Finding Capacity in the Wilderness

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Devi Duerrmeier -Wilderness3By Devi Duerrmeier | Twitter: @deviduerrmeier

A year after we had our second son, my life started to come apart. I could look at the years before and see the signs: two international moves, a still-new marriage, family deaths, two children. And those were the obvious stressors.

My German mother-in-law came to visit us, and on her first evening at home, we told her I was struggling. Several decades ago she had two sons, two years apart. She didn’t say much, nodding her affirmation that this stage in life is hard; then she cleared the dishes from our table, and started cleaning the kitchen.

I lay down on our grey couch and curled up on my side. I did this in the evenings; I would have done anything to make the daily work and responsibility disappear.

Mama came back to our dining room, and with a kitchen cloth, she wiped down our wooden farmhouse table with firm strokes until all the dirt made by adults, a child and a baby-led-weaning baby was taken away. She turned to our baby’s high chair and wiped the sides, the legs, the back, painstakingly running the cloth along the tiny crannies embedded with dried oatmeal and shredded chicken, wiping and polishing until it was perfect.

She erased the dirt on the chair, and I cried on the couch.

***

Some of us wander into the wilderness, others of us are airlifted and dumped there, but I have found that for most of us, it takes a while to come to grips with our new surroundings. I thought I was still in a lush, fruitful vineyard, so I lived like it. We hosted nine groups of friends in our apartment in two months. I cooked brunches and lunches for large groups of young adults in our city. I stayed up late and ignored that there were few people I could trust with my wandering thoughts, that no one knew the habits I developed to numb the loneliness of living in a new city.

I pushed hard through the weariness until I couldn’t push anymore, and I started to see that my vineyard looked more like the barren, dry ground of a wilderness. It’s scary out there, both cold and lonely and hot and confusing.

I looked around, and I couldn’t see anyone; I hungered, but there was no food.

I didn’t look for a place to live in the wilderness, I tried to find my way out. Gratitude was a lifeline for me, and writing down the gifts I could find in my daily life became a way to mark time and to claim it back from what seemed like an invisible, evil hand. I tried setting goals, finding accountability, taking time for myself, pursuing those moments of self-care, and all of these things were good. But when my wilderness season stretched from months into years, capacity was a dream. My only reality was survival, the bare minimum and struggle.

When I could not find capacity for myself in these wilderness years, people came around me and created it for me through their sacrifice, service and love.

We need people around us to remind us that in the wilderness, we are not alone. They may not be living the same story, but their presence, availability and care does something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. It means having hard conversations with people who may not know our struggle. Many of us can hide the darkness of the wilderness from our spouses, friends and loved ones, and we can mask the breakdown with fake resiliency. You may have to make the first move, sit down with a trusted someone and tell them, “I am not okay.” Let them into the details you can share. Maybe a friend is going to approach you and ask if everything is alright. Be honest.

For me it looked like my husband getting up at night with our kids, friends bringing a meal, and people who prayed and emailed encouragement and impressions. It was the companionship of the closest friends who have lived in the wilderness, too, and their solidarity, empathy and kindness. It was the wisdom of people who asked me if I could start seeing a counselor.

It looked like Mama and her cleaning cloth rubbing away the smudges and splotches of dirt on a wooden high chair, doing something for me that I couldn’t do for myself, reminding me that I am not alone, and that when I couldn’t stand to do something for myself, there would be a village of caring people who would be the grace that would do it for me.

 

About Devi:

devi profile picDevi Duerrmeier is a writer, thinker, photographer, wife and mother. She writes about food, family and faith at the table at My Daily Bread & Butter while she mothers two boys, cooks simple food and writes vulnerable words from an open, purple kitchen in Melbourne, Australia. After a lifetime of moving, from Sri Lanka to the Philippines to Arkansas to Australia to Switzerland to Sweden and then back to Australia, she is putting away the boxes for a while in favour of a life in one place. You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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  • Devi, this is all so wise, but I especially identified with your thoughts on finding yourself in the wilderness, but still trying to live as if you were in “a fruitful vineyard.” Naming what we see and then living our way out of it is so much easier if we’re not hiding behind accomplishments and “normal.”

    • I’m so glad it resonated with you, Michele. Naming things – anything – makes my life so much easier in general.

  • Great writing! I think we have all been in this place where we just can’t anymore. Thanks for being a light in the darkness!

  • Joy Howard

    This is beautiful. We all are Mama, wiping away dirt. And we are all you, curled up crying, not knowing what to do. To give help is beautiful. To accept help is beautiful. Thank you for this.

  • Devi, I am so thrilled to have your voice here. Thank you for honouring us and helping to spread strength and love. And building CAPACITY.

  • I’m in my own season of realizing I can’t push as hard anymore, and this gives me hope. Thank you.