Hope (an Advent post – kind of)

*I am not a historically religious person, nor am I in any way a Biblical scholar, so please forgive my elementary interpretation of all things theological in nature as I attempt to educate myself.*

Yesterday marked the first Sunday of Advent, the 4 Sundays before Christmas that focus on waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ; the theme of the first week being hope. Although my knowledge of the history and meaning of Advent is incredibly limited, it has always been one of my favorite seasons, and marking the beginning of the Christian calendar, I thought it a good starting point to try and deepen my understanding of the Christian faith as I attempt to reconstruct my own.

One of the most familiar images of Advent is the wreath of candles representing the themes of the season – three purple (representing hope, love, and peace and lit on the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent), one pink (representing joy and lit on the third Sunday), and one white (the Christ candle lit on Christmas Eve).

Now that I have shared my elementary Sunday School knowledge of Advent, let’s dive in to the main idea for this post: Hope.

This is a pretty timely topic for me as it has been the subject of more than a few recent conversations I’ve had with my counselor as I continue to explore what I feel called to do since leaving the classroom this year. Changing paths is a hard thing to do when you only have a vague idea of what the new path is. All I have been able to come up with so far is “I want to empower people – especially those in seemingly impossible circumstances. I want to give them hope.”

From that stemmed a conversation about hope in general. What does hope look like? What actually is hope? Where does hope come from? Who has provided me hope? All questions pointing to a bigger issue: I cannot aspire to be a source of hope if I don’t acknowledge where my own hope has come from. Thus began a long period of reflection.

First, I had to figure out what I meant by hope, because I feel like hope can mean different things in different situations. Some days I hope the chicken I set out won’t thaw in time to start dinner, and oh darn, we’ll just have to order take-out. This is obviously not the hope I am talking about here. When I say I want to give people hope, I am referring to the hope that encourages them to get out of bed each day with the belief that they are greater than their current circumstances and that some day their circumstances will change to reflect that.

But how? To be honest, the how has been slow to take shape. So slow, in fact, that it is still in some abstract form out of reach from me. More important than the how though, is the why. This was a big part of the reflection I’ve been doing over the past several weeks. And as difficult as the work was, the why suddenly appeared very simply: because someone once gave me hope. And that is where things started to make sense.

I got pregnant when I was 16; just before my junior year. Being an accelerated honor student, I had extra credit hours and was able to enroll as a senior, putting me on track to graduate a year early. Now, if you’ve ever been a 16/17 year old, you know it’s a rough season under the best circumstances, and hope can often be elusive; but even more so when those circumstances involve challenges like the obvious pregnancy and an entirely new cohort. It was an incredibly lonely time, and many days doing my best was comprised of just getting out of bed and making it to school. Hope didn’t exactly spring eternal during that time, but it wasn’t altogether absent either, and it came in the form of a teacher. My senior English teacher was one of the primary sources of hope that year. Without going into vast detail (she gets an entire chapter in the memoir), I will just say that she made an impact on my life beyond any teacher I had ever had – and I had some pretty incredible teachers.

Back to present: I had identified my why: I want to provide hope where it is scarce because someone had once given me that hope. But now I needed to acknowledge that hope in a way that went beyond my own private gratitude, because what good is gratitude if it’s not expressed to the person to whom it’s owed? So at the direction of my very bossy counselor (who I am positive does not follow my site, but I have to get a shot in just in case), I got out a pen and paper and wrote a letter to my former teacher. And then I marked it up and scratched things out, and threw it away and wrote another letter. And after a lot of indecision, I stepped out of my Enneagram 9 zone and reached out to her and asked how I could best share it with her. She shared her address with me, and before I could talk myself out of it, I mailed it. To my surprise (and a little bit to my introverted horror), she replied a few days later with her phone number and asked if we could chat by phone. We set aside a time, and as nervous as I was when I dialed her number, my nerves were almost immediately calmed as we talked and I was reminded of why I saw her as such a huge source of hope in my life all those years ago. We talked for an hour about how important it is to give people hope and take care of each other. We shared stories about life, about challenges and successes and failures and heartbreak. And above all, hope.

And so here we are in this first week of Advent, with its theme of Hope. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have been the recipient of hope so many years ago, and to have the opportunity to pass it on.

Go Ahead and Have Dessert

Body image and diet culture are topics that have been heavy on my mind lately, largely due to the fact that they are in our faces constantly. You don’t really even realize it until you start to look for it, but pay attention to conversations with friends or family, advertisements you hear on television or radio or see on social media, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll be exposed to something that addresses body image and diet culture on more than one occasion. It’s so normalized that we don’t even think about it until something comes out of left field to make us rethink how we approach these things.

In my case, that something is a 12-year-old boy. My youngest son has never been lean and athletic like his older brother; nor has he ever had a metabolism that burns higher than it consumes like his oldest brother (due to heart defects that require his body to work a little harder, though we’ve heard “he’s so lucky he can eat whatever he wants and not gain a pound” so much I could scream). My youngest was the cherubic baby with round cheeks and thigh rolls that just made you want to squeeze them. As he got older, he “slimmed up” as toddlers do, but has always had a bigger build; “husky” if we’re following clothing labels. He has never been medically labeled “overweight” or “unhealthy,” and he has always followed a steady curve along the pediatric growth chart. And he has never been bothered by any of it… until about a year and a half ago when he fairly rapidly gained 10-15 pounds. His nutrition didn’t change. His activity level didn’t change. I was not concerned until he expressed concern. Since he is a very fact reliant kid, I did some research and confirmed what I had been trying to explain to him: This is normal. It happens to most kids in the year or so before puberty fully kicks in, and it’s completely necessary for normal and healthy body development. He is healthy and his body shape and size is unimportant.

This should have been a pretty open and shut case. Problem identified, problem explained, not a problem. But of course it wasn’t. Between the media and middle school peers, my son got so self-conscious about his weight that he started trying to hide his body, being very hesitant to take his shirt off to swim (this was a child that didn’t wear a shirt for probably 5 years of his life). Eventually, he dropped out of Boy Scouts – which he loved – because other boys made fun of his weight. That made me incredibly sad, but what started scaring me was his evolving relationship with food. He started obsessing over food nutrition labels; and while this may not seem like a bad thing (we should be educated about what’s in our food, right?), when any activity hits an obsessive level, it can be pretty dangerous – especially when you don’t really know what you’re looking for. Suddenly I found myself fielding questions like “how many milligrams of sodium is too high for lunch” and “are there too many calories in this soup for me to have a little more?” Soup! It is not ok for a 12-year-old child to be concerned about whether or not the soup he is eating has too many calories!

We started having some pretty tough conversations about trusting our bodies, and how this is something that is not intuitive anymore, but absolutely should be. Our bodies know what they need. They know when they’re hungry and when they’re sated. They know what kinds of food they need. And once upon a time before diet culture and convenience foods, people ate intuitively, because there was no other way. We talked about how health and thinness are not the same thing, and no one should be ashamed of how their body looks because all bodies are different and not an indicator of a person’s character. I tried to explain to him that calories are a unit of energy and not to something to be obsessing over, and it’s ok if he wants to have ice cream in the evening. A 12-year-old kid should be able to enjoy food without constantly beating themself up over it. We all should.

Finally, what kind of parent would I be if I didn’t take some accountability for this whole situation? I could go on about how I don’t know why my child would be so self conscious because I have never obsessed about any of my children’s weight, and that would be true; but what is also true is that he has no doubt heard me comment on my own weight, or likely even on someone else’s. He has heard me say hateful things about my body, or comment on how much weight I’ve gained or need to lose, or turn down treats because as much as I would love to indulge – I don’t need the calories. He has seen and heard me do all the things I am telling him not to.

So I’m actively trying to change the conversation – not just where it concerns him, but overall. I’m making conscious decisions in how I talk about food and bodies – mine, his, and anyone else’s. When we started planning the menu for Thanksgiving dinner, I saw him start to get concerned when I mentioned the desserts. He was already trying to decide which of the three to choose. We went back to the conversation about listening to his body and not eating past when his body says it’s no longer hungry (which is not the same as full), and then, when your body is ready for dessert – go ahead and have a small amount of all three. You don’t have to choose, and you don’t have to feel shame for it.

Like memoirs?

My friend, Ticcoa Leister wrote an amazing memoir that I have read a total of 3 times now. It is her story of the journey out of the despair that came when those in a position to build her up and empower her on her path instead told her that her dream was not for her. She took that disappointment and began a new journey that put her in a community that has done what her past community refused to do – encourage and empower her to be who she was meant to be.

Not only was I given the opportunity to read an advanced copy as part of her launch team, but I had the honor of being a beta reader of the manuscript as well. If all that wasn’t enough, today I got my AUTOGRAPHED copy of this gem in the mail!

Y’all it really is such a great story – relatable, inspirational, and beautifully written.
Order it here: Unbound: A Story of Freedom and Sisterhood https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08L8MFGH1/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_GGdSFbWV2WEEP