For 15 years, I was a worship leader in the evangelical Christian church.
I followed in my Mom’s footsteps. She played piano and sang, and we were always in small churches, so she became the default worship leader. She loved it.
I learned piano, too. I was singing solo Easter specials from the time I was 10 or so. Then I learned guitar, as a teen, and started writing songs.
Then I got older and she got cancer. So I went from helping Mom lead music to being the worship leader, myself.
I spent hours every week choosing songs, learning songs, sometimes writing songs, planning sets, practicing songs, and leading worship for congregations that included my parents (for the first five years) and then my in-laws (for the last ten years). Yeah, nothing weird about that.
It’s been five years since I’ve been to a church service. That part of my life is over. It needed to be over a long time ago. I’m just a bit slow on the uptake. It takes me a few years too long to notice when something’s not working. You could say that denial is one of my superpowers. I believe so much in the story of what should be, what could be, what might be, that I don’t let myself hear the story of what actually is.
But when I do see it, I can’t unsee it. I can’t pretend anymore. Not once I’ve been honest with myself.
It might take me a long time to face the truth, but once I face it, I won’t look away.
This morning I was thinking about how much I miss the church. The music. The singing. Leading worship.
It was a place and time to be raw, real, and heard. I sang my heart out. I meant every word. I let emotions come up and out of me through music in a way I haven’t been able to replace since. Oh, music is still in my life. But it’s not the same experience. Leading worship in church was an energy exchange. Not always—sometimes it felt like singing to the dead. Many times, in fact. Even in those times, I learned that it was okay to feel something even if nobody else did. It was okay to be true to your heart, to express what was in you, even if no one understood, even if it met dead air, even if you felt a little foolish and a little crazy.
(Not that there weren’t caveats and limits. Of course there were. I remember one respected lady of the church admonishing me because I wore open-toed sandals on stage. The horror.)
Writing is the closest thing I have to that same expression, that feeling of release, of letting out what is inside, opening a portal, opening a door, giving that dark internal stuff you don’t even really know a passage into the light of day.
I haven’t been writing lately, on my own. Client stuff and work stuff, but not this kind of stuff. Not the honest stuff. Not the stuff you start writing because you have to get it out, and you’re sure where it’s going to take you, and you’re a little afraid to find out.
Or a lot afraid. I’ve been so afraid.
Because I have been avoiding things I need to face, and—at the same time—internally gearing up to face them. I guess I finally felt strong enough, because the last couple of months have been about truth. About facing a lot of dark and ugly truths.
Don’t let anybody tell you that the truth is kind, gentle, or pretty.
Nah, that bitch is nasty.
But she’s real. Real, real, real, real, real, real, real, real. Real from the inside out like the Annie who would stand in front of 10 or 100 people and sing her heart out, sing songs she wrote, call out verses, preach mini-sermons, and sit back down 30 minutes later trembling, teary, and sweating. That Annie had found one outlet for herself, one defined, controlled, and limited way to pour out what was in her, and it wasn’t necessarily healthy or good but it was something.
It’s time for me to create an outlet like that again. I’m not sure how to do it, because I don’t want to hurt others.
When you sing, the song can be about anyone. But when you write, well: the stories are the stories.
How do I write about my childhood without hurting my family?
How do I write about my marriage without wounding my husband?
How do I write about parenting without risking pain or embarrassment for my children?
The short answer, I think, is that I can’t. I don’t. Which is why I haven’t, or have been sporadic, vague, inconsistent. Trying to tell a story without really telling the story. Holding on to the hope that I can find a way to take care of myself, say what I need to say, be who I want to be, without hurting or offending or making anyone uncomfortable.
Of course it’s not possible. I said I was good at denial, remember?
I’m also really, really good at holding on. Holding tight, holding close, clinging, keeping it in, keeping it near. Holding on to an idea, a hope, a way of being, the way things are, a story, an illusion. Holding on to loyalty. Holding on, even when I should let go.
I hold on because when I look at people, I see the goodness inside. I feel the pain that masks and dilutes the goodness, and I ache for them. I have a hard time separating their very real inner goodness from their very real, very hurtful outward behavior. Instead of letting actions define the person, I let my own sense of their goodness and capability define them.
And I hold on. I hold on, waiting for the inner goodness to grow stronger and break through. I hold on, hoping for the outward behavior to change. I hold on, knowing that the potential is real, the love is real, the capability is real, the goodness is real. And it is. But I hold on even when the behavior is bad, the actions are terrible, the lies are rampant, the treatment is shitty, the boundaries are crossed, and I am broken over and over again.
I hold on because I am strong enough to handle it. (That’s a story I tell.)
I hold on because other people need me to hold on. (That’s a story I tell.)
I hold on because I feel responsible for the pain I can sense. I hold on because I feel guilty when anyone’s hurt or burden seems more significant than mine (and it always does).
I hold on because I want to help. I hold on because I sense suffering, and walking away feels like adding to it.
I hold on because I don’t realize that not holding on is an option.
But all that is changing. The change is slow and difficult, because it’s not anyone else who has to change. It’s not others who have to fix their shit. It’s me.
The next step for me—in anything, in everything—is to stop holding on and to start letting go.
This scares the shit out of me. Letting go feels like everything I fear: failure, chaos, risk, doom, despair, hopelessness, rejection, danger, falling apart.
Of course, as a friend recently reminded me, nothing is falling apart. It is what it already was. It just went differently than I expected it to, because I never controlled the universe.
The shock is letting myself see my lack of control.
The challenge is realizing love is not what I thought it was.
Love is not holding on so tight to someone else’s happiness that you forget about your own.
Love is not control. Love is not making everything okay.
Love is not doing your best to minimize everyone else’s pain.
Love is not empathy.
Right now, love is letting go. Releasing control, and all attempts to make everything work out. Sitting still instead of trying to make it all work out. Turning toward fear instead of away.
Fear, I wish to walk with you. You are the face of truth for me, right now. You are a dark shadow lurking by my side. You have been there so long.
Tension, stress, anxiety, guilt, regret: let us come close together. Let us link arms because we are on this journey. I do not enjoy your company, but I don’t know how else to walk this path but together.
Avoidance, denial, distraction: we are done. We have spent too much time in each other’s company. I gave you too much space. I liked your stories. I liked how you helped me forget my fear. I liked how you kept me blind, because seeing—really seeing—was the one thing I couldn’t let myself do.
Because holding on required me to be blind.
Seeing requires me to let go.
Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.
Image courtesy of Joshua Abner.