Enough

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Bread

I was a recent divorcee, and we were traveling to meet the family of the man with whom I was “the other woman.” Everyone had been gracious from afar, but I knew that his mom had been on the other side of infidelity and I worried that grace might be a little frosty in person. Perhaps there was forgiveness for the son, but not for the home wrecker girlfriend.

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I kept pestering Rich, asking what we could take to dinner. I was nervous about making a good impression. I knew that his mom was accomplished in the kitchen while I was coming from a season of limited cooking. In my first marriage, I had all but given up preparing home-cooked meals, relying instead on prepackaged food to feed my family. With Rich’s encouragement, I was beginning to stretch my culinary wings a bit, but preparing anything for his mom, my eventual mother-in-law, felt like a test that I was destined to fail. 

We finally decided that we would take bread and salad. We made two loaves of bread, made some compound butters, and bought the ingredients for a Caprese salad with a balsamic reduction. I knew it wasn’t enough. In light of a turkey and mashed potatoes and homemade cheesecake, what were a couple loaves of bread and some mozzarella, tomato, and basil leaves? It wouldn’t be enough.

I wouldn’t be enough.

I’m writing today at You Are Here, a new collaborative blog about the importance of place. Each month they choose a new topic and write about it, asking others to share stories as well. This month was Food & Place, and I’m happy to share the story of last year’s Thanksgiving. I’d love for you to read the rest at You Are Here.

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As Much As It Depends On Me

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peace

When I started looking for a therapist, I knew that I was not interested in seeing a Christian counselor. There were things that I needed to talk about that I couldn’t share with other people, things that were just too ugly to say to anyone I considered a friend. Things that might be too sinful for me to admit to someone who had Christian as part of their job description.

I knew that I couldn’t do the standard Christian remedies. I didn’t want to hear to pray more, to read my Bible more, to repent more. My relationship with God at the time was firmly in the “It’s Complicated” category, and dealing with a list of “shoulds” about that relationship when I was trying to get a handle on accepting a mountain of loss felt like a poor use of my time and finances. If I felt like I had certain religious expectations that I needed to meet, I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be as honest as I needed to be in my sessions.

I knew that it was the right decision for me, but that didn’t stop me from feeling guilt about it. Granted, guilt was the handiest piece of garb in my emotional closet at that time, so adding one more level of shame seemed about right. More than one person heard detailed explanations about why I chose not to see a Christian counselor. When you’re busy judging yourself for everything you’ve done wrong, it becomes easy to expect others to judge you for every decision that you make, regardless of how they actually feel.

These days I feel less concerned with what people think. Not entirely so, but I’m getting better on that front. My therapist is a great fit for me, and she is helping me work through a lot of my issues with guilt and shame. One of the things we have spent a fair bit of time addressing is my need to carry the weight of others’ emotions.

Overall, I’ve agreed with her, and have taken some small steps to correct this kind of thinking. But there has still been a part of me that has wondered, “Is this the advice I’d be getting from a Christian counselor?”

For years I heard, “Consider others as better than yourself!” and “JOY = Jesus, Others, then You.” As I sat in my therapist’s office, and I hear that I can let go of what other’s think, it feels like it is at odds with what I’ve learned. How can I consider others better than myself if I’m choosing not to allow their emotional hang-ups to interfere with my healing? Even as I worked on this, this thought would float through my mind.

And then on Sunday, I was listening to my pastor talk about loving our enemies. I settled down to hear more of what I expect – that the changes that I was making to my life were at odds with the Scripture and I was embracing a selfish worldview.

Instead, he pointed to Romans 12:18“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”

“As much as depends on you.”

My eyes filled with tears almost immediately. Yes, I should try to live at peace with all of the people in my life. But, as my therapist has been telling me, I am not responsible for how others react to that. My responsibility ends with my efforts to create peace. Paul recognized that peace would not always come, and it was okay not to carry burdens that are not ours.

I don’t have this down completely. I still struggle with pleasing others and trying to make them feel a particular way, when it’s not my job to do that. But as much as it depends on me, I’m going to embrace truth no matter how it is presented to me.

Proving Repentance

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repent

One by one, we gathered in the mountains, robbed of cell service and internet access.

Our differences were easy to spot. Different ages, different professions, different races. We had the coffee drinkers and the tea drinkers. Those who worked with the elderly and those who worked with children. Women married for years, women in much newer marriages, women who were unmarried. There were friendships among the group, but there were strangers there as well.

We ate hummus and pizza and cheesecake. We laughed at the light that randomly turned on and off in the kitchen, suggesting that a poltergeist should have been mentioned one at least one Yelp review.

We were there to brainstorm ideas to empower the women of our home state, but we knew that first, we had to recognize our own strengths. We had to believe, or at least be on our way to believing, that we were women of worth, women of beauty, women of courage before we could help women see those qualities in themselves.

Wrapped in blankets and warm sweaters, warm beverages in hand, we began to tell our stories. Stories of being rejected, stories of abuse, stories of people pleasing. We talked about the ways we had failed ourselves and others, but also of the ways that we had experienced success and freedom. We listened, we cried, we laughed, and we thanked each other for our openness.

As the weekend came to a close and we were packing our cars to head back to civilization, one of the women stopped me to ask about something I had shared – the part of my story that I still struggle with the most. “How do I know I’ve repented?” She offered encouragement and acceptance.

A few days later, another woman texted me, asking me who I needed to prove that I had repented to, reminding me that she believed I have, and that others did as well.

Repentance is a tricky thing. I’ve been told that it’s a turning away from any particular sin. Repentance is why I threw away all of my Stephen King books, to prove that I was really serious about keeping my mind pure. Repentance is why I spent most of the early 2000′s listening exclusively to Christian worship music only, to prove that could turn away from secular music that might not feed my soul as well.

I think part of my issue is that repentance and forgiveness somehow feel divorced from one another. And to some degree they are. Someone doesn’t have to repent in order for me to forgive them. I can choose to let go of the hurt that has been done to me without any action on the part of the one who doled out the pain.

But if you’re the one who did the hurt, that starts to be murky. Did I really repent, or have I just been forgiven? I can accept that forgiveness has happened, but how do I prove that I’ve repented when I divorced my first husband and married the man with whom I had an affair?

I think again about my friend’s question: Who am I trying to convince that I’ve repented?

Maybe it’s the church, where I feel like I’m not living out the right kind of story. Maybe it’s to the exes, where I know there is still hurt over my actions. Maybe it’s to myself, because, like everyone, I can be my own harshest critic.

Then I think back to that cabin in the woods, and to the love that I felt there. I didn’t have to prove to them through some outward show that I had repented of the wrongs that I had done. I didn’t have to list off the actions I had taken that would substantiate claims that I was no longer the person that I had been. I said that I had repented and they accepted it, no proof necessary.

I’m not sure if that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s frightening to take people at their word and to believe the best about them. It’s risky to trust when someone tells you that their past is truly in the past. Sometimes that gamble is strictly with yourself.

But I’m learning that as I accept that risk for myself, my need to prove my repentance to others is diminished. Instead, I’m able to believe my own worth, see my own beauty, and experience my own courage. 
Photo: Robert Bejil

Recluttering My Life

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pews

I couldn’t tell you the last CD I bought for sure. I think it was Jonathan Coulton’s Artificial Heart, because when I preordered it, I could get the MP3 sooner. When I got my first Kindle, I abandoned purchasing real books in favor of eBooks. When I discovered Vudu, I abandoned movies in disc form. My pictures live almost exclusively on my phone or computer. Most of what I consume is stored out in that magical place called The Cloud.

I appreciate that. I’m an unorganized person, so keeping clutter down in my too-small-for-a-disorganized-person-house is fine by me. Stuff morphs into mess in the blink of an eye for me, so anything that I can do to cut down on the stuff I have is a positive action. Watching the world become increasingly digital may feel like blasphemy to those who want the sound of the needle on vinyl or the smell of a book that hasn’t been cracked open in a while, but for the person who feels like she’s cleaned when things are piled instead of strewn, there are concessions that need to be made.

I’m posting today over at A Deeper Story. It would mean a lot to me if you would stop by and read the rest.

Brittany Maynard’s Death and Embracing Loss

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death

On Saturday, with the help of doctors, and with her family near, Brittany Maynard took her life. She was battling a form of brain cancer that was likely going to end her life in just a few months, so she and her family moved to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act.

I’ll be honest – I’m not sure what I think about it. On one hand, I have a hard time with the idea that it’s just up to God whether we live or die, because most of us accept medical intervention for illnesses. I would have almost certainly died this summer if not for medical help with my blood pressure. Did I interfere with God’s plan because I accepted medicine that prolonged my life? I certainly don’t believe that, so the idea that God is the only one who gets to determine when we die doesn’t sit all that well with me. I

I think a lot about my mom in this case, because I watched her struggle with ALS. She never, to my knowledge, considered suicide, assisted or otherwise, in her situation. She chose limited interventions, which most certainly allowed the disease to take her sooner than it may have otherwise, but I don’t believe at any point she considered taking her own life.

Almost exactly 24 hours before she died, mom had about an hour of lucidity. She had been non-responsive for most of that day and I think we all feared that we would not have any more opportunities to tell her that we loved her when we could know that she would hear us. But around 7pm on February 6th, she awoke one last time and we were able to communicate with her and she with us. She looked each of us who were at her bedside as we told her that we loved her and that we all wanted her to experience the peace that was waiting for her. It was a beautiful moment and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to experience that last brief encounter with her.

But what if that had come a few months earlier when she started to deteriorate quickly? What if, instead of gathering around a hospice bed, we had gathered around her bed at home? What if she still had her voice and had been able to tell us aloud that she loved us? What if we could have hugged her and had her hug back?

I don’t know. Maybe if she had gone that route, she would have missed knowing that her oldest granddaughter made the All-State band. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sit at our family piano and play Christmas carols for her. She would have had fewer kisses from my dad.

And of course, there are things that we may have missed if she had chosen a more aggressive treatment plan. She may have been alive when Rich and I married. She may have been alive when we went through the loss of our son. She may have seen the outpouring of support for those with ALS with the ice bucket challenge.

There were losses that happened because she chose not to end her life. There were losses that would have occurred if she had made different choices. We can’t know what any of those are, but we can know one thing.

Life has loss.

And ultimately, I think that’s the most frightening part of Brittany Maynard’s choice. It reminds us that any choice we make will lead to some kind of loss. Every yes we make is a no to something else. The benefits of some no’s are more obvious than others, but every decision carries with it some small loss. And in a culture that is afraid of death and loss, it can be easier to examine Brittany Maynard’s decision than it is to examine the losses that our own choices have made. It’s easier to talk about the rightness or wrongness of the way that Brittany Maynard died than it is to talk about death itself.

But our fears don’t stop losses from happening. Our discomfort doesn’t eliminate grief. Hiding from loss, death, and grief doesn’t make them go away. What it does is allow us to miss our on opportunities to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. It creates barriers that keep us from better loving those who are hurting.

I don’t know how to determine what is the best way for life to end. I do know that the best way to live life is to live it in full community. We have that when we embrace not only life, but loss.

3 Simple Things I Learned In Therapy

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SOS

I super didn’t want to go to therapy yesterday. I didn’t follow through with some things my counselor and I had discussed at my previous session, and the night before was just awful, leaving me feeling absolutely guilt-ridden. I was having a little bit of the “what is the point of going if I don’t get better?” rolling around in my brain. Also, I was not in the mood to ugly cry, and I knew that was going to happen.

But I went, because I figure any time I don’t want to go, that’s when it’s most important to make it a priority. So I got myself cleaned up, made lunch plans with Rich, and drove to my counselor’s office. And despite my reluctance to go, I learned a few things in yesterday’s session.

  1. I don’t have to be perfect. Doy. But sometimes it’s important to hear someone else say that. Learning new habits takes time, and I’m not a failure just because I have failed.
  2. Saying out loud, “I feel guilty about this thing” is my first step to feeling less guilty about that thing. When I acknowledge my own feelings, it puts me in charge of them instead of them running the show. It doesn’t mean that I stop feeling guilty, but when I admit it and start to work through the why, it loses some of its power.
  3. Asking for help is more strength than weakness. I don’t like asking for help. I’m a grown-ass woman and I should be able to do things for myself. But the truth is, I DON’T always do things for myself. Asking other people to help me actually allows me to do those things that I want to do. I’m learning that when people say, “How can I help?” it’s okay to tell them how they can help. I’m not responsible for their ability to follow through, but asking is not a sign of weakness.

These aren’t earth-shattering revelations. But I’m realizing that it doesn’t have to be deep to be true, and the more truth that I absorb, the healthier I become. Not all at once, but bit by bit. And a healthier me is a good enough reason to go.

New Series: Why Are Christians Bad At Grief?

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Bad At Grief

My mom worked in a nursing home almost my entire life. Every few months after school, we would go over to “the home” and help decorate for the upcoming holiday. We would sing and play for the hymn sings. On Mondays we would go help my mom bring residents to the activity center for the weekly movie night. That was my favorite because we would be allowed to eat popcorn after we served it to the others.

My mom worked closely with the private school that I attended, making sure that there were opportunities for older students to interact with the residents on a regular basis. She would pair up students with high functioning residents and about once a month we would drive over to the nursing home to read to them, help them write letters, spend time talking to them. We got to know our adopted grandparents pretty well over the course of a year.

Because I spent a lot of time with the elderly at mom’s job, I became acquainted with death. It wasn’t a daily occurrence, but every now and then, she would come home and let us know that so-and-so had gone to the hospital and then a few days later we’d get the news that they had died. I remember her telling me about one of the twins that I had read to regularly passing away – I cried.

That regular contact with mortality made death something more approachable. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t something to be feared or hidden.

But that didn’t stop grief from being incredibly difficult in the past year. Despite my history with death and dying, I struggled to grieve when I needed to immerse myself in it the most. As I’ve experienced the aftermath of the stillbirth of our son, I see that there is still a stigma attached to much grief.

As a person of faith, I believe that grief should be an important part of our human experience. We have an example in Jesus, weeping at the death of his friend. We see numerous Psalms giving us words to grieve. We see ashes and sackcloth and sadness through the pages of Scripture.

But often Christians pass over these passages about mourning in favor of the passages about joy. We talk about the morning without walking through the night. We use hope as a way to squelch sadness.

In short, I’ve found Christians are bad at grief.

But why? What about grief makes us as Christians so uncomfortable? And what can we do to change that?

I’m starting a new blog series to examine some of the reasons that I think Christians are bad at grief. I have a few ideas here, no doubt influenced by my own struggles with grief, but I’d love to hear from you. What stands in the way of your own grief? What have you seen in your faith community with regard to grief? Are there examples of ways that we can do this better? If you’re interested in contributing to this series, I’d love to hear from you as well. You can shoot me a message on Facebook or Twitter.

Christians are bad at grief, but I believe we can be better. Let’s examine that together.

Fresh, Not Frozen

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grilled pizza by Alise

When the dark days came the first time, I stopped cooking.

I was nearly 30, I had four very young children, and a husband who was battling demons that nearly took him out of the picture entirely. Chicken casserole gave way to frozen chicken nuggets. Spaghetti dinners turned into SpaghettiOs. The Chinese delivery person predicted my order before I placed it. I knew that my family needed more, but I had no more to give. Preservatives, sugar, fat. Uncomplicated flavors. In the midst of my own depression, I turned to that which was easy, that which was convenient. These became my mode of survival. Foods that filled me up quickly, but left me hungry again far too soon.

It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t wake up one morning and announce to my family that I was going to stop cooking. It just gradually happened, without fanfare, without anyone really noticing. If someone had already gone to the trouble of making and packaging different foods, why did I need to bother making them?

Eventually, I took to saying that I didn’t really like cooking very much. But even that was taking the easy way out. The truth was, I didn’t like the circumstances that led me the place where I didn’t want to cook. I didn’t like feeling lonely, I didn’t like feeling separated.

Join me at A Deeper Family today to read more.

7 Ways To Honor Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day #BreakTheSilence

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Elliott hands and feet

Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Of course, this remembrance is more for those who have not experienced this loss than for those who have. Those who have gone through a miscarriage, stillbirth, or the death of an infant live with that remembrance far more often than once a year. I know that my own pain is still fresh, but I can’t imagine a time when I will see a child the age that Elliott would be and not wonder about my son.

For those of you for whom this day carries a little less sting, let me offer a few ideas on how to help your friends who have experienced this loss.

1. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Certainly not all parents who experience a miscarriage share that information. And some people aren’t particularly chatty about the death of a child. But if a parent brings it up, please don’t ignore that. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out conversation, but at least acknowledge that they mentioned their child. Saying something simple like, “I’m so sorry,” shows that you heard what they said and that you care about them and the humanity of the baby that they lost.

2. Don’t forget the father. The loss of a pregnancy or infant has a more obvious effect on the mother of the child, but it is important not to neglect the feelings of the baby’s father. This baby shared his DNA. He had hopes and dreams for his child. Fathers experience loss when a pregnancy ends in miscarriage or stillbirth or if an infant dies. When you are offering condolences, be sure to include both parents. Both lost a child, both experience grief as a result.

3. Don’t forget any surviving siblings. If the parents already have children, please don’t forget to include them in your condolences. And not in the, “Well, at least you already have children” way that made me want to rip that guy’s face off a mere DAY after Elliott had died. Death is hard for children no matter what, but losing a baby is something else completely. We expect older people to die, but the death of an infant reminds us, and especially young children, of the fragility of life. Recognize that they grieve as well, and they need your sympathies at least as much as the parents.

4. Use the language that the parents use. When I’m talking about Elliott, I will almost always say that he died, not that we lost him. Some parents prefer language that is less direct. Listen to how the parents refer to their loss and use that in your own mentions. This isn’t about right or wrong language, but about showing that you are listening to the parents and honoring the way that they speak about their child.

5. Keep religion out of it. At least until you know how the parents are using faith as a means of comfort. Using the loss of a child as a means to proselytize is manipulative and intensely inappropriate. But sometimes even well meaning statements about a child being in heaven or leaning on God during a difficult time can be hard for parents to embrace. There was a time after Elliott’s death that I felt abandoned by God, and any religious talk was just painful for me. “Shoulding” parents who are going through this darkness is bad, and when it’s related to their faith, it can be damaging on multiple levels. Allow the parents to show how faith weaves into their grief narrative.

6. Understand that it’s not something to “get over.” This is actually one point that might be good for everyone to remember. Just because there was little time spent as a parent to this little one, it doesn’t mean that the loss isn’t real and doesn’t last. There’s no expiration date on grief. It will crop up at expected times like the anniversary of the death or a due date, but it may also happen out of the blue. There is no shame in sadness at the loss of a child.

7. Listen to the people in your life. Ultimately, everything that I’m saying here is largely based on my experience. For me, sharing pictures of my son was incredibly cathartic – this may not be the same for someone else. Your friends may have different needs. The best thing that you can do to help a parent who has experienced the loss of their child is to ask them how you can help them. They will know what they need.

The hashtag for today is #BreakTheSilence. Those of us who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or death of an infant can help by sharing our stories. Those who have not can help as well by creating a safe space for those stories to be shared. Grief is often hard for us to understand, and the loss of one so young can be a grief that is frightening to sit with. But when we listen, when we include, when we love, we make the grief less frightening for everyone.

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