Pick Your Palm Tree

Heather Ardrey

There are many reasons people move to a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Some are in it for the adventure. Some are in it for the money. Some are in it for the nostalgia, having grown up here. But many of us are running from something.

For over a year leading up to our decision to move, it was clear that there was a transition coming. It was one of those times when I just knew that I knew that change was coming — I just didn’t know what it was. Everything in life seemed fine. Family was good: husband, two kids. Neighborhood was good — great even, by some measures. Church was good. Work was good: doing things I was good at for a good cause. But still, I didn’t feel settled and my husband, Dave, didn’t either. Everything was good, but nothing was quite right. We had many long conversations about what was next and absolutely no clarity.

In the fall of 2013, we entered what I would come to call our “dart-throwing” stage. Dave started sending out feelers both within and outside of his company. I was doing the same. Everywhere it seemed doors were closing and by late winter/early spring, it seemed we would start the fall of that year in the same place with essentially the same questions and uncertainty we had had the previous fall. Then something shifted.

In the end of February, Dave applied within his company for a lab group that works and lives on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands — mid-Pacific Ocean. In our minds the chances of it working out were very, very slim. But by the end of April he was offered a position, our household goods left mid-May and the first week of July we moved half a world away.

When we made the decision to move to Kwaj, I didn’t think I was running away, or at least I wasn’t only running away. We had a lot of good reasons to move, including feeling that this was the door God had opened for us. This was the change we had been waiting for. It was a relatively easy decision for us to make, even given the magnitude of choosing to move so far from everything and everyone we’d ever known.

It didn’t take long on the island before I realized that I had been running from something after all. In that year of discernment leading up to our move, I hadn’t really been asking the right questions. Instead of inquiring with an open mind and heart, I had been more in crisis mode. I’m in my mid-thirties — I should know what I want to do with my life. I should know what God wants of me. But it felt hard to ask God those questions, and it felt harder to listen for the answers.

I realized that I had not really been dreaming about what I could do. I had not really even been able to ask God, because I was afraid. I’m afraid that taking care of my kids is all God will ask me to do. I’m also afraid God will ask more, for something bigger than I’m capable of. I’m afraid that in dreaming a future for myself, I’m grasping at something that’s not really mine to grasp.

Our pastor here on the island said once that for those who run away to Kwaj, there’s a sense that the island life might be a balm of sorts. Maybe the hurt, or isolation, or fear will go away if I just sit under a palm tree long enough. But I can tell you from experience — it doesn’t go away, at least not in the way you want. In fact, before there’s any chance of it going away it shows up again. It finds you. There are fewer distractions here, so when it shows up it’s harder to ignore. You can’t hide from it. It’s too obvious outlined against the turquoise water of the lagoon. When it finds you, you have two choices: you can find another palm tree on another island and then another and another and just keep running forever...or you can stop running and decide — this island, this palm tree is the one I will stay under, where I will sit with this pain until we come to an understanding.

Just this past month I finally picked a palm tree. I am not going to run from this anymore. As I was processing all of the fear with my spiritual director, her question to me was: “Who is this God who only gives you fearful options?” Aw, snap. He doesn’t. Why would he? I don’t believe God is giving this fear to me. Scripture tells us that perfect love drives out fear. I’m not stagnant because God is silent — I’m spinning my wheels because of fear. This is not where I want to be. I want to be active. I want to be moving forward. Fear stagnates, love propels.

I felt like I had heard something like this before, and here is what I found: 

"When we sit in fear, we are constricted — our heart closes, our muscles tighten, our thoughts ricochet, and our spirit is caged....When we’re in a state of fear, it’s difficult to move. Our body, mind, emotions, and spirit stagnate.  And when we do move, we’re like a little gerbil running aimlessly on its little wheel inside its little cage, going nowhere, running fast to stand still....So how do we get off this wheel of self-inflicted, vegetative angst?  By moving into gratitude. Once in gratitude, we can go anywhere. Gratitude is the element of love that maintains an open heart, expands our capacity for tolerance, and sustains compassion. Love propels us forward in life and in our spiritual growth." — Tina Frisco

Living with a grateful heart, like most things that matter, is not a given. It is not something that will happen without our attention. Gratitude is a discipline, just as most important things are. If we want to excel at it, we have to practice.

Adele Calhoun tells us in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook that gratitude as a spiritual discipline has little to do with what’s around us or what we’re given. It’s all about being aware of who’s around us. It’s about noticing God’s presence with us and within the world. Gratitude is ultimately a response towards God. Conversely, a lack of gratitude stems from being unable or unwilling to notice God’s presence regardless of the circumstances.

We move out of fear by moving into gratitude. It is not an invitation to an easy gratitude that pretends nothing bad ever happens. Instead, we are invited to reframe the way we view our lives and the circumstances of our lives. And above all else we are invited to notice God.

I still don’t have answers. Even though I know this island life is a temporary one for us, I don’t know what’s next. I may not for a very long time. As a person who likes to plan, that puts me in a really uncomfortable place. I want to know what to prepare for. I want to feel I have a purpose outside of myself and outside of my home. But for now, I’ve picked my palm tree. I will not run from the fear of what God might ask of me. I know him to be a God who gives life-giving, love-filled options, not fearful ones.  As I sit here under my palm tree, I will wait for him to open a way forward in my vocation. I will look for the presence of God and be grateful I am not alone.

Heather Reneé Ardrey is an Ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene. She is a former Intervarsity Graduate Staff Worker. She, her husband Dave, and their two kids live on a two-mile-long island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Heather currently spends her time caring for her kids while waiting for whatever is next in her vocation. In her free time, she can be found scuba diving, painting, or writing. 

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