The God of the U-Turn: Finding Life Outside of the Academy

Ashley Hales

I was 12 when I discovered how much I loved diagramming sentences. I’d fill cheap spiral notebooks with stories and journals with attempts at poetry. I read by the light of the headlights behind us on road trips so as not to miss a single sentence. I climbed the rungs of Honors and AP English and ate up my literature classes in college.

I spent a semester at Oxford, my nose buried in old books. My flatmates and I precariously balanced fun with our tutorials, essay writing, and traveling. It was there that literature filled up each crack and crevice; it ran through my veins. I was hooked. I wanted this life. I set my sights on a PhD, so I could gently foster the same imagination, creativity, precise analysis, and passion to know, to experience, and to love a discipline so well. It’s what I saw across the table in my Oxford tutorials and in old leather-worn chairs during my professors’ office hours.

Then I got married. I discovered that committing yourself to another (whether spouse, child, friend, or community) means drawing delicate circles of relation that extend beyond yourself. You commit to loving and serving your spouse (not another); you commit to being a part of a particular church body (without a side eye to others); you commit to raising up and loving children when they come. Each commitment meant I held tightly to what was inside my circle while gently letting go of that which was outside it. It was easy enough at first. Our circles of relation were wide, and my husband and I moved around them gracefully when we moved overseas to Scotland for graduate school — he to a small seminary, me to a large, international research university. Our circles included part-time jobs, parties full of friends and intellectual banter, long hours in the library, and the sense that underneath it all, we were living a grand adventure — an adventure that always moved forward, slanting upward. The future shone bright ahead of us, the way it’s apt to do on the cusp of adulthood.

Our first jobs easily fit into our widening circles. We could each pursue our dreams and meet happily in the middle. I had been hired as an English Instructor at a new, Christian college, and my husband was working as an assistant pastor. But two years in, his job was dying and we were surprised to find out we were going to be parents. My classes were reworked so I only came in to the college two days a week; my mother walked around campus with Ezra so I could breastfeed between classes, always in a frantic rush to grab my notes, change my mental game, and not have breast milk leak through my blouse. On my other day of classes, my husband took his day off and walked the streets of Pasadena, his baby boy in a Moby wrap, pleading with him to alternately sleep or take a bottle (both of which he hated). I felt pulled in a million different directions. I’d fall asleep with my dog at my feet, my baby in my arms, and ungraded papers sprawled across my lap.

It was the next move and the next child (just 19 months after the first), that drastically tightened my own circle, while my husband’s grew. My husband was doing a church planting internship for a year; it didn’t make sense for me to work. I’d finish my PhD, I told myself. But with a toddler and a newborn, without an academic job lined up, the PhD was pushed off another year. Then, we moved again, to another state for a campus ministry position. My husband would be starting a campus ministry, using his entrepreneurial spirit and pastoral heart. I’d be in the college milieu, I could finish my dissertation, and I figured I’d grab some teaching when I could. Even though academic job hiring had come to a sudden halt due to the recession of 2009, I thought I could jump back into teaching. Surely having a child wouldn’t phase me out of my calling.

But as the years went by, the demands on our family and ministry grew. This was not the straight path I had chosen. To keep our family stable, I found myself increasingly tightened by the demands of child-rearing. I’d balk at it and yet, grading freshman-level English papers didn’t sound nearly as exciting as reading The Chronicles of Narnia with my own children or having deep, spiritual conversations with college students in the campus ministry about life, work, and love. My arrow of a bright and successful future had missed its target. I was thrashing about in the murky middle wondering how to fit calling, circumstance, giftedness, and relationship together. How do I faithfully love and serve my family, honor God in our ministry and home life, and respond to my deep desire to write, read, and teach? How was I supposed to have it all? Could I have it all? And how had these circles of relation both become a curse and my salvation?

We live boundaried lives. We can fight against the edges of our circles — where we come into intimate relationship with others and are responsible to them —or we can discern how to live faithful lives given those constraints. I pushed at my circle for years, trying to expand it ever wider. I stewed like a petulant child — angry that my bright future was now full of dirty diapers, toddler tantrums, and my own inability to take it in stride. It would have been a valid choice to put children in daycare and to go about finding a successful job, but it wasn’t my choice. And yet, I couldn’t seem to find God exclusively in the liturgy of the ordinary. Like Brené Brown says, if creativity isn’t used, it festers. I grew resentful, blamed my husband’s ministry job changes, and bought the lie that a tenure track job would satisfy all my longing for meaning and significance. Here I was, PhD now in hand (nine years after I started), not in the classroom, but with three little children and one on the way. What was I doing with my life? How could this be God’s plan?

So one October I took up blogging, not to gain a following or because I wanted to build a platform. In fact, I’d never thought of myself as a writer. I just loved the grace of fine sentences. Yet, here I was writing daily, using the skills the academy had handed me: how to craft a sentence, how to create an arc in a chapter, how to think, research, and ask hard questions of my subject matter — whether that was Enlightenment philosophy or motherhood. And writing brought me home to myself. I came alive again.

As I’ve continued to write, to build the first inklings of a calling I never knew I had, I realize how often God surprises us with u-turns. I’m right back at my beginning: playing about in spiral notebooks, letting the power of story enchant my children and me, and still teaching (only now it’s in the church). I jumped off the hamster wheel because the tenure track job was never what it was all about. This deep abiding sense of calling — of walking alongside others, writing, reading, and teaching — was always there. In the years of fighting against the edges of that tightening circle, I didn’t see that God’s call is more messy and wild than I hoped. He explodes our categories. He turns our plans on their heads. He shows us his goodness and care again and again. I may return at some point to the literature classroom, but I realize it’s no longer the only space where my calling finds a home. No — home is much more beautiful than that. Here in the small space, the circle is wider than I ever imagined.

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Ashley Hales holds a PhD in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. After years away, she’s back in the southern California suburbs helping her husband plant a church, chasing her four little children, and writing a book in the wee hours. Her writing has been featured in Books & Culture, ThinkChristian, (in)courage, The Englewood Review of Books, and other places. A member of Redbud Writers Guild, she’s also an editor and contributor at The Mudroom. Find Ashley writing at aahales.com, on Twitter, or connect on Facebook.

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