Capturing Time.

Most of the time, it feels like we are just caught in the chaos of everyday. Two creatives that married young, trying to make ends’ meet, working underpaid jobs against a mountain of school debt. Before I got married, I had romantic visions of us, starving artists, living in a cheap one bedroom, scrimping by while we worked on our dreams. The vision was right, accurate, but it has rarely felt as romantic as I imagined. I’ve learned that its typical, this early struggle, but it’s easy to get sucked into the madness and feel like we’re straight up failing.

Matt, are we f*ckups?” like that scene in Away We Go.

No.

And we’ve weathered storms we couldn’t have predicted, ones that wrecked us beyond the “typical” chaos of newlywed, twenty-something life. Marriages close to us that went up in flames. The death of my mother. Job crises. Reminders that we could do everything right, and it would still be hard. Reminders that life is fleeting, and we need to slow down. Reminders that marriage can be the storm, or the safe place.

We went away this weekend. To a place above the rain and storms and chaos of busy life at home, a place far more simple and vast and quiet than here seems right now. Everything downstate was drenched in rain and clouds, but our days in northern Wisconsin dawned bright and crisp, the sun hot and the northerly wind cool. We took a canoe down the Wisconsin river together. We hiked through Nicolet National Forest. We made fires to keep warm and roasted marshmallows, engulfing them in flames, blowing them out, peeling back the blackened sugar to savor the hot, soft center. We buried ourselves beneath blankets in the tent at night and listened to a wolf howl at the moon.

“Whatcha doin’ babe?” I say from behind the camera.

“Settin’ up camp in our new tent,” he says cheerfully. We play along together.

“And where are we and why are we here?!”

“It’s Memorial Day Weekend 2013, and we’re gettin’ outta town in Eagle River, Wisconsin, baby!”

Maybe I hope we won’t be forgotten. Maybe I hope we won’t forget ourselves. This is your husband, 28 years old, look how young he was. Remember that trip, and the eagle we saw on the shoulder of the road?

Our children will find this someday and say, look how much they loved each other. Look at who they were before we knew them.

I am trying to capture time.

On our hike he stopped to take a photo, knees bent, arms poised to hold the camera still. For a moment that world was still. When he was finished he turned and stood straight. We looked down the path together. And just then, a coyote, not twenty feet ahead, sprang through the trees, straight past us, its reddish tail disappearing into the green. I gasped and grabbed his hand, my heart racing. He smiled and gripped it tight. We kept walking.

RELEVANT Mag : Angelina Jolie and Every Woman’s Choice

Today I’m over at RELEVANT Magazine, sharing some thoughts in response to Angelina Jolie’s op-ed piece for the New York Times that was published yesterday, “My Medical Choice.” In case you missed it, she shared some pretty shocking news, announcing that this spring she underwent a preventative bilateral mastectomy after learning she carried a genetic mutation that dramatically increased her risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Join me over at RELEVANT as I explore some of the research around the BRCA genetic testing and prophylactic surgery, what Jolie’s news means for the general public, and some of the questions we need to ask ourselves about life and death.

If you knew you had six months to live, what would you do?

Many of us have asked that question at some point in our lives, whether hypothetically or not. Now scientific discovery is giving us the ability to ask the question in a new way: If you knew you were at high risk for developing a terminal illness, what would you do?

The disease may not exist yet, the prognosis might not been ascertained, but developments in cancer research have made it possible for high risk individuals to determine their genetic predisposition and take preventative measures.

In an op ed for the New York Times on Tuesday, May 14, Hollywood star Angelina Jolie shocked the masses by writing about her recent choice to undergo a double mastectomy … (Read more.)

A Herald to Spring.

A new pot of geraniums sits on my porch. Yesterday morning, still half asleep,  I drew the shades open at the patio door and they woke me up with their petals afire in the sunrise.

It’s such a simple act, picking out your favorite buds at the local gardening store and shoveling them into a pot on your porch. Nothing particularly remarkable about it, I guess. But I let myself be overly proud of it, this act of planting, as a herald to spring, a reminder, a promise :

Good morning, I am alive.

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. 

Untitled Grief.

I wrote this on December 29, 2012, on an afternoon when I was supposed to be working on my book. It came out in an effort to get something, anything on paper. After I wrote this another few hundred words came tumbling out onto the page, a messy heap, but a heap nonetheless that I was able to clean up and make use of. This draft was saved and closed “Untitled,” stashed away in a folder that I stumbled across yesterday in another fit of wordless, aimless distraction. I had forgotten about it, but reading it again it spoke to me. The part at the end especially, its truth as fine and sharp as a needle point.

The bass beat of the party downstairs interrupts the slow piano of an Over the Rhine song I’m trying to listen to while I write. This isn’t working, the quiet music and the staring at the blank page and trying to ignore the hubub of the neighborhood life below me, but I’m alone and have some time to write this before hubs comes home for dinner and I’m trying to accomplish something, anything, because I haven’t in awhile. I’m supposed to write about grief for this book, and instead I’ve been reading through my blog archives and cringing at bad word choices and old ways of thinking that I wish I hadn’t made public.

This is how grief feels, kind of. Like interrupting internal beats and things that don’t quite suit this person you are now, since.

2012? I won’t miss you.

2011 sucked really bad, and in a strange way, 2012 wasn’t as bad, but there are still whole months out of this year that felt like a bass beat breaking the peace and quiet I longed for. All I really wanted was to crawl into bed and wallow with the sound of a piano quietly lulling me to sleep, but when I did, I felt restless and longed to lose myself in that beat, the rhythm of life and people without a care in the world and maybe a drink in my hand to loosen all my tight joints and inhibitions.

Sometimes I got what I wanted, the piano and the bass beat. Sometimes I didn’t know what I wanted, and so I sat in the silence.

All of it – the quiet piano and the bass beat and the void of sound – hurt.

This is grief.

It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t ease. It doesn’t rest. It just shifts around the room of your inner life.

What We’ve Been Through.

Last Monday I met a friend downtown. You could say we’ve known each other awhile, ever since I wrote that article about pinkwashing back in October. But this is the first time we met face-to-face.

She slid into the booth across from me at Bar Toma and we exchanged greetings and chatted and ordered plates of antipasti. We weren’t sure what the other did for a living, or how long the other had been married and lived in Chicago, but the one thing we already knew was the most important : both our mothers died of metastatic breast cancer. Her mother lived with it for 30 years, mine for 15.

I’ve never met anyone who has been through what I’ve been through.

I know people whose parents have died – died of cancer, even. But it’s always a different story. I’ve never met anyone close to my age that understands the endless hospital stays, the decades of living in survival mode that can make you feel like survival mode is the norm, and the long, drawn out, bittersweet goodbye. The strange relief and gratitude when it is all finally over. The way it is never really over. The way that it complicates desires of motherhood and ordinary happiness and the belief in your own future.

I sat across the table from her, listening as she talked, watching the familiar joy and sadness and cynicism and raw hope pass over her face with each story, awed that a complete stranger was not a complete stranger to me.

Book Review : Bread & Wine

This spring marks so many things: eight years since I graduated high school and left home in Charlotte, Michigan for college in Chicago, Illinois. Four years since I graduated college and started a blog and got married. Three years since hubs and I moved into our own place and I became a fully employed writer. One year since I lost mom. And this year will probably be forever remembered as the birthplace of my book.

I was thinking about all of this on Saturday night, standing over my kitchen counter and chopping vegetables for dinner with my husband and best friend. There are few things that make me feel more grounded and capable and fulfilled than when I am preparing a meal for my loved ones, and that was when it hit me :

Somewhere in these eight years I became an adult.

And a wave of gratitude came with it. I am so deeply thankful for the community that helped me grow into myself, for the friends that have made themselves at home with me and poured into me all these years, and for the voices of other writers that have led me here.

Shauna Niequist’s voice was certainly among them. I was a sophomore in college when I was first introduced to her writing. She had just published “Cold Tangerines” and she came to speak for spiritual enrichment week at my school, and she also spoke to my nonfiction prose class. Since that first introduction when I devoured “Cold Tangerines” and soaked up her writing and faith insights, I’ve gravitated toward Shauna’s voice as a source of hope and nurturing. Her books have sat on my nightstand for months on end, in my own homage to patron sainthood and spiritual mothering.

It was her chapter “Hide and Seek” in Cold Tangerines that articulated the peculiar anxiety and joy of writing, and helped me cope with it. It was her chapter “Twenty-Five” in Bittersweet that taught me about the importance of self-care and authenticity in my early twenties. I vividly remember sitting on my dear friend Becky’s couch one afternoon, reading “Twenty-Five” aloud to her and Mackenzie, and how our discussion of that chapter lingered late into the evening over dinner and tea and dessert.

And now that I am 25, Shauna’s voice again nurtures my own, this time in her new book Bread & Wine. It’s a book about food and community, filled with delectable recipes* and beautiful stories.

But Bread & Wine is also a book about hunger, physical and otherwise, and learning to nourish one another. Her chapter “Hungry” is already the one that I flip back to and reread as a reminder to myself that it is beautiful to be hungry, not the shameful, joyless thing that society has made it.

“I wake up in the morning and I think about dinner. I think about the food and the people and the things we might discover about life and about each other. I think about the sizzle of oil in a pan and the smell of rosemary released with a knife cut. And it could be that that’s how God made me the moment I was born, and it could be that that’s how God made me along the way as I’ve given up years of secrecy and denial and embarrassment. It doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is that one of the ways we grow up is by declaring what we love.” (B&W, pg. 37)

We have an innate hunger, for physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment, for communion. And it is when we embrace and admit our hunger that we find the fulfillment and community we long for.

So, at 25, I am hungry.

I am hungry for good food and good company the way that I am hungry for the right words to express life. I am the kind of person that wakes up thinking about what I’ll eat for dinner, and who I’ll eat it with, and what words I will use to write about it later. I am hungry. And that is a sacred, beautiful thing.

Thank you, Shauna, for giving us the words to articulate our hunger and learn to feed each other well. 

*I made the Mar-a-Lago turkey burgers, sweet potato fries with sriracha dipping sauce, Green Well’s Michigan Harvest salad, and the simplest dark chocolate mousse, every last morsel of which was divine. I’ve also made her bacon-wrapped dates for several parties, and they are usually devoured within the first five minutes. 

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.

It Will Be Here When You Get Back.

Perhaps by accident, it’s been almost three weeks since my last blog post. Silly me to think that I’d land stateside with my hands on a keyboard and content ready for you in a matter of days.

Instead, I returned from the Dominican on Saturday and then left on Sunday for my grandmother’s funeral in Michigan. She died on the Friday morning before I went home. We were driving to the beach when my phone magically found cell reception long enough for me to get a deluge of messages, one of them holding the sad news that she was gone. Her funeral was on the following Tuesday, and then I came home to a mountain of emails and office work.

And then I just kind of let myself live this past weekend without my computer. I met dear blogging friends Kristin and Brenna and Tammy for breakfast on Saturday morning at the Lucky Platter in Evanston. (Go there and try their apricot cheese flakey immediately. Also, go visit my friends’ blogs. They’re wonderful people.)

And then, because my best friend just graduated culinary school and I haven’t seen her face in almost a month, we celebrated Saturday evening with a leisurely dinner at Bavette’s, a new place in the Rivernorth neighborhood with a 1920’s Paris atmosphere and a menu that’s, well, … c’est maginifique. I’m still dreaming about their peppered duck and goat cheese terrine with apricot mustard.

All this time, I’ve barely sat down to write. I didn’t take my laptop with me to the Dominican, thinking I wouldn’t have much time to write anyway. And I was right, I didn’t, but I’m glad I left the temptation behind. I journaled when I could, but being digitally disconnected for a whole week freed me from the stiffness of sitting at a computer for twelve hours a day so that I could walk through neighborhoods that were economically impoverished but rich in tangible love and community, and put my muscle behind a shovel and pour out love in the most literal ways. (If you’d like to know more about the service projects we did in the Dominican and the wonderful communities we got to connect with, read this post from our friends at Iglesia Communitaria Christiana, one of the churches we partnered with.)

Writing makes me present in my day to day life in a myriad of important ways, but my trip to the Dominican and this whole whirlwind month was an affirmation for me of something I’ve wrestled with for nearly a year :

It will be here when you get back.

It’s the total antithesis of what blogging experts and literary agents tell writers about platform and audience. But whether or not that’s good for a writer’s platform, as people, we need to hear that it’s okay to step back from things and take a deep breath. The blog is a means, not an end. And the blog has to be secondary to the actual writing that you feel called to do. It has to be secondary to the ways we live out life tangibly, whether it’s having dinner with friends or serving a community in need. It has to be secondary to actually making time to process our lives on a deeper level.

For the first half of 2012, I needed the rhythm of blogging to keep me going as I grieved the loss of my mother. And then, my grief turned a corner without my permission or will, and what I needed was to be still. What I needed was to be filled up by the words and ideas of others, instead of always pouring out my own. What I needed was to rethink the way that blogging works for me as a writer.

The people closest to me – offline and online – gently encouraged me with those words : It will be here when you get back. We understand.

It was a radical act of self-care that was made with a measure of sacrifice that I haven’t really regretted – less traffic, less comments, less attention. That stuff comes and goes. And while I’ve given up some things, I’ve also gained a lot from the decision.

I needed to learn to be more realistic about the time it takes me to think critically about the things I want to write.

I needed to be more present in my life – in my home, my work, my marriage, my faith.

Blogging less often has afforded me the time to take on bigger, long-term writing projects.

And as far as writing goes, blogging less often has also given me more time to craft blog content that is more meaningful and challenging to me as a writer.

I’ve also had more time and energy to invest in my work community so that I can do things like lead a group of students on a service project in a foreign country. And blogging less has allowed me to process my grief more naturally, because grief is unpredictable, and it will never be over nor neatly packaged in a few blog posts.

And so that’s where I’ve been and what I’m doing. Breathing deep and learning a new rhythm, being faithful to the deeper callings in my life. And of course, this community we’ve cultivated after nearly four years of this blog (!) has been nothing but supportive, even when I haven’t felt ready to hash this out. I’ll probably stay at the one-post-per-week pace on this blog for the foreseeable future while I work on those writing projects.

Maybe I wrote this for myself more than anyone else, but but thank you for your patience and grace. And if you are feeling fragile and broken because the pace and rhythm of your life has spread you thin, please be encouraged. Go out for a breath of fresh air, or a meal with friends, or a chance to invest in community in a new way. We understand. We’ll be here when you get back.

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