Labor Day Weekend.

It’s Labor Day / Annual Family Lakehouse Weekend. (One of my favorite weekends of the year and one of my favorite places on earth with some of my favorite people.) We leave tomorrow but my bags have been packed since Sunday, that’s how ready I am for a few days off (of work and of internet access.) If that’s not a sign of how desperate I am for rest and relaxation, then I don’t know what is … except maybe the fact that I’ve suffered from insomnia for four nights running. As in, I lay wide awake between the hours of two and five a.m. with Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” stuck in my head for no apparent reason. I liked that song until it became the soundtrack to the cycle of my anxious, deranged, sleep-starved-at-three-a.m. thoughts. I get up in the morning feeling like my brain has been running a marathon all night long. I’m verging on insanity.

So, the blog is a little neglected and I’m in need of a major rest and reboot. I’ll be back next week with some new words, though. Have a fun holiday weekend, friends.

Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy and the Church.

One of the first things I noticed when I met my husband was his kindness. He can have a good laugh just as much as the next guy, but he never does it at anyone else’s expense. Sensitive girl that I am, I was immediately drawn to that quality. I felt safe. I trusted him.

This same sensitivity to others’ feelings is what makes him such a great musician and songwriter. He’s attuned to beauty and art. He tells me he’s not articulate about his feelings, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. He sings it.

But those same qualities that inform and inspire his talent as a musician are the things that keep him from thriving in his job as a security officer. It’s just not the work he’s cut out for. He’d rather use the talents God has given him to work as a full-time musician. And yet, for the past six years since he graduated college, he’s pretty much worked any job he can so that we can make ends’ meet, even the ones he hates. When we first got married, we held seven part time jobs between the two of us. From August to March of the past year, he worked as a security guard part time, taught guitar lessons, and led worship at our church. Today, he works full time as a security guard and teaches guitar lessons after his shift ends. He does odd jobs to make a little extra cash. He knows he has to get creative about earning an income as a musician. He’s no stranger to working hard.

But I’ve lost count of how many times our “loved ones” have made that implication whenever Matt talks about work. He’s been told everything from “you’re lazy and entitled and selfish” to “your music is just a hobby, now go out and get a real job” to “suck it up and stop being a pussy about your work ethic.” (Yes. Someone actually said that.)

Some men look at him and see his traits of kindness and creativity as weakness. But I look at him and see strength.

The narrative that my husband is lazy because he pursues a different kind of work than his father, a construction foreman, is the same one that the rest of my generation is being told when we talk about our desires to thrive in our work and pursue fulfilling careers.

You’re entitled” has become a straw man argument for why a large percentage of millennials  are struggling in the job market.

But is it really the job market we can’t hack? Or is it the 9-to-5/mortgage for a house in the ’burbs/2.5 kids + Fluffy the Dog lifestyle that is unrealistic? (The very same lifestyle in which even our parents are getting taxed out of affording?)

If the rest of our generation is anything like Matt and I, they’ve been working their asses off in crappy, unfulfilling jobs for close to a decade in a broken economy, and it has come down to two choices : surviving or thriving. Either we work the job we’re not fulfilled in and weren’t cut out for so that we can fit the lifestyle, or we adjust the lifestyle to thrive in the career to which we were called. And it is almost inevitable that changing our lifestyle means moving. To somewhere less costly, to a community less bent on pressuring people into living a certain way.

The job market hears us expressing a desire to work fulfilling jobs and pay our bills, and responds by telling us we have a false sense of entitlement. But I listen to it and hear my generation saying that they want to create a system in which classism is the system that gets broken so that the economy can thrive for everyone equally.

When Rachel Held Evans posted her article for CNN a few weeks ago “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” social media and the blogosphere erupted with reactions, and reactions to those reactions. On and on it went, while I watched quietly as a familiar pattern emerged.

The same people looking for more fulfilling jobs in a broken economy are the same people looking for more fulfilling faith communities in an abusive and apathetic church culture.

And as younger generations expressed disillusionment with the system in which they’re expected to function, older generations decried their laziness and entitlement. The straw man argument returns.

Indeed, my discussions with my husband about finding more fulfilling work and a less expensive place to live feels eerily similar to the discussions we had when we were desperate to find a healthy faith community. We found ourselves in church after church where we were expected to function within the system without asking too many questions or seeking too many changes. We’re asking ourselves the same question, “Is it time to move on?”

Millennials see these abusive power structures and harmful theologies and say, “This system is broken and unless it changes, I can’t thrive here,” but their concern is met  with shaming and silencing tactics. We’re being told to “suck it up” and “work harder” and “stop acting like a bunch of pussies” and “in a few years you’ll realize that this is where you belong,” and “I don’t have a problem with it; why should you? This is just how things are.”

If the parallel between an economy suffering in the hands of the corrupt and a Church suffering in the hands of the abusive makes you uncomfortable, GOOD. It makes us uncomfortable, too.

Older generations of believers look at millennials’ desire to engage culture as catering to secularism and weakness toward sin. But I look at it and see a desire to embrace the marginalized and oppressed.

Let’s get real. It isn’t the millennials’ attitude that broke the economy. It isn’t the millennials’ mass exodus that is breaking their churches. The cracks in the system originated much earlier than that.

The cycle of shame that perpetuates hurtful comments about my husband’s manhood and work ethic is the very same one that oppresses our economy and sends masses of people heading for the church exits. There are huge, ugly parallels between “man-fail” shame and the “laziness” and “entitlement” shame that older generations are heaping on younger ones in a broken economy and the way that churches shame their fleeing congregants. It’s called patriarchy, and it functions for no one, not even the men.

It isn’t how we’re meant to live. It’s not how we’re called to thrive.

Yet at the same time, this discussion is not about pointing fingers and blaming the older generations for corruption and abuse, either. Are these the same struggles that generations before us experienced? Absolutely. Will we deal with it the same way as they did, too? Definitely not. Every generation is different. Even amongst members of our own generation, it will be as varied as unique as we are.

We have to get creative about all of it – about the ways that we earn our living and the ways that we thrive in the workplace and the ways we experience God and the ways we engage our culture.

Some of us will need to go off into the wild in order to better hear the voice of our Shepherd. Some of us will stay and tend His sheep. Some of us will keep watch for wolves. Some of us will tell stories and sing songs of the peaks and valleys of this faith and this time. Let us remember that no matter what each of us choose, all of us belong to the flock, and that the Shepherd doesn’t say to His sheep, “Suck it up.” A healthy community doesn’t shame its people into functioning within the established order when it fails to keep everyone safe.

We need to take an honest look at our strengths and our weaknesses – double-edged swords that they are – and learn to wield them well. I have hope that this is possible.

Some people look at all of this, the broken economy and dying churches, and see the end of everything. But I look at it and see a new beginning.

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Four Years.

Yesterday I made him take the Myers Briggs test for the first time, and we discovered that he’s an ISFJ. (I’m an INFJ.) Reading through the personality description was one big Oooooh. I get it now! 

Today we celebrate four years of marriage. We’ve officially been married longer than we dated, and we’re closing in on a decade of this relationship. We met when I was 18 and he was 21, and we got married when I was 21 and he was 23. We’ve spent most of these years growing up together in order to grow old together. Despite how often our family (however lovingly) badgers us about when we’ll have kids, I’m so thankful for the time we’ve had together, just us, to work through things (mostly ourselves) and figure out what we want, together.

When we got married, I thought that by the time I turned 26 and we had been married for four or five years, we’d be ready to have kids. Now that we’re there, I’m laughing at my 21-year-old self (and I suspect Matt is breathing a sigh of relief.) We’ve both realized that while it’s good to set out with a plan in mind, it’s okay to change those plans and decide what works better for us, no matter how much people badger or how much time it takes to figure out how to make things work. Slowly, over four years, we’ve realized that our life will be uniquely ours, and that means we can make really different choices to lead us there. Different than we ever thought we would choose. Different than any choice our family and friends would make.

Sometimes it is so freeing to throw out old expectations and start over. 

We both sense this leading us toward new adventure in the coming year. We’re not exactly sure what it looks like or how we’ll get there, but we’re excited and ready. Here’s to another year (or eighty). I love you, Matthew Jason.

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.

Nature’s Faith.

“The people I trust the most are the folks who feel and respect the rhythm of life. Nature tries to teach us how that works. Like the ocean waves – how they gather power and then roll in, and back out. In, and back out. And how the trees respect life’s seasons. How they blossom and then go dormant. They know that creating beauty is not about pushing through. It’s about respecting the seasons. I don’t think the trees spend a whole lot of time worrying that if they rest – if they go dormant for a season like they were made to- that they’ll become obsolete. They know life will go on without them for a while and that’s okay with them. They will blossom again when it’s time. Trees have faith.” – Glennon Melton.

I frequently go through periods where my writing feels dormant. During these times I am thinking and processing hard, the cogs are turning and the ideas are spinning, I am jotting down notes and producing terrible drafts, but my writing voice has receded beyond the page, I have nothing to say. (Yet.)

The hard part about this, at least for me, is that the internet has given us this burden to constantly produce. So when the voice has receded and my “platform” of public writing has fallen silent, I feel like I’m not doing my job as a writer. It creates an extra dose of anxiety that pushes that voice of mine out further still, and I go swimming after it in desperation. It is exhausting and entirely fruitless, and I find myself flailing for a way to reach back toward shore. I am going against the natural ebb and flow of my creative process. I start to believe that I may have lost the voice forever.

Eventually, when I stop fighting and give it time, the tide rolls in and my writing voice pours forth with all the ideas gathering in my subconscious.

I loved these words from Glennon Melton and the idea of following nature’s faith in the creative cycle, of allowing ourselves to draw back into the depths and “gather power” like the ocean waves.

This doesn’t look the same for everyone. And when you think about it, it applies to so many different parts of life, too. Sometimes we need to know when to stop pushing and pursuing so hard, when to go with the natural ebb and flow of life, when to trust life’s seasons, when to follow nature’s faith in the creative cycle. For me today, that looks like writing more notes and waiting patiently for the thoughts to fully form, no pressure to produce necessary.

What does that look like for you?

Walking the Tightrope.

So this is the week, friends. My book proposal is in my agent’s hands and he will be sending it off to publishers any day. It is anyone’s guess what will happen from here. I’m trying to prepare my heart for the reality that now may or may not be the time to publish this book. I am at once proud of myself for coming this far and also profoundly terrified.

Another more seasoned writer might try to play it cool as they wait for a publisher to pick up their proposal. In case you’re new here, a word of caution : I am no such writer.

I was feeling pretty triumphant when I finally hit “send” on the email that carried my proposal off to my agent, but slowly, over a matter of a few days, I began to realize that this is it; it’s out of my hands now. It felt as though I had been walking a tightrope, calmly, carefully, and then I did the thing I wasn’t supposed to do. I looked down.

I realized how deeply I have allowed myself to want this. I have allowed myself to hope that it will happen, and it will happen soon, and it will happen with the right amount of financing and time to change some pretty significant things in my life.

But what if it doesn’t?

I am afraid. I am afraid it will be rejected. I am afraid it will be accepted. I am afraid that I will live in this smallish, squirrel-infested (yes, another story for another blog post) apartment in the Chicago ’burbs for the rest of my life. I am afraid that in the midst of working on this book my laptop will give up on me because it’s six years old and needs more RAM and its frequent error messages signal impending doom. I’m saving drafts like I’m storing up for a computer apocalypse – hard drive, external hard drive, flash drive, dropbox, email, print. If anyone has a spare fireproof vault they’re willing to loan to a poor, starving writer, let me know. I can’t promise you any proceeds from book sales, but you’ll definitely find your name in the acknowledgements.

I am afraid that I will write this book and it won’t go anywhere but the $.50 shelf at Goodwill. But I am also afraid that if I don’t write it, all the things I’ve learned and all the healing I’ve discovered will become another cheap platitude, an empty idiom, a lie that falls lazily from my mouth when someone I love needs empathy.

The weight of all that fear wobbled me back and forth dangerously on the tightrope.

The great irony of this book I’m writing felt like gravity pulling me downward.

I am writing a book about cancer and death and grief and faith and hope and healing, but I’m still in the midst of this healing process, still learning what it means to hope again.

I don’t trust the feeling of hope.

It is scary to feel it because it means I’ve made myself vulnerable and admitted that I want something, and by admitting that I want something, that means I have conjured an expectation and the reality is that expectations can shatter in an instant. And my reality is that the thing I wanted most in life, the prayer I prayed hardest for, the thing I invested all my hope in, withered away in my arms. And try as I might to defy it, I absolutely internalized that experience. My mom died, and the part of me that believed Good Things Can Happen feels dead and buried with her.

That pessimism is rooted in some really harmful theology and stupid things people have mindlessly said to me, and I want to write a book about that. And on the other hand, writing a book about that means staking my heart and creativity and faith in something bigger than myself. It means I have to find my hope again.

So I’m living in that tension, terrified and unsure. I’ve taken a few deep breaths to steady myself. I’ve stopped looking down and started looking ahead. And I’m finding that this tension is what stretches the tightrope out before me to move forward, one precarious and wobbly step at a time.

[Image.]

The “Online” vs. “Real Life” Myth.

A long time ago, when this blog was in it’s infancy, I wrote a post that hurt a friend of mine. I won’t go into humiliating detail, but let’s just leave it at this: she posted something on Facebook I disagreed with, and I decided to blog about it. Ever the arrogant English major, I dug down to the etymological roots of the words she used, blathering on about how petty I found her ideas at the time.

And then she read it.

And then, in a truly humiliating turn of events, more people read it. Her husband. My husband. Our friends.

And then they talked.

And then I took down the post.

As much as I wanted to be right and felt my ideas were valid, I couldn’t deny that the way I went about expressing my ideas was wrong. I hurt my friend, not because she’s too sensitive and can’t take constructive criticism, but because my criticism was not constructive. It was snarky, rude, and though the post didn’t mention her by name, it might as well have.

I think I thought that no one was paying attention to my blog, so I could get away with it. I think I thought that maybe if I obscured my language a little bit and buried my frustration with her beneath layers of intellectual rhetoric, people would think I was smart and witty and would forgive me my ruthlessness. I think I thought that my blog was my territory, so no one could criticize me. I was wrong.

My friends were gracious enough not to storm my comments section with their rage, but to reach out to me privately and say, “did you really intend to hurt?”

I didn’t intend to, but I did hurt.

I’ve had to relearn that same lesson over and over again online, and in those other instances, I haven’t always had the graciousness of friends to help me dismantle my arrogance. More often than not, it has happened with complete strangers, or people I’ve never met in person.

Sometimes being a writer on the internet feels a little like those Sunday mornings that start with good intentions and result in you yelling curse words at the driver that cuts you off in traffic on your commute to church… and then that same driver pulls into your church parking lot just ahead of you. Do you risk being a little late to worship and park down the street so they don’t realize Crazy Lady With All the Swears and Middle Fingers also attends the 11 a.m. service?

We go with the best intentions for engaging healthy community and facilitating important discussions about faith, human rights, theology, politics, the arts, and a whole manner of really important, worthwhile things, but then we jump into conversations and they are promptly derailed by egos, sarcasm, condescending remarks, and general nastiness.

This is humanity and it’s not unique to the internet.

But so often we tell ourselves that those people we disagree with so vehemently “don’t know us in real life” and we shrug it all off like it doesn’t matter. The obvious implication is that the people we interact with online are somehow less “real” than us, and that the consequences for how we interact are less “real” too. And it’s unhealthy. Because it makes it hard for us to talk about something well, like human rights and theology, without treating others as less “real,” less human, for disagreeing. And then it defeats the whole purpose of these conversations to begin with. The “real life” versus “online” distinction is an immature idea, and it gives way to immature behavior.

It’s “online” versus “offline,” not “real life” versus “fake life.”

I know this because this online life of mine has led to a lot of real friendships over the past few years. The “online” versus “real life” distinction is the excuse I whip out when someone disagrees with me and hurts my feelings.

I’m not saying that we owe it to everyone on the internet to treat them like they’re our best friend. All it means is that we are just as responsible for treating people like they matter as we would if we were confronting them face-to-face. It means that if we see conversations derailing into hurtful, condescending arguments, we’re responsible for setting a boundary for ourselves, and sticking to it.

My friend Tamara left a brilliant comment on my post a few weeks ago, and I’ve adopted it as my new mantra :

Don’t engage the crazy.

Most times, this means not engaging my own crazy. (Because let’s face it, I can’t even make it to church without losing my temper.)

For me, setting that boundary means saying, “This discussion isn’t healthy for me. I’m sorry, but I have to end this conversation here.”

So here is my invitation : if you’re as tired of the “online” versus “real life” myth as I am, then let’s intentionally change the way we talk about the internet, and by doing so, acknowledge each other as  equally real, and then treat each other that way. Let’s set and maintain healthy boundaries for how we interact. Let’s be quick to listen and slow to speak and love one another as ourselves, because isn’t that why we’re here? At least that is my hope.

So, real talk with me : how do you approach engaging people on the internet? What are the things that raise your hackles and how do you tame yourself down? What are the boundaries you’re setting for yourself these days? Do you disagree with me?

A Curious Kind of Magic.

In the early days, I wrote inside my favorite books, mimicry being my sincerest form of admiration for the masterpieces I loved, Seuss and Silverstein and Sesame Street. It was a curious kind of magic, that the symbols were letters and the letters were words and the words were sentences and the sentences were stories that were captured in pages and came to life in my mind. I have never gotten over it. I am compelled to write out of sheer curiosity. How do I make the things I see in my mind come to life on a page for someone else? I am still exploring the answer to that question. I will spend my life doing that.

(I finished my sample chapter of my book this weekend. The proposal outline is almost done, and mom’s sample chapter is edited. This dream of mine gets a little more real every day.)

The Inheritance.

One by one, he picked up the cards between his hands and tore them open slowly with his finger. His hands are losing strength, but he managed to free each of them from their envelope. And with each one, he read it aloud to all of us sitting at the table with him, and tears choked his voice. My grandfather wasn’t always like this, but the medications that make him less volatile also make him more emotional, and I think he knows that he’s starting to forget things.

My grandmother died a few months ago, and he has trouble remembering that she’s gone and won’t be coming back. They say that when a loved one dies, our souls go off in search of them, restless to understand the disappearing act. Where did she go? Imagine what that would be like if the part of your brain that balances your emotions with the reality of death is broken. My grandfather has been asking my father to open her casket for months.

He lays the cards down on the table and tearfully thanks everyone. I put a hand on his shoulder and he turns to me and tells me how much he loves us.

“I have the best family in the world, and it all went so fast.”

A few years ago, we were all up at the lakehouse for Labor Day weekend. Uncle Jim got out great grandma’s old projector and several dusty boxes of slides. We found pictures of her classroom and students. We found pictures of family reunions and birthdays and anniversaries, and of the old farmhouse in Aurelius.

We found a picture of my great grandfather holding onto my cousin David’s hand, swinging him up by his arms. Great grandpa’s face is almost cut out of the frame of the photo, but his strong arm and torso are swinging up a giggling five-year-old David, and everyone smiled and laughed before Jeremy clicked to the next slide.

“Wait, turn it back!” Jim said. Jeremy clicked it back into focus. “I’ll be darned. He’s smiling. Grandpa Harley is smiling.”

Sure enough, there in the upper right hand corner, the smile that was accidentally captured. The one he rarely gave anyone, the one he refused to show for the camera. Our eyes grew wide as our parents walked slowly up to the screen, like they wanted to reach out and touch it.

Being like our parents is both a blessing and a curse. When children are young, we marvel at the startling blue eyes they’ve inherited, the way they learn so early to crawl beneath a tractor just like their father. Later these children worry that they have also inherited their parents’ bad temper, their penchant for breaking the things they meant to fix, their high risk for cancer or Alzheimer’s, too.

It’s hard to be honest about these things. It’s hard to foresee the moment, fifty years from now, when “just another day” will become a dilapidated old farmhouse we can’t go home to anymore, when the seasons of our lives sit as a stack of old letters in the back of our closet, when a rare smile is discovered in a dusty box of slides by our grandchildren many years after we’re gone. It’s hard to tell our children the story of how we loved each other, but didn’t always live it.

What will our children inherit? What will we leave for them to sift through when we’re gone?

Maybe it is when we choose to tell these stories, when we dust off the old slides and bring out the box of letters, when the cards are laid down on the table and we look around at the family we love, when we learn to utter the words aloud, “I love you all,” that a new chapter begins in the story of us.

On Missing Miracles and Steel Magnolias.

It finally happened. All this time I’ve been writing online, four years now, I’ve never once received a nasty comment from anyone, or even a mildly negative one. But a few weeks ago I wrote an article for RELEVANT Mag exploring the issues raised by Angelina Jolie’s op-ed for the Times about her choice to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, and lo and behold. A nasty comment. About my “leftist” politics and my “unChristian” ideas – and my favorite part – my willingness to “take up the mantle of worldliness and unbelief.”

I’m a sensitive soul, but generally speaking, I can discern the difference between honest criticism and asshat commenters unleashing their fundamentalist fury. I’m not here to talk about why that guy was wrong, although can we take a second and have a good laugh over the fact that there is someone out there that can make my conservative evangelical family seem progressive, and my writing downright provocative?

But, moving on…

That comment has proved to be a great example for some of the hard questions I’ve been processing as I grieve, write a book about it, and be near to some friends who are carrying their own heartbreak. It’s had me thinking about faith and miracles and healing and comfort and hope.

It can be as blatantly hurtful as a person telling you that your mother died because she and your family lacked the faith necessary for “true healing.” It can be as confusing as a misappropriated Scripture tweeted in the middle of a tragedy or a hallmark philosophy plastered all over Facebook. It can be as well-intended as someone hugging you at your mother’s wake and reminding you that this is all just part of God’s plan. It can be as subliminal as using war rhetoric to describe terminal illness, using words like “survivor,” “battle,” “fight,” “lost.”

I’ve heard these words. You’ve heard these words. And if we’re being honest, we’ve probably said them to each other at one wrong moment or another. Whatever their form, whoever has uttered them, they incite pain and fear and confusion. Nothing makes a grieving person feel more hopeless than being told that their healing hinges on their ability to hope.

I was reminded of that on Sunday morning, laying beneath a pile of blankets and watching Steel Magnolias. I had intended to do something far less pathetically indulgent and self-pitying than ugly-crying alone on my couch at 10 a.m., but the words wouldn’t flow and I was in too dark a mood to be near functioning human beings, so I skipped church and brunch with friends and watched Shelby die instead, holding my breath for the cemetery scene, letting my tears fall where they may.

I know. I sound like an emotional eater. Some days that’s exactly what it is. I haven’t watched the film since before mom died, not wanting to be a glutton for punishment, because I’ve insisted so desperately on pulling my shit together and most of the time I tell myself that I’m “good” at it. But some days. I just can’t. And paradoxically, it was this very act of allowing myself to feel my feelings and cry with M’Lynn that gave me the hope and gumption I needed to sit myself down and work on the book proposal.

And I think that’s the point of this rambling blog post, of Steel Magnolias, of my book, and these stories of grief and faith.

I grew up in a faith tradition that, looking back, was full of Anelle-like theology. I was told growing up that God had a plan, that I just needed to pray for a miracle, that good things come to those who wait, knock and the door will be opened. There’s a little bit of truth in all of that, sure. And I was told to be glad that mom had died, that she was with her King, I should be rejoicing. For a little while, I did. I even meant it. It’s hard to be honest about the relief in knowing that she is no longer suffering, but it’s real. But after awhile that wears off and what I’ve really needed is to explore those concepts of healing and wellness and God’s will. I’ve had to ask hard questions and cry about all the missing miracles in our lives and wonder whether God and I operate under different definitions of healing. And I’ve had to get angry about that, angry enough to want to hit something or someone until they feel as bad as I do, angry enough to utter the words aloud, I guess I’m a little selfish. I’d rather have her here.

I had to get angry enough to finally be honest with myself and with God. 

Some days, I’m able to laugh about it. Some days, I’m able to be around people that can help me find my joy again. Some days, I just can’t. And that’s not a weakness or an emotional binge, it is heartbreak, and it is ugly and hard. It is the “work of grief,” as Freud called it. Joan Didion’s “the vortex.” And it is teaching my heart that hope doesn’t hinge on the outcome.

We won’t survive heartbreak and loss by denying that it hurts, or waxing philosophical about the future, or trying to pray our way out of our mortality. We don’t survive by walking away from grief, but by walking straight through it, crying when we have to, laughing when we can, speaking honestly about how we feel, listening to each other’s sorrow.

The steel magnolia is the one that weathers the storm.

[Image.]

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