A year ago I liked the metaphor of a wildfire. Scorch my earth, burn the dead wood. I was already setting fire in my notebooks and I had this terrible, appealing idea that I may as well share all my shame and fear here, just lay it out plain. Always this is a temptation. I began drafting twin essays, unimaginatively titled “Shame” and “Fear,” cataloguing as much garbage as my mind could dredge, absolution by way of confession. I thought to do this so that when you read how I love Jesus, you can better understand why I am in such desperate need of a savior. I do not glory in the mess. Yet I write the mess and last year all I could think was how much I wanted to walk into the dry forest of past wrongs (mine, yours), smoke a cigarette, and flick the butt on tinder ground. And while I was curious what color my anger would burn, how high the flame of my sorrow, I was more interested in what might come after the fire caught and went hungry through my mind, over my body.
This year I like the idea of a controlled burn. If the wind is right my wildfire would char you. I may want the revival of undergrowth, the newest green at a cost, but I do not need to set fire to neighboring forests and fields.
A week ago we were at a cabin on a lake near Eagle River. I called my friend Kate and confessed that when I woke up before light that morning I’d scrolled through a few old relationships and then messaged people I haven’t spoken to in over a decade. One a cringe, apology. One an appreciation. Neither wholly necessary and both unlikely to reply. Kate laughed, in the best way. What is it with Wisconsin? I asked. I return in the summer and all these things come to me. Like, I thought I was over whatever and then there it is again. And I am compelled to attend all the feelings, to examine and figure out, justify or let go, pray for comfort or healing or forgiveness, pray how to redeem, restore. Rarely do I let a hurt or regret be on its way without first stripping it to bone.
It’s situational, Kate said. She experiences the same. We all do. A person, song, place. Something that rockets us back to an old bruise or cut, break. And usually I take this part of summer in stride, expecting a round of paralyzing shame or a flame of anger mitigated by the patient tenderness of my husband who reminds me everything will really be okay, yes it will, yes.
But this year I am impatient for a controlled burn after One: a year of thinking I might always feel a little dead, and Two: years of wanting to scream retroactively about situations I keep thinking I let go, brought up by an annual journey to the place and people of scream-worthy situations. Each year I return to my university town where I encounter some past Sarah that presses my spirit to change in some way. One summer I drove all my old running routes, recalling mornings after terrible nights when I tied my shoelaces and thought I might throw up one mile in. Another summer I recounted a list of misguided (can we even call them) relationships. I sat on a swing in Iverson park and wished I could be awesome at marriage. When the children were little I ran for miles on the fuel of fear Justin and I made a mistake to marry one another, but to negate our marriage was also editing our children from existence. And every summer I was angry at a situation that was awful but probably not as awful as I imagined, and angry that I was angry at all.
The situation that wasn’t as awful as I imagined is my in-laws. And this is a controlled burn I crave. I want to write about when Justin and I moved abroad and his parents were wildly unsupportive. It was a parenting miss I just could not let go. But I want to write about that time, and the years since, because my relationship with my in-laws bears thoughtful reckoning – what I have learned (what have I learned?), the navigation of time together, slow forgiveness, fear of bitterness, the effort of love. And I think I can finally write this without wanting to set their lives on fire. Still, I marvel at the swells of anger, the summers home when I returned to our earliest disagreements at the dining table. My father-in-law reddened and shouting. Is there an escape clause!? he wanted to know, after Justin and I signed our contract with a school in Colombia. I remember my body going cool, thinking, This is the escape clause. Then, lifting from the flashback, I’d go about the regular, present day, my heart pounding.
And during months away I would find a benevolent balance again. Compassion again. Only to drive up north the next summer in the States, tension in my body again.
For a long time I dismissed my response as something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I move on from that hurt? Why did that hurt come back new? And for a long time I supposed my in-laws’ response to our moving abroad wasn’t mine to share because the story does paint them poorly and caveats are insufficient cover. Things are better now and they aren’t terrible people, but they also dumped a lot of junk in one year, and that was terrible. Their response is mine to share because it was directed at me, and while my mother-in-law has patted my shoulder and kindly said I need to get over it, words and actions ripple. One of my prayers is to see people as people, to practice the love I need too. I understand why my in-laws were afraid of Justin and I moving overseas. Or, at least I understand their perspective better. Most summers home I engage my mother-in-law in uncomfortable conversation about that year and our relationship because I want to say what is necessary as I continue to process, and because I want to know her better too. I want to trust what we have now. I doubt my mother-in-law or father-in-law would react today as they did years ago. We grow. And that is part of this story too.
What I want to do is likely opposite what anyone would advise. Sometimes I wonder why more adults aren’t estranged from their parents or in-laws. Why we keep going back when very often the relationship is unchanged, when approval is withheld, when the best we take away is the sense we’re probably doing the right thing to not burn it down. Is there always something worth salvaging after a fight or pause of years? There are periods during my marriage when I did not want to visit my in-laws. Yet I held to the ridiculous hope that we could be a lovely family. Ridiculous hope because I was angry and hurt but still thinking I might somehow turn the whole mess to better – only to later abandon hope to tally wrongs. So this writing I want to do is about that one awful year, but also about who I am (we are) now because of that year, and what good and difficult work has come from this important relationship. This story, for the fun revel of a family fight (pick a side!), is mostly about heart change. Or rather, heart change is why I can now write about this without fear or shame.
Also, a late note: that year was so much more than the disapproval of my in-laws. We loved moving abroad. We were excited and ready for adventure. I want to write the joy and relief of chasing a dream. Justin and I talked about moving abroad for years before it was set that next year (next year!) we’ll leave Wisconsin for somewhere else. Probably Europe. I want to write about the hours exploring school websites and maps, fitting ourselves to Belgium or Singapore or Argentina, and then our first job fair on a frigid February weekend in Iowa when our expectation was recast and to consider Colombia, Egypt, Senegal. I want to write about giving away stuff, culling our closets and cupboards for what to ship to South America. I remember the plane banking to land in Cali at night, the city lights flung up the Andean foothills, and the bus ride through the city. I looked out the window and felt electric and certain this was where I belonged. So all of that is contained in our last year in Wisconsin too. We took on a daring project. We played unsafe. And being away from home felt at home.
When I talked with Kate about what coming back to Wisconsin stirs emotionally/ mentally/ spiritually, I was also curious if these issues might be resolved by now if I hadn’t moved away. Like, if I was always driving north to visit my in-laws would that single year figure so prominently in my definition of our relationship? Maybe I am finally hitting the exposure therapy quota. Maybe it’s all coming together. Maybe it’s time I learn how to be here, observe and honor past experiences as they come back, but choosing to walk the full present too, allowing the present as it is – looped to but not completely defined by the past. So I’ll sift through the burned pages. I’ll find the green shoots.
Twenty of thirty-nine. 1613 words.