You, Who Meet Us in Our Solitude.

Last week I declared myself post-evangelical thanks to the World Vision debacle (for explanation see Part 1 and Part 210,000 children lost their sponsorships as a result). This week, I’ve wrestled and grieved deeply. I grew up in conservative evangelicalism and I love my faith and my family and my church home, but my views are shifting. I’m in the process of discerning what it means to stay and what it means to leave, and what it means when Jesus asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I don’t have much to say at this point, and a lot of it has already been said by dozens of others ad nauseam.

But I thought I’d share this Rilke poem with you, because it found me in my hour of need one morning last week. These days my best attempt at spiritual practice and communing with God looks like a cup of coffee, a bit of breakfast, and a few pages from Rilke’s Book of Hours or Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel.

“You too will find your strength.
We who must live in this time
cannot imagine how strong you will become -
how strange, how surprising,
yet familiar as yesterday.

We will sense you
like a fragrance from a nearby garden
and watch you move through our days
like a shaft of sunlight in a sickroom.

We will not be herded into churches
for you are not made by the crowd,
you who meet us in our solitude.

We are cradled close in your hands-
and lavishly flung forth.” – Rilke, II, 26

 

Just as Rilke’s words foretold, God met me in my solitude. The poem, like all those that I’m most drawn to, illuminated the part of my heart that felt lost and wandering. When my heart weighed heavily on the events of last week and whether to call myself evangelical or if it even mattered, here was this quiet, loving reminder :

God walks with each of us in our wilderness.

We all wrestle with answers to difficult questions and find our own paths. But my hope is that we stay sensitive to the movement of the Spirit. My hope is that we pay close attention, that we sense His Grace like a fragrance from a nearby garden, that we listen to the suffering people among us long enough to see Him moving through our days like a shaft of sunlight in a sickroom. Whatever we call ourselves – Christian or non, straight or LGBTQ, conservative or liberal, evangelical or whatever; wherever we go – into churches or homes or bars or tables in the wilderness – we will all be met with the surprise of His presence, a Love beyond our imagination. The question each of us must ask ourselves is this : Are we moving with Him? Or are we trying to close a door on people that He has already opened? 

We are held in His hands and lavishly flung forth into the world so that we can live and love just as lavishly. May we do so, and with abundance.

~

Some other words from the last two weeks that were my sunlight in the sickroom :

Sarah Bessey’s words for the ones who leave and the ones who stay.

More than anything other voice I’ve encountered in the LGBTQ community, it is Ben Moberg and his stories that have moved my heart and mind. His posts on the World Vision situation, “When World Vision Drops Me” and “May We Never Stop Speaking,” are full of grace and challenge. (Warning: read with Kleenex in hand.)

“The agent of healing is an outlier who Jesus purposely placed in the role of honor.” – Jen Hatmaker.

“We are resurrection people.” – Rachel Held Evans.

The Generosity Equation.

 

This is the story of my life :

Last month we paid all our bills (mostly) on time. Hubs and I planned to take a short vacation to see friends in Nashville where we had a fun, happy, warm weekend. We drove home listening to Ryan Adams and generally loving life.

But the love ran out about thirty miles short of home.

The car began to overheat. Repeatedly. Nothing fills me with a deeper sense of dread than a breaking down car sandwiched between rumbling semi-trucks on a highway in Illinois, and so I freaked out. I prayed desperate, beggy, cursey prayers that God would keep us from blowing up right there on the highway. Somehow we made it home. Once there it occurred to us that we cannot afford to fix the bleeping car until I get paid on Friday, because of course. With no choice but to grit my teeth and bare it, I decided that if I drove very slowly and glared at my temperature gauge, the car and I might survive the next five days.

No such luck. When I made the drive to my therapist’s office early the next morning it started overheating almost immediately, red lights flashing and alarm bells dinging. Impending doom! Explosion imminent! I decided it would be better to have a panic attack in the presence of a professional than alone on the side of the road, so I cursed prayed some more and pressed on to my therapy appointment. Very very slowly, of course. Judging by the swerving traffic and sign language, I annoyed the living hell out of every driver in suburban Chicago on their morning commute, but I didn’t care. I was too busy patting my dashboard and talking to my vehicle as though it was a ravenous animal about to eat me alive. Good kitty. One more mile, kitty. Don’t kill me, kitty.

I somehow made it to my therapist’s office. I collapsed onto her couch and shared my sob story. She listened to all my fears and reminded me that my inner child was triggered by all of this sudden instability and that I am not an abject failure at adulthood or life. At the end of the session she gave me a hug and sent me to her mechanic a couple miles away. For the briefest moment I was a fortress of calm and determination as I drove my blasted car to the shop. I was a  warrior in a Chrysler Sebring with mad survival skills. But then the mechanic took one look under the engine and pronounced it dead on arrival. The deathtrap was not worth the $2,500 it would take to fix it.

I cried. I wailed. I cursed. I donned sack cloth and ashes. I called home. Dad instructed me to pay for the minimal repairs and he’d fix the rest next weekend. I put on my brave face and relayed this message to the mechanic, who agreed to only fix the leaking radiator and ignore the tire rod situation. I pretended not to notice his skeptical eyebrows and walked outside. It was March in Chicago, cold and grey, a wasteland of cruddy black snow piles and trash, its bleakness a mirror of my pessimistic soul. A variation on a theme. So many different versions of this same scenario have happened over the years, that I’ve come to believe it’s my lot in life. I will probably die at the hands of a faulty transmission somewhere in Indiana before I can afford to invest in any sort of life insurance.

What my therapist tells me is true: whenever the car breaks down or a big ugly bill shows up, it taps into that deep-seated fear from my childhood, which began with my mother’s illness and has lingered long after her death. It whispers to me that I am not enough, the money’s not enough, things will never be okay. We’re too poor, too sick, too broken, too car- and money-illiterate to ever outrun the black cloud. It doesn’t matter that I’ve paid down thousands of school debt and paid off my credit card and started paying bills on time. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard we work, there is simply not enough to go around. Scarcity.

It’s not just my inner voice that tells me this, there are other voices too. The ones that say that if you have to ask for help you don’t deserve it. Generosity is irresponsible. Handouts don’t help. Unless people use their own bootstraps, they won’t learn.

But I don’t know a life that neat and tidy. Life is messy and hard for most people I know and the only way we’ve ever made it is when kindness reaches in to grab us from the muck. An anonymous check to help my parents make ends’ meet when my brothers and I were small and mom was sick and dad was working himself to the bone in job after underpaying job. Christmas presents when Santa was broke for a few years. Meals and prayers and hospital visits. Loaves and fishes. Abundance.

So I took a deep breath and called my best friend. She promised to come get me in an hour, so I waited in the lobby with a novel, listening to the screeching and banging from inside the repair shop. Soon she showed up and we went to lunch together. Over falafel and hummus we commiserated about life, I with my car troubles and her with her boy troubles. We talked about the broken things, vehicles, relationships, plans, dreams. We reminded one another that we are worthy.

I exhaled a sigh that was not quite relief but something like it, a prayer of thanksgiving for the people around me who make sure I’m not abandoned and alone in my brokenness, and who occasionally let me do the same for them.

Because who am I kidding? Love doesn’t run out. There is always plenty to go around. And I’ve always been bad with math. Thank God.

[Image.]

On Being “The Strong One.”

It’s the thing people have always said about me.

“You’re just like your mother.”

And what they mean is that just like mom, I’m The Strong One. The responsible one. The mature one. The opinionated one. The stubborn one. The passionate one.

“You’re just like your mother, but you seem to have swung the other direction.”

This is the thing that people are saying about me more and more often, and what they mean is that just like mom, I’m opinionated, but I am far less conservative than she was. They’re alluding to the reading material I frequently post on social media, which I’m afraid has given away my bleeding heart. My family and faith community are conservative evangelicals, so I should tell you that this bleeding-heart liberal confuses even herself. I’m not entirely sure how I got this way, except that maybe for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If my parents wanted my ideological pendulum to swing right, perhaps they should have pushed it left. But instead they had me listening to Rush Limbaugh when I was in grade school. The other day I was listening to NPR and the host chose the opening riff from “My City Was Gone” as filler music between reports unironically, and it made me so cranky that I proceeded to post three links on my Facebook about those heinous SB 1062 discrimination laws before noon, just to irk any Republicans that might be reading. (Sorry not sorry. Please take it with a grain of sarcasm.)

Maybe I look like it doesn’t bother me that I have a growing reputation for being as liberally opinionated as my mother was conservative, but this is false bravado. A few months ago I was sitting on a friend’s couch drinking tea and discussing all of this with her when she gently asked me,

“Are you afraid she’d be disappointed in you?”

Her words broke me open like a dam. In a flood of tears I quietly nodded yes. And that was just a question of politics.

There are other things since my mom died that make me wonder whether she’d be proud of me: life choices, family relationships, my ability to accessorize an outfit. Most days I feel like I hold true to her legacy fairly well. I may be leaning left in my politics and I honestly don’t care if I wear black boots with a brown belt, but the important thing is that I let the story of her life influence my own. I let her love for me fuel my own love for others. I let this experience of love and loss transform my writing.

Except some days I’m not so good at swallowing my bitterness. I still find myself struggling to drudge up any amount of compassion for certain people, like the nurse that nearly ripped mom’s IV port out of her chest, or the relative that showed up a week before her death and made themselves way too comfortable, or the other relative that got a little too inquisitive about the insurance money after she died, or the ones that didn’t show up at all. How would mom handle it if she were here now? I don’t know, but the thought fills me with guilt. I’m supposed to be carrying all of this with some semblance of grace and redemption, but some days my arms get tired. I feel like I’ve been holding up this really heavy torch and I need to put it down but I have no safe place to set it, so I risk setting everything around me on fire.

I was sitting in my therapist’s office last week and we were talking about a particular relationship that has fallen apart since mom’s death. It was possibly the worst day to be discussing this, because I’d woken up that morning especially short on compassion and forgiveness. I was going on and on and on about how tired I was of the expectation that I’d be the bigger person, the magnanimous forgiver, The Strong One just like mom.

“I’m not going to do it anymore,” I told her. “I can’t. I won’t.”

My therapist nodded deeply.

“Absolutely. You don’t put yourself in a position to be manipulated again,” she said.

“I can’t keep being The Strong One. I’m too tired.”

“I know you are. So take a rest.”

“I just can’t carry that torch for mom anymore.”

“She wouldn’t want you to.”

Oh.

It suddenly became clear to me that the person I needed to work on forgiving was my very own self, for not being my mother.

Here’s the truth I began to understand that day: sometimes our strengths are also our weaknesses. Our desire to be The Strong One and honor the people we love is a beautiful thing, but it can also lead us to profound feelings of insecurity, guilt, shame. And sometimes the unsafe people in our lives see that vulnerability and manipulate it. They make us question whether we’re really The Weak One. The Disappointment.

This is what happens when our love for someone is deeply tied to our identity, and I’m in the midst of untangling myself from that. I have soaked up those words, “you’re so much like your mom” like the praise that it is, but if I’m being honest, those words have also fed my secret fear that at the moment I fail to be The Strong One, the Just Like Mom One, people will stop loving me.

But I’m just me.

I can’t try to fill mom’s shoes or maintain her relationships or her politics or her faith because I have my own.

And I don’t have to doubt that if she were here we might argue, but she’d love me. I’d be safe with her.

So I’m putting down the torch. I’m choosing not to be The Strong One. Not because I’m choosing to be weak instead, but because I don’t need that label.

The only one that matters is the one I already am: Daughter.

[Illustration by Cate Parr.]

Honoring the Light.

… Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going.” -Rilke

I learned over the weekend that a friend passed away.

I had just sat down to a table at Garcia’s for burritos and horchata with Emily and Tammy before Addie’s reading at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Park, when I made the mistake of looking at my phone. There was the message: she was gone.

The news was something of a shock, like touching your hand to a hot stove. I was thankful in that moment that I wasn’t alone; a beautiful evening surrounded by friends proved a welcome distraction from the triggering affect of death now, like my mother has died all over again. The next afternoon hubs and I went for a winter hike where I could let myself trudge along in silence and reflection. The solitude, the sun casting long shadowy pines onto snow, the wind, the sound of my own boots crunching along the trail. It was the prayer I didn’t know how to utter.

Truthfully, I didn’t know her that well. In fact, we’d never met in person. We found each other through this strange web of connections known as the internet, which people are always quick to categorize as somehow less real. We connected through a series of links related to the Etsy Pinkwashing Debacle of 2012. She had metastatic breast cancer just like my mom. We bonded through our shared longing for a better way to honor those affected by cancer.

This I do for her today, sans pink ribbons and meaningless platitudes.

I’ll never have the privilege of standing at her grave or remembering the sound of her laugh years from now, but I’ll remember her spirit. I’ll remember her words, her story, her tenacity, her love. I’ll remember what it felt like to connect with her, another survivor, and how it made me feel less alone. I’ll remember the way that I felt her light, all the way over here in my little corner of the internet.

How do we honor the dead?

By taking up their tenacity, by telling their stories, by reflecting their light.

Rest well, sweet friend. You will be missed.

Out of respect for her and her family, I’ve chosen not to link to my friend’s blog or social media. This post is in memory of her, but it is also in honor of all those affected by cancer. If you or a loved one are living with it today, my thoughts and prayers are with you.

On Listening for Love.

Winter has worn down my resolve for routine, I think. At first I thought it was just January, but now, one week and two more snow storms into February, I’ve finally come to terms with the truth that my body only has one function in winter, which is hibernation.

Normally when I get home from work in the evenings, cooking dinner serves as the ritual that helps me unwind and separate my work-brain from my home-brain, as though the act of peeling the skin from a potato actually removes all the frustration and stress from my very thoughts. Something about that rhythm of peeling and chopping and sautéing and stirring and seasoning helps me clear my head, even when I’m tired. Lately though, I’ve just been too exhausted to cook with any creativity or regularity. My boundaries around appropriate circumstances for takeout (weekends, roadtrips, the occasional hyper-busy weeknight) have grown lax. Appropriate takeout circumstances now fall under one category : Bethany-is-just-too-damn-tired nights, and I’m averaging 4/7. The dishes pile up in the sink for days on end, grocery shopping and carting my loads through snow and subzero temps seems an insurmountable task, and in the end I just. can’t. make myself Do The Right Thing. I blame it on these cold, dark evenings when getting home from work at six feels more like getting home at pass-out-o’clock. Even my boundaries around ordering “healthy” takeout (Chipotle, Noodles & Co., etc., don’t laugh) have broken down. A few nights ago, hubs and I gave up all pretenses of responsible adulthood and drove straight to Portillo’s for giant, juicy cheeseburgers.

But if I’m being honest, it’s these moments when I loosen on my grip on Doing The Right Thing that I actually learn something about my life.

So hubs and I are sitting there at a booth in Portillo’s, munching on salty, piping hot french fries and mowing down on our burgers and telling each other about our days, when we hear the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” come over the speakers. Matt, ever the Beatles’ fanatic, started singing along when a curious look came over his face.

“When you hear a piece of music, do you hear it as a blur of sound or do you hear all the different parts of it weaving into one another?” he asked.

I chewed my bite of burger thoughtfully and listened to the song for a beat before answering, “mostly just a blur of sound.”

His smile widened at the thought. “Really? That’s so weird because I can’t listen to a piece of music without hearing every individual part.”

I wish I could have captured the smile on his face right then as he contemplated my response, the way he launched into a bit music theory with a careful dissection of the song, humming the base line and tapping rhythmically on the table in time with the drums, interrupting himself at just the right moments, a one man band even with a cheeseburger in his hand.

It was every conversation he and I had ever had in the middle of an argument, but wouldn’t you know, this time I heard it differently. We see and comprehend things in different ways because we are different people, and that’s not always a bad thing. My “healthy” boundaries and compulsion for Doing The Right Thing often lead me to forget this beautiful part of marriage in which we give one another a glimpse of how we see (and hear) the world. When they say that “two become one,” we often spend the next ten, twenty, eighty years trying to get the other person to repeat after us and say all the things we want to hear. It can be ear-splitting and deafening, silencing and heart-breaking, an exercise in erasing all the things we once appreciated about the other person until we are utterly alone.

In my worst moments, I’m the narcissistic rock-star, screwing up the lyrics and blaming it on my band-mate, trashing the dressing room and disappearing for a few days. I wander back, head hung low, humbled by the amount of trust that it takes to let myself and my loved one sing our own parts, together, in harmony, for better or worse.

Stop, listen. Do you hear it? That blur of sound, all those beautiful moving parts? That’s our life.

Book Review : Refuse To Drown

I have a stack of books I received at Christmas that are begging to be read, but there’s one book I read this past month that had me ignoring all the rest. Friend and biographer Shawn Smucker has released a new book, Refuse to Drown, and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy for review. From the moment it arrived in the mail, I couldn’t put it down. I think I read the first 75 pages in one sitting.

Refuse to Drown is the true story of Tim Kreider, his son Alec, and the Haines family murders (Lancaster, Pa., 2007.) With the help of Smucker, Kreider recounts the circumstances around Alec’s illness, crime, and confession. It is as heartbreaking as you would imagine : a father who desperately wants to help his son treat his depression soon realizes that it’s too late. The unthinkable happens, and two families and an entire community are left grieving.

The writing is raw and honest. Kreider’s heart for his son and the Haines family is apparent in every sentence and carefully constructed scene. (If you haven’t already, you should read Smucker’s blog post about the three year process it took to create the manuscript.) But I won’t lie; though I couldn’t put this book down, Refuse to Drown is a hard read. The reality of the situation – the gruesome murders, Alec’s illness and guilt, the life sentence – is absolutely gut-wrenching. I am being completely honest when I say that the story kept me awake at night.

Even so, I’m glad I read it. Refuse to Drown is a hard read, but an important one, because Kreider is offering the side of the story that is so rarely told. Do we need the victims’ stories? Of course. But what we’re all afraid to admit is that we need the other stories too, of the criminal, the sick, the grieving other half of the truth. We need the story of the father who loved his son and tried to help him, and who, when the unthinkable happened, did the right thing for the sake of his son, the other family, the community, and now for you and me.

There’s a small passage that I found especially telling, right after the reality of Alec’s actions come to light. Tim is so grieved by it that he doesn’t want to speak to Alec, but his fiance Lynn says something important.

“I had called him each and every night since he had been admitted to Philhaven. But on that night, I was disappointed, confused, violated – he had gone against everything I had taught him, everything I believed in.

‘If he was sick with cancer, would you call him?’ Lynn asked me. ‘This is no different. Tim, he’s not well. He needs you now just as much as he would with any other sickness.’” (p. 62)

We could talk all day about the very real differences between cancer and mental illness*, but we would be missing the point. The truth of mental illness is that without the usual cues and helpful symptoms that tell us when a person is sick and needs our help, conditions like depression are stigmatized. Kids like Alec are taught to see their struggle through a lens of morality instead of health. They feel isolated by it; they can’t articulate it. These are the circumstances that breed tragedy, whether it is suicide or homicide. For too many families, their loved ones’ mental health problems don’t become apparent until the circumstances are past the point of no return. How do we help those struggling with mental illness feel safe to admit that they’re not okay? How do we encourage them to get help before they bring harm to themselves or others? How do we make this “invisible” illness visible before it becomes a news headline? How do we bring about a justice that doesn’t only punish the person that committed the crime, but offer them healing for the illness that provoked it? Or do we really believe that locking away a mentally ill person and withholding treatment is justice?

In a dark room, Kreider’s words have flipped on the light that we may better see the whole story. He has turned the worst circumstances of his life into the best possible opportunity to help us ask the right questions. There are no easy answers, but maybe in talking about it and telling stories like this one, we can help one another find healing.

*Recommended reading : No One Brings Dinner When Your Daughter is An Addict (A father talks candidly about the difference in community support for his wife when she had breast cancer and their daughter when she was diagnosed with bipolar and treated for addictions. Lynn’s words reminded me of this.)

An Epic Journey.

Most of you probably know that for the past year I’ve been working on a book proposal of a memoir about my mother and her experience with breast cancer. Some of you have asked how the process is going. Some of you have asked when you can expect to grab your copy off the shelf of your local bookstore, bless your souls. I bask in your optimism.

This project has been a long time coming; I lost count of how many times mom and I elbowed each other whenever things got hard and said “more fodder for the memoir, eh?” This was said with wry sarcasm, but then one day, it wasn’t. “Let’s write a book together.” And it turns out that she was dead serious. (Forgive the pun. If you’re not laughing, well, she is.)

It was a project we began to dream about together. It was a project that she had the courage to conceive of, even if she wasn’t sure she would ever see it come to fruition in her lifetime. She sat down and in six months wrote 15 chapters all by herself. My mother (if you’re trying to picture her, imagine part Julie Andrews, part Lorelai Gilmore) was a woman who knew what she wanted and made it happen, whether it was defying doctors’ prognoses or writing a book about it.

Me, on the other hand? I know what I want, but I tend be a little less self-assured, a little more cynical, a little tip-toey around the things I want and how to get them. So when my friend sat down on my couch a year ago and said “now’s the time and I’m here to be your agent,” I was excited, but also scared. I waded in the shallow waters for awhile before feeling ready to dive in with this book business.

It was – as it always seems to be where I’m concerned – a problem of knowing just enough to stand in my own way.

Writing a book, in case you’re not aware, is a long, arduous path. It’s an epic journey. It’s Frodo taking The Ring to Mordor ambitious, complete with Orcs and the occasional giant, flesh-eating arachnid. Some call her Shelob, but her real name is Your Emotional Baggage, and she tends to emerge from your bedroom closet just when you’re about to write the most vulnerable parts of your story.*

But I digress.

The point is, I knew this going in. I knew that it would be hard and risky and frustrating and slow and terrifying and that there are no shortcuts and there are definitely no guarantees.

And knowing this perhaps slowed me down a bit. It took a few months to let the “OMG A PUBLISHER IS GOING TO READ THIS” performance anxiety to wear off, another month or two to crank out enough material to form a first draft of a proposal, another month to write a draft of a sample chapter, another month to edit a draft of mom’s sample chapter. And then another month after that to edit all of it into one cohesive proposal and send it to my agent. (In my defense, I was working a full time job and trying to maintain a blog… Oh little blog, poor neglected thing. File this under things they don’t tell you about writing a book : having an online platform is essential to acquiring a book deal these days, but growing said platform while working on a book is next to impossible. The system is rigged, you guys.)

A couple months after that, a publisher finally nibbled at the bait on my hook. A few friendly email exchanges later, we set up a time to chat over the phone.

“So what can we expect from this phone call?” I asked my agent. “Will we talk timeline? Numbers?”

“Friend,” he said very gently, “Writing a book has five steps. You are still on Step One.”

So you see, even in my attempts to prepare myself, I still was not prepared for this process. We never will be, so we have to be faithful and diligent to the process anyway.

The phone call with the nibbling publisher went pretty well. They complimented me on my writing and said they’d been following me for awhile (!!!!!), we talked about the proposal, I tried not to get too numbers-specific with my tiny little platform, we schemed about a possible opportunity, I got a little excited and over-promised on delivery, and in the end, no matter how hopeful I wanted to be about the whole thing, it just wasn’t the right fit. They were asking me to work on something separate from the mom memoir, and as much as I feel that this other project is a book I will write someday, that time is not now. It was a square peg in a round hole and lemme tell you: this method of forcing words does. not. work.

You know those writers that are all seven steps to the book deal of your dreams and three habits that helped me write a thousand words in an hour and start waking up at five a.m. and you’ll become a NYT bestselling author in 10 days? You guys. They’re lying. OR, maybe it did actually work for them, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and I am one of the everyone else whose best work happens in the hard, slow, quiet moments. And you know what else? That’s okay. There’s a lot of really magnificent people in this camp that have created beautiful things when they allowed the words to flow naturally from life to the page.

So over winter break I came to terms with the facts :

Fact A : forcing words is not my modus operandi

Fact B : rejection from a publisher can be a lot less painful and a lot more freeing if I let it.

It seems they were confused about why I had structured the manuscript the way that I had. At first their confusion raised my hackles and provoked a few fangs and growls, but after I thought about it for awhile and ate a few dozen bowls of ice cream, it hit me. I had picked the most straightforward (read: utterly boring) way to structure my manuscript possible. Why had I done that?

I did that because I was afraid to take risks with it. I was afraid they wouldn’t see my vision. So I chose not to have a vision and just to give the straight-facts version of this story, which actually isn’t the same as telling it true.

And when I finally understood this and sat down to give it another go, a whole new proposal came tumbling out – new premise, new chapter structure, new title, new sample chapter. One that feels a lot less Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and much more memoir-ish, the way a book about a person’s real life ought to be.

And as it goes, now that I have a second draft that I love, the project is in limbo. (Remember the part where I compared writing a book to LOTR? Just when you think it’s almost over, it goes on for another 45 minutes and you really have to pee. And we’re only on Year One, Part One, Step One, Lord help us.)

It’s in limbo because my dear friend and agent has taken on some new opportunities, and we both feel it would be more efficient for both of us if we found me a female agent that has the expertise to help me market this book. (I’m writing about breast cancer and womanhood, you guys. It is what it is.) And I feel really good about this decision, despite having to gear myself up for the journey that is finding a compatible agent.

So that’s my #realtalk about year one of my journey to publishing my first book.

And it taught me so much about myself as a writer. Believe it or not, I don’t say this begrudgingly. This first year in My Epic Journey to Writing a Book revealed a couple of other facts about myself to me:

Fact C : despite our recent decision to find a new agent, were it not for my friend sitting on my couch a year ago and offering to help me, this journey may never have gotten started. And for that reason, I have nothing but gratitude for him.

Fact D : all of this epic journeying so far has done nothing to dissuade me of the truth that I am, in fact, a writer. (Please point me to this sentence in this blog post later when I’m sobbing to you about how it’s never going to happen for me.)

If you’ve read to the end of this diatribe (with or without skimming), bless you. I’ll be back with updates as I have them, but until then, I’m hoping to appear a lot more regularly on this here blog with other thoughts about life and faith and all manner of bloggy things. Perhaps by the time the book deal actually happens, my platform might be a smidge bigger to please those pesky, numbers-savvy publishers. Either way I’m glad you’re here. I love you all. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for you.

*It helps to have a Samwise Gamgee for moments such as this. Thanks to my dear hubs, Matthew Jason, for casting light at every vital moment and never letting me go it alone no matter how delusional stubborn I am. And thanks to my friend and agent-now-helping-me-find-a-better-agent, Darrell Vesterfelt. You saw something I didn’t yet see in myself. I’m so thankful for you. And to the rest of you, dear friends and readers, thanks for your endless support and faith. We’re getting there, one step at a time.

One Word 2014 : Thrive.

I chose Faithfulness as my One Word for 2013. It’s from a favorite hymn of mother’s, the last one she sang to me before she died and the one we sang at her funeral. I had it inscribed as a tattoo on my wrist on the anniversary of her death last January.

The lyrics to the chorus go, “Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

But honestly, I think I got the Faithfulness thing backwards in 2013. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to achieve an elusive measure of faithfulness that would make me feel satisfied, confident and whole. And at the same time, I was trying to hide from the hard parts of faithfulness : the showing up and being present in my life every day, the vulnerability of it, the steady work that it takes – whether or not there’s an end or an accolade in sight. Yet when I sat down to make a list of everything that marked this year – books I read, music and movies I loved, places I went, people I met, friendships that flourished, words I wrote, tasks I accomplished – I was astonished by how full my life was.

For the record, this is what Faithfulness looked like in 2013 :

Books :
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed
- Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
- When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman
- Packing Light by Allison Vesterfelt
- A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver
- A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
- Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
- Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist
- Quiet by Susan Cain
- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
- Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott
- Rereads: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Series & The Last Summer (of You and Me) by Ann Brashares, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneggar, Homecoming by Bernard Schlink

People I Connected With (online, some face-to-face) : 

- Natalie Trust
- Tamara Barrick Rice
- Cara Strickland
- Abi Bechtel
- Suzannah Paul
- Dianna Anderson
- Dani Kelley
- Benjamin Moberg
- Micah Murray

Places I Went :
- The Dominican Republic : service project
- Eagle River, Wisc. : camping with the hubs
- Bloomington, Ind. : visiting friends from my study abroad trip
- Norwalk, Ohio : my first-ever speaking gig!
- Nashville, Tenn. : vacation with my hubs
- Fargo, N.D. : Thanksgiving with my sis in-law & niecey

Words I Wrote (most popular posts) :
- Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy & the Church
- RELEVANT : Angelina Jolie and Every Woman’s Choice
- I Am Done With Being Quiet
- When It’s the Worst Thanksgiving Ever
- When the Story Isn’t Mine to Tell
- It is Good : An Ode to My Body
- When I Say I Wouldn’t Trade It
- On Mourning Mother’s Day

Personal Accomplishments :
- got a tattoo
- paid off my credit card
- finally worked out a reasonable payment plan with Sallie Mae
- hubs & I both received raises AND bonuses from work
- finished & submitted a first draft of my book proposal + two sample chapters (update on this coming soon)
- got my first-ever speaking gig

BUT SERIOUSLY. Why had I been so hard on myself about living up to a measure of faithfulness when all of this good stuff was already happening? (Why is this always the question I’m asking myself?)

I’m reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly right now, and in her chapter “Vulnerability Armory” she talks about our habits of deflecting vulnerability. As I was reading, I realized that “foreboding joy” is a big shield for me : living in a constant state of anxiety over the worst case scenario. I use it in an effort to prepare for and/or shield myself from pain, but it has kept me from fully living into joy. It leaves me desperate and insecure, unable to see the blessings in my midst and therefore totally ungrateful for them.

This year taught me that every time I think faithfulness is about me and my ability to measure up or follow through, it is in fact, about God’s faithfulness – His radical, loving, everlasting and totally unconditional faithfulness to us. Just as the hymn goes.

I decided that this year I want to put down that shield of foreboding joy. I want to stop letting anxiety and desperation control me. I want to notice the blessings in my midst. I want to act from a place of abundance and enough-ness, instead of scarcity.

And so, the word that I’m choosing for 2014 is THRIVE.

It’s not a list of goals to accomplish or taking the year by storm. It’s not behavior modification with a bunch of new habits. It’s not about measuring up or fitting a standard. It’s about being vulnerable enough to feel joy and practice gratitude.

Thriving is about living into His faithfulness to me.

Advent Reflection : Love Made Flesh.

I went looking for myself yesterday. I do this sometimes when I’m feeling lost and numb; I go looking for the more hopeful, articulate, comforting version of me in the one place I know I’ll find her: my words. Lately I’ve been feeling sad and cynical and Bah-Humbug-ish, like I’m going through the motions of this season instead of really feeling its joy. Thus began my search for the me somewhere in time that had a better grasp on this whole Advent thing. I found this post that I wrote last year and it centered my heart right where it needed to be. I hope it does the same for you.

This is an edit and repost of a piece I wrote for Allison Vesterfelt last December.

A few nights ago, my husband and I went to a Christmas party. We sang carols and ate cookies and caught up with old friends, and to my surprise, a newborn baby found his way into my arms. Friends of ours just gave birth to their firstborn son a few weeks ago, and they brought him to the party with them.

Christmastime is a season of grief for me as I remember the last days of my mother’s life. It is difficult to reconcile the merry and bright with that sense of brokenness and longing, difficult to keep my heart open to the hope and joy of Advent when it is being swallowed by commercialism. But as I held that fragile, perfect, eight-pound peanut of a baby boy, the cynicism and cliche of this whole season didn’t seem so cheap. I looked at his sleeping face, felt his tiny heart beating against his tiny ribcage as I wrapped my arms around him and I was reminded of how Christ came to us:  not as a fully grown man, but as a baby. He could have chosen to come to us in any form He wanted. He could have chosen not to come at all.

But instead, He chose to take on the full experience of humanity from birth to death.

He understood things like grief and government oppression and the mundane brokenness of everyday life. He has always understood it, but He chose to demonstrate it in the most profound way possible, by taking on the journey of humanity.

When tragedy happens, we want an end to the pain and oppression and injustice. We want to make laws and condemn people, we want to overthrow governments, we want to eradicate all illness, everywhere, forever. We want change, and we want it by force.

But God has shown us in the life of Christ that redemption begins with humility, relationship, empathy. 

I find that so radical, so comforting, and it is this that fills me with joy in a season so riddled with cliches and catchphrases and commercialism. This is where I find healing for the hurt when I miss my mother or when someone says something terrible or when I hear that someone I love has lost someone they love :

That God saw fit to walk in our shoes, to put flesh on His love for us, to come directly into the darkness with us.

My hope is that we can offer that kind of hope to others this holiday season. Not the kind that offers any sort of platitude for their pain or any sort of policy to place over the brokenness.

Just empathy. Light in the darkness. Love in the flesh. Comfort and joy.

[Image.]

Book Review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I was wandering through a small bookshop in Fargo, North Dakota when I found a copy of Wild and bought it on impulse. I should have been focused on Christmas shopping for friends and family rather than myself, but we had a long drive back to Chicago the next day with my inlaws and I knew I needed something to read on the ride home. Friends had recommended Strayed’s memoir to me on several different occasions, and I’d also had friends say they were disappointed by it, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity.

For those of you that haven’t heard of it, Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. In the wake of her mother’s death from lung cancer, Strayed’s relationships to her siblings and stepdad disintegrated and she destroyed her marriage with a series of infidelities. So in the summer of 1995, at the age of 26 and newly divorced, Strayed packed up her life and hiked 1,100 miles – completely alone – from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State in order to “save herself.”

Few books have made me cry harder than this one. Strayed’s writing is sharp and raw and honest in a way that made me feel as though I was hiking 1,100 miles right through her emotions. Considering that I lost my own mother to cancer two short years ago at nearly the same age and stage of my life, it wasn’t hard for me to empathize. Our lives and beliefs are very different from one another, but our bonds to our mothers and their subsequent deaths are agonizingly similar.

“She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”

While I know myself better than to think I could hike a thousand miles through desert and wilderness all alone, even so, grief feels exactly that way: you are walking through a solitary, unyielding landscape while the rest of the world hums on around you in the distance.

I have often longed for a literal wilderness to run to in my own journey through grief. Living “life as usual” after this kind of loss is in some ways harder than doing what Strayed did. The normalcy of everyday life doesn’t reflect the wildness and turmoil taking place in your inner life. Thus, the urge to self-destruct is more powerful than one imagines before such profound loss. This urge is not so much a desire to destroy every good thing you have left so much as it is a force at work inside you, a chasm within yourself, a black hole where the bright star of your loved one once existed, around which you once orbited, steady and safe. You think yourself a reasonable, grounded, healthy person with a support system of loved ones who will never let you waiver over the edges of your life … until that person who loved you and knew you better than anyone else is gone. Then the vast emptiness left in their place threatens to swallow your life whole, no matter how hard you try. It is disorienting and therefore very hard to recover any sense of stability you may have had in that “before” version of yourself. Were it not for my family and my faith, I may have made similar choices to Strayed.

Strayed draws on the wildness of nature to help us better understand this wildness of grief. In the lifestyle that most of us live in (sub)urban sprawl, it’s easy to ignore life’s transience, but in the wilderness, we’re forced into awareness of nature’s rhythms, to confront our smallness and mortality. Strayed captures this parallel journey between hiking the PCT and her emotional pilgrimage through grief with great power and precision. There are several parts of the book that made me teary and one part that was absolutely annihilating. I won’t allude to which passage because I think part of what made it so powerful was the element of surprise – one moment she’s hiking down the trail and the next, I am bent over the book sobbing uncontrollably, much to the bewilderment of my husband. It’s intense.

All of that being said, a few people warned me that Strayed’s book would disappoint me, and I have to admit that they were partly right. The end of her journey felt anticlimactic. I found myself wishing that she would have lingered longer over the moment when she reached her chosen destination, creating a stronger emotional shift as she ended her hike. After four months and 1,100 miles, I wanted there to be a vivid and tangible sense of resolution to counteract the emotional turmoil we find her in at the beginning.

But it’s this sense of disappointment that I think is important, and maybe even intentional on Strayed’s part. It speaks to the frustration of grief and how it never really and finally resolves itself. And I think that’s where I understand and respect her ending.

When you’ve suffered such a profound loss, you want to conquer grief once and for all and come away from it a totally transformed person, having straightened out your bent towards self-destruction, entirely at peace with yourself. You long for accomplishment. A clear beginning and end. But the reality is that you may come to a point in your grief when you feel like the worst is behind you, but instead of feeling fiercely victorious, you feel a sense of gratitude mixed with confusion. You wonder why you’re not crying with relief like you expected to. But it’s because you know that while you’ve reached this point, there will also be more moments ahead of you when you’ll feel the old familiar ache again.

You will realize anew that no matter where you are in life, you are always making the same choice.

“I looked north, in its direction – the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.”

Ultimately, I think Strayed remained to true to herself, to her journey, and to the universal experience of grief. As a writer in the midst of telling my own grief story, I’m challenged by that. I don’t necessarily want my readers to feel like I’ve wasted their time by the end of my book, but I also don’t want to leave them with the false impression that it all comes to a tidy, triumphant end. That’s just not the nature of grief. It is wild and untamed. Let it be.

Have you read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild? What did you think of it? Did it resonate with your experiences of grief ? Why or why not? What are the best memoirs you have read on grief? 

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