The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly

They say you find things when you clean house. This is definitely true. Sometimes you find useful treasures you didn’t remember having (a pleasant surprise). Other times you just find you’re hanging onto a lot more junk than you realized, like old drawings.

The one above was patterned after the cover art of Kate Rusby’s album The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly. At the time there was just something about it that stirred the artist in me, and I wanted to recreate it. Kate Rusby’s picture depicted a similar scene: a back view of a girl watching birds in flight (actually, I think it may have been a butterfly instead of birds). But the girl in her picture wasn’t wearing any clothes. That was a lapse of good artistic judgment, in my mind, so I drew my girl fully attired. I was pleased with the results, and thought my version a marked improvement on the original.

It wasn’t until long after the fact that I noticed why The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly was naked. Her back displayed an important detail that would have been missed had she been clothed: two red, painful-looking indentations on her shoulders, hints at wings that had once been there but had been torn off. Perhaps she’d been able to fly, once upon a time, but now she couldn’t anymore. Or maybe the wings had never grown in in the first place, but there was a space for them nonetheless. Either way, a reminder of something that should have been there, but wasn’t. Now she was doing what wingless creatures do: observe — from the ground — the ones who had the ability to fly.

I was looking at both drawings again recently, at the wingless, flightless girl longingly watching the sky. And then it hit me: That’s me, I thought, That’s my life. I’m the girl who can’t fly. 

And it’s true; I really can’t.

It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve been giving it my best shot for as long as I can remember.

I first spread my wings when I went to college, not entirely sure of where I was headed, but hoping nonetheless that I’d catch a breeze and “God would take me places.”

Some might say I did well. I learned a lot. I made friends. I even graduated with honors. But even with the help of professors and advisers, I was way out of my depth in mapping out a career path.

For one thing, I was the first woman in my family to go to college, to venture outside the “marriage and family” box. I wasn’t exactly set up for success there, because I didn’t know my way around very well outside the box. That is, I knew that “single, childless women in salaried professions” was a thing that existed, but I’d never internalized that as a valid option for myself. When people asked me “what I wanted to be when I grew up”, I’d always drawn a blank: Women weren’t supposed to “be” anything. They were supposed to get married to a man who knew what he wanted to be, raise his children, be a good cook, and keep a clean house. That was it. The fact that I went to a “bridal college”, where the unofficial motto was “A ring by spring or your money back”, didn’t do much to challenge my thinking there. I ended up majoring in teaching ESL, mostly because I was friends with the director of the program and I liked her classes.

But man, was I a lousy teacher. I loved my students. The problem was that I also loved trying to get them to teach me their languages, not teach them mine (which was, unquestionably, the whole point of what I was supposed to be doing). Also, classroom management gave me anxiety attacks. Definitely not a bright future there.

And then I went back home with degree in hand, and lived with my parents. (In my defense, the recession was in full swing back then, and almost everyone I knew was doing the same thing.)

But the love of language was the part of my ESL experience that stuck with me, and kept gently tapping me on the shoulder whenever it crossed my mind to wonder what I should be doing with my life. When you don’t know what to do, get a master’s degree, right? (Isn’t that a thought that every reasonable person has?) So, I spread my wings again and gave it another try. This time, I moved all the way across the country to my degree program of choice. I didn’t have a much clearer idea than before of where I was going, but at least now I knew what I loved. I figured that was good enough to take a chance on.

Well, if love is all you need, then I would have been all set. I loved what I studied. I couldn’t get enough of the theory or its possible applications to real-world problems, which were many. Phonetics was my favorite. The long hours spent transcribing speech samples of indigenous languages in search of an implosive consonant or a uvular fricative and charting the data into neat columns was enough to drive a sane man mad, but for me it was just right. I practiced my tonal articulation by day and went to sleep at night with visions of spectrograms dancing in my head.

Applied linguists can fill a great many jobs, I learned. The one I was specially trained for, however, was overseas missions work, a prospect that simultaneously excited me and scared the heck out of me. Everyone seemed to agree I was a good fit for it, though, mostly because I was the only one in my Field Methods in Second Language and Culture Learning class who had the guts to try eating grubs. “Missionaries have to be ready to eat anything,” they said. “You’ll be great.”

Regrettably, one’s ability to swallow bug larvae with aplomb isn’t the preeminent criterion in such a vocation. In fact, it doesn’t even make the short list. The whole ethos surrounding long-term missions work has one enormous caveat that trumps all other qualifiers: You must be 100% sure God is calling you. If you’re not, you may find yourself “putting your hand to the plow and turning back.”

Your calling will be evidenced by a complete absence of doubt or misgivings, combined with a burning love for some particular people group which God has supernaturally bestowed upon you. You will be absolutely certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, of what you should do and where you should go.

I know, it sounds too good to be true. I probably would never have believed it myself, except that I had friends who fit this description to a tee. I didn’t, so clearly I wasn’t called. 

On top of all that, my nagging doubts about living outside the marriage and family box had followed me to where I was. As I’d always understood it, God wanted men — and, by association, the women who were married to them — on His team to help Him accomplish great things in the world. It was only logical, then, to conclude that He didn’t have as much use for the rest of us: the single, unattached ones who were going it alone without “a spiritual head” (a husband), outside of our natural and proper sphere of existence (a home of which we were the “keepers”).

I didn’t let any of this get me down, though. God would find a niche for me and my odd assortment of talents and limitations somewhere… right?

After graduation, I continued to press forward down that path. I put out applications and resumes and was promised jobs and connections and travel opportunities from at least half a dozen sources, but nothing ever came of them. Meanwhile, life in the most affluent region of the most affluent state in the most affluent country in the world kept steadily draining me of my resources, financial and otherwise.

And then I got married.

There’s a lot more to that story, of course. But the long and the short of it is that we met, I liked him, and I decided to keep him. In fact, we first bonded over our mutual love of travel and culture and languages. We just seemed to fit together in all sorts of ways. And best of all (so I thought), my days of worrying about where God wanted me to be were over. After all, when two Christians marry, God will send the husband wherever He wants him to go, and all that’s up to the wife to do is hitch a ride. Simple as that. I entered into the holy estate of matrimony thinking I had finally done all that was required of me.

Several years later, on the other side of much grief and angst, I’m glad to say that I am finally free of that delusion. My husband bears no blame whatsoever for how long I labored under the weight of it. In fact, I credit him with being the first one to start the great unraveling of a lie that I was bound up in for literally my entire life — even if neither one of us realized it at the time. And the truth has made me a better wife, a better follower of Christ, a better person in general.

But it has cost me everything.

Now I’m grounded, the girl who cannot fly. I’m not sure my wings have been torn off so much as they’ve just slowly shriveled up over time, but either way, I don’t have much use of them anymore. The strangest part of it is, within the last two and a half years I’ve been slowly amassing more dreams, more passion, more inspiration for what I do — or could have done — than I’ve ever had before, but I’m fresh out of ways to make them reality. I have all the tools and training I need to go almost anywhere in the world. But here I am, waylaid in the rural American South, where life moves at the speed of molasses (on a good day). The irony of it all just kills me. If it were someone else’s life, it would almost be funny.

Not that my situation is thoroughly terrible; it isn’t. I am, after all, married to a wonderful man who — for reasons God only knows — thinks I’m wonderful, too. I’m in reasonably good health. I make a little money. I own my own house. Really, it’s more of a bungalow, and actually the bank owns it. But they let me pretend that I own it, as long as I pay them for the privilege (isn’t that nice of them?). All things considered, I have a decent life.

And yet… A decent life on the ground is still exactly that: a life on the ground. It can’t compare with soaring high in the sky, knowing that you’re doing exactly what God created you to do.

These days I’m watching while the ones who still have their wings take to the sky. Some of them got involved in missions work because they felt they had a calling. And some of them weren’t naive enough to believe, like I did, that they needed a calling. More to the point, they’re doing something with their lives. I’m thankful for the work they do, I really am. But watching them makes me feel that old throbbing pain of something that was supposed to have been there, but isn’t.

“Those who wait upon the Lord will mount up with wings like eagles,” I’m told, and yet I wait and wait and wait, and all the while I can feel the sand slipping through the glass. “Things happen in God’s timing,” I’m told, and I’m sure it’s true — but God has all the time in the world, whereas I do not. The best years of my life are already behind me, and I have little of value to show for them. I can’t imagine things going up from here.

Or maybe I’ve simply run out of chances to get it right.

In between whiles, I wonder about what I’ll end up doing. Maybe I’ll be one of those youth conference speakers who travels around preaching, “Don’t waste your life like I did! Don’t make my mistakes!” During my Bible college chapel days, messages like those were a dime a dozen. Everybody had a story to tell, and they all wanted to make sure that ours didn’t turn out like theirs if we could possibly help it. There was always some pitfall, some heinous sin, some heartache that we were instructed on how to avoid. The point was that they always had really dramatic mistakes to talk about, or something that at least made for an interesting story.

That’s not quite the case for me — I’m not exactly certain where I went off the path. But looking at where I am right now, and then looking around me at people my age and younger traveling the world, publishing books, starting nonprofits — man, I know I went wrong somewhere.

Maybe I should just be happy for the people whom God uses to do great things, even though He’s not particularly interested in me. I guess I should just be content to witness what others are doing, even though I can’t contribute what I have.

Or maybe I don’t, in fact, have anything to contribute. Maybe the illusion that I did was just that, an illusion.

Maybe I’m supposed to take the advice of the seasoned veterans of life and hold out for heaven, where “all shall be well.” Nobody’s grounded there, after all. That’s where angels live, and they have wings…

Who knows? Maybe that’s where I’ll finally be able to fly.

However, I intend to wait a while to find out. A long while.

In the meantime, I’ll just be sitting here, watching the sky and the flying ones, dreaming of what it would be like to be alongside them.

[Originally published April 18, 2018. Still as true today as it was then.]

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