For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.Ephesians 2:10, NIV
It was over twenty years ago. I was still in college when my friend and I visited my hometown. I moved the summer before my senior year of high school and hadn’t been back in a while. I drove around those winding rural roads, and reminisced about my childhood. I passed Huston’s farm, our old mailbox, and just before the little bridge, I turned into my neighbor’s long gravel driveway. The majestic white tree still stood in their yard. How much I loved that tree. It was so beautiful, its white-gray bark a contrast against the maples and evergreens growing around it.
I inched up the narrow driveway as images from my childhood played like a slideshow in my mind. I saw the small pond to the left, the scene of many fishing excursions. When dad told us we were going fishing, my brother and I found the old coffee can in the garage and went to the spot at the back of the house where the dripping hose kept the ground moist. We filled the can with worms and soil and sat on the front porch, waiting anxiously for dad to take us to the pond.
I looked at the familiar red house before me with the huge picture window and second story deck. It was a modern design, unlike the other houses in our rural town. Bushes and plants and flowers grew all around the property, every one of them carefully tended. Mr. and Mrs. Hoyet treated us like their grandchildren. She was a history teacher and he was a chemical engineer. Visiting their home was like visiting a museum. Built in shelves with beautifully bound books and items from around the world lined the walls. My eyes rarely saw past our big yard, the woods, and the neighboring cornfields. Over Mrs. Hoyet’s homemade ice cream or delicious baked goods, we listened to stories of their experiences. They had seen and done so many things and traveled to places I only read about in books.
I didn’t call first. Back then, neighbors stopped in on neighbors. No one worried about how clean their houses were or became offended by the interruption. People welcomed each other and the company. I parked the car and we walked up the steps on the side of the house. Before we made it to the front door, Mrs. Hoyet stepped outside on the deck.
“Jenny!” she said, her mouth and arms wide open. “Is that you?” She wrapped me in a big hug, motioned to the patio chairs and brought us fresh lemonade in pretty blue glasses on a rustic tiled tray. An exotic tapestry hung from the door and a colorful handmade rug decorated the floor, more than likely souvenirs from another amazing trip.
Mr. Hoyet joined us at the patio table. I filled them in on how my mom and dad and my brother were doing. We talked about college, my job at a child care center, and my plans to open my own one day.
“Are you keeping up with your writing?” Mrs. Hoyet asked out of the blue. She read my poems and stories about things like rose bushes and blue skies as I grew up like they were prized manuscripts. She was excited when I won a school writing contest, In her eyes, it was a legitimate question.
“I don’t have a lot of time right now with school and work,” I said. “I still write poems and stories here and there, but mostly children’s stories for the preschoolers at the center.”
Mrs. Hoyet pressed her lips together and dropped her head for a moment.
“Well, that is a shame. I hope you pick it up again. You are a writer. I loved your poems and stories. I know you are busy right now,” she said. “You were always so serious.”
Serious. I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I wasn’t offended. I guessed she meant because I was quiet and driven. I got good grades. I never got in any trouble. I followed the rules, dotted my i’s, and crossed my t’s.
We had a wonderful visit. I said goodbye. I watched the house grow smaller in my rearview mirror and glanced at the pond and the wishing well Mr. Hoyet built and stocked with koi. As the gravel crunched and kicked up under the car, I took one last look at that majestic white tree, so beautiful. Breathtaking, really. That big white tree was striking against the lush green grass, trees, and bushes on their property.
My stomach was as twisted as a discarded jump rope. The noise of the bouncing basketballs grew louder like the music in a movie before something bad was about to happen. I watched my grade school classmates run down the court and shoot the ball into the basket. Some made it first try, some took a couple of times, but they sunk the ball and ran to the back of the line. I was next. I took a deep breath and glanced over at my two gym teachers. They wore jeans, sneakers, and polo shirts. Whistles hung around their necks. Leaning against the brick stage, they stood with their arms folded across their chests. They noticed it was my turn and amusement grew on their faces. I put my head down and jogged to the middle of the gym like I was about to walk the plank.
“Okay,” I heard one say, elbowing the other. “Watch this.”
I dribbled the ball once, then twice. I looked up at the hoop. I knew I wasn’t going to get the ball in the net, and I knew what would happen when I didn’t. My scrawny arms took a shot but the ball only made it about 3 feet below the basket before it dropped to the ground. I heard the gym teachers laughing. I cringed as that sound settled into my soul.
“Oh, come on,” the gym teacher said, “My eighty-year old grandma could shoot better than you.” More laughter.
I ran to retrieve the ball that rolled to the corner of the gym and returned to the edge of my plank to try again.
“We could be here all day,” I heard one of them say.
I tried again. And again. Several other classmates from the other team shot the ball, made it, and ran back to the line. The rest of my teammates were upset with me. We were losing the game and it was my fault.
“My grandma would have made that shot by now,” I heard a gym teacher say again. They laughed, my classmates laughed, and I wanted to disappear.
“Get back here. Give someone else a chance,” one of the gym teachers said, calling me back with a wave of his arm. I was relieved. I knew I couldn’t make the shot.
“Never going to happen anyway,” said the other, echoing my thoughts. “She already lost the game for them.”
Head down, I walked to the end of the line. A few boys laughed and cracked jokes, but I never looked up. I pretended not to hear them. The jump rope in my stomach twisted tighter. Finally, the gym teachers blew their whistles and we lined up to go back to class.
I handed the microphone to the host and took my seat. I was relieved to be finished, but it went well. I was invited to participate in a discussion panel at a women’s conference. We talked about death and what it was like living with a terminal illness. I answered questions about how my life changed since my diagnosis. Sitting on a panel about death sounded morbid, but it really wasn’t. There were some tears, but also laughter. It was important to talk about the serious things too.
After the conferences, vendors set up tables in the lobby. Health and wellness professionals, authors, and business owners presented their work. Many of the vendors attended and spoke at the conference. I was excited to see what they did so I stopped to browse the books and products.
“You’re so strong,” said one vendor who recognized me from the panel. “I appreciated your honesty.” She talked with me about a close relative who had cancer.
“You are brave,” said another. “Thank you for sharing your story.” She was in a wheelchair and told me she understood what I said about friends disappearing during an illness. She had the same experience.
One after another, people stopped me to share stories about their lives. I hugged them and talked to them. We promised to pray for each other. During each conversation, those same words were cast on me, brave and strong. While I appreciated their kindness, I felt awkward when people used those words.
Throughout my whole life, I felt like a school girl whose classmates put signs on her back. So many signs. I ripped those signs off my shirt but I never threw them away. I tucked them into my heart. I allowed other people to develop my character, to choose the parts I played. I heard those words so much, I believed them. I slowly became the person other people said I was, instead of the person God made me to be.
When I was a child, I was quiet. I had something to say, but I didn’t say it. I had ideas, but I didn’t share them. I was afraid someone would laugh or think what I said was dumb. I never spoke up during group projects or raised my hand in class. Instead of sharing those thoughts out loud, I wrote them down. I wrote my feelings in my journal and translated my emotions through poems and stories, most of which remained inside spiral notebooks on my nightstand. I shared through pen and paper. In public, I blended into the background. I felt invisible. Soon, I expected and accepted invisible.
I felt no one cared what I had to say. I didn’t feel worthy. My opinion didn’t matter. I wasn’t sad about it. That was just the way it was. I assumed there must be a reason. There must be something wrong with me. I was different from the other kids. I settled into my role as the ‘quiet girl’ and was comfortable existing in the background.
And that word, serious? I got used to that too. People expected me to be the smart one, the level-headed one, the capable one. The one who got all A’s in school, the one who always had a plan, who got things done.
I didn’t mind that so much. I took that one and ran with it. After being invisible in my younger years, being noticed and respected for something, anything, felt good. I stretched myself thin and stressed myself out to stay in character. I finally had a purpose and I found my worth.
“You need that done next week? I’ll get it to you tomorrow.”
“Sure (I only have a thousand and one things to do), I can help you with that.”
“I know this material, but I canceled my fun plans so I could stay home and study.”
I was exhausted. I was sometimes resentful, but I played my part. I couldn’t get a “B” in a class. Anything less than an “A” was unacceptable. I didn’t just complete the report for work. I presented it in a 3-ring binder, with color-coded tabs and a beautifully designed cover sheet. I was busy and overwhelmed running two businesses, but I joined community and networking groups. I led committees and organized events. I wanted to be a part of all of it. I wanted to do all of it. I had to prove myself, to myself and to everyone else.
What was I thinking? I wasn’t. I was performing.
No one knew the wiser. I smiled while I volunteered to do this and that. As I said, “yes” out loud, my soul was screaming, “No. No more”, but I kept it up. I poured more and more on my plate and when I couldn’t fit any more, I grabbed another one. And another. I balanced them all, sacrificing myself and my loved ones. I sacrificed sleep and relationships and memories and my health, but make no mistake, those plates stayed in the air. No one would call me incapable. I earned that sticker, and I wanted to keep it.
And those two words that were stuck to my back since my cancer diagnosis?
Strong and brave. I was strong, but only because of my faith. God gave me the strength I needed to get through each day. When I was first diagnosed, I prayed for it. I told God I couldn’t do this, that He would have to help me. He would have to give me the strength because I didn’t have it. I wasn’t a strong person. God made me strong. I had to give that glory to God.
Sure, I got through chemo and surgery and radiation. I didn’t fall apart when I found out my cancer came back. I relied on God and prayed through my anxiety and my fear. The people who called me strong didn’t see my weak moments. Those dark, sleepless nights I stared at the ceiling. Those times I sobbed in a heap on my bed, when I cried in the shower and screamed in my car. Those moments happened off stage.
I wasn’t brave either. I did what I had to do. When the doctor said, ‘You need to do this or you will die’, I did it. Simple as that. It wasn’t bravery, it was necessity. Survival. That was God-given courage that helped me walk into that chemo lab, the hospital, and the radiation center. If I relied on myself, I would have never left the house.
Those gym teachers who made fun of me? Outside of hurting my feelings and embarrassing me during my elementary school years, they robbed me of my confidence. They took away my desire to try. I allowed them to put a sign on my back that said, “not good enough” and “not physically strong”. I never went out for any sports as a kid. I never even considered it. I couldn’t do it. They said so. When friends played a friendly game of volleyball, I sat out. I wasn’t walking that plank again. The closest thing I got to organized sports was a group workout class. I accepted my defeat and closed that door.
It didn’t seem like such a big deal, but it really was. How many opportunities I might have missed because I continued to play the part two gym teachers assigned me when I was little. They put those signs on my back and I didn’t remove them. There were many signs placed on my back. Some good, some bad. Some deserving, some not. It took me years to realize that when people placed a sign on my back, I didn’t have to believe it.
I didn’t have to become it.
I wasn’t in school anymore. Those businesses were gone. I had more time and a closer relationship with God now. I didn’t worry about those things. I found my strength in God instead of people. I felt more at peace about who I was now, and who I wasn’t. I was grateful for the things I was able to do well and accepted that some things – they just weren’t my things. And that was okay. It took a long time but I finally began to tear off the signs I accumulated. It was a long, grueling process, but I made the decision to throw them away. All of them.
I didn’t have to play a part anymore. I didn’t have to perform. I was free. I was free to be me, to be the person God made me to be. I didn’t have to hustle. I didn’t have to prove my worth. God loved me.
What a simple and profound statement. God loved me.
As I was. He made me the person I was supposed to be. No one had a right to place a sign on my back. God knitted me together in my mother’s womb. He knew my ins and outs, my strengths and weaknesses, my gifts and my burdens. No one directed my path but God, and I wouldn’t give them that power anymore.
As hard as it was, God used those experiences for good. I didn’t need to get all ‘A’s” back then but I learned so much in school. Reading was one of my favorite things to do and I still loved to learn new things. I was a teacher by trade and a lifetime learner. I didn’t need to work so hard in my career, but the experiences I collected and the relationships I built were priceless. The skills I learned through my work prepared me for other endeavors and service projects now close to my heart. Those gym teachers were certainly unkind but that experience filled me with empathy and a strong desire to encourage others. My kids were involved in sports and I was their biggest fan. I was proud of them for having the courage to get out there and participate, the courage I never had. Of course, no matter the circumstance, I always rooted for the underdog.
Mrs. Hoyet called me serious. In our conversation, that was the word that stuck in my mind. What I failed to notice was she also called me a writer. Back then, I didn’t accept that title. I brushed it off. That sign didn’t stick. Turns out, those silly poems about that rose bush, the blue skies, and my imagination weren’t so silly. I tapped into the gift God gave me when I was a young child, but as I grew up, I pushed that gift aside. The world pushed me in a new direction and I wholeheartedly followed that path.
Now years later, that gift of writing brought me comfort and purpose during one of the most difficult times in my life. Look at God. No matter how I tried to mold myself into something the world wanted, that I thought I wanted. No matter how far I stretched or what costumes I donned, I played a part. In the wrong show. I didn’t need new clothes. I didn’t need a foreign set of skills. I didn’t need an award or accolades to do what God made me to do. I was fully equipped. No matter what road I took, I ended up where God intended me to be. When I took the longer road, the Lord used the detour to teach me along the way.
My mind drifted to my old neighbors. Those days I sat on the side of that pond with a fishing pole were some of the happiest days of my life. Full of stories, dreams, silliness, and hope, I dropped that line in the water and patiently waited for a bite. Sometimes I got one, sometimes I didn’t. Funny. I never once questioned my worth over the outcome, yet I did so over sinking a ball through a net.
If I closed my eyes, I could see that big white tree in their yard, the one that grew triumphantly in the middle of the green pasture. It was different from all the rest and far from invisible. Its white bark stood out proudly among the others, its branches reached up toward the heavens. No signs stuck to its trunk. It made no apologies. It didn’t mask its color or fade into the background.
It just grew, as God intended, and it was beautiful.