shrugging off the layers

 It has become a near daily refrain now – alongside the panic and fear and too-oft returning into the same cycle of abandonment and blame, alongside the unexpected unravelling – a nascent wondering as to whether what lies ahead may look a lot less structured than I would have dared believe possible, and that that is okay.

There is a curious freedom I am experiencing from shrugging off the old layers – coats and scarves and jumpers and gloves – which don’t fit anymore. It’s been a good two or more years in the making of feeling the rough itch of the wool, the uncomfortable heat rising in my body, sweat forming beneath everything I have layered on myself for my safety, for my identity.

I am always afraid of being too cold.

I always take a layer too many and almost always end up with a cumbersome weight in my bag or an awkward bulge under my arm. Every time, I look longingly at those people who seem so much freer than me – with just a slim T-shirt on a summer’s day, arms swinging lightly, free to hold hands, to ruffle tousled hair; free to pick stray flowers and scoop up the last of the Autumn leaves. How much have I also known this longing in my spirit, I wonder? At least 2 years, probably always.

I am shrugging off the layers. The breeze feels sharp on my neck, suddenly exposed, pale and vulnerable. But the sweat dries quickly – the real question is what to do next.

I am shrugging off the layers. Don’t rush this. Take your time. These the words of a pastor, who like a hobbit would come and have a second breakfast with me after a first one with his girls, so I could tell him about the fear. About the doubting. About the questions. About the anger. About the panic, the anxiety, the terror I felt beneath the yawning mouth of darkness. Who took it all in, who stood with, and yet who was unwavering in the assurance which needed no words: Do not be afraid.

I am shrugging off the layers. Stepping back from preaching and leading for a while. Stepping back entirely, really. I will probably enjoy life as a back-row bandit for a while, as Sarah Bessey called it. Maybe skip some Sundays and sleep in, read Mary Oliver, make space for silence and loose leaf tea and allow my spool to unravel – further, further. I couldn’t have done this a year ago, much as I often said I probably need to. I wasn’t there yet – still felt I needed to lay claim, somehow, to my gifts. That if I didn’t use them, steward them, exercise them – they would disappear and I would miss my chance.

Oh, Lord what words I am used to using – and abusing? Steward, Use, Do, Lead – and no failing, okay? These words – good words – have morphed into my prison cell. Layer after layer of heavy clothing.

Now I’m tired. It wasn’t a great feat of wisdom or humility that made me able to shrug off the layers. It was desperation. On my knees, literally, unable to carry the weight anymore. And so I shrug off the layers while still on my knees, repeating those words which are familiar refrain these days: Help. Help. Help.

And with each layer off comes another exhale.

I am shrugging off the layers. The world is suddenly looking more expansive now I can scoop up the leaves, now I can hold hands – or often, these days, cling onto his arm (he stands for me when I can’t, and that’s okay). Now I can step on my tiptoes to see what’s beyond these walls I’ve made my comfortable home in.

I have around nine months until I finish this season of work and training. Nine months. Enough time for a life to form in a watery depths, time enough for even me to be re-born, perhaps. People are starting to ask now… ‘what’s next?’ But the old answers of how I planned to live out my well-worn dreams don’t sit well, somehow. More winter clothing. This weekend as I kicked through the leaves in a foreign land for the first time I responded ‘I don’t know’ and felt the first stirrings of curiosity, of a wonder which is shrugging free from fear.

Maybe it won’t look like 9 to 5 (or 9 to way too late). Maybe it won’t look like something predictable, set hours, monthly pay check. Nothing against that at all, but as one who defaults too quickly to safety, to routine, to a known grid, there is something exhilarating about the thought of planting my feet right here in the way of deconstruction.

And I may fail, but there is also exhilaration in realising that that is okay – more than okay. Maybe even essential. In any event, the old narratives of success and achievement and perfection aren’t what you’re to chase anymore, darling. Step out of the skipping rope. Step out into the wild reeds of freedom, beloved – for no other reason than to be truly, authentically, who She is calling you to be. As Elizabeth Gilbert says on creativity: “[t]he rewards had to come from the joy of puzzling out the work itself, and from the private awareness that I had chosen a devotional path, and I was being true to it.”*

I am shrugging off the layers; breathing deep and squinting against the first light. Mary Oliver is a faithful companion who sings all my lullabies these days, it seems:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? She asks across the page.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

The freedom of her wild geese seem to call me onward, further into the fields, further into the unknown, where I know I will find You. Where I know I will be found.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.**

I’m shrugging off the layers, and oh, the wind in my hair. Hallelujah.

*Quote taken from this beautiful post by Fiona on creativity.

** Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver.

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