The Changing of the Seasons

Fall is my favorite season. Or at least it always has been. I’m experiencing my first Fall in New England this year and I was surprised to find that while all the essential elements are there—breathtaking color, crisp mornings and warm afternoons, and occasional whiffs of woodsmoke—the internal response within me is not the same. Usually, on the first day that truly feels like fall I feel an abrupt internal shift to nostalgia and sentimentality. I start remembering beautiful moments from my life and love settling into a deep seated feeling of contentment.

As the morning temperature started to dip this year, I waited for that response. The leaves started to change, and I waited. I walked past my neighbor’s house with smoke curling from their chimney and I waited. I took a walk through the breathtaking beauty on an absolutely picture perfect fall day and asked myself again why this Fall feels so different.

I am very far from where I have lived before. There is a definite difference between Fall in Arkansas and Fall in Massachusetts. The timing is a bit off-sync. We are nearing the end of leaf season here and AR is definitely still in peak color. There seems to be more humidity in the air here, which means both the cold mornings and the slightly warm afternoons actually feel different to my skin. And then of course, there are no familiar landmarks here to help cue my nostalgia. Everything here is new and different.

But while I admit that these outward elements do have a part to play, there is an essential internal difference within myself as well. I’m still reflecting, just as I do every fall, but I’m reflecting differently. Whereas before my focus was mostly on thankfulness for life experiences and a certain longing to relive those moments, my mind seems to want to look back with more of a critical eye now. 

I know that probably sounds negative, but it actually doesn’t feel negative right now, just different. I’m noticing not just what I’ve experienced and enjoyed, but those things that I didn’t experience that I wish I had. I have no intention to detract from the many wonderful memories I have, but as I move into middle age I am finding my internal urge is less about contentment in nostalgia but rather about intentionally determining the direction of my life. I am realizing that all those moments in my life led to a particular path in life, and I am now assessing that path and considering carefully if it is indeed the path I wish to be on. My longing is less about reliving the experiences of the past, but rather a longing for certain future experiences that I hope for.

My adult life has so far been mostly focused around raising a family. I got married at 20 and had my first child days before I turned 23. The vast majority of the years since then have been spent at home caring for children and my household. In the early years of that journey, most of my future longings were still very centered around children. I daydreamed about getting pregnant, and then when I was pregnant I daydreamed about the baby to come. My nostalgia would be centered around family memories from my childhood, and special moments with my husband, and memories of my children. 

And while I am still very much in the midst of parenthood, there is a shift now, both in my children’s needs and in my desire to focus on something other than just motherhood, not to mention the fact that I most definitely am not sitting around longing for another baby. The last few years I’ve spent shifting my focus into discovering who I am other than “mom.” As I’ve dug into my soul, I’ve discovered treasure, pieces of myself that were hidden, buried underneath the layers of mothering. Some pieces I intentionally left behind to live this life, others I didn’t really know were there because I didn’t take the time to look at them before jumping headlong into marriage and childbearing. I’ve struggled with some of these discoveries and rejoiced in others. I’ve grieved the loss of not finding some of these earlier, and welcomed others back that I’ve missed. It’s been a hard, beautiful, and sometimes scary journey.

As we come out of nearly two years of pandemic living, which in many ways has put on hold some of my own personal journey as I’ve had to focus more on family and home again for awhile, I am now looking back on both my early adult life and what I’ve learned in more recent years and wondering if I have some choice in which paths my life takes next. I’m not just looking back on who I have been, but also wondering who I want to become. I’m noticing how some choices I have made in life led me to bury certain pieces of who I am and how I would like to make different choices now, to build different patterns into my life and work and faith.

So, I guess I’m no longer content to look back with unqualified nostalgia. I can be thankful for the wonderful things my life has been filled with so far, while also attempting to move forward into a life that is filled with different beautiful things. Obviously I am still a wife and a mom and the main household manager. But I am no longer content to let those things be the boundaries of my life.

I got up early a few Sundays ago to drive John to church since we currently only have one car. It was the first morning we needed winter coats when we stepped outside. I haven’t been sure yet how I feel about the upcoming winter in New England. This is the furthest north I’ve ever lived (except for our brief time in Germany) and I’ve wondered if I can handle a really cold season. As we drove the short drive to church I watched the houses go by and was struck by how comfortable and cozy everything looked in the cold air. A feeling of excited anticipation filled my heart. It was as if this little New England town whispered the promises of winter to me. “Yes, winter is a thing here,” it seemed to say, “but you are going to love it.” Perhaps it is time to fall in love with a new season.

Letting Go and Moving On

My favorite view of Morgantown is the short, but spectacular glimpse I get of the whole town spread out on the hillside as I round the curve on Monongahela Boulevard coming down from the Coliseum to Morgantown proper. The mood changes depending on the season and weather, but I never fail to appreciate the raw beauty of this place. 

Last Saturday, as I drove the familiar route for my weekly library visit, I was struck by a sense of sadness as the town came into view. Perhaps it was the heavy clouds that hovered above the town, spitting snow every now and then, but the town looked beautifully sad to me, and I felt suddenly nostalgic. My time here is coming to a close in four months, and even though we’ve lived here less than two years, there is a sense of familiarity in this place. Leaving feels like a break-up. Not an ugly break up, just a parting of ways. A relationship that didn’t quite work out.

Sure, there are things that are far from perfect here. Some of my uncomfortable early impressions have held true, like the income disparity that is so obvious as you drive through neighborhoods, or the troubling appropriation in the high school logo, mascot, and band, or the dangerous party atmosphere. But there is also a grittiness here that is beautiful in its harshness. There is a sense of pride of place in those who live here and a comfortable casualness of attitude. There is a sense of tenacity to this city built on hillsides with neighborhoods connected by narrow streets that wind unpredictably back and forth. I can feel the connection the city still holds to its wild roots. I identify with and appreciate its marriage of rural and urban, the in-betweenness of this place. It speaks to my own history, that farm girl whose childhood was spent on 80 acres of wild, but who grew up to appreciate being near to the bustle of community. It is one answer to the question of where I find home.

And so, I recognize that with time I could probably have learned to really love this place. But instead of exploring that, I am now tasked with the job of moving on, letting go, leaving well. Two years ago, when I got my first glimpse of Morgantown as we explored the possibility of moving here, I remember waking up in our hotel and looking out over the hillsides covered with drizzly fog. It reminded me of Germany, which was perhaps the hardest place for us to leave. That morning I had hope that this place would become home. Now that I know it can no longer be that, I wonder how I will look back on this time. Unfortunately, both because we have been unable to choose housing that felt like it fit us and because of the pandemic, everything has felt very temporary. Even relationships with people have been tough due to the pandemic. We had just gotten started and then everything was kind of put on hold. It’s felt like a pause, which in many ways is very unfortunate because I think perhaps this place and these people deserved more than that. Maybe eventually I can look back on our time here and see more than that. I hope so.

For now we focus on what is next. If moving away from a church and a location are like breaking up, job searching for a new parish is kind of like trying to find a match on a dating site. We read profiles and google locations and look at housing prices and wonder which might be a good fit. We get excited about possibilities yet always feel the threat of rejection in every interaction. And it is all complicated by the fact that our livelihood depends on finding a successful match. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable time full of unknowns, worries, and fear. Yet it also holds incredible moments of hope. And for John and I, there is also a sense of closeness as we recognize that no matter where we go, we go together. This time may not be easy, but it is powerful.

Thanksgiving Dishes

The meal was over. The kids disappeared quickly back into a game of Mario Kart and John retreated to the quiet of our bedroom downstairs. I found myself sitting alone at the table staring at the overflowing counters and empty tablecloth. Dietrich flitted back and forth as he explained to me how this wasn’t actually the “feast” he had expected, and yet also claimed to be full. You have to read between the lines with him to be able to see the competing picture of expectations and reality in his head.

I sat and breathed for a few minutes and then I got up to tackle putting away all the food, filling the dishwasher, and wiping down the counters. My heart hurt. Just like Dietrich, I was struggling with competing expectations and several very real realities within my own head. On one hand, I was frustrated with the empty kitchen and the fact that only my hands were working to finish the mundane chores that follow any large meal. I felt very alone as I recognized the hours of labor that had gone into the few minutes of togetherness we had just experienced and how much of my time and effort had gone into this and somehow I was still the only one putting any thought into the details. But on the other hand, I was actually thankful for something to keep me busy, because when the activity stopped, the emptiness, the grief, the loneliness felt overwhelming. And so I didn’t ask for help, but rather finished it alone, sinking into the lonely feeling as my hands wiped the counters down.

And when my hands were finished, I stuck my headphones in, put on boots and headed outside to give my feet something to do. I walked away from the simultaneously full and empty house and followed a familiar route, breathing in fresh air while music filled my ears. It was then that the tears began to fall. I let the emotions come to the surface and I had a good cry. I allowed myself to explore all the competing emotions. It is possible to be thankful and also full of grief. It is possible to be happy and angry at the same time. It is possible to love people and also be annoyed with them. I was feeling all of these things and I needed to let the negative pieces come to the surface for a bit. I needed to grieve what I was missing today.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. But many of my favorite pieces of this holiday seem far away this year. Most of my Thanksgivings have been full of family and games and activity. Thanksgivings are not supposed to feel lonely. Past Thanksgivings in my childhood home were always stuffed just as full of activity as they were of food. The games never ended, though they might pause long enough for a brisk walk. 

Once I had walked far enough that the fresh air and tears had purged a bit of my depression, I called my family. I talked with my Dad and my Mom and one of my sisters. I wish I could say that for the rest of the day I was happy and content, but it was still pretty hard to make it through the rest of the day. After Dietrich went to bed we did play a family game, and that did help fill a bit of the emptiness. But a good portion of the afternoon I just wanted the day to be done. I couldn’t handle the disparity between my expectations and the reality of this year. It was as if all of what has been hard about this year, all of the waiting, stress, grief and disappointment, was concentrated into this one day. 2020, the 40th year of my life, has frankly sucked. It’s not that I can’t give you a list of positive things that have happened this year. I can. It’s not that I’m not thankful for the unexpected beauty I have found in our days. I am. Just like I can look at yesterday and tell you how wonderful it was to see my kids spending time together, how helpful they were when asked, and the moments of quiet that breathed life into me. And yet I can also tell you that the day still sucked. Both things are true. 

And that is what this whole year has felt like to me. There are so many wonderful, beautiful things, but they all exist in the midst of extreme and sometimes traumatizing hardship. Every good thing exists alongside a loss. Every bit of peace is paired with an unmet expectation, in a year I might add that started with some pretty high expectations for me personally and for my family. 

My guess is that I’m not the only one who felt this concentration of 2020’s mix of hard raw emotions surface on Thanksgiving. It was a day where many of us paused to say thank you, and perhaps you, like me, found that in the quiet after the thankfulness had been spoken aloud, other not so pleasant things asked for attention as well. The darkness has been there all along, and we can’t pause our activity and only recognize the positive, because light and dark are always connected. And in a year that has more than its share of darkness, it is not surprising that it felt overwhelming to me to recognize it.

Why Christians Should Stop Quoting the Bible.

Many of you who know me know my background. I was raised in the conservative evangelical tradition of Christianity. Instead of girl scouts, I went to AWANA. AWANA, for those of you who are not familiar with it, stands for “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.” The focus was on Bible memorization. I don’t remember how many verses of the Bible I was supposed to have learned by the end of my 12ish years in the program, but it was in the hundreds, for sure. 

This was not a completely negative experience. I know a lot about the Bible because of my involvement in this program. I know a lot of verses that still spring to mind with little effort. And for the most part, I even know how to find those verses because we also learned the order of the books of the Bible. But there is a danger to such programs. When we focus on pulling verses out of context and memorizing them, we tend to develop a simplistic view of the Bible. We may began to think that the Bible has an easy answer to every question if we could just find the right verse. We are also in danger of thinking that because we can quote by memory different verses from most of the books of the Bible that we somehow “know” the Bible.

Being married to someone who has undeniably fallen in love with the Bible as holy sacred writings, means that I have begun to realize how little I actually know about the Bible. I do not know things like when a certain book was written, who it was written by, and why. I do not always know the context of the verse that pops into my head unaided. I do not know the history of why the book this verse appears in made it into the Bible. I do not know all the ways in which it has been interpreted and used throughout the history of the church.

Realizing how much I don’t know, I rarely use Bible verses as readily as I used to. But I see it all over, this habit of letting Bible verses speak for us. Evangelicals in particular quote a lot of Bible verses in their social media posts and online conversations.

As an ex-evangelical, these words, pulled out of a book that I do still love, hurt. And sometimes I can’t articulate why. But I want to try. Because this is a habit that needs to be broken. So, here are four reasons that Christians should stop quoting the Bible as responses to life issues.

  1. Quoting Bible verses is like speaking in a particular language that only those who share your specific spiritual identity will understand. For those who were not raised in your tradition and do not know the Bible at all, your words will probably just be confusing. And to those like me, who share the same spiritual mother tongue, but are now more multi-lingual in our faith, the words present a multi-layered complexity that is hard to unravel. When we see a verse, we not only see the verse itself, but we also wonder about the context of the verse, what the verse meant to me when I first learned it, what the verse means to me now, what the verse means to you, and why you would choose this particular verse. You cannot simplify it. These layers exist and in most cases are all very different from each other. When you throw in a healthy mix of questions concerning internalized messages from our past, we are left wondering how to respond. Do I let you continue to speak to me in a way that you think is helpful, while at the same time swallowing the hurt that I feel or the damage I see these words do to others? Or do I speak up and tell you “this verse does not mean what you think it means” and risk your outright rejection?
  2. Verses without context can be dangerous things. Each verse exists within a larger context. If you do not understand that context, you cannot understand the verse. You are saying words that sound good to you, but you might be actually using them to say the exact opposite of what the words were originally intended to mean. With the exception of possibly Proverbs, the Bible was not meant to be taken phrase by phrase. Each verse you quote is a sentence in either a story or a treatise. Sure, you can take great quotes from stories and treatises, people do it all the time. But if they do it without first understanding the whole, they are in great danger of misusing the author’s words. Even if you know the context, if your listener does not, the meaning and intention may be lost.
  3. When used in place of your own words, quoting the Bible can be an unhealthy way of deflecting or defusing a conversation. If I’m having a conversation with you, I would much rather hear your particular words, your voice, not someone else’s. I’d be content with you using a Bible verse if you also at the same time explain to me why you are using that verse and what it means to you. When all you do is quote a verse, with no context and no commentary, I am left guessing at what you actually mean to say. This is not just about your response not being clear, but also about your choosing to be silent. My guess is that sometimes something I said makes you uncomfortable and so you reply with a verse, because somehow that seems safer than actually telling me you disagree with me. No matter what your intent may be, avoidance is often what the hearer sees, and the result will be a distance in the relationship.
  4. Random verses often come across as empty words. For the hearer, the words may feel pointless. I know this might bother you. I know that you feel like it should be full of meaning, that somehow these words should speak the truth and fill the emptiness, while also teaching what is truly important. But in my experience is does not do that. It is too easy for me to assume that there is judgment on the other side of the words, that somehow you are trying to “correct” me, bring me back to the straight and narrow path. Here’s the thing. I don’t want to hear “For God so loved the world . . .” I want to hear, “I love the world and I love you.” If you believe that these words of God are just that, then you should not rest until you live and breathe them, until they become your words. Quoting them does not make that happen. Living them, translating them into your life and your actions and yes, even your words, is what gives them life. You cannot give me an empty shell waiting to be filled. Do the work yourself. Fill it and then give it. It is not enough for the world to hear about the love of God, we must see it. Live the word of God, be the love of God, share the kindness of Christ. And sometimes this means learning another language.

A Matter of Perspective

On the very first day of 2nd grade, I read the fable of the Little Red Hen to my youngest child. He followed along with the story as the hen planted the grains of wheat, reaped the grain, took it to the mill, and baked the bread, all while the other characters in the story refused to help. Well, except for the hen’s chicks who followed her everywhere she went, but weren’t much help. In fact, at one point, the hen is exasperated as she tries to bake the bread with the chicks underfoot, and she shoos them outside so she can work in peace. “Why is she being mean to her chicks,” asked D. In hindsight, this should have been my first clue that my son and I were in fact hearing two completely different versions of this story, but I defended the hen and read on.

We got to the end of the story, the twist, where the hen finally pulls the bread out of the oven and her chicks come running, as do the other animals, all hopeful to get a bite of the fresh baked bread, and the hen refuses to share with anyone other than her chicks.

“But why?” He asked. “That is mean not to share.” Immediately I jumped in to defend the hen’s actions by pointing out the unhelpful behavior of the other animals. I was actually quite surprised that the point of the story seemed to be completely missed by him. My husband had been standing on the outskirts of the room the entire time, waiting for a chance to speak. He stepped in at that point and said that D had a point. The hen could have shared. Should we always expect people to “earn” what we give?

I made a few feeble attempts to exonerate the hen’s behavior, but I also stopped and listened to this new point of view. I had never ever been presented with this idea when reading this fable and it took me by surprise. Kindness and sharing are after all traits that I value and want my son to naturally respond with. It was good for me to pause and consider this story in a different light.

The discussion ended there with my 7 year old, but continued between me and my husband, as we contemplated the origins of this story. In my husband’s mind it seemed very much like an American capitalism fable, espousing the “he who does not work shall not eat” mentality. A mentality that he and I both take issue with as it leaves little room for nuance and respect for others. Not everyone can contribute the same amount, and not everyone contributes in the same way. 

Mulling all of this over in my head, I went online to my curriculum discussion group and shared a bit of our conversation, mostly as an endorsement of the Socratic method, encouraging others out there to listen to their children and pause before speaking (something I struggled with in this instance, and realized my need for more practice). Imagine my surprise when over the course of this day and the next my post ended up with over 100 comments! It turns out that a lot of people have opinions, some very strong, about this particular fable. 

Not only does this appear to be a fairly common reaction of kids upon first hearing this story, there were also a lot of parents who shared my husband’s perspective. But others spoke up in defense of the little red hen, pointing to another, possibly more subtle aspect to this story. In their understanding of the fable, it was important to know when to set boundaries, so that people do not take advantage of us. To these people, the little red hen exemplifies these aspects in a way that protects herself and her family. There were even those who brought up the free and often unseen labor of women in many cultures, including our own, and the learned entitlement of those who benefit from said labor. This feminist reading of the story resonates quite strongly with me, and I realized that when I tell the story I am listening most to the hen, whose experiences seem so very much like my own. Her voice becomes mine. But D, he heard a different story. He identified most strongly with the chicks, and in the end even with the other animals who were denied a share in the bread. His experiences allowed him to identify with the shadows of the story that I was blind to.

This story stuck with me all day and into the next. I am encouraged to approach stories differently this year. I’ll be telling a lot of them as we homeschool, and I’m curious now to not only recognize my own perspective, but to listen to those who hear the same words as me, yet very likely an entirely different story.

*Photo is from many many years ago, when my oldest child got attached to a runaway chicken.

The Insistence of Spring.

IMG_4571Spring insists. No matter the turmoil in the world around us, everywhere I look I see it. Quietly, yet persistently pressing forth, until it bursts from every tree bud, emerges through warm soil, and paints its colors across our landscapes. 

Its whisper of hope seems incongruent with the current state of the world. It reminds me of the feeling you have when someone you care for dies. I remember sitting in a restaurant 14 years ago, eating breakfast, on the morning that my daughter Emma passed away. We needed food, and knew no better way to quickly and efficiently meet this need after leaving the hospital without her. But it felt so unreal sitting there in that restaurant, surrounded by people eating, and talking, and living. My world stood still, and yet, somehow all around me, life still moved on, refusing to be pushed off course by the death of one 7 month old baby girl.

As uncomfortable as it may feel, the fact that life encompasses so many competing truths, does in fact bring me hope. A global pandemic can exist alongside Spring. We can mourn death and illness and also celebrate the Easter resurrection. We can be physically isolated, yet be connected to others in love. We can act with caution and yet not be overwhelmed by fear. 

Let every flower, every new leaf, every moment the sun warms your skin remind you of your own capacity to hold joy and hope and love even in the midst of fear and pain and inconvenience.

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The Social Distancing Extrovert

Hi, friends. Writing is one of my go to stress and anxiety reducing processes, so I imagine for once I might actually hit my blog posting goals, what with a global pandemic and self-isolation producing all sorts of internal turmoil.

I’m an extrovert. And even though I have found that I’ve become slightly more introverted with age, that underlying need for external stimulation from other people’s energies is still very much there. And guess what? Kids don’t count. I’m not sure why. I think maybe it has something to do with their constant neediness. So no matter how much energy they are giving out, they seem to be draining just as much, if not more, from me. Which is probably why I have felt more introverted the longer I’ve been a parent. The need for a quiet house occasionally, or at least a quiet space to withdraw too, has become essential.

We’ve been in WV for less than a year, so we are still building relationships and finding our community here, which means that I really haven’t had a lot of external interaction in my weekly schedule. It’s something that I had been thinking I’d like to change, but since it was fairly routine to not have it, you’d think that social distancing wouldn’t have changed much in my life now that I am stuck at home. But it feels different, this not being able to to go out. And the little bit of social interaction that I did have each week is sorely missed. I guess I didn’t realize how much Sunday morning, for instance, meant to me. I miss that chance to smile and say hello and exchange a few words and shake a few hands. 

We are, of course, not completely without outside interaction. My husband, an Episcopal priest, has been working long hours setting up virtual services and other opportunities for people to connect. But it’s not the same. I get a bit of an energy upsurge after virtual meetups, but not nearly as much as in person interactions. I’m aching for human touch, not just physical touch, but eye contact, the mingling of emotions in a group, even the feeling you get when you walk down a crowded street. I never realized before how much I live within the energies of other people, how much I need to feel and see and hear people in order to thrive.

But, maybe it isn’t that I’m not getting any of that energy right now. Maybe what is really bothering me is that I am very much in tune with the energy of the people in my community, but that that energy is overwhelmingly negative. Are the tears in my eyes a response to the anxiety in the air around me, the ache in my heart the fear that everyone is sharing for those they love and care about, the hopelessness in my head an echo of the words that people whisper in the darkness after the children have gone to bed?

Wherever it is coming from, I feel overwhelmed by it right now. I’m realizing that if I don’t find a way to counteract it, I will be swallowed up. There is still hope to be found, if we dig deep enough. Love can counteract that same fear that it has given rise to. There is more than anxiety in the air if we pause long enough to listen to the totality of our world, all the voices, and not just the human ones. Perhaps now is a time when I need to dive down deep within myself to the core. The piece of me that makes me an extrovert is the same piece that gives me the ability to be present without being overwhelmed, to see joy in the tiniest speck of light, and to love optimistically with open hands and heart.

 

Fear, Compassion, and the Corona Virus.

IMG_4158In the midst of the upheaval these days–the unknowns, the closings, the call for social distancing–I have found myself recognizing a corresponding upheaval within myself. Almost all of us in this country have found our lives in some way affected by COVID-19 at this point, even if it is just the general noise surrounding the spread of the virus that finds its way into every moment of our days. I know that I am in the best spot possible to handle a life disrupted by a pandemic. Our basic needs are met and not under threat. I work from home already, so I don’t have to worry about needing childcare. None of us is at risk for serious complications should we catch the virus. I understand my privileged position and I recognize that all of this has and will affect others much more harshly.

But despite all the outer stability and my continued assurance that we are all going to be ok, I still felt a rising sense of uncertainty and fear and worry this last week. All week long, I was faced by the conversations surrounding this issue. All my news podcasts were tracking the spread, John and I had many conversations as he worked through his responsibility as a spiritual leader in this time, and my kids continually came home repeating whatever rumors were currently circulating in their schools. One of my four children usually brought home all the insistences that it’s really all going to be fine, another one had me check his temperature every hour because he was convinced that he had contracted the virus. His fears swung wildly between fear that he himself was going to die or that he was going to spread it to everyone else at school. 

In the middle of the week of holding all these things, of trying to manage and assure my children while also giving them truth (some of those school rumors were just plain ridiculous!), we had one really hard day. My worrier child began acting out in extreme ways, culminating in setting the toilet paper roll in the bathroom on fire. In my processing through his inexplicable actions, I realized it was his stress that was seeping out in unpredictable ways. Right on the heels of that realization was the accompanying realization of my own levels of high stress. Tears were below the surface that night as I went to bed, emotionally exhausted and anxious.

That was Wednesday. Thursday I had a previously scheduled EMDR session with my therapist, so I brought all my baggage to her and she helped me unpack it. I told her that it felt immature to admit that I was scared, and that I felt at war within myself over that fact. My head kept feeding me the assurances that things really were going to be ok, but deep inside something was still very scared. When we provided space for that fear to speak, I realized that it was connected to a previous version of myself. As a child, I was constantly worried about the spread of germs and washed my hands and arms repetitively. I was never worried that I myself would get sick, but rather that somehow I would get someone else sick. It was a compassionate impulse, but one that resulted in some very unhealthy obsessive behaviors.

That is very much a PAST version of myself. I spent years learning to not take those impulses quite as seriously, to relax, and to only wash my hand at appropriate intervals. I count it as a huge success that I no longer live my life constantly aware of everything my hands have touched and how long it has been since I washed them. But this week, as I was attempting to reassure my worrying child, I was telling him to wash his hands. Because, despite the fact that he is very like me in many ways, washing hands is not something he routinely does, EVER. So, I was attempting to point out the one thing he has control of that would have the greatest effect over his and everyone else’s health. At the same time I found myself washing my own hands much more frequently because I was recovering from a cold and was trying to be extra cautious. I didn’t realize how on a subconscious level all of these conversations and my own actions were poking that earlier version of myself. I realized how even though this part of me no longer controls my daily decisions, she still whispers to me occasionally, clouding my judgement with complicated emotions. I hear her every time one of my children tells me they are sick and can’t go to school, she’s the part that makes me feel guilty when I send them even though I have other voices of experience reminding me of the personal anxieties and common physical complaints of each child. I can be completely convinced of my child’s wellness and still feel a twinge of doubt because of this internal voice.

All that to say, this voice, though still often present, is not usually controlling. Continued experience continues to contribute to my present much more laid back common sense approach to life. But this week, that worried little girl in me was poked one too many times and past emotional baggage rose to the surface. My therapist encouraged me to cease my fighting, to instead, listen to the voice that wanted to speak and respond with compassion. I realize now that what that little girl needs is for me to figuratively wrap my arms around her and tell her it is ok to be scared, but that everything is going to be alright. I need to ask her to let the adult me take charge of the situation, to let go of the weight of responsibility that was threatening to overwhelm her. This is, of course, the same thing that I as a parent can do for and say to my worried son.

Our session wrapped up with her asking me to envision the possibility of a school closure, what that would look like for our family and to choose a positive cognition to approach the weeks ahead with. I chose “I am capable.” The day after my appointment all schools in WV were closed. I am thankful I had the chance to process and prepare internally for this event. I am capable. We will make it through, even though even in the best case scenario that I envisioned, it will be exhausting and we will probably make mistakes. But I have decided to proceed not only with caution, but with compassion.

Years ago, another therapist helped me see that what I thought were the worst parts of myself were shadows of my greatest strengths. My worries as a child were often centered around compassion for others. I hope I never lose that impulse towards love. 

Compassion allows me to hold in my heart all those who will be affected negatively by this pandemic, those who are at a greater risk of complications or death, those vulnerable to loss of income and/or access to regular food, those with insufficient healthcare, those who may find themselves caring for a sick family member, those who will be helping on the front lines. I can hold all that while also not internalizing it as crippling worry. Compassion can also hopefully help me find little ways that I as an individual can help counter the negative impact for others. Compassion will also counteract the fear that sometimes wants to drive my choices, helping me not give in to the panic. Yet at the same time, compassion allows me to treat with gentleness those who have lost the battle with fear and are driven by their own panic. I can have compassion for them because I recognize those same tendencies and urges within myself. Compassion allows me to reassure my family members, while also reminding them that the sacrifices we make right now are because we care for everyone around us, that our choices are motivated not just by a desire to protect them, but to protect everyone. Compassion allows me to forgive those leaders who may make mistakes in this time of unknown, knowing that new situations require our best efforts, but will often be filled with trial and error. And compassion also allows me to take care of myself, allowing space for all the emotions and confusion and fear, while also countering it with rest, wise consumption of media, stable routines, and grace for my own mistakes.

 

Mourning Winter

As I walked the short way to the bus stop to meet my boys’ afternoon bus, I breathed deeply of the cool refreshing air. It was cold, but not terribly so. The birdsong along the footpath sung to me of Spring, even though we are still technically in the dead of winter. As a breath of air hit me, I had a sudden flashback to my childhood. A day just like this popped into my head, cool and refreshing, with hints of Spring coming on the wind. Little piles of melting snow filled the yard, and the Stars of Bethlehem were just starting to push their way up through the muddy yard. It was March, and Spring was just around the corner, all the more beautiful because of the long weeks of cold winter. This day felt just like that day, except this day was one of the last days of January, not March.

I grew up in Arkansas, so winters were never terribly extreme or very long, but in my memory, they were colder and more solidly winterlike than they are now. I have distinct memories of struggling through knee deep snow drifts, sledding down frozen hills in the cow pasture, and waking up early to break through the ice in the stock tanks. I remember winters with broken water lines, large elaborate snow sculptures, and even a collapsed roof on the milk barn due to too much snow weighing it down.

I’ve never been a huge fan of cold, and I rejoice just as much as the next person on the random 70 degree days that are becoming more and more frequent in today’s winter. But, at the same time, I feel sad. Sad that a whole season seems to be slipping away all too quickly. I get insanely happy with every flake of snow I see, I like crunching through frozen puddles just as much as my kids, and I long for days of creative focus indoors while a snow storm rages outside. I’m mourning the loss of winter.

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I recently finished reading The Overstory by Richard Powers, a story focused on trees and their relationship to humans, centered, as you might suspect, on our destruction of both the magnificent beings that trees are and the environments they live in. As the story wound its way towards the end, the various human characters’ stories intertwining in a complicated dance, the crisis turned chaotic. Things seemed to be rushing towards a terrible end, and I worried about how this book would finish. I wanted it to end with hope rather than despair, yet at the same time, I didn’t want that hope to be shallow or false. I really wanted to hold on to this sense of impending doom, because I think our only chance of shifting anything in our downward spiral towards extinction is to accept that it is actually happening. I know that there are people who refuse to acknowledge climate change at all, but I feel as it gets harder and harder to deny, the vast majority of people find themselves in voluntary denial. They admit that climate change is a thing and a very big problem, but find it much easier to close their eyes and ignore it in order to get through their days. And I don’t blame them. I find myself there often, because the problem seems too big and I feel too small.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who wants to read this book (which I do recommend), but I will say that I did find a sense of hope, but it wasn’t an individual hope or an easy close your eyes and relax sort of hope. It was collective and complicated. And as I finished my walk to the bus stop with all of these themes settling into my consciousness, I felt a kinship to all the living things around me, not just humanity, but the world of trees, birds, and animals. We humans are a relatively late addition to this society of living things. I hope we have the time to learn from our brothers and sisters before our time is up.

 

Let Advent be Dark

Grief. It’s been nearly 14 years since Emma died, long enough that I have to mentally do the math every time anyone asks me. It doesn’t feel completely true to say I’m still grieving the loss of my daughter, but there are definitely still times of grief. Times of sadness, times of confusion, times of anxiety. A few years ago, I had one therapist talk to me for five minutes and tell me that I still had some grieving to do, which was an idea that I rejected in the moment because I was sure I had reached acceptance. I’m realizing now that she may have known more than I gave her credit for.

In my EMDR session last week, my therapist illustrated grief for me with this diagram:

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That little double-ended arrow next to acceptance is the most empowering part of this image for me. Grief is a journey. You can reach acceptance and still have times of slipping back into the cycle of anger, sadness and anxiety. And that’s considered normal. This was freeing for me to know, because my EMDR session was on Emma. And it was rough. 

There’s a piece of her story that I have never shared publicly, a part that still holds a lot of questions for me and is linked to some self-blaming and shame. Most of the time that piece is safely tucked away beneath my consciousness, but in times of turmoil, when I slip back into the grief cycle, I sometimes get stuck in the anxiety stage (Anxiety is the stage that has sometimes been labelled bargaining. I find that the word anxiety resonates with me more, and still gets across the idea of our tendency to ask “what if”). I get pulled right back to the part of the story that I’ve never been able to completely accept. It is one small moment of one day where I made a choice, the consequences of which I worry may have negatively affected my daughter’s health. It’s a memory that will never have complete answers for me because there is no way to know exactly how this one event affected things, so to accept this part of the story means to accept the unknown. And instead of accepting it, I continue to ask, “What if? What if I had done something different on that day? Would the story have still ended up the same way?” 

In my session on Monday, my therapist uttered the most powerful statement I’ve ever heard in relation to that one piece. She said, “The truth is that even though you’ll never have the answers to that question, there is most likely nothing you could have done that would have saved your daughter’s life.” As soon as she said it, something clicked. By focusing on the one moment where I failed her, I have avoided grieving the deep harsh truth that there is no way I could have saved my daughter’s life. I held no such power. In almost every other moment of her life I gave her everything I possibly could. And it wasn’t enough, and that really sucks. 

I find myself now, bumping around in that grief cycle once again. But it’s different now as I try to name and acknowledge the grief of powerlessness. Grief is such a tricky thing. It’s not just sadness, but the need to be sad. It’s not just circumstantial, but comes and goes from your core. Grief means looking at the world around you and seeing how dark it actually is. Grieving Emma’s death yet again isn’t just grieving one event or one life or one loss. It connects to all sorts of other losses, and speaks to me in echoes of a broken world.

When I returned to EMDR this week, I was hesitant to delve into this. Christmas is coming. I want to focus on happy things, gift giving, plans for the break, work that I want to get done before the kids are off school. I thought that this was a bad time for my grief. But my therapist encouraged me to be intentional this week at facing the grief and feeling it. I can’t magically skip ahead to the acceptance stage, I have to be in the dark for awhile. She told me that it won’t be easy, but to face it now, when my body and mind are telling me they are ready, will result in a quicker, smoother process overall. I left the appointment with greater intention to do what needs to be done this week, rather than avoid it. And, as I reflected on this, I realized that the darkness of Advent is the perfect time to process grief. In Advent we get the chance to acknowledge the brokenness of both ourselves and the world around us. This is the time to “sit in the shit,” as my therapist says, so that we remember what hope is for. After all, resilience and health are built by descending into the pit of despair, disappointment, heartbreak and hopelessness and then climbing back out over and over again.

If that doesn’t sound like Advent as you know it, perhaps it is time to reclaim it. Some find their hope in the declaration that Jesus is coming! Christmas, for these people, is a time to reaffirm their faith in the hope of an external Savior who came once to save us and will come yet again. For these people, Advent is basically waiting, waiting for someone else to do something.

I personally think a hope in an external Savior is misplaced. What if true salvation cannot come from outside our world, but only from within? If this is the way we view salvation, then Christmas is a celebration not of the coming of God, but the realization that he was here all along. Emmanuel–God with us! What if every single one of us, no matter who we are, has the potential to be both a giver and receiver of salvation? Our ability to do either of those things will be increased by our willingness to spend time in the darkness of Advent. Because if we are the ones who are called to do something about the brokenness, we need to know it intimately.

I encourage you this Advent to take time to name the brokenness in yourself and in the world around you. Let’s acknowledge the darkness of this world, so that when Christmas comes we will each light the candle that we hold, see once again the saviors that live among us, and work together to build the steps of hope to bring us out of the darkness and into the light.