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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.

When I Say I Wouldn’t Trade It.

She would have been 52 last Sunday. We spent that weekend in Indiana, in the town where she was born, visiting her family whom we haven’t seen in five or ten years. The convergence of her birthday and our reunion wasn’t planned that way on purpose, it just sort of happened, a kaleidoscope of memory, of blessing, bitter and sweet.

Standing in the yard at Esther’s farm that day, fields of beans and corn stretching out in every direction, the blue sky vaulting above us, family all around, the ache settled in.

I miss you. I wish you were here. I’d give anything.

We always said we wouldn’t trade it. She even said it first. She was a leader in that way. Unflinching. Unwilling to let something like cancer ruin her, or steal her voice or her faith. It wasn’t a glossing over of the truth. It wasn’t a matter of pretending she wasn’t sick. It wasn’t an ignorance of the disease. No. It was her way of saying that life could throw anything at her, and she would keep moving forward. Looking back, wishing things were different, feeling sorry for herself, or giving up her desire to live and live well, that would have been defeat.

It’s a lot for a daughter to live up to. It’s a lot of gumption that, in my grief, I don’t always feel like I have. Cynicism sets in and I question whether or not saying things like “I wouldn’t trade” my mother’s illness and death for an easier life is synonymous with saying I don’t miss her or it doesn’t hurt or I’m fine, or perhaps worse, that other patients have to respond to cancer the same way as we have.

So what am I really trying to say when I tell you that I wouldn’t trade this, all this heartache, all this void, all this grief, for a life in which none of this had happened?

In Stranger than Fiction, there’s a part where Harold Crick is staying at his friend Dave’s apartment and the two are sitting at the dinner table eating, lost in thought, until Harold asks Dave a question.

“Dave, can I pose a somewhat abstract, purely hypothetical question?”

“Sure.”

“If you knew you were gonna die, possibly soon, what would you do?”

“Wow, I don’t know. Am I the richest man in the world?”

“No, you’re you.”

“Do I have a superpower?”

“No, you’re you.”

“I know I’m me, but do I have a superpower?”

“No, why would you have a superpower?”

“I don’t know, you said it was hypothetical.”

It’s a funny scene, but in previous viewings I’ve always kind of glossed over its poignancy. I thought of it again the other day while I pondered the meaning behind “I wouldn’t trade it.”

Whether we’re hypothesizing about the future or the past, whether we imagine having superpowers or we’re bartering with fate over terminal illnesses, we’re seeking a measure of control. We want to believe that we would willingly face death, knowing it was just ahead, and that we would make all the right choices and live like we mean it. We’re imagining a life in which God offers us two choices : Be a Better Person With Cancer or Be a Shallow Person Without Cancer.

We’re creating a sadistic god, a false dichotomy, a moral hierarchy, and a misunderstanding of sanctification that veers into atonement.

I heard things like “I wouldn’t trade it” and “don’t waste your cancer” and “everything happens for a reason” and “it’s all a part of God’s plan” for so long, that the subliminal message I interpreted from this cacophony of bad theology was that I wasn’t supposed to be sad about her illness and death. I wasn’t supposed to wish her back. I wasn’t supposed to miss her. That would be weak. That would be faithless. That would be defeat.

But in the last 20 months since she died, I’ve slowly realized that like every other cheap platitude, “I wouldn’t trade it” became an aversion to feeling my grief as deeply as I needed to. I said it when I was afraid of admitting to God that I was angry, bitter, lonely, and heartbroken.

And yet.

There was power in those words when my mother said she wouldn’t trade her experience for an easier life. For awhile I kind of lost the point of what she was really saying, and the cynicism set in and I wasn’t sure I believed all that hokey, hypothesizing, magical-thinking talk about hope and faith and prayer. But just like we have to grow up and find our own faith and beliefs separate from our parents’, I’ve had to figure out what “I wouldn’t trade it” means to me.

The hard truth is that a lot of the good, beautiful experiences in my life came at the expense of really hard, painful experiences like my mother’s death. I can’t explain why life is like that, but I don’t know that I want to anymore.

I’m more at peace living with “I don’t know” than when I staked my faith on having all the answers. I feel more free to miss her, not knowing why it happened, than when I believed her death was a moral to a story.

So when I say that I wouldn’t trade it, I don’t mean that I’m glad she’s dead. I don’t mean that I don’t miss her. I don’t mean that I wish this experience on others so that they can become a Good Person like I am, or that I expect them to process this experience the same way.

When I say I wouldn’t trade it, I mean that I wouldn’t trade who I am for an easier life. I wouldn’t trade the deep, beautiful, powerful relationship I had with my mother, or my other relationships that have deepened through this experience, for all the shallow relationships and physical health and earthly prosperity in the world. I will never regret learning the lesson that life is too short to compromise what I want out of it or who I am. It’s not a superpower, but it is a powerful thing nonetheless.

On Mourning Mother’s Day.

It’s Mother’s Day weekend. The second since my mother died. And I don’t know why, but this year I’m having a hard time, worse than last year. Maybe it started with the Spotify ad* that interrupted me a week ago, sitting at my desk at work, jamming to Dawes.

“You probably talk to your mom on a pretty regular basis, right?”

No, Spotify. I don’t. But thanks for asking.

I ripped my earphones out like they were on fire and burst into tears, hyperventilating like a small, terrified child.

I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before – such a visceral, instantaneous, physical reaction to something so happenstance and fleeting.

And actually, in a weird way, I feel kind of blessed for not having experienced that before. I know people who experience those kinds of triggers and debilitating encounters on a daily basis, and for you who are reading this and experience that, my heart goes out to you.

And for those of you reading this and scratching your heads about my sudden “adversity” to Mother’s Day, please know that this is not an attack on motherhood, but a rejection of the way that our culture talks about and celebrates it on this particular day of the year, and a protest against the way that grief is glossed over in general, on this and every other day of the year.

It is not my lack of respect for motherhood that makes this day hard for me; it is precisely because I have experienced it so profoundly as my mother’s daughter that I am a complete emotional basket case this year. Much like my frustration with the breast cancer awareness movement, I am tired of the way that motherhood is truncated into a Hallmark holiday.

But let’s be honest : we want to blame it on the advertising industry, but many of our own faith communities and families have bought the lie lock-stock-and-barrel, communicating pretty overtly that the day is only properly expressed through greeting cards, over-priced flowers, and sitting through a painful church service that alienates women who do not fit the narrow definition of biological motherhood, which explains why the day is so painful and guilt-stricken for many of us who can’t quite stomach it.

For me, the daughter of a dead mother who also happened to be my best friend, the sentiment always seems to be something like :

Your mother was a great person and that’s reason to celebrate!

Or, you have a mother-in-law! Celebrate her!

No. Sorry. Wrong answer. Defaulting all my Mother’s Day cheer to my mother-in-law, though I love her dearly, does not make up for how much I miss my actual mother, the one that birthed and raised me and whom I watched die a slow and painful death.

So for last year and this year and perhaps several more to come, I’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day by taking my mother-in-law to brunch and then spending my time how I wish, reflecting on my mother’s life. I will give myself the grace and permission to avoid making this day a giant, painful platitude on the deepest wounds of my heart. I will offer grace and permission for the woundedness of my friends who want to be mothers and cannot, who want better mothers but don’t have them, who are not celebrated for the way they nurture their loved ones without being a biological mother, or who simply don’t want to be mothers and feel judged for that decision.

We have a pervasive social misunderstanding that to mourn with those who mourn somehow detracts from our ability to rejoice with those rejoice. But my grief is not an insult to your joy. Nor does my grief dismiss my gratitude for those who continue to mother me. And to put on a happy face and pretend that it doesn’t hurt in order to appease the discomfort of people around me is unnecessary and cheap.

Instead, I have discovered that learning to mourn well and grieve with others can only deepen our joy and authenticate our appreciation for the mothering presences in our lives, however they manifest. And this joy and appreciation doesn’t have to be celebrated the way others expect, or on one particular day of the year.

This is the hard, wild, beautiful reality of love lost : that in our deepest sorrow, we are acknowledging and honoring that profound influence on our life. 

*Any smartass comments about paying for Spotify Premium will be deleted. 

The Book: A Story Carved Out of Memory.

The book was mom’s idea.

She called me one night as I was fixing dinner.

“I have this idea,” she said, in that tone of her voice that is on the verge of laughter, full of mirth.

“Oh yeah? Is it legal?” I joked.

Yes, I remember now. I was standing at the stove, stirring tomatoes in olive oil and garlic and basil, and she called me and I walked away from the pan, phone to my ear. The sauce burned.

“I want to write a book,” she said. “And I want you to help me.”

I sputtered and laughed. I was a college grad freshly hatched from the nest. I was a newlywed learning the ropes. I had two part-time jobs, a blog that no one read, and exactly zero experience in the publishing industry. Write a book? Sure! Why not?

But for all our laughter and mirth and joking, I knew this time she meant it.

How many times had we said it before, in passing, an elbow to the other’s rib every time the hard news came along or we told someone about the whole long thing? Fourteen years is a long time to live with something like cancer and not feel compelled to write it all down.

My mom maybe only ever said why me? once in her life, the day that she was first diagnosed in 1997. She was standing in the bathroom at Red Lobster because they were out to try and celebrate her and dad’s fifteenth wedding anniversary, despite having heard the worst at the doctor’s office that morning. Grandma says she gripped the counter and looked in the mirror and cried.

“Why me?” in the quietest, hardest whisper. And it never left her lips again.

But those words feel forever on my lips. It all just feels a little unfair some days, like I’m wearing one of those crappy souvenir tshirts, but mine reads, My mom died of cancer and all I got was this book idea, give or take an expletive.

I’ve known for pretty much my whole life that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think this book would be book numero uno, the story that would make me a published author.

I journaled my heart out that night after she told me her bright idea, praying that she would have the words and energy to write her part, that I would have discernment to know what to do with them once she gave them to me, that we would find people who would help us bring this book to life, and that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have to finish the damn book all alone after she was gone.

The next morning, I called her on my commute to work.

“Well?” she asked.

“Just write it out. All of it. And then give me all the files and we’ll worry about the rest once you’re done.”

“Okay,” she said. “I can do that.”

And that is how, three years later, I have 15 chapters of my mom’s life story sitting on my kitchen table, her voice still speaking to me long after she expelled her last breath.

We were sitting together with our pastor at the funeral home before the first wake began. He had asked us what we remembered about her, what things about her mattered most to us.

“She always told me never to be bitter,” Jacob said quietly, and the rest of us nodded.

This is what I remember now, sifting through pages of her story. She allowed herself to feel the bitterness of her diagnosis, to ask the inevitable and necessary question, why me?, but she didn’t dwell in that bitterness forever. She traded it for a better question, a life giving one:

“Why not me?”

I read this post last week from memoirist Dani Shapiro, “On Memoir.” Her thoughts on memoir are razor-sharp, but this part hit me hard :

“What is the job of the memoirist? Is it to tell all? Or is it to carve a story out of memory?”

Similar to my thoughts on ethical storytelling that I wrote for Prodigal Mag two weeks ago, Shapiro addresses the idea of truthfulness, and asserts that Truth isn’t necessarily facts and timelines, but narrative.

“We writers who mine our personal veins, who find the stories in our own lives and dive deep, searching for the ways to make order out of chaos, are not doing so because we want to be reality TV stars, or because we’re exhibitionists, or narcissists. We are not publishing our journals, or imagining ourselves to be so important that people are actually interested in the details of our lives. No. We are taking those details and lining them up, amazed, astonished, rapt the way a child might be, building blocks to form a tower. We are attempting to make sense out of what we can — to reach out a hand to the reader across a rough sea of isolation and separateness and offer up something that has shape, integrity, even beauty and symmetry.”

And so maybe as I write this book I can trade all my bitterness and why me? questions for the beauty of why not me? and reach across the isolation and grief of loss to you who feel it, too.

When was ask ourselves “why not me?” our experiences aren’t just our own anymore. Lots of people get cancer. Lots of people experience pain, loss, grief. Everyone dies. And everyone asks questions about these experiences, and about faith and love. Both questions need to be asked, and truth be told we may never find the answers to either one, but it’s learning to ask the latter that brings hope and healing and community.

So this book won’t be a tell-all, but a story carved out of memory, a hand-in-hand account of learning to live well.

Thank you for being so supportive about my book announcement. Without all of you, dear readers, this wouldn’t even be happening. Xoxo.

A Prodigal Post, A Big Announcement

I’m posting over at Prodigal Mag today, and it’s an important post for a couple of reasons :

First, there has been some tension in the Prodigal community this week. We’re debating the issues, about gender equality and abuse apologetics and Scriptural exegesis. But at the heart of this discussion is also the issue of storytelling: when and how to tell a story and whether a story is ours to tell.

I’m learning as I go that one of the biggest challenges of being a nonfiction writer is learning to handle our loved ones’ stories with care. How we share true stories might not always communicate truth, and for that reason, not all storytelling is created equal. As writers and storytellers, we have to discern this boundary and respect it. And as readers, we have the right to criticize writers who we discern have crossed that boundary.

There have been some concerns that this boundary was crossed in one of Prodigal’s posts this week. My hope is that my post helps communicate better boundaries for storytelling to everyone, whether in the Prodigal community or the internet at large, whether you’re a writer or not. My hope is that my post brings healing to some of the hurt expressed this week.

Second, the post includes a pretty big piece of news on my part. I’ve been hinting at it for months here in on my little blog, but haven’t been quite ready to say it “out loud” on the internet. But after a lot of prayer and sweaty palms and hard work, I am finally ready to share it with all of you.

I’m writing a book.*

It will be a memoir about my mother’s battle with metastatic breast cancer, co-written by her and I.** I am two-thirds of the way through my proposal, and I’ll be sending it to a potential publisher next month. Darrell Vesterfelt is acting as my agent.

As you can imagine, this endeavor means that my mother and my family have entrusted this story to me, and that this project bears a lot of responsibility.

Join me over at Prodigal as I discuss the weight of writing this story, won’t you?

-

*Bet y’all thought I was going to announce that I’m pregnant. But I’m not. I’m procreating a book instead. I WIN.

**More on this later, I promise.

FemFest : My Daughter’s Body.

Today I’m linking up with FemFest, a three-day synchroblog devoted to exploring feminism and its importance, co-hosted by J.R. Goudeau, Danielle Vermeer, and Preston Yancey. Click over to Danielle’s blog to peruse the rest of these amazing stories, or to contribute your own. 

~

This story of mine, it’s about a woman and her daughter. It’s about a fight for life and a fight for faith.

And it’s also, I’m discovering, about a fight for feminism.

I’m not sure my mom would have put it that way. She had some negative opinions about feminism, most of them owing to the particular breed she grew up with in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As she told it, there was a lot of hostility back then. A lot of confusion. My mother was college educated, the primary breadwinner in our household, a leader in her church. She would never have said that men and women aren’t created equal. But if I had to put words to it, “feminism” was not the lens through which she understood gender equality. She understood what it meant to be equal in the eyes of God, and that’s what mattered most to her. When feminism began to form, it was mostly in secular culture. I don’t think she knew back then how one could inform the other.

But as I read through some of the things she wrote about her experience as a young woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a cancer patient, I’m seeing this theme emerge. On one level, this is just a story about coping with tragedy, about the tension of grief and faith.

But because it is about breast cancer, it is also a story about women’s health.

And you could look at our family history and point to genetics as the main culprit, but that would only be half the story. From the dosage of birth control her (male) gynecologist prescribed her without batting an eye, to the endless treatments and choices she made to try and defy doctor’s prognoses once she was diagnosed with cancer, everything about my mother’s experience tells me a story about someone else deciding what women should do with their bodies. It tells me about dangerous assumptions and naive women and sickness being passed from one generation to the next, daughters without mothers and mothers without daughters.

Do I have kids now or later or never?

If I don’t want to have kids right now, what kind of birth control is healthiest for my body?

Do I have to take responsibility for birth control because – physiologically speaking – I am the one that will get pregnant? What can I expect of my partner?

Once I have kids, how do I stay healthy enough to raise them? When should I start having mammograms?

These are the questions she faced. These are the questions I face. These are the questions all women face everywhere, all the time.

My mom became her own advocate, she started asking questions, she took the reigns and outlived her doctors’ death sentence by several years. But it wasn’t until the tests came back malignant. It wasn’t until a lot more research had been conducted and showed that super high doses of birth control might actually produce something scarier than an “untimely” baby.*

And I guess the thing about feminism that I need, the reason why feminism matters, is that like breast cancer, it has motivated me to be my own advocate.

Feminism has motivated me to not only be concerned about my health and my future, but to do something about it, even if it’s telling my husband I’m not okay with taking a pill; I want you to wear a condom.

And feminism motivated me to marry a man that could look me square in the eye and say, I am willing to do that for you because more than anything, I just want you to be healthy.

And feminism is motivating me to tell this story, this story of a mother and a daughter, of breast cancer and women’s health, of grief and faith and feminism, so that our daughters grow up independent, happy and safe in their own bodies.

What’s your story with feminism? What has your experience been with learning to advocate for your own body? How has this factored into your choices with birth control? All voices are welcome here. And yes, male readers, you’re welcome to share your experience and understanding, too. 

*For more information on the troubling correlation between birth control and the increasing rate of breast cancer among women ages 25 to 34, see this report published by NPR today. Note that the NPR article clearly states that this is merely a correlation, not a confirmed cause, and that in my post I am merely writing about my mother’s experience and the likelihood that her dose increased her risk of breast cancer, which was hormone receptor positive.

Full Circle.

The new year began in two ways : one with the ball drop and celebration and champagne, and the other in the box of belongings and memory of a morning one year ago when her breath slipped away and life as I knew it was over.

The symbolism isn’t lost on me – this beginning and ending so close together, this cycle of saying goodbye and starting anew. Life and death and life.

On my morning commute I called my grandmother, just like I have each weekday morning since last January. We talked about all the everyday things – the chicken casserole she had made for dinner the night before, an update on how my aunt is feeling since her surgery in July, news from far flung family, a funny memory or two, and then, mom. We don’t talk about it every day, but it’s always there. When we do say it out loud, it’s a gift. Time slows down for me in that moment – I know it took a lot for her to say it, this precious, painful, oft unspoken piece of her life story.

She is the mother of my mother, I am the daughter of her daughter. She is a mother to me and I am a daughter to her in a strange, tight, eternal bond that both of us cling to with ineffable gratitude.

Just before we hung up and went about our days she said something, and I can’t forget it.

It’s like… we’ve come full circle to another year, and we’ve survived all these firsts and we’re tired. But the circle doesn’t end, it starts over again. I just can’t believe it. It’s hard… but it’s good, you know.”

I got a tattoo on the anniversary of mom’s death, the words of our favorite hymn scrawled like a bracelet around my arm, a circle of sorts. A reminder as I run my finger along the cracked skin of this scar as it heals :

Great is Thy Faithfulness. I am changed. Great is Thy Faithfulness.

I have to tell my story this year, in more ways than one, and with more words than the sum of all those I have poured out before. Some of my words will land in ink and paper, some in different corners of the internet, some on the cutting room floor.

Today, all of it feels fragmented and unfinished. I hesitate to plunge back into the memories again, to the death and the hurt and the pain. And I hesitate in this beginning of a new – another – year. I hesitate to watch the calendar and the seasons turn, toward every anniversary of the whole experience.

Maybe it’s because I worry sometimes that this is the only story I have to tell – sadness and loss. Grief. Is that all there is for me?

But I see in the circle that every end is its own beginning, and that’s His faithfulness in this story.

I can plunge into the depths, knowing that life will come from it. From telling my story comes life for someone else’s story. Grace abounds. The cup overflows. I find blessing in that. Great is Thy Faithfulness.

It is a surprise to me, even now, that I can say that of grief and mean it.

In the Darkness, Bringing Light.

The thing is, she would tell us to put the Christmas tree up, even now. I know this because the day after Thanksgiving last year, the day after we brought her home from a two week stay at the hospital to in-home hospice care where a nurse named Faye marched in and informed us she’s dying, duh. Get with the program, and we didn’t eat turkey or have much to be thankful for, we still managed to put up the Christmas tree and she watched with a smile on her face.

If she could have gotten off the couch, she would have, to straighten the ornaments and rearrange the matryoshka Santa and red star candle on the fireplace mantle so that everything was evenly spaced.

She would have made the cookies, too, and I know this because she made my grandma drive her to the grocery store right before Christmas to buy the ingredients. I found them stashed in the cupboard a few days after the funeral.

This is the thing about traditions that I both love and hate right now : if we do them long enough, they are so deeply woven into who we are that even as a part of us mourns them, yet we still feel utterly compelled to do them. To not do them would sharpen the pain and absence and longing further, pull us deeper into the darkness. And she would hate that. There are times when going through the motions of tradition helps a family survive, and maybe even discover the good tidings and great joy for which this season exists :

Emmanuel, God with us.

God with us in the darkness, bringing light, bringing hope.

So the tree will go up. The mantle will be adorned with the matryoshka Santa and the bright red star candle and the lace nativity. The cookies will be made, if I can find the recipe. Mannheim Steamroller will play in the background. And when we turn round the living room to survey the splendor of our own nostalgia and tradition, we will see her. Her straightening the star on the tree. Her rolling cookie dough, covered in flour. Her practicing Christmas carols at the piano. Her on the couch, trying to enjoy these last twinkle-lit moments with us.

Etsy and the Problem with Pink.

I love the month of October for a lot of reasons, but it’s also a month that I dread every year. While the leaves are vivid with color, retail stores everywhere are awash with pink, because it is “breast cancer awareness month.”

Most of you reading this know that I lost my mother to metastatic breast cancer in January, so it’s not my disregard for breast cancer awareness that bothers me about the pink ribbon. The reason I am so sick of the pink ribbon is because in my experience, the pink ribbon does more for the person that purchases it than those affected by the disease.

Nowhere is the problem with “pinkwashing” more evident than with Etsy and their “Tickled Pink” email and subsequent corporate cop-out.

Two weeks ago, Nicole Smith, a member of Etsy’s marketing team, curated an email full of sellers’ items clad in the ubiquitous pink “breast cancer awareness” ribbons. Though I have my qualms with the pink ribbon for all it does and does not represent, the email seems innocent enough until you click through each of the listings. Only 8 out 24 items listed in the “Tickled Pink” email actually claim to donate to the cause they tout, yet Nicole’s email encourages Etsy users to purchase the pieces as a way to “show love to the women in your life.”

In short, these Etsy sellers have happily capitalized on a sensitive issue, thoughtlessly tacking pink ribbons onto their products without supporting the cause itself. Etsy’s celebratory endorsement of the sellers’ deplorable opportunism only adds insult to injury. Since Etsy earns money from each item sold on their site, both they and their sellers are profiting from others’ pain, and from their consumers’ ignorance, because let’s face it – not everyone is going to read the fine print to make sure their purchase donates to the cause.

And herein lies the issue with pinkwashing, as Etsy has so finely exemplified for us :

When there is no charitable action behind the product – on the part of the seller or the buyer – it turns breast cancer awareness into a trendy parade of pink shit, making breast cancer awareness about the appearance of generosity, rather than actively making a difference in the lives of those in need. It gives consumers buying bags of pretzels and footballs and tennis-shoes – or in this case, mugs and iPhone covers – the feeling of having been generous, without their actually having to do anything.

But as Hila so aptly states,

“Consumerism is not ‘awareness’ about cancer; it’s consumerism. Let’s not pretend otherwise.”

That realization alone is enough to make blood boil, but then there is Etsy’s dismissive and impersonal response to the criticism over their “breast cancer awareness” marketing tactics. For examples, see Nicole Smith’s tweet to Acacia, Mary Andrew’s forum response and quote for the Daily Dot. As if those responses weren’t bad enough, there’s Marie Kelly’s response to my forum inquiry, which makes it sound like I’m just another Negative Nancy trolling the internet. And then there’s Nicole Smith’s reply to my private message on Etsy, which although I can’t reveal its contents due to Etsy’s site policy, was nearly verbatim what Mary Andrews published publicly, with zero acknowledgement of my personal story as a daughter of a breast cancer patient or as an Etsy seller that actually donated a portion of my profits to my mother.

Etsy has had ample opportunity to express solidarity with those who have been directly effected by breast cancer and hold themselves accountable to their brand as a “community of artists, creators, collectors, thinkers and doers,” but instead, they have chosen to make excuses for themselves and label criticism as “negative reference to other sellers,” as if voicing our frustrations and concern equates to hate speech.

This, ultimately, is why I have lost faith in Etsy’s brand, and it is the reason why I am choosing to close my Etsy shop :

They have made it clear that my voice doesn’t matter, nor do Acacia, or Jane, or Hila, or anyone else that is disturbed by their actions.

I’m not just upset by their ignorant and insensitive attempt at marketing to those affected by breast cancer. I am angered by their continued disregard of the voices in their community asking them to be accountable for their actions.

Nothing says corporate cop-out like a deliberate blind eye to someone else’s pain.

I’ll finish this post by saying that Etsy and other corporations like them are only partially at fault. As consumers we have to acknowledge our responsibility in this issue by being active in our charitable efforts. The pink ribbon on your bumper, Facebook profile picture, sweater, cereal box, means absolutely nothing if you are not reaching out to the people around you.

True generosity is radically active.

It is not fluffy or pink or cutesy or marketable. It is not the over-sexualized saving of second base. It is not the color of your bra in a cryptic Facebook status. It is tangible, it is personal, it is scary, it is unnerving. It is ugly-crying on the couch with your friend as she (or he!) discusses their diagnosis.

If you know someone battling breast cancer, or any other terminal illness for that matter, then reach out. Make them a meal, run a marathon for them, hold a benefit for them, send them a card, cry with them, promise to care for their families when they are gone. THAT is how you support a breast cancer patient.

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Permission to Grieve. Love, Santa Claus.

I had this dream last week. Matt had gotten up early to go mow his grandparents’ lawn. He kissed me goodbye and when the door shut behind him I drifted back to sleep for half an hour until my alarm went off. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular as I closed my eyes, but I was thrown into the dream’s vividness immediately.

Like most dreams, the setting was irrational – I was in a hospital that looked like a nail salon, nurses bent over patients’ feet, administering manicures instead of IVs. I tell them I am here to pick up my mother’s belongings, she has died, can you help me?

They ignore me completely and I grow visibly upset. I see a doorway and walk to it defiantly; I don’t care if I’m not allowed in there, I will figure it out for myself.

And then I am in a bedroom, and a girl I knew from my childhood is there, someone I haven’t seen or talked to in years. I am crying and she tells me to stop, no one cares anymore what you’ve lost, you need to move on. She leaves the room.

I see my mother’s belongings shoved underneath a desk. An evening gown and black satin heels, a curling iron, a makeup bag, a tube of lipstick. I shove them into one of those plastic hospital bags with her name written on it in Sharpee.

I turn with the bag and my face wet with tears and I’m surprised to see there is someone sitting on the end of the bed, an elderly man with a white beard and overalls and a flannel shirt. I’ve never seen him before in my life, but he looks like Santa Claus dressed as a farmer. I want to feel repulsed by this stranger that has wandered in unbeknownst to me and witnessed my private grief, but he holds his arms out and says softly, it’s okay to cry. I sit down next to him and he embraces me, all large, protective arms, and scruffy beard and wide chest. It’s okay that you’ve lost her and miss her and don’t know what to do. Don’t listen to them. Don’t feel ignored. It’s okay to cry.

My alarm goes off and I wake up, surprised to feel my face wet with salty, hot, real tears.

I go through the motions of getting ready for work, all the while totally confused by my dream. Why a Santa Claus figure? Why a nail salon and a bag of belongings that weren’t really hers and harsh words from a girl that I haven’t talked to in a decade?

And also,

I didn’t think I needed permission to grieve.

But do I? Is that what the dream is telling me?

My independent, eldest child/only girl spirit doesn’t want to accept that answer. And she doesn’t want help, either. She doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, though he’s a nice idea.

But instead of letting my own subconscious irk my independence, I took the dream’s meaning at face-value, and let myself feel the unquenchable sadness of seven months and 23 days (and one year) sink into that hallow corner of my heart. I stayed quiet for a few days, asking myself things like, am I really going to write another sad blog again? And also, can I quit the internet? Because lately it seems plagued with politics and controversy and incessant arguing and it makes me tired.

I didn’t quit the internet, you’ll be happy to know. And this isn’t intended to be another sad blog, another reminder to each of you that this year I lost my mother, a pity party , or ploy for attention.

Instead, I’m here just to ask a question :

When you’re a twenty-something and you’re supposed to figure out your life and learn how not to be a student or a child or a follower anymore, how and when and where is permission relevant to us?

Because I realized that I have unintentionally been waiting for it – in my work, in my writing, in my grief, in my faith, in my own politics.

Do I need permission? How do I give it to myself? How do I let others give it to me appropriately, without depending on it to the point where I am immobile without it? How do I help someone else understand that they have permission to be who they are, emotions and words and tears and all? If you’re older than twenty-something, at what point did you learn to give yourself that grace and permission? Or, who helped you understand it?

Because the truth, as deeply painful as it is to admit this to you, is this :

I am afraid that if I admit that I need help I will give away my dignity.

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