I Never Wanted to Move Back to Michigan

“Of course I miss Michigan,” she said.  “Don’t you?”

It was the day after Thanksgiving, 2005.  I was home from my first year of graduate school — my first time living outside my home state, my first time needing to fly home for the holidays. After graduating from college the year before, I had watched almost all of my friends leave for New York and San Francisco as I stayed in Ann Arbor, applying to graduate school and trying to enjoy my life before selling my soul to a six-year program. Since most of my friends in town were still undergrads, I had spent much of the year hanging out near campus, fielding strange looks and pointed “Didn’t you graduate?” questions — thinly-veiled accusations that I was weird for still being around, that it was time to move on with my life.  By the end of the year, I was desperate to leave, the last kid to be picked up from the party.

Now I was a California resident, living just outside LA.  I had tons of new friends, a graduate program that I found endlessly interesting, and a constant supply of warmth and sunshine.  I could walk less than a mile to restaurants, shops, and grocery stores; I could drive less than five for a run around the Rose Bowl or a hike in the San Gabriel mountains.  I was animatedly describing all of this to my high school friends at our annual post-Thanksgiving leftovers potluck as they shared about their new lives in New York, DC, Boston — vast upgrades from our childhoods in the Midwest suburbs, we all believed.  Well, all but one, who had wistfully asked me this question.

I looked at her with a mix of surprise and confusion.  No, I did not miss Michigan.  Not even a little.


Much changed over the next decade, but my feelings about Michigan did not.  I missed certain things about it — my family and the handful of friends who remained there; specific restaurants (Ajishin, Olga’s) and regional delicacies (Vernors, Superman ice cream); fall and the crisp air, changing leaves, cider mill donuts, and football Saturdays that accompanied it.  But overall, I was content to live 2,000 miles away, my longings for home sated by phone calls and twice-yearly visits.  After graduate school, when my classmates started to move back to their small hometowns in the Midwest and the South, I felt only bewilderment.  Why are you going back?  I wondered. Wasn’t the point to get out?

Then I had a baby, and everything changed.


My husband and I knew that having children far from our families would be challenging.  Almost everyone we knew who had children also had the benefit of families nearby on whom they could rely for child care, or else they had incredibly generous friends whom they could treat like family and call when they needed a night out.  We had neither.  My husband’s family was also in the Midwest, thousands of miles away; we were relatively new to the San Francisco Bay Area, and our friends-like-family here had just had a baby of their own.  We had other friends we could call in a pinch, but in terms of our day-to-day lives, we were going to do this by ourselves.

My parents came to town for a month when our son was born — a nod to the zuo ye practice of traditional Chinese families, only without all the restrictions.  I did not anticipate how helpful it would be to have food on the table at every meal in the midst of my exhaustion, how much I would appreciate having someone to hold the baby while I napped.  My mother took care of everything — cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping — without placing on me the burden of giving her instructions.  If she saw something that needed to be done, she just went ahead and did it, and I was immensely grateful.

More significantly, I did not anticipate how meaningful it would be to watch my parents start to form a relationship with my son.  They thought everything he did was miraculous — stretching; staring at lights; contemplating their faces, brow deeply furrowed.  They found him as interesting as my husband and I did, and they were as concerned about his burps and bowel movements as we were.

So in the month they were here, I came to understand why people choose to live near their extended families, why my grad school pals had forsaken our interesting, progressive city for their small, boring hometowns.  These relationships were beautiful.  The help was lifesaving — not to mention cost-saving.  Having seen very little of my own grandparents, who lived in Taiwan, I had not understood the meaning that grandparent-grandchild relationships could have — or how my own relationship with my parents could evolve after having a child.

One night during that first month, after my parents had returned to their AirBnB, my husband and I revisited our conversation about where our next destination would be.  We had started this discussion a few months before, overwhelmed by the cost of living in the Bay Area and how much more we could get elsewhere — and how much less stressful life could be as a result. Seattle was high on both of our lists; when my husband suggested Ann Arbor, I laughed dismissively.

Tonight, though, things were different.  “I would move to Ann Arbor tomorrow,” I whispered as we reclined in our bed, our newborn sleeping soundly in the bassinet beside us.

“Me too,” he said.  And just like that, our new plan was in place.


We kept this plan mostly to ourselves for the next two years, quietly checking homes on Zillow every night, letting on to friends who asked that we were contemplating a move at some point but not to where.  Between us, though, it only felt better with time.  Ann Arbor was a dynamite city, one I adored and had deep connections to, one that reminded Robert of a progressive version of his hometown.  It made every top-ten list for cities in which to raise a family, to go to college, to retire.  It was an hour from my parents — close enough that we could see them regularly and they could be a normal part of our lives, but not so close that they could drop by unexpectedly.  It was also significantly closer to my in-laws in Missouri and our siblings in DC and Boston than our current home in California.  It was diverse — for the Midwest, at least — and our kid would never be the only Asian American or multiracial kid in class.  It had more than enough restaurants and cuisines to keep us happy, especially as a young family that didn’t need thousands to choose from.  Thanks to the university, it had a constant stream of interesting talks and lectures and concerts coming through, not to mention year-round sporting events and performances that were relatively affordable.  It had a hospital where Robert could practice his very specific kind of psychology.  At no point did Ann Arbor ever feel like the wrong decision.

We tentatively planned to leave six months after Robert’s California pension vested — in the spring of 2019, right before homes in Ann Arbor started going on the market en masse.  Then I got pregnant with our second child.  On a rare breakfast date in the early days of my pregnancy, we looked at each other across the table and wondered how we were going to raise two children with no family help.  We moved our proposed moving date to fall 2018, immediately after Robert’s pension vested.

Remarkably, things have more or less gone to plan.  I had that baby, albeit five weeks sooner than expected.  Robert got an unofficial offer from that hospital in July; after ten weeks of waiting for state approval, during which we managed our anxiety by making every spreadsheet and timeline possible like the two firstborn children we are, it became official a few weeks ago.  We set our moving date for October 30 — interminably far when we thought about how much longer we’d have to raise these kids without any help, but far too soon when we thought about all the friends we’d want to see before then.  We’ll live with my parents outside of Detroit while we look for a house in Ann Arbor, which could take anywhere from a few months to most of a year, during which time we’ll take full advantage of all the extra hands we have to help us with our children and to feed us.

So in three weeks, I will be returning to Michigan as eagerly as I left 13 years ago.  Whether you’re a pal from high school, college, or grad school from the state or a friend with no Michigan connections, we warmly welcome visitors (seriously, please come visit) and offer our still-hypothetical guest bedroom.  Here’s to new beginnings in old places.


March 20, 1988.

I am 5 years old.  It’s hard to say what grade I am in — preschool?  kindergarten? — because the school I attend does not have grades, or so I am told.  When I am not in school, I spend my time riding my Sesame Street tricycle up and down the driveway of my house in suburban Detroit and pestering Donny, the older boy who lives next door, to play with me; he relents only when his real friends are not around.  Occasionally, when we are reading before bedtime, I ask my parents for a little brother, like the ones I see drawn in my books.

I have no idea that in a few weeks, my parents will tell me that a brother is coming, and a few months after that, he will arrive.  I will spend a few uncomfortable days under the care of my grandparents, whom I hardly know, and at some point my father will pick me up to take me to the hospital and meet the baby.  When I arrive, my mother will be sitting up in the hospital bed, smiling at me, and hand me presents from my new brother.  One of them is a fat red pen that writes in 10 different colors.

Either because of the pen, or because this brother is the fruit of my requests for the past year, I will become instantly, fiercely protective of him.  When nurses arrive to draw blood from his toes and he cries out in pain, I start screaming as well, louder and wilder than he does.  I will be hysterical with rage, threatening the doctors and nurses with imprisonment at the top of my lungs.  My parents, for the first time experiencing life as the parents of two, will not know how to respond.

I have no idea that this baby brother will become my favorite thing in the world.  There will be times in the coming years when he will annoy me, when he will barge into my room when I want to be alone, when my parents will force me to take him to the mall when I go with my friends.  I will also bear the responsibility of being his second mother, teaching him to wash his hands after he uses the bathroom, acting as an intermediary between him and my parents.  But for the most part, my brother will be my pal, my confidant, my teammate.  We will share snacks, personality traits, inside jokes, tastes and opinions on most things.  We will sit across from each other at the dinner table, the first to read the other’s reaction in light moments and heavy ones, our silent side conversation continuing night after night.  In rockier times, he will be the person with whom I silently huddle, whom I seek out in the aftermath when my words have returned.  For all the people I will meet in all the years to come, he will remain the only one who knows what it was like to grow up in my family.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.


March 20, 1998.

I am 15 years old.  I am a sophomore in high school.  I have liked the same boy off and on for about 2 and a half years, suspecting at times that he is interested too, but with no reliable evidence.  I am newly obsessed with what college I will attend.  I have decided that I no longer want to go to Michigan, as I have for my whole life until now.  I want to study both theater and medicine, so at this point, I am most interested in Northwestern.  I still hate being Asian.  I have no Asian friends, save for YT, which is fine because I rarely encounter any Asians; when I do see them, on Saturday mornings at orchestra practices, I dismiss them as one-dimensional and regard them with contempt.  I read the Bible every Sunday for half an hour, as I have for about a year and a half, still not really comprehending what I’m reading but recognizing that it is of vital importance.

I have no idea that in a few months, YT will invite me to her new church and I will love it.  I will find that the Asians whom I snub on Saturday mornings are, to my surprise, really likeable.  I will stop hating my ethnicity.  For the first time in my life, I will make sense to myself, because I share things in common with this community that I’ve never shared with anyone else before.  I will meet people who will become some of my best friends and remain so decades later.  I will become a Christian, a choice that will permanently alter both my personal and professional trajectories.  Upon reflection years later, I will be unable to find a single part of my life that was not profoundly impacted by both this reconciliation with my racial identity and this decision to become a Christian.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.


March 20, 2008.

I am 25 years old.  I am in my third year of graduate school in clinical psychology.  I have a crush on an acquaintance from school; I know in my heart of hearts that we would not be a great fit, but I see no better options around.  I am in the midst of an existential crisis, as I have realized this year that I do not want to be a therapist, that I am in graduate school mostly because it is what my parents expected of me.  I am terrified that I have locked myself into a career that I am not enthused about when I have so many other interests.  I am exhausted from constantly changing hats, from spending my days running between class and research and practicum and all of the meetings that my role in the Psychology Graduate Union requires.

Desperate for relief, I am hoping to spend three weeks over the summer alone in Barcelona, writing and finding myself, in an eat-pray-love adventure of sorts.  Should I stay in graduate school, I reason, this will be my last hurrah before my clinical training goes year-round and I am indefinitely bound to my home outside Los Angeles.  My parents flatly refuse.  I am dejected until a classmate tells me a few days later that there is one spot left in our school’s annual summer theology intensives in Orvieto, Italy.  I race across campus to confirm this; the next day I return with my $300 deposit.

I have no idea that on this trip, on a bus to Siena, I will meet my life partner.  He will sheepishly ask if he can sit next to me, hoping to finish our homework assignment; I will allow him to sit but not to get any work done, because I am too busy regaling him with questions.  We will talk the whole way there and the whole way back, and a few days later we will do the same on a trip to and from Assisi.  He is kind, present, and centered, his responses thoughtful and measured.  Our bus conversations will turn into long nighttime walks around Orvieto, overlooking the Umbrian countryside; on our last night there, we will see red, white, and green fireworks in celebration of St. Peter’s Day.  When we return to LA and make our relationship official, I will be amazed by how easy it is, by how transformative it is to be loved unconditionally, by how this relationship makes me more at ease in my own skin.  Two years almost to the day after that bus ride to Siena, I will marry this man, declaring before family and friends that he is the best man I’ve ever known.  We will build a life together that will evolve its own language and culture, that will anchor us through moves and career changes, that will yield a new little life that brings us joy beyond measure.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.


March 20, 2018.

I am 35 years old.  I am a writer, adjunct professor, organization co-runner, toddler-wrangler — in that order, I tell people, though the reverse is probably more accurate.  No matter how much of the other three I do, I measure my professional success by how much I am writing, which is never as much as I want to be.  Because we live so far from our families, I am fairly certain that our days in the San Francisco Bay Area are numbered, and the cost of living here does nothing to dissuade me.  I have mixed feelings about parenting, but at two and a half, our son is the most delightful he’s ever been.  By day, I watch him fall in love with the world — squealing at animals and anything he finds cute, excitedly naming all the numbers and letters and vehicles he sees, saying words and phrases he’s never uttered before — and do impressions of him with my spouse at night.

I am 6 months pregnant with our second son.  If it were entirely about me, I would not have opted to have another child; our life is full enough with the one we have, whom I am crazy about, and I consider it highly unlikely that we would have another one this easy.  I am also grateful to finally be in a place where I can spend part of my time working and part of my time tending to the child, a place that took two years to reach.  But it is not entirely about me.  I want this boy to have a teammate, like the one I got when I was 5, like the one I still have as an adult.  My gratitude for mine has only increased with time, especially as I started a family of my own and began the reflection on my family of origin that this process often triggers.  There is no one else in the world with whom I can process what it was like to grow up in my family, who understands how my parents empowered me and wounded me, who appreciates their ongoing evolution in the same way that I do.  I want my son to have the same — someone to play and fight and learn to share with, someone to share secrets with, someone who can understand what it will be like to be raised in our home.  Thirty years after getting a teammate, I am giving my son one of his own.

He is in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of his life to date.  His life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And he has no idea.

Becoming a Mom Transformed My Relationship with Mine

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

Every now and then, when I’m on the phone with my mom, I’ll mention something that I’m not looking forward to doing. Going to the DMV, perhaps, or needing to initiate a conversation that has the potential to be unpleasant.

My mother will respond: “Well, you just have to do it.”

“MOM,” I’ll say, rolling my eyes heavenward, immediately reverting to the 16-year-old version of myself. Obviously I have every intention of finding a dentist, I’ll say in a huff; I’m simply commenting that I’m not looking forward to it. I do not need to be reminded or convinced that it needs to be done.

“Okay,” she’ll say, in a way that I can’t quite read. Has she heard me? Does she really think that I’m considering not taking my car to the dealership for a safety recall? I don’t want to tell her that a more helpful response would be “Oh, that stinks” or “I don’t like doing that either.” She’s my Asian mom, after all, and I’m not sure how she would receive that kind of direction from anyone, let alone her child.

In hindsight, I think I subconsciously expected these conversations to increase after I had a baby. The world of new parenthood, I was told, was full of doing things that are tedious and unpleasant but need to be done anyway. I imagined that when I talked with my mom, three time zones away, about how I was doing, I would be hearing a lot more “Well, you just have to do its” and doing a lot more eye-rolling.

That I have yet to hear this refrain once, nine months in, is testament to how much has changed between us.


My mother is not a person you would describe as touchy-feely. It makes sense, given her history: She’s from a culture that has little tolerance for indulging one’s emotions — or even articulating them, really. Her own mother fled mainland China when the Communists took over — she was pregnant with her first child — and raised four kids mostly on her own while her husband, an army general, was away at his post. My mother came to this country as a young graduate student and worked her way up to full professor and chair of her department while raising two children, co-authoring over 100 publications, and co-founding a company on the side. One does not accomplish all of this if they’re easily sidelined by their feelings in the face of struggle. And she was not: Growing up, the one time I saw her cry was the morning she learned that her father had died after heart surgery in Taipei. We were in a hotel room in New York City; she was seated at the desk with her head in her hands, and I was lying in bed, peering at her over the comforter, uncertain how to give her privacy when our whole family occupied a single room. A few hours later, all four of us were riding the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center, our sightseeing plans unchanged. My mom was noticeably quiet and I’m sure she took in nothing of what we saw that day, but the fact remains that the greatest loss of her life to date didn’t stop her from taking her family to do what we had traveled to New York to do. Clearly, this is not a woman driven by her feelings; her feelings are in a suitcase in the trunk somewhere, to be released only on her terms, should they ever see the light of day. The phrase I most often use to describe her is ruthlessly practical, which might be the polar opposite of touchy-feely, and I’m only half-joking when I say it.

Don’t get me wrong: My mom is not a robot. She’s warm, kind, and generous, someone who smiles and laughs readily and often, who will always put out too much food when you visit. But not surprisingly, my mother and I have never had a relationship marked by long heart-to-heart conversations over steaming mugs of tea. Our relationship has always been good — she’s always wanted to know about my goings-on, and I’ve almost always been happy to share them with her; we’ve had countless long conversations about everything from colleges and majors to politics and celebrity gossip. Though we haven’t lived in the same time zone for over a decade, we’re consistently in touch through phone calls and emails and texts. But historically, if a boy broke my heart or some serious friend drama went down, she wasn’t the first person I would call. Or the second, or the third. It’s not just because she told me when I was eight that I wasn’t allowed to date until I was in college, though that certainly didn’t help; we just didn’t operate at that level. For those needs, I went to my girlfriends, who more than sufficed.

When my feelings did come up in conversation, I sometimes got the sense that she didn’t know what to do with them. I remember walking through the Diag one evening as a senior in college, telling her how much I loathed working on the thesis I had elected to do and how I wasn’t sure if I wanted to invest so much of my final year into it. “Just do it,” my mother replied, with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice. When she was a senior in college, she was preparing to move across the Pacific, to a country she had never seen, to get a PhD in a language she barely spoke. She did not have time for the angsty hand-wringing of her privileged second-generation daughter.

We had another iteration of that conversation years later, near the end of my graduate school career, when I told her that I didn’t like being a therapist and planned to leave the field after the graduation. “What are you going to do?” she asked, her voice marked by not sarcasm or shame but confusion. She and my father hadn’t had the option of disliking their fields of study; not only had they been assigned those fields based on their college entrance exam scores, but they were also immigrants in a country where they had no safety nets. They had to make their jobs work, emotions be damned.  Entertaining feelings about their professions was a privilege they did not have. I, on the other hand — I had the luxury of these feelings, thanks to their hard work, and I had them in spades. I could practically see a DOES NOT COMPUTE screen flashing in my mother’s brain as it tried to make sense of my words.


So when it came time for me to have a baby, these were the kinds of responses I was expecting. I knew my mom would be a fantastic grandmother — she loves babies, babies love her, and she had been dying to join all of her friends in the grandparent ranks — but I was less sure how she would be with me.

She and my father came to visit for a month after the baby was born; she was a ruthlessly practical godsend. She did not ask for permission to help or suggestions for how she could be useful — she just went to work, cooking multiple meals a day for my husband and me, finding a mop and cleaning our kitchen floor, sparing us the energy of having to ask for anything or provide instructions. (It was one of the few occasions in my life when my family’s relative lack of boundaries was a gift.) When those tasks were done, she held and cooed at her grandson, which made her the happiest I’d ever seen her. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for her presence and everything she did that the mere thought of her leaving would bring me to tears — a rarity, as I am my mother’s daughter. Our farewell at the airport was the soggy mess of Lifetime movies. This was unusual, to say the least, but I wasn’t sure if something had shifted in our relationship or if this was all simply the result of the hormones coursing through my veins.

On one of our first phone calls after she left, I told her that the baby had started spontaneously shrieking at night. “It might be gas, but I can’t be sure,” I said, listing off all the ways I could try to alleviate a problem whose cause was anyone’s guess. I knew that a “Well, that’s just the way it is” response was possible, but this issue was taking up a significant amount of my headspace, and she was perhaps the only person in the world who cared about my son’s bowels as much as my husband and I did. I braced myself for the kind of unintentionally unsupportive answer I had come to expect.

But instead, on the other end of the line, I heard a sigh. “It’s frustrating,” she said. “You don’t know why he’s doing this, and you can only use trial and error to see if anything helps.”

I literally stopped in my tracks. A validating and empathetic response? Who was this? What happened to my mother, queen of the don’t-think-don’t-feel-just-do school of thought?

And that response proved not to be a fluke; almost every time I’ve told her about something parenting-related that’s been challenging or frustrating, she hasn’t rushed to offer solutions or indirectly told me just to deal with it. She’s listened, she’s sympathized, she’s shared similar stories from her experience. After decades of talking about everything but our feelings (and fumbling with them when they occasionally surfaced), she’s handling mine with aplomb, in ways that my old clinical psychology professors would approve.

I’m not entirely sure what caused the change. Maybe it’s because after 32 years of wildly different experiences, we finally have one in common. As engaged as she’s been in my life up to this point, she hasn’t been able to fully relate to being the only Asian kid in class or high school dances or feeling ambivalent about research. The transcendence and exhaustion of motherhood, though — that she knows intimately.

Maybe it’s because she’s learned how to be a better listener. Her friends, all grandparents themselves, advised her to approach this new phase of life not as an expert but as a helpful support. Perhaps she took their wisdom to heart.

Maybe it’s because I’m giving her more of a chance to support me. Not unlike the woman who raised me, I tend to keep a lid on things that trip me up, but now that my life is a neverending stream of new experiences and second-guessing, I don’t have much else to talk about. Perhaps she’s seeing these opportunities and rising to the occasion.

Maybe it’s because we both love this little person so profoundly, in a way that few others do, and that shared love has allowed us to connect on the deeper level that eluded us before. I suppose it makes sense that our love for this child would bring us together in a way that, say, my dissertation or our shared fascination with the royal family could not.

Maybe it’s because having a grandchild has changed her. A few months after he was born, I got an email from her that ended with this: “I found my productivity is low lately. Then I just realized that I spent so much time looking at the baby’s pictures and videos. This little guy really captures our hearts.” Maybe this baby isn’t just the kryptonite to her workaholism, previously undaunted for decades; maybe he’s also allowed her to access her feelings in ways that she didn’t or couldn’t before.

Maybe it’s because having a baby changed me, so that I have a far deeper understanding and appreciation for the work of mothering a child, and I want to talk about it with the one person I think might understand it too.

Whatever the reason, this change in our relationship has been the biggest surprise of parenthood so far. I wasn’t thrown by the depth or intensity of my love for my son, nor the depth or intensity of my sleep deprivation; though I couldn’t know exactly what those things would feel like in advance, I had been given ample warning. But little did I know that the greatest surprise of motherhood would not lie in my newest relationship. It would be in my oldest.

Confessions of a Former Neofundamentalist

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

During my senior year of college, I mentored a freshman in my campus fellowship.  We met in the lounge of her dorm every week to talk about life and a book we were reading together, and during one of these meetings, she told me that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to have children.

Slightly horrified, I said to her, “Can you think of a single godly marriage in the Bible that didn’t result in offspring?”

That effectively ended the conversation.

Eight years later, this young woman — still a dear friend of mine — reminded me of this exchange over sushi at a restaurant near LAX, where she was passing through on business.  My eyes widened with horror as the memory, so long dormant, replayed in my mind.

“I’m sorry,” was all I could say in the moment.

Reflecting on this conversation later, I realized that I had a lot to apologize for.

I’m sorry that I didn’t consider that the social and cultural context in which the Bible was written — specifically, an agrarian one in which children were needed to help plant and harvest crops, in which having children was essential to survival — was completely different from the one in which we live, thousands of years later.

I’m sorry that I basically repeated verbatim what I had heard a missionary say years before, without thinking about it critically or processing it with anyone.

I’m sorry for tacitly implying that people who aren’t able to have children aren’t godly people.

I’m sorry that these words seem to have stuck with you and may have influenced your life choices.

I’m sorry that I was a neofundamentalist back then — not quite a head-covering fundy, but a slightly more modern version that went to public school and listened to pop music — and that I imposed those views on you.


I became a Christian when I was a sophomore in high school, after years of wrestling with questions of religion and spirituality.  The experience of being in a faith community was transformative for me; just as significant was the sense that I finally had answers to all of life’s questions.  The world, once so complex and confusing, was suddenly simple and easy to navigate.  Had a question?  The Bible had an answer.  The end.

The problem was that many of these new answers didn’t seem to line up with the ones I had before.  I was raised by parents who had PhDs in math and science, in a household where scholarship and intellectual rigor were paramount.  But suddenly, after my conversion, I started questioning everything I previously knew, from the validity of evolution to whether women were truly equal to men.  It was the Midwest in the late ’90s — a time and place where science and religion were still seen as at odds with each other (which, I gather, is still the case in many parts of the country) — and I didn’t really have anyone to have these conversations with.  My scientist parents weren’t religious.  The Christian women in my life told me to look for a spiritual leader.  I didn’t hear anyone talking about how evolution and the book of Genesis could be reconciled.  I felt forced to choose between what I knew pre-conversion and what I was learning post-conversion, and because my experience with my faith community had been so life-changing, I opted for the latter.  Science, once so central to my life, was now something I viewed with suspicion.

I carried this skepticism with me to college, where I learned a ton but spent more time than I should have resisting the ideas swirling around me instead of engaging them.  The Christians I knew who had opinions on matters intellectual and political were mostly right-leaning; a few claimed persecution from the biology faculty for their dissenting beliefs.  Seeing no other options as a Christian, I bought into these ideas too, which led to some conversations and election votes that I wish I could take back.

Near the end of college, I must have voiced some of these opinions to my longtime academic advisor, an Episcopalian woman with very left-leaning tendencies, because she gently directed me to Sojourners, a Christian organization committed to issues of social justice.  I visited their website, where my mind was promptly blown.  “God is not a Democrat or a Republican,” it read — which, being in the Midwest in the early 2000s, was news to me.  The website’s list of moral issues centered not on abortion and gay marriage but on war, poverty, the environment.  The idea that I could care about these things — that, as a Christian, I should care about these things, and my faith should inform these opinions — immediately felt right.  And just like that, an entirely new world of intellectual and political possibilities was opened to me.

A few years later, I started a doctoral program in clinical psychology that was housed in a seminary, and my theology classes continued the demolition of my black-and-white beliefs.  How do we reconcile the fact that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 tell different stories of creation — or that much of the Psalms are word-for-word replications of Egyptian religious texts?  How do we reconcile the promises of Proverbs with the realities of the world around us?  Instead of giving me answers, my classes not only unraveled the ones I had but also raised questions I hadn’t known to ask.  The only thing that kept my faith from coming completely unglued was the fact that the professors asking these questions seemed to retain their faith in the midst of them.  They demonstrated that it could be done, that faith and questions weren’t mutually exclusive, that one didn’t necessarily quash the other.

If my theology classes took a wrecking ball to my simple, literal faith, then working with therapy clients blew the remains to pieces.  As I sat with people in pain and listened to their stories, a few truths became clear to me: that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have; that things do not always turn out well for people who make all the right choices; that you can’t really separate bad people from good people, because anyone, in the right circumstances, will do just about anything.  More than anything else, my time as a therapist made me see that my old black-and-white beliefs simply didn’t fit the world around me; the world was much more grey than I had ever realized.  I needed to learn how to be comfortable with that, and I needed to figure out what my faith was going to look like in light of these realizations.

My faith is still intact, but it looks completely different than it did before — and, I’ve come to accept, it will forever be evolving.  In contrast to when I started this journey, I have a lot more questions now than answers.  I’m aware that I know virtually nothing compared to what I don’t know.  But I think I have a much better understanding of how the world actually is; instead of forcing everything into boxes that feel manageable and safe, I can see that the world is messy, complex, contradictory, unpredictable.  And as a result, I have a lot more compassion for people than I did before — and a much greater appreciation for a God who entered the messiness, who knows suffering and pain, who gets just how effed up the world and its inhabitants are but loves them all the same.  So even though it’s a lot more complicated and a lot less comfortable, I think my faith is more real, more honest, better this way.  And I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Oh, and Jenny — it’s cool.  You don’t have to have kids.