they bid me farewell last autumn. I do hope to return to the States for good in August 2009. What the next step will be then I do not know, but I live my life now with the faith that I will know at the right time.
I made the decision to try to stay one more year in April, and after the pieces fell into place to make it happen, I was at first joyful but then racked with doubts. Nottingham is my home for now but there have been many times when I've missed my job, my car, my apartment and that amazing city of Chicago. I've missed friends who've known me for years and I've missed road trips and plane trips to visit my family around the States. During this period of doubt, I looked ahead to my 30th birthday (which falls on Nov. 5--a holiday in England!) and had the inevitable thoughts about settling down and whether it's wise to spend so much time abroad when I do want a home and family of my own. I even thought ahead with some resignation to another year of riding my little bike to and from church in the driving rain, of watching every penny and inwardly cringing as the exchange rate forces me to double the price of everything from a bus fare to a basket of groceries.
I remembered all of the times this year I'd struggled to find a sense of purpose during the three days each week I worked from home as a freelancer. My work hasn't taken me all day to complete at all, so I've focused on building relationships with those around me, all the while trying to change the mindset that I must work at a respectable, easily defined job to have succeeded. My four days a week spent doing church work are tremendous (not to mention exhausting), but on those other, quieter days, I've occasionally had to fight a creeping sense of panic, that comes accompanied by an evil little voice saying I've rested enough and that it's tim to get busy because I'm wasting my life.
Mercifully, that period of grief over my decision to stay longer evaporated after just a few weeks. I realized that yes, next year will sometimes be difficult, just as this year has been, but it will also be full of joy and fun and excitement, just as this year has been. It's exactly where I want to be. And my community of trusted English friends only continues to grow. For example, last night I chatted and prayed with a girl at church whom I'm just getting to know, and afterwards she turned to me and said, "I'm so glad you're staying in England another year. Nottingham needs you."
I'm not sure about that. All I've done is be the passionate, eager, sometimes-loud-and-awkward American who's chronicled my experiences for others interested in an up-close and personal look at leaving everything familiar behind to go overseas. I hope that the stories I've shared of my time in England (and which I will continue to share) give a glimpse into the adventure, satisfaction and pain that comes with such a major life change. I do know, however, that I've needed all that Nottingham and, specifically, the community within Trent Vineyard, has given me.
This year has taught me how to work mightily when I'm falling over with exhaustion, but also how to rest gracefully when the cycle of work is momentarily complete. I've realized once again the pervasive and destructive force of the lie that my worth and identity is tied to my career. I've learned how to let go of the ugly sense of entitlement that creeps up at difficult or tired moments spent picking up litter, cleaning toilets or even taking dictation for someone else who's not a writer--I've become better at recognizing that whining perversion of pride that recalls my past accomplishments and hard work and uses them to tell my better self that done enough of such jobs over the years and that now I should be doing something "nobler." And, most importantly to me, I've become more like Jesus in all that I do, say and be. I am very eager to continue these lessons.
So back to the laundry. It was so very annoying a few weeks ago when my clothes got soaked again and again before they'd even come close to getting dry. I finally gave up on the hope that they'd dry outside and brought them inside where they slowly dried, taking on just a bit of that damp, fusty smell I detest. But today was glorious.
"I'm getting better at this," I thought this morning as I hung out my washing in record time. It only took me 15 minutes to get it all up and, really, what does it matter if it takes longer? After all, I've got nowhere else to go. Whether it's packing a food parcel for a homeless man, exploring local museums, laughing with friends at a pub or hanging out my laundry, I am exactly where I'm supposed to be. And I am content.