#StainedGlassDec Guest Post by Ashlee Zoch
I’ve known Ashlee since I was 4 years old. Truthfully, I can’t remember ever not knowing Ashlee. Our parents are best friends, and we like to jokingly say that we were raised by a tribe — which isn’t far from the truth. Though we haven’t lived in the same place in about 17 years, I can’t remember a summer or a Christmas that I didn’t see Ashlee and her family. She’s a friend who sticks closer than a sister, a kindred spirit and fellow dreamer, and she has been making me better since 1993. I love the story you’re hearing from her today, because these words come with authority. I’ve watched her walk willingly into the uncertainty of new homes, new jobs, a new marriage (to name a few) — and thrive even in the desert, because that’s just who she is.
If you would have told me 5 years ago that I would find myself working in my old high school, in my old hometown, teaching American Literature, I would have punched you. Hard. More realistically, I would maybe have thrown a few expletives your way accompanied by awkward, angry giggles.
In the words of T-Swift, I was “feeling 22.” Living in Austin, Texas and fresh off the diploma high the University of Texas had given me, all I wanted was to be someone important. I never admitted that out loud, mostly because it felt so embarrassing to say, but I craved it. I wanted my life to be a story worth telling, and I wanted it to be written the way I had envisioned.
To move back to Kingwood (a suburb of Houston) would admit early defeat. It would mean my life had ceased to be a narrative, and had become a magazine. Typical, cliche and b-b-b-boring.
Because, at 22, I firmly believed I would be making art with my voice or my words; that I would be changing the world with my theatrical aspirations and helping children overcome the injustices they faced. I believed that I knew (despite lack of money, a true job other than a travelling PE teacher for Pre-school, and a lot of sass) how God was going to use me. I believed none of those things I dreamed of could happen back in Houston.
The summer following the euphoric feeling of graduating, I visited my family back in Kingwood. Some important facts you should know:
I am the oldest of four. I have one brother and two sisters, all with an average of 2 and a half to three years in between.
My family is like a circus, my father is the ring leader and my mother is the main attraction. Loud, boisterous and always drawing a crowd; the Olejniczak family never disappoints with entertainment.
I spent a majority of my childhood and adolescence as a second mother to my sisters, and an actual sister and friend to my brother.
So, as I sat in the kitchen watching the 3 ring circus start to begin, I became hyper aware of the relationship my two sisters had formed. They had inside jokes, the same friends and were relating the way sisters do.
I had nothing to contribute.
I was the other ‘Mom’, feeling the distance of my kids grown up, and I had missed four years of time to bond. There was jealousy rising up inside me, and sadness. I shared with a good friend over a camp fire my feelings. She let me finish, and then said something I didn’t want to hear, “Maybe God needs you to move home.”
Don’t you hate it when God speaks really loudly through really respectable, loving people? I hated it, because I knew I couldn’t ignore it. I had to move where I believed my dreams would die. My hometown.
When I returned to Austin, a few things happened in a month.
I was offered a Theater teaching job in a community thirsting for healthy outlets for their children that was located 30 minutes from my parents house.
I was fired from my travelling PE job.
I moved back into the circus: my parents house.
Ironically, I had to momentarily share a room with my youngest sister.
My 22 year old self was shell shocked — what just happened? This is not what I wanted. This isn’t what I dreamed of! I have no idea what I’m doing!
God did something very profound in the two years I taught theater. I struggled and failed a lot, but I also found my dreams shifting and morphing into beautiful shapes that I was learning to be proud of. I wrote my own musical called, “I AM”, which may be the most important piece of art I have ever done. Literally, it was divine inspiration.
After a year of seeing students struggle with identity and feeling powerless, this idea was given to me in the middle of worship at a Young Life retreat. I was going to write about their lives, let them sing songs they believe in, and have people clap for being themselves.
Students danced and sang with purpose, their purpose. They found purpose. The crowd was teary, not because I’m spectacular, but because they witnessed the reflection of God’s beauty in kids who had felt hopeless.
In the midst of my creative endeavors, I was mentoring high school students through Young Life, including my sisters. God was weaving our lives into a more unified rhythm. I got to go to a Young Life camp with both of them and witness them ask hard questions about who God is, but see their hearts soften to the consuming love of God. My sisters were being my friends.
In two years, the place I had written off as a dream wasteland became a garden of old desires blooming and new ones growing.
How could I have tried to write my own story? The Writer of Writers gave me a narrative I didn’t expect, in fact, He gave this protagonist a good swift kick of humility to see the beauty in what I defied: home.
Home became not just a place, but a word that held all of my important relationships. Home encompassed my best friends, and soon to be husband. Home became the place I fell in love with Jon Zoch and got to marry with all of “home” to witness it and celebrate. What I had decided was a place of failure was actually a place of fulfillment.
And here is where I find myself, in the midst of the new fruit that bloomed in the wasteland. I was called to leave teaching theatre and go to my old highschool, in my hometown and teach American Literature in the place my sisters were. The original call to go there was loud, obviously purposeful and clearly for the sake of ministry. Like I said, don’t you hate it when God speaks to you through loving and respected people?
After a year of seeing the purpose, the scenario changed. My role with YoungLife changed, so my role at the school changed. One sister graduated, leaving another in the wake of being (for the first time) the only child in the house, and my administration found my teaching team to be the one to increase in work load.
My hours, my exhaustion, my boundaries with students all increased. The purpose, the desire all seemed to have erased. Fragments of my prayers became, “Can I leave yet?” and “This isn’t me, and you know it!” or “I can’t do this”.
I should make this very clear: I would quit now if I could.
Why am I here? You already know the answer. Because God told me to. Because there is and was reconciliation in all of this. There is beauty in the hardship, and despite me understanding the purpose I know my God is a God who fulfills dreams and then some.
God has made my desires, my brokenness and my selfishness into a beautiful piece of art before. I have to point back to when it was good and believe where I am at IS good, even if my flesh screams ‘no’. I have to hold on to that when my day to day life feels so empty. I have to remember when it felt full.
So, my narrative isn’t just about what I didn’t expect, it’s about what I didn’t know. If you would have told me 5 years ago that I will get to write a musical, be friends with my sisters, get married to my favorite person, and actually love my hometown: I would have sighed a sad sigh of disbelief.
Because, 5 years ago, I had no idea that God was writing a story far beyond what my little dreams encompassed.
For when the narrative gets rocky, I can point back to the beauty and point forward because I know it will come.
Ashlee loves a good cup of coffee, a run and adventure. She the queen of apartment 14 in Houston, TX; married to her favorite human and is constantly finding beauty in grace and forgiveness. She is slightly obsessed with Thai food, female comedians and boots. Her blog, ‘From A to Z’ encompasses what inspires, encourages and challenges all of us.