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Bethany Suckrow | She Writes and Rights

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.]

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. 

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