What Creativity Really Demands.

My senior year of college I had to hide away in the bedroom of my dorm apartment to study. My three roommates and I had arranged our desks in the living room, right next to our couch and television because it was all the room we had. But as the semester wore on, my desk sat vacant. I found that my best work happened in that little red armchair in the corner of our bedroom with the door shut. I just couldn’t crank out 15-page papers with Flava Flave and roomie chatter as my background noise. I even swore off social media that spring so that I could ace my 40-page capstone research paper. (It worked.)

Today my writing requires that same level of discipline: a quiet space, no distractions. I have a full-time job and for the last year I’ve been working on my memoir proposal. I sacrifice free evenings and weekends, I wake myself up earlier than I want to. My bedroom is my makeshift office. I shove my phone in my nightstand drawer, perch my laptop on my legs as I sit on my bed, and eventually the words come.

If I want to write, I have to accept the fact that these scraps of space and spare time are all I have to work with.

I thought that was hard enough, but then my laptop display light died last week. You can imagine my horror. The screen went dark and I was absolutely sure that my career as a writer was snuffed out with it. I took it to a techy friend who confirmed that yes, my trusty old 2007 Macbook was finally showing its age, and no, it can’t be repaired. My only option was to buy a $20 adaptor to hook it up to a PC monitor and use it as a desktop. So that’s where I write to you now : not in my cozy, quiet office/bedroom, but in my living room/dining room/kitchen/office (bless the open floor plan). My husband is watching a movie 10 feet away from me and I’m trying to ignore the siren song of that last slice of blackberry pie in my fridge.

Last week a famous author who has been hugely influential in my work wrote a blog post about what writing a book really requires. He told the story of having to spend a week away at a cabin in the woods recently in order to finish his next book. You have to live inside it, he said. You have to go to the cabin; a book will demand your all that way. Think you can’t afford the luxury of time away in a cabin to write your book? That makes me sad, he said, because it probably isn’t true.

Truthfully, his words really stung. Not because I’m opposed to the idea that writing a book takes sacrifice, but because his post implied that the sacrifices I am already making are not enough. I read those words and sat there thinking to myself about my Macbook’s failing health. What I wouldn’t give for a new computer, let alone a cabin in the woods, amiright?! And yet even I enjoy certain privileges that others don’t have : I have a job that pays the bills, I am child-free, I have a spouse that will pick up my slack when I need an extra hour to write, I have a roof over my head; I have a computer that, despite its issues, still works.

I’m not writing this post today to attack that writer for his post, or even the idea that writing a book takes sacrifice. He’s not the first famous author to talk about isolating oneself with their work. He’s not even the first to evoke the cabin in the woods. In fact, this idea isn’t even limited to writing, but applies to nearly every form of creativity. It would be fine, perhaps even challenging, if it were just a metaphor. But when it’s not just a metaphor, when it’s a literal prescription that everyone has to live up to if they want to “make it” as a writer or an artist, then it becomes a classist ideal meant to prop up one’s own elitism. What was meant to challenge and encourage writers to be faithful to their work becomes a discouragement because they can’t afford the cabin.

I’m writing this post today because I want to call this idea what it is : scarcity.

Scarcity says that without the cabin, we’ll never be a published writer.

Scarcity says that our story, our words, our resources, our daily lives are not enough.

Scarcity keeps us from starting where we are, because we can’t afford the perfect writing conditions – total isolation, total freedom, total separation from our daily responsibilities.

Scarcity demands perfection and privilege, and those will kill creativity. Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, says Anne Lamott, and she’s right – I can’t write with those voices in my head, telling me that I’m not enough.

So what does creativity really require of us, then? Abundance. Faithfulness.

And that looks different for everyone. For some, it’s a cabin in the woods. For others, it’s late nights and early mornings and spare moments.

A very wise – and I should say published – friend said a few days ago that writing is like the loaves and fishes. What we have to offer seems so meager and inadequate, but we give it anyway, and somehow it multiplies. It becomes more than enough.

So from one artist to another, from one Macbook-turned-makeshift desktop to another, I want to offer you abundance today.

You have permission to write in the imperfect, un-isolated insanity of your life right now. If you’re writing on the margins of your life because it’s all you can afford, if you’re writing in the middle of the night while your kids and partners are sleeping, if you’re writing in the early morning hours before you go to work, if you’re writing in between half-a-dozen part time jobs, if you’re writing from the basement of your parents’ house, if you’re writing in a scrappy little notebook on your lunch hour (or during a boring-as-hell staff meeting), if you’re writing in the bathtub with the doors locked because it’s the only place where you can get some peace and quiet, I want you to know :

Your story still matters. Your words still matter. Your dream is still worthy, still possible, still real. You are no more lazy or less dedicated than me or the New York Times Bestseller hangin’ out in a cabin in the woods.

May we be artists that acknowledge our privilege.

May we be artists that honor one another’s creative processes, even when they are vastly different from our own.

May we be artists that start where we are, rather than sacrificing our work at the altar of perfectionism and elitism.

May we be artists that are faithful with our work, faithful to the daily miracle of creativity.

May we be artists that work from a place of abundance.

A Mother’s Day Card for My Internet Sisterhood.

Two years and five months ago, my mom died. I thought then that I was motherless. Some days I still feel that way. And being the only woman in a family of men now without mom, some days I feel sisterless too. A girl alone in the world.

There’s a void for words of wisdom, for nurturing spirits, for safe relationships. I know I can never really fill it. I know she can’t be replaced. But it is because of that deep need that I look carefully for women evoke the kind of life and joy that my mother did. In the face of death, I’ve begun to search for life. And when I notice a loving, nurturing, wise spirit I am drawn to it like a flower lifting its face to a sunbeam. I bask in it. I soak it up.

I have those women in my day-to-day life, my aunts, my grandmother, my best friends. But I also have them in that little digital window of the internet. At the Festival of Faith & Writing a few weeks ago, I connected with so many friends I know online, most of them women. I know from the words they write that they are kindred spirits, but meeting them in person, spending time with them around tables and conference sessions and hotel pools, gave me something more. They were there with a warm hand on my shoulder, they were there with twinkling eyes and howls of laughter, they were there with their tears and looks of understanding. Their presence reminded me in every tangible way that I am not motherless or sisterless.

So this post is a Mother’s Day card for my internet sisterhood, the nurturing women that surround me with their words of hope and kind hearts.

Women like Sarah Joslyn and Kelli Woodford and Cara Strickland, women like Emily Maynard and Danielle Vermeer and Abi Betchel, women like Tammy Perlmutter and Brenna D’Ambrosio and Kristin Tennant, women like Emily Miller and Elora Nicole and Abby Norman and Leanne Penny, women like Grace Sandra and Natalie Trust and Tamara Barrack Rice and Leigh Kramer and Alece Ronzino, women like Idelette McVicker and Tina Francis and Holly Grantham, women like Addie Zierman and Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey.

I want you to know that you have enriched my life in every way – in my faith, in my writing, in my marriage, in my hope and in my grief.

I want you to know that I bask in your wisdom and companionship.

I want you to know that you remind me every day that sisterhood is about encouragement, not competition.

I want you to know that your words and your stories are sacred to me.

I want you to know that I see you, and you are faithful. You are true. You are beautiful. You are brave.

I want you to know that you embody grace for me.

Thank you. Happy Mother’s Day. I love you.

May Flowers.

April showers bring May flowers, they say. A small reminder that the downpours are a natural part of the creative effort that births all good things.

It was a long winter here in the Midwest. But more than that, it was a long winter here in myself, too. Followed by a long season of sadness, followed by a long season of letting go.

As a creative person, I hinge everything on this hope that the seasons are never wasted. The seasons of picking or planting, the layers of grief and death, the sunshine and the storms alike enrich the soil from which beautiful lives and stories grow.

Perhaps that’s why I find myself so ardently trying to capture this spring after the long wait of winter, in iPhone photos and buds plucked from a blooming tree, in long hikes with friends. It is a survival instinct, a heartbeat, a pulse. It is my soul trying in every tactile way to capture hope. A way of saying to myself, your spring will come too.

It’s May now and the April showers are receding. I think I feel a new season coming in on a warmer wind. Seeds buried in the soil long ago are finally peeking through, green shoots of growth rising from dark earth. The effort and wait of years finally coming to fruition.

And I sense that tightness of possibility like a bloom still in its bud : everything in its time.

What I’m Into, April 2014

Hi, friends.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been a little reallllly quiet around this blog in April. Like, I don’t think I’ve gone this long without posting since I started this blog five years ago. WHOA. Sorry, guys. A month-long blog sabbatical was not my intention, but between attending the Festival of Faith & Writing at the beginning of April, Easter weekend, working on my book proposal again, and a loaded work schedule, this space has been neglected. Poor little blog. So sad. So alone.

But never fear! I have a comprehensive, in-depth, where-in-the-world-is-Bethany-Suckrow behemoth blog post for you today. I’ve been wanting to jump in with Leigh Kramer’s monthly What I’m Into syncroblog for forever, and since you didn’t hear from me at all this month, I thought I’d use this as a way to catch everyone up to speed.

I should be back to weekly posts starting next week, but until then, here’s what I’ve been into and up to in the month of April.

Books Read & Reading :

  • The Book Thief. I could probably write a whole post just about this book, but I’ll just say that this novel is absolutely stunning. It’s YA fiction, but it’s just as powerful as any adult fiction I’ve read on the Holocaust and World War II. I was weeping by the end of it. The story is told in a very unique way, with Death as its narrator. The characters and setting are vivid, and the questions it asks about our participation in social power dynamics are really important.
  • Rilke’s Book of Hours. I’ve been reading a couple pages each morning for the past few months, and it has done my heart so much good. Rilke’s words are so full of grace, and they linger in my mind long after I read them. This poem is my favorite so far.
  • North of Hope. This memoir by Shannon Huffman Polson about losing her father and stepmother in a freak bear attack in northern Alaska is absolutely gripping. (Yes, you read that right. A bear attack. So horrifying and tragic. You can read the National Geographic story here.) Polson is a master with language, but also with lament as a form of writing. And actually, it was her session at Festival of Faith & Writing, “Writing as Lament” that acquainted me with her and her work. Just like her FFW session, her book is both heart-wrenching and healing.
  • Found. I met Micha at the Festival of Faith & Writing, but I’ve been reading her blog for a couple years. Her spiritual memoir just released this month, so when we met at FFW I was lucky enough to get a signed copy. Found is a grace-infused story about losing prayer and finding it again through Benedictine spiritual practices. Though the circumstances of the book largely focus on spirituality through the lens of Micha’s experiences as a young mom, I’ve still found a lot to relate to in terms of incorporating prayer into my ordinary, hectic life.

Blogs :

My new friend Sarah Joslyn wrote about the bond we forged at the Festival of Faith & Writing for SheLoves Magazine, O, Hope. O, Sisterhood. It was beautiful and true, not just because it was about her and me, but because I think a lot of people (men and women alike) have experienced flash-in-the-pan relationships. Real friendship is so much deeper than that, but it takes a lot of trust and vulnerability to get there.

“We wept together over beauty and sadness and also because laughter sometimes has to drip from your eyes.”

Also on SheLoves, this post, What If God is a Woman Keeping Watch? is quite arresting.

  “I see God as a friend in a well-worn bathrobe, God as the One who loves to hold my hands.”

And even more SheLoves loveliness (sensing a theme yet? I love that corner of the internet.), this time from Kelli Woodford, Can I See Your Belly Button?

“Somehow my willingness to let them see my imperfection up close and personal was planting seeds inside them. Seeds that would someday bloom into female relationships characterized by cooperation and trust, not competition and manipulation. Offerings they could take with them into locker rooms and beaches and classrooms and shopping malls and all the other places where the imperfect is seen as weak and where only the fittest survive.”

My friend Ben Moberg’s first post for Deeper Story, Grace for the Addict, was fantastic.

“By the third night, I snapped. ‘I can’t do it!’ I cried over the phone as I sat rocking on the dock, huffing and puffing like a little engine. Like the little addict I was.”

This post for Cup of Jo about infertility is incredibly moving, but I found this bit especially wise:

“If you’re seeking wholeness from another person—looking to your child or spouse or job—then when you encounter challenges in that relationship, you’re going to feel threatened … That’s a huge pressure on the other person. There’s no getting away from it until you decide to cut the cord and say, my wholeness is intact. It’s the most loving thing you can offer someone, because it allows you to absolutely love others and to stay stable, no matter what the circumstances are.”

My friend Dianna Anderson wrote this post last week, When Personhood is Not Enough, and as usual it was so challenging and brilliant. Even better, one of my college professors told me later that week that after she read the link I posted on Facebook, she used Dianna’s post in her Group Theory class! Made this alumna SUPER proud to know that these discussions are taking place at my alma mater (an evangelical institution, no less!) And it’s also just exciting whenever I see my friends’ important work make an ever-widening impact. Well deserved, Dianna.

This post from Sarah Bessey’s week in Haiti with Help One Now, In Which the Women of Haiti Make Me Stand Straight, is so powerful :

“These girls are getting an education. These girls will be able to read a deed to make sure they aren’t getting swindled. Their backs are straight on those tiny benches. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ we ask. Nurses. Teachers, Singers. One dream after another. These girls will lift Haiti, I think.”

And Addie Zierman struck a resonant chord with me on both these posts: When Depression Comes Back and The Five Stages of (Faith) Loss.

This series from Laura Tremaine, Why I Blog, is really informative and insightful. A lot of readers don’t realize the work it takes to maintain a blog, much less one that publishes content 3+ times a week (which is why I only post once a week, if I’m lucky.) If you’re wondering how blogging works, I’d highly recommending reading her series.

Films :

Favorite film I watched this month : Philomena. I love Judy Dench anyway, but this film is so powerful and she plays her role so beautifully. Bring kleenex, and also prepare to feel consumed with rage at the course of events, because it’s based on a true story.

Not-so-favorite : The Book Thief. I don’t know, a lot of people who read the book say they love this adaptation, but it just … felt too anesthetized for a younger audience to live up to the emotional weight of the book. Anyone else have thoughts about this?

Not-even-close-to-favorite : Gravity. It’s basically a two-hour simulated panic attack.

Music :

I’ve been in a bit of a rut when it comes to music recently. I gravitate toward indie folk (Feist, Glen Hansard, Josh Garrels, Bon Iver, Tallest Man on Earth), but I also love some pop and hip-hop (Lana Del Ray, Justin Timberlake, Macklemore) to keep my blood pumping during quiet afternoons at work. Any suggestions?

Food :

Favorite breakfast : The promise of a happy breakfast is the only thing powerful enough to get me out of bed in the morning. In the winter months, my go-to was a variation on this Joy the Baker oatmeal recipe. Now that it’s spring, I’m craving lighter fare. My new go-to is a dollop of Greek yogurt with diced mango, honey, and a dash of cinnamon, topped with almonds. SO YUM. And don’t forget the coffee.

Favorite meals this month : 

  • Sushi with Abi, Karita and Sarah at Fuji Yama during Festival of Faith & Writing. The conversation was delightful, too.
  • A bowl of spicy soba noodles based on this recipe from DesignLoveFest. It’s such a quick meal and it pairs so well with a rainy Monday evening and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Homemade pizza. Hubs and I both love pizza, but our tastes in pizza differ greatly. He’s Chicago-born and raised so he has STRONG OPINIONS about toppings and crust style. Having been to Italy and eaten real pizza, I’m more in favor of a thin crust/margherita style pizza piled high with veggies. So the other night we decided that instead of compromising on a woefully dissatisfying frozen pizza or splurging on takeout, we’d each make our own. WHY DIDN’T WE THINK OF THIS SOONER. Mine had a thin glaze of tomato sauce topped with fresh tomatoes, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, shallots, mushrooms, spinach, basil and mozzarella. Heaven on a pizza crust if you ask me.

My Whereabouts :

Festival of Faith & Writing.

Where to start? Hands down, best conference I’ve ever attended, and for so many reasons:

  • Cost : I wasn’t sure I could afford the cost of attendance, but by some miracle, everything fell into place and it fit within my budget. I was able to get a discounted ticket ($170) and find a couple of friends with whom I could travel & split hotel fare. And it was SO WORTH THE INVESTMENT. The caliber and range of speakers blew my mind.
  • Favorite speakers + their best quotes :

Poet Luci Shaw is such a gem. Her session, “Work that Enfaiths,” was one of my favorites, especially this quote: “Faith is an act of believing in things unseen. Therefore, the glow of last month’s writing isn’t enough. You have to renew your faith in words yet unwritten. It is an act of spiritual discipline.”  That’ll preach, Luci.

Jeff Chu was another festival favorite. His session, “In Praise of Bias,” shook me up in all the best ways, from making me weep as he read an essay about his mother making a meal for him and his husband to challenging me with thoughts about bias in the media. “A country gets the media it deserves,” he said, and I think he’s right. If we want a media that tells truer, more empathetic stories, then we need to be better consumers.

Eliza Griswold read several poems from her new book, “I Am the Beggar of the World,” a collection of poems by Afghan women. This one stopped my heart: “You sold me to an old goat, Father / May God strike you down / I was your daughter.”

Sharon Garlough Brown is a novelist and spiritual director. Her session on “Writing as the Beloved,” addressed common spiritual obstacles for writers and ways to overcome them. Her thoughts on envy and scarcity were especially challenging, and I’ll be blogging about what I learned from her next week. Stay tuned!

Anne Lamott also spoke at FFW, and you know what an Annie fangirl I am. “Art is about bringing good drinking water to a very thirsty world,” she said, and it’s so true. Her words have quenched my desperate spirit so many times.

And I loved Richard Foster‘s thoughts on the ethics of accurate language : “Using precise language can be a radical act of peace-making.” And this one: “Truth that is poorly expressed leaves us spiritually impoverished.”

  • Community : But perhaps the best aspect of the conference was the community. Writers are, by nature, a rather isolated bunch. Festival of Faith & Writing brought us all together where we could sympathize with and encourage one another in our craft. I soaked up the rich conversations and chances to connect with all these wonderful people face-to-face. A few highlights:

Lunch with SheLovelies :

Dinner with Twitter peeps :

Reconnecting with Rachel Held Evans (we met the first time at STORY 2012) :

Hanging out with these two beautiful women. Meet my wonderful FFW travel buddies, Sarah Joslyn and Cara Strickland, whom I love dearly. We had an ah-maz-ing time together before, during, and after the festival. I even took them to my favorite spot on Lake Michigan on our drive back from FFW. And now I miss them like crazy. WHY DON’T I LIVE IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST?! *sniffles*

Hiking with Kelli Woodford. Kelli and I met face-to-face for the first time at FFW, but we met up again the following Friday to hike through Matthiessen State Park together on a beautiful, warm spring day. It was so life-affirming to walk and talk for hours together about life, faith, and all sorts of randomness. I hope it happens again soon.

 

My Writing :

As I mentioned before, I’ve fallen off the blogging bandwagon this month, but it’s not for lack of writing. Some things are moving forward with my book, so it’s requiring all my attention right now as I write and edit, write and edit. I’m still in the proposal-refining stage and it’s vey time-consuming and some days I feel like it’s never gonna happen. But the way I see it, it’s like putting the scaffolding in place so that eventually the artist can get up there and paint. Not my favorite part, but it’s good, necessary work.

 

Things I love :

All the blooms. Spring, I’m so glad you’re finally here.

Other random favorites :

This shirt, a gift from Sarah Joslyn. She literally gave me the shirt off her back. She was wearing it on the Sunday after FFW and noticed me staring at the neckline detail in fascination (because hello, brass studs + navy blue shirt = totally rad). The next day she handed it to me and said she wanted me to have it because I liked it so much. What?! So I made her do a clothing swap with me. She took a tunic of mine in exchange, but I really feel like I got the better end of the deal. No one will care if I just wear it all day every day forever and ever, right? Because then I can have her with me always.

This lemon yellow Le Creuset mug, one of a pair that I received as a thank you gift from Cara for letting her travel with me to FFW. They’re so cheery and their color matches the heritage cocotte that my in-laws gave me for Christmas! Other than my Le Chat mug, I think these are probably my favorite.

My new haircut. That’s right, I gave my mane a little chop this month. It was close to the middle of my back, and now the shortest layers are just below my clavicle. It’s kind of a messy, wavy, long bob. I love it. It was uncharacteristically spontaneous of me to get it cut like this (I tend to be really neurotic about my hair, a story for another post). I’m so happy with it!

~

So that’s where I’ve been this month, friends. Props to any of you that actually read this whole thing. Stay tuned for a new post or two next week, and some excitement coming later this month. If you actually liked my What I’m Into post for Leigh’s syncroblog and want to see more round-ups like this in this space, say so in the comments. I’d do it again if I know people will read it! And tell me what you’ve been up to in April.

What were your favorite books, blogs,  films, music, food, outings and other randomness this month?

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.)

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