The move from our home in San Mateo, California to Los Angeles was the hardest thing I can remember in my early childhood. I was 8 years old, and yet in my body it seems like I was so much older than that. It was move number six in my short life and I felt too old inside. My little self had said too many goodbyes to best friends and adjusted to too many new spaces. The slow shattering of the innocence inside me had already begun. I splintered a bit more with each goodbye and gradually learned how to repackage myself for each new classroom, hoping to belong.
The year that we lived at 12251 Kenney Drive, my grandmother died. My dad worked crazy hours and my mom’s closest friend got breast cancer. My brother quietly played with his Legos and action figures and I continued to sleep with my Raggedy Ann doll and suck my thumb at night. There were not enough words filling the empty spaces I felt in our family, and not enough curiosity about the myriad of feelings rolling around inside of me.
A few years ago, while my parents were visiting us, I sat next to my dad as we scrolled through old photos he’d converted to digital images. Clicking through them one by one, we laughed and reminisced. A picture of me holding up the UnGame on Christmas morning popped onto the screen. The UnGame was designed to nurture connection and understanding between the players as everyone worked their way around the board by answering questions like:
- When do you get angry?
- If you had to move and could only take three things with you, what would you take?
- Do you ever feel lonely? When?
- What one quality do you look for most in a friend?
- What does freedom mean to you?
- Share something you fear.
- Name ten famous people you would like to have for parents and why.
My Dad remembered that I had asked for the game for Christmas that year. “You know Trac, I don’t think we ever played that game with you.” And, I think he was right. I don’t remember playing the game. I only remember sitting on my bed with the stack of cards, reading them and answering them in my head.
Six years and another move later, I was graduating from eighth grade, and our entire class made of list of what we thought we would all be doing in twenty years.
“Tracy – most likely to marry the president and be a counselor.”
Even then, my friends seemed to have a keen grasp of my capacity for leadership and my hunger for meaningful connection.
I didn’t marry the president, for which I am grateful, and a rape in college hijacked my desires for a degree. The road towards what I was most “likely” to become took a sharp detour and got stuck in the emotional gridlock of shame for years.
As I look back at my younger self, I can feel her still inside of me: the little girl with the stack of cards on her bed, hungry to talk about her heart and to know the people she loved most on a deeper level. The ache of not feeling known, coupled later with the secrets and shame of sexual abuse, were the ingredients for low-grade hopelessness and despair, which I kept at bay through overcompensation, performance, rule-keeping, and a distinct edge of sarcasm. I appeared strong and confident, which garnered praise and leadership opportunities within the church.
But underneath all of my bravado was the tender, curious connector, still holding those cards in her hand.
Our deepest passions flow from the place inside of us that has known great suffering. If we attend to the suffering with curiosity, kindness, and care, it transforms us and reveals our calling, the place where our deep joy meets up with the world’s deep need.
Part of being human is the ongoing experience of suffering and joy mingling together, again and again. Today my life is marked by creating and nurturing spaces where connection, hope, healing and celebration can occur—spaces where the questions get asked, where all the stories can belong, and suffering is met with curiosity and compassion. The little girl who once sat alone with her cards of questions gets to play a much larger table.
And for me, the best part of this story is that today I know and feel known by a wild Jesus, who cannot be contained by any particular denomination or faith tradition. The table I have the joy of hosting belongs to Him, and that is what allows for all the stories to belong.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 30 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastors wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.