2017 was a year of story pitches and new beginnings, and a lot of work winding up to launch my career, which I’ll be completing in the first half of 2018. On a personal level, it’s been a year of recovery, of waiting, of wondering. With so much change flickering on a new and untapped horizon, I’ve found sleep and rest in general difficult these last few weeks.
After the end of 2017, when I think about reviewing the year, I find I want more to stitch it together with the previous two, as part of a season that was filled with struggle and mistakes, guilt and disorientation, and attempts to figure out what to do with the messiness of attempted but impossible irreconcilability, in both relationship and worldview.
I got to sit down with one of my closest friends on New Years’ Eve and catch up, which ended up with me spilling my guts about the last few years and trying to make sense of it all. I’ve been trying to figure out how to unpack it ever sense.
When I decided to go to art school, I had no idea what I was in for. In fact, the rigorous academic schedule has been the easiest part. A preface before I continue: I’m going to start talking a lot about church. I grew up in a conservative American Christian tradition, and the sum of body shaming, cognitive dissonance, and gated-community politics led to a massive falling out between us, from which I wasn’t sure my spiritual life would ever recover.
On the surface, my 2.5-year stint in California was a lot of art school, a lot of anxiety and loneliness and frantic efforts to adjust, along with a couple less-than-ideal roommate relationships that left me dysfunctional and out-of-sorts. Despite a lot of struggle and heartache in the midst of all this, I’ve never felt I wasn’t supposed to continue on this trajectory of art school. A lot of good has come as far as career preparation and maturation as a person, though it’s been an onerous deal every step of the way.
I have six months left of my program. I am at once more excited than ever to see what’s next, but also a little unsure of who I am.
I guess that means somewhere in the last few years, I lost myself and found it again.
Talking with my friend on New Year’s Eve, I ended up bringing up a lot about my sophomore year in undergrad, which I suppose is where all this began. That year, I developed a passion for illustration, wrote the novel I plan to launch my career on. (The Bioroboticist), and had the most spiritually gratifying year to date. God was sitting me down and getting me to start uncovering deeply ingrained lies I’d believed about myself; we were in frequent communication, and He saw me through a flurry of academically-induced meltdowns. I was deciding to let go of what I considered a safe, predictable route, and instead planning to take my longstanding love of storytelling to full professional priority.
One would think, after all that, my faith would be stronger than ever.
But what followed was a feeling that I should take a break from my constant attempts at unrealistic regimens and spiritual self-guilt. Included with this was easing up the pressure to conduct a daily Bible study time, and when I asked God if it was really ok, He said, “It’s ok. Just trust me.” (We were in closer communication those days.)
The following year was blissful. Free of guilt and obligation. I filled my electives with art classes instead of athletic training ones for my original plan of physical therapy. I finished The Bioroboticist and started on another book, and practiced drawing with obsessive focus.
As the distance between me and the way I had always done faith grew, I began to tease apart sources of shame and fear that had been explained away and buried deep. I began to see where the church culture I grew up in was toxic, and where I had sustained burns by it. Where it ran contrary to the compassion it preached and clung to fear and resentment over organic, human empathy.
By my senior year of undergrad, I was burnt out, betrayed, confused, and up to my ears in physical dysphoria (the latter from sexism and purity culture, as you might have guessed). Everything stung. Everything felt fake and at once too bitter and too saccharine.
I wasn’t angry with God. I’ve never been angry with Him. After years of trying to understand and justify the broken areas of American Evangelicalism, I started seeing and calling those parts for what they were.
“Don’t go outside the walls,” it had said. “It’s dangerous and destructive and evil out there. Stay in here, where it’s safe. Where we love you.”
But I saw it wasn’t safe inside either. Inside was teaching me to fear and demonize others, to fear and hate myself. It had given me a foundation to pursue compassion and grace, to heal, to live. And the more those latter qualities drove me to push into civil justice issues to try to understand, the more I saw the dissonance.
I couldn’t breathe inside those walls. So I left.
I learned early on I’m not good at pretending to be what I’m not. I’ve always struggled with belonging. And I’ve long wondered why, if my core use is to evangelize, why God suffused me with this compulsive need to create stories that were not overtly Christian.
I saw it as indulgent at best, idolatrous at worst. A side hobby to something more proper.
As I moved straight to California after undergrad to start my education in illustration, a part of me felt I’d finally succumbed to making my work my religion. And the cultural institution which had burned me so much, was also where I had learned to connect with God. When my faith in American Christianity crumbled, I no longer knew how to connect with Him. Everything felt wrong and indulgent, so I sought to just be, to keep waiting. To try to honor Him by working hard to hone my gifts. To find what this demanding need to create had to say.
The years I spent in California have been some of the darkest of my life. I felt trapped, and that first year, especially, I was the most anxious and depressed and angry I’ve ever been. I had my first run-in with mental illness in my roommate, with whom I had been friends for a few years prior. We tried to fix what was wrong, but they couldn’t meet me halfway. For lack of experience, I had no idea how to handle communication failure, and I had no immunity against the fallout. We waited until the school year ended and got out of each other’s lives. It took me a very long time to process that first year.
My political views changed drastically. From the outside, I watched the culture I grew up in clutch a victim complex close to its chest, idolize power and control and safety in a system that benefitted them most, declare the world black and white and demonize the rest, demonize me for trying to account for its complexity.
I saw the end of all my ropes. I saw what I become when I am severely off balance and hopelessly empty. That understanding branded itself in the back of my mind, and I always saw its afterimage. A steady, constant fear, a looming ultimatum. I tend to be a stubbornly self-assured person, but that year, 2016 part 2, and far into 2017 saw me feeling more like a liability than an asset.
My next roommate situation was cramped and I put up with more than I should have in the name of not causing trouble. (Which caused trouble.) A lot of good things were happening at school, but I had stopped fully recognizing myself as a person.
I had previously enjoyed a healthy sense of community in undergrad, but it was extremely difficult to make friends in art school. I spent a lot of time alone, too much even for me. (I am very introverted.) I started caving in on myself even while trying to climb back out of a pit of anxiety, depression, and exhaustion I’d been digging, and learning to overwork myself to make deadlines and keep my sense of self afloat.
In many ways, my work was a lifeline. I still considered myself a person of faith, but old me would have likely considered my work to be in full blown idolatry territory.
Yet my efforts continued to be fruitful. I was pushing to be as true to myself as I could, and my work was well received.
I’m a little astounded that I could be struggling so much personally and spiritually, yet have something that was totally competing with any other sense of balance in my life to be so—blessed.
New Year’s Eve 2017, I sat on the end of my friend’s bed, recounting this one time sophomore year of undergrad—roughly 5 years ago now—when I was so paranoid my work was competing with my faith and that God was going to ask me to give it up. He asked me, then, “What if I did ask you to give it up? What would you do?” I took a week to answer, but my reply was ultimately. “I would.”
God didn’t make me give it up. He never asked me about it again.
At that, my friend paused.
“Sara,” she said, astounded, earnest, “that’s what saved you.”
I sat there staring at her for a while, trying to figure out if I was going to cry or laugh or try to deny it all.
This thing that’s been with me my whole life, pushing, competing, propelling me forward; simultaneously something through which I reach out for connection, and something notorious for being socially alienating (I spend a ton of time working), has all along been a connection point to the divine.
Little by little, I’ve been identifying the broken supports the last few years have uncovered, and repairing them with trembling hands. Little by little, I’m learning to forgive as well as fight. I am intimidated to find out what their repair may mean.
I’m starting to see what all this desert season was for. What God had in mind when He said, “It’s ok. Just trust me.”
On the edge of sending my work out into the world, realizing a deep, consuming childhood dream, all these disjointed, confusing pieces have been starting to orient into a readable chapter.
Even when I was most estranged, most confused and unsure if I would ever end up talking to God again the way I used to, I believed that if God puts a desire in your heart, He will honor it. I see now there’s more to it. You must honor it too. You must be willing to surrender it, so that the desire becomes a tool of clarity, and not a mad, toxic scramble for meaning and worth.
Because deep down, the Creator of the world made us human. As a creative human, I’m frequently guilty of putting my work first and my personhood second. Over the last few years, I’ve hardly wanted to deal with my own weak, needy, frightened, exhausted self. I have tried to improve and heal her, but I also attempted to drown her out along the way. The work was somehow positive, but the person was wounded and scared and I didn’t understand what she had to say for herself.
I felt I was somehow weathering punishment, or at least consequences, for walking away. I felt California was my sort of reckoning, a fieldtrip to see how not-nice the world was so I could come crawling back. But I see now that all this struggle actually had a bigger point, a point very closely tied both to my work, and my personhood, and I feel I’ll start to see that purpose soon.
I am unspeakably humbled and awestruck by it all.
As I move forward into another year, a single verse from my childhood keeps coming up in my mind.
Taste and see that the Lord is good,
blessed are those who take refuge in Him
A/N: I’d love to revive this blog. It’s on my 2018 Goals list. My year will be consumed with a bunch of comics and life things as I graduate art school and move back up to Oregon, so we’ll see. I think I put too much pressure on this space. Need to go with the flow!
Favorite Books 2017
This One Summer, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
Not Drunk Enough, Tess Stone
The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury
Nemesis, Isaac Asimov
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett
Doctor Sleep, Stephen King
On Writing, Stephen King
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans
My Name is Hope: Anxiety, Depression, and Life After Melancholy, John Mark Comer
Favorite Songs 2017
The entire Worlds album by Porter Robinson
“Shelter,” Porter Robinson and Madeon
“Waving through a Window,” Ben Platt (from “Dear Evan Hansen”)
“Event Horizon,” I Am Waiting For You Last Summer
“Formed by Glaciers,” Kubbi
“Alienation,” Morning Parade
“Because,” Yoko Kanno
“Liar,” The Arcadian Wild
“Your Heart is a Weapon,” POP ETC
“Car Radio,” Twenty One Pilots