The Wholehearted Hero: Claire Aufhammer from The Wee Fridge Series

I sat across the table from my friend Claire a few weeks ago asking who she'd been inspired by recently, trying to gather ideas for who to feature next for this very series. It donned on me a couple days later that Claire would be an excellent choice to consider. I've been so inspired by her life, watching her travels, education, and holistic missions experiences from afar. She spent the last five years in Scotland, although when we saw each other last we picked up right where we left off (see previous post). Claire is a dear friend with a wealth of depth and wisdom. 

I always looked forward to receiving Claire's e-mail updates while abroad, which were always written brilliantly, revealing little glimpses into her life and revelations she'd received recently. She is both a thought leader and an excellent and inspiring writer. I trust you'll enjoy her thoughts below as she unpacks her "new beginning" in 2017. 

1. Can you briefly let us into your journey that led to where you are now? How did you end up in Scotland and what made you stay? 

Woah, OK. Where do I start? On the 20 September 1990, I was born at the Huntington Memorial Hospital. Just kidding, I won't start that early.

I'm currently living in Pasadena, California, where I grew up, but for the past five years I've been living in Scotland. After high school, I attended Baylor University, and in my junior year I went to study abroad at the University of St Andrews in St Andrews, Scotland. I was supposed to be there for a semester, but somehow that turned into five years. 

What made me stay? So many things. First, the people. I loved the friends I made at St Andrews. I mean, I loved my friends at Baylor too (and leaving them was one of the hardest things I've ever done). My St Andrews friends were from all over the world and to me, really embodied this whole "in, not of the world" mantra. They taught me so much about the Christian life. Second, my course. Straight-up theology wasn't offered at Baylor, and I always assumed it was a tedious discipline arguing over aspects of God that we can't really ever know. But while studying in St Andrews, I soon discovered that I loved theology and it wasn't futile. I didn't always feel very good at it, but I felt like it fed my soul in a way that nothing had before. Third, I think it came down to me feeling free to be me. I felt like I came into this season of thriving in St Andrews, which was so liberating. When we move to new places, there's always opportunity for re-creation or new self-expression. Sometimes this can feel paralyzing - like there's too many options. And sometimes this can feel so freeing. I think during my first transition, when I left home and went to Baylor, I found this paralyzing. But the second time round, in my transition to St Andrews, I found it refreshing! I could break out of confines and expectations from me and others around me, and I could just be me.

2. After receiving your Masters of Theology from St. Andrews, what did you do next? Can you tell us about the missions organization you worked for and why you ultimately decided to move back home? 

Fast forward a year, I'm living the dream in Scotland and finishing the final year of my degree. While exciting, moving my world abroad was emotionally exhausting, and as I thought about what to do after graduation, I decided I didn't want to have another big move. I was interested in mission work among the poor, and came upon this fantastic organization called InnerCHANGE, a Christian mission order among the poor. They have teams all around the world move into deprived communities and seek to empower local people to pursue the transformation of their neighborhoods. My heart for social justice and the Gospel seemed to go hand in hand with the mission and vision of this group, and so I applied to join their order. In the process, they said that there was a team emerging in Glasgow, Scotland. A community of folks had moved into a neighborhood called Possilpark some seven years prior, and several of them were interested in joining forces and becoming part of InnerCHANGE. So to make another long story short, I ended up joining that team in Glasgow, and moved into one of the most marginalized communities in Scotland to be a friend and neighbor for three years.

That time around, you could say that I stayed in Scotland to spare myself the exhaustion of moving around the world again.

Fast forward three years, I'm loving my work in Glasgow, but also feeling pretty disconnected and worn out. The gray, wet weather really took a toll on my emotions, and I was just weary and lonely. After a period of discernment, I decided that after my initial three-year commitment was complete, I'd return to the States to be nearer to my family and also to seek to acquire a new skill to put to use in this line of work. 

So now I'm back in California, unemployed, and relishing in a season of rest. As Americans, I think we tend to be pretty focused on action, production, and success. We're busy and driven and confident and eager, which is fantastic. But I think sometimes this comes at the expense of our souls and well-being. We forget that the fifth commandment was to honor the Sabbath. We need rest and time out to reflect and to be. God actually commands this because it's for our best good. So I think I'm taking a gap year or Jubilee year, if you will. I'm wanting to pause and slow down and let who I am emerge before diving into the next thing.

3. Living in a different country for five years certainly creates learning opportunities and opens doors to a new set of values, culture, ect. No doubt you are coming home different than when you left! What sorts of experiences or things marked you most? 

Living in Scotland changed my life. But I think this early-twenties phase of life is particularly formative, regardless of where we are. Three things come to mind right now, but there's certainly more. I think I'd say that I was especially marked by the example of my Christian friends living out their faith in a very real and approachable way, mediating this balance of Christian community and faithfulness to Christ, while also openness to the world and engagement with people and things who are different from us. 

Second, I think I was really impressed with a sense of how connected we are. I'm not sure that I can fully pinpoint why, but in my experience I think Europeans and British people have a healthy sense for how we're all connected to and affected by one another. And as a result of that, I feel like they live sensitively to the world, other people, and the environment. In America, for better or for worse, we can be very individualistic and take for granted the whole, for the sake of the one. It could be their more socialized governments or their countries' close proximity to one another or whatever, but I was really refreshed and challenged by this mentality of openness and concern for "the other" and, particularly, how my decisions affect the people and/or the environment around me. Now I feel more sensitive to the impact of my money, choices, habits, lifestyle, etc.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, my experience living in a marginalized community has quite literally flipped my world upside down. I saw and experienced life from "the other side", and this has given me a whole new perspective on privilege and power and the things I take for granted and what's important and what I want in life. As an outsider, it's easy to diagnose and prescribe the poor: "This is what's wrong, and so they need this." But when you live with them, take on their burdens (in meager and small ways - because, let's be real, there were distinct ways in which was still very unlike my neighbors), call them friend, see life from their perspective, the "them" becomes "us" and everything changes. 

Now I feel more aware of the specific, yet subtle and most likely unconscious ways our societies ostracize people who are different from us. Something as supposedly simple as the places public transportation goes in a city - this has a profound impact on the opportunities accessible for the poor. In my context, it was virtually impossible for my neighbors to access by public transport the more affluent area of Glasgow known as the "West End". You could argue that there wouldn't have been enough demand to have a bus route there. But it could also be said that by not providing the transport, the city is dictating that people from my area don't have a place in the West End. This is a small example of a huge, complex, and varied issue. The question of poverty, what God says about the poor, and how as Christians we ought to help the poor are things that I think I want to dedicate my life to - and all of this was solidified and impressed upon me in real and raw ways while living in Glasgow.   

4. Do you feel as though your time in Europe contributed to your personal development? How did you embrace your own identity and values in a new place? 

I've certainly developed as a person. When faced with a new environment, culture, and set of values, we're presented with an opportunity to re-create or kind of "chart a new course" for ourselves. In the midst of this, the obvious questions of "Who am I? Who has God made me to be?" emerge. Figuring out who I am has probably been the most consistent and profound journey I've found myself on these past few years. I think it's the developmental stage we're at in our twenties, and well, I bet the question probably never goes away. I think some important person at some point in time has said something along the lines of God being much more concerned with who we are than what we do. This obviously doesn't excuse us from thoughtful behavior, but it underscores the value of becoming. Living in a cross-cultural context, I've often felt like the odd one out, and I was often finding myself torn between American culture and British culture. And eventually, I think I had to break from the labels and just be me. I took what I liked and discarded what I didn't like from both places and found this middle way that felt like me being true to me, who God made me to be. I think this is similar to what "third culture kids" experience and do. Now, I feel more like a hodge-podge of several cultures, rather than one specific culture. And in the midst of this, I feel like somehow I've emerged more sure of who I am and what my place is in the world. 

5. One thing I admire about you is your commitment to the process. I'm always curious about how you process each decision or move, yet you strike me as someone who is so thorough in your process, so as not to miss anything important, and stay true to yourself. Can you let us into your recent decision process to move back to LA? Do you have a typical process for the way you make decisions? What advice would you give to someone contemplating a major life transition or decision?

Wow! That's so kind! I don't feel like making decisions is a strength of mine - I certainly don't have a very impressive process, or any process for that matter. I try to consider a lot of factors - what my heart feels, what I want, how I sense the Lord leading, what lines up/makes sense from my journey thus far, what I'll look back on the situation and think, the input of family/friends/people I trust, prayer, and probably a lot of other things that I can't think of right now. Among Christians, I think it can be easy to over-spiritualize decisions. But in the last few years I've really drawn encouragement from the fact that God is very personal and knows my heart more than even I do or possibly can. And I'm trying to trust my heart more. I think I've learned a lot about this through Ignatian/Jesuit spirituality, which really affirms and emphasizes the way that God moves us using our desires. 

Our desires are worth listening to, but there's this whole line of Christian spirituality that emphasizes "the heart is deceitful above all things". Of course, there's a sense in which that's certainly true. We're fallen and broken and "see through a glass dimly". But if I am walking with God and seeking to honor him, I have the Holy Spirit inside of me, and so there has to be a sense in which my heart is trustworthy and can be followed. God's made me to be who I am, and it's good and right for me to embrace that identity. 

Over time, I think this has probably become my most important criteria - listening to myself. For years, I've assumed or believed that to trust myself is sinful and selfish. And no doubt there's an unhealthy self-indulgence that this can very easily slip into, but if submitted to the Word and Spirit of God, I think we can trust ourselves and our hearts and our God-given desires and allow that to be the foundation from which we make godly decisions. 

In my recent decision to come back, I think a huge piece was digging deep into myself and honestly admitting to God what I wanted and being reminded of who he's creating me to be. And it was from that foundation of my identity and desires that I evaluated my options and discerned which way seemed most suited to this destination or this trajectory of my "becoming". 

6. I've been inspired and fascinated by your transition from Scotland back to America, which included a trek or pilgrimage on what's known as the Camino. Can you explain more about this journey and give us a little window into what it was like? How did this aide your transition process? 

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route culminating in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Medieval Christians would travel and pay homage to the city of Santiago because the relics of St James, the disciple and brother of Jesus, were buried there. There are many routes to Santiago - before planes, trains, and automobiles, people used to start from their doorstep and walk to Santiago and then back home again. Because of this, there are traditional, well-loved paths all throughout Spain and Europe that lead to Santiago. Thanks to American films like The Way, Korean books, German documentaries, etc the walk has been popularized and attracts people from all around the world. Nowadays, it's a famous long distance walk, which thousands and thousands of people walk each year for leisure, fitness, and soul-searching. I started on 27 September and began my 500-mile trek to Santiago. And then just because I was having so much fun, I pushed on to the coast to the towns of Muxia and Finisterre. From there, I walked the three days back to Santiago, which amounted to an additional 100 miles or so. 

Because of its growing popularity, the Camino has become very commercialized, so there are villages/towns with food and accommodation every six miles or so. And because it's so popular, I was always in sight of a handful of people either in front of or behind me. I went on this journey alone (except for the company of a very kind friend Tom who joined me for the first four days), but I met a whole host of delightful people who became my walking companions. I tended to walk at the same pace every day, averaging about 15-19 miles per day. There were other people walking at this pace, who I'd see day in and day out. And so we'd eventually strike up conversations in the hostels in the evening, at a cafe during a coffee break, or while walking. There's a very communal, generous, and hospitable environment among pilgrims, so one thing would lead to the next and I'd find myself walking with a group and becoming great pals. 

Besides getting some sunshine, really good time to myself, and de-stressing (because I only had to think about the day I was in), meeting these different groups of people was probably the most meaningful aspect of my journey. At times I left groups or lost track of them, but people have a way of popping back up again on the Camino, and this happened often in my journey. I would regularly see people again who I thought were long gone. Pilgrimages are meant to be a microcosm of life, so in the midst of transition, this "losing and finding" people was so encouraging. It was a gentle reminder that goodbyes don't always have to be goodbyes. We never know what's up ahead and how the people we meet and love might re-emerge in our lives.

All in all, the Camino was hugely helpful in my transition process. I went because it was something I've wanted to do since hearing about it (my brother's best friend walked it four years ago and after hearing about his experience, I was determined to do it someday - thanks, David!) - little did I know that it'd be so profoundly helpful in my transition. Turns out I needed a sort of "liminal space" - time to be out of Scotland but not yet in America and to let all that I've experienced these past few years percolate and settle. Time to let my mind wander and grieve what I'm leaving behind. Time to get excited for what I'm entering into. I can't really pinpoint what I thought about as I walked. At times I prayed, or thought about the past, or let myself dream about the future. I tried to revel in the beauty and enjoy the stillness and silence. It's hard to explain, but something really good happened to me out there. I started the Camino really sad to leave Scotland and all my friends and my life there, and I finished more excited to come home, more sure of who I am, more encouraged by the goodness and generosity of people and of God, and more hopeful about the way that people come and go in life.

7. In what ways do you see your recent move as a fresh start or new beginning? How do you plan to take advantage of this? For those of looking to begin our own fresh starts or new resolutions, what would you suggest?  

My recent move is entirely a fresh start. I've returned to my "hometown", but it's not the same way I left it. The people are different and I'm different, and so in most every way, this is a reset. As I've mentioned before, these new starts can be freeing but can also feel paralyzing. While so much has changed and so much before me is unknown, I'm trying not to feel paralyzed and despairing. I'm making an effort to connect with old friends, but I'm also eager to write a new story here and to make new friends. I think I'm going to do what I love and try new things - a little mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. I think that's probably a good way forward for people entering new seasons - keep stuff that's familiar, but take risks and try something unfamiliar. Allow yourself to be surprised. Be proactive and disciplined, but spontaneous and gracious with yourself.

8. What are some daily, weekly, or even monthly rhythms you put in place to help facilitate the process and journey you've been on so far? 

Regular, life-giving rhythms were a lifeline to my general well-being and mental health these past few years. At some point, I actually created a little "rule of life", a compilation of habits and attitudes that I want to keep in my life. In no particular order, here are some aspects to my rule, i.e. things that I try to incorporate regularly into my life and routine: 

  • being outdoors - running, walking, cycling, hiking, usually having some sort of race that I'm registered for keeps me accountable to following through here
  • spending time with/chatting to "soul friends" - people who know me well and who I can be 100% myself around
  • baking - a creative outlet, also a way to engage my body and free my mind
  • silence and solo time
  • journaling
  • reading - I usually read one fiction (a fun way to "escape" and entertain my brain) and one non-fiction (something more thought-provoking for my brain to "chew" on) at the same time
  • writing - more than just journaling, this is a creative outlet where I can pen ideas, lessons, or thoughts on what I'm reading or life experiences
  • personal retreats - ideally, twice a year
  • regular 8-hour sleeps (as much as possible)
  • cooking and eating proper meals - I think our bodies will thank us for the effort
  • generosity/giving - to causes/initiatives/church/friends both regularly and spontaneously
  • limit social media consumption - I'm not always good at this, but I try to only check Facebook once a day, and I've disabled most social media notifications (Instagram, FB Messenger, email, etc) so I'm less attached to my device

9. What does living wholeheartedly mean to you? And how have your views on this sort of lifestyle evolved over time? 

These last three years have taught me a lot about wholehearted living, and I'm sure the next three years (or three, four, five, six decades!) will do the same. What comes to mind are the words of a very wise man named Thomas Merton: "To be a saint is to be myself." And for a little context (from his book New Seeds of Contemplation), the pretext was:

"A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying God. It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to God’s creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree. The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like God. If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give God less glory…"

And then later, 

"...Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. 

I love this (though some of my fellow theology students may be less enthusiastic - not everyone's a fan of Merton). Saints are people who point us to God. And so I like that Merton here is expressing the idea that who I am - the person I'm becoming, this person uniquely created by the God of the universe - is holy, set apart, designed by God, and in some way points to God. And I get to participate in this process.

To me, this captures what it means to live wholeheartedly. All my mention of the importance of self isn't meant to be navel-gazing, self-obsessive, self-indulgence. It's rooted in God, it's letting who God made me to be emerge. It's participating with God in my becoming. It's self-care and freedom and life in community with others. It's downward mobility, not power-hungry. It's allowing and actively encouraging the becoming and the flourishing of people around me. It's thoughtful, slow, attentive, and submitted to the Spirit of God. It's loving and gentle and humble and sensitive. It's oriented towards truth and justice, it's strong, it's willing to question the status quo. It's embodied and enacted - not merely intangible attitude, but actual, concrete, and active. It's open to "the other" and welcomes difference and diversity. 

10. Is there anyone or anything that's been inspiring you to live wholeheartedly recently? Maybe a favorite author or podcast?

Oh, wow. Yes. Krista Tippett's podcast, "On Being". She's quite the woman - inquisitive and sensitive and thoughtful and respectful and genuine and un-biased (if there is such a thing). Her podcast centers on the discussion of religion and spirituality in our day and age. She interviews authors, scientists, artists, poets, religious figures, etc and engages with their unique profession and views, as a means of drawing out from them what it means to be human. Her produced interviews are usually around 50 minutes, but I've just recently started listening to the "unedited" versions which are almost 90 minutes (I like the way that these are less edited and a little more "off the cuff"). These conversations spur me on to live more thoughtfully and sensitively. I've really enjoyed her conversations with Jean Vanier, Father Greg Boyle, Paolo Coehlo, James Martin, and Eugene Peterson.

I'll also read and just about devour anything by Jean Vanier (of the L'Arche movement), Father Greg Boyle (of Homeboy Industries), James Martin (Jesuit priest), and Henri Nouwen (affiliated with L'Arche, Catholic writer and professor). Ha! Pretty sure all these are male Catholic priests. I just noticed that. Their work really feeds my soul though.

Claire is a stay-at-home millennial, currently between jobs and taking a "Jubilee"/gap year in this transitional season. She's passionate about downward mobility, the upside-down kingdom, and people on the margins. She likes to take pictures, drink coffee, bake, write, read, run, and (as of late) listen to podcasts. You can follow along with her writing on her blog and with her photos on her Instagram