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On Being “The Strong One.”

It’s the thing people have always said about me.

“You’re just like your mother.”

And what they mean is that just like mom, I’m The Strong One. The responsible one. The mature one. The opinionated one. The stubborn one. The passionate one.

“You’re just like your mother, but you seem to have swung the other direction.”

This is the thing that people are saying about me more and more often, and what they mean is that just like mom, I’m opinionated, but I am far less conservative than she was. They’re alluding to the reading material I frequently post on social media, which I’m afraid has given away my bleeding heart. My family and faith community are conservative evangelicals, so I should tell you that this bleeding-heart liberal confuses even herself. I’m not entirely sure how I got this way, except that maybe for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If my parents wanted my ideological pendulum to swing right, perhaps they should have pushed it left. But instead they had me listening to Rush Limbaugh when I was in grade school. The other day I was listening to NPR and the host chose the opening riff from “My City Was Gone” as filler music between reports unironically, and it made me so cranky that I proceeded to post three links on my Facebook about those heinous SB 1062 discrimination laws before noon, just to irk any Republicans that might be reading. (Sorry not sorry. Please take it with a grain of sarcasm.)

Maybe I look like it doesn’t bother me that I have a growing reputation for being as liberally opinionated as my mother was conservative, but this is false bravado. A few months ago I was sitting on a friend’s couch drinking tea and discussing all of this with her when she gently asked me,

“Are you afraid she’d be disappointed in you?”

Her words broke me open like a dam. In a flood of tears I quietly nodded yes. And that was just a question of politics.

There are other things since my mom died that make me wonder whether she’d be proud of me: life choices, family relationships, my ability to accessorize an outfit. Most days I feel like I hold true to her legacy fairly well. I may be leaning left in my politics and I honestly don’t care if I wear black boots with a brown belt, but the important thing is that I let the story of her life influence my own. I let her love for me fuel my own love for others. I let this experience of love and loss transform my writing.

Except some days I’m not so good at swallowing my bitterness. I still find myself struggling to drudge up any amount of compassion for certain people, like the nurse that nearly ripped mom’s IV port out of her chest, or the relative that showed up a week before her death and made themselves way too comfortable, or the other relative that got a little too inquisitive about the insurance money after she died, or the ones that didn’t show up at all. How would mom handle it if she were here now? I don’t know, but the thought fills me with guilt. I’m supposed to be carrying all of this with some semblance of grace and redemption, but some days my arms get tired. I feel like I’ve been holding up this really heavy torch and I need to put it down but I have no safe place to set it, so I risk setting everything around me on fire.

I was sitting in my therapist’s office last week and we were talking about a particular relationship that has fallen apart since mom’s death. It was possibly the worst day to be discussing this, because I’d woken up that morning especially short on compassion and forgiveness. I was going on and on and on about how tired I was of the expectation that I’d be the bigger person, the magnanimous forgiver, The Strong One just like mom.

“I’m not going to do it anymore,” I told her. “I can’t. I won’t.”

My therapist nodded deeply.

“Absolutely. You don’t put yourself in a position to be manipulated again,” she said.

“I can’t keep being The Strong One. I’m too tired.”

“I know you are. So take a rest.”

“I just can’t carry that torch for mom anymore.”

“She wouldn’t want you to.”

Oh.

It suddenly became clear to me that the person I needed to work on forgiving was my very own self, for not being my mother.

Here’s the truth I began to understand that day: sometimes our strengths are also our weaknesses. Our desire to be The Strong One and honor the people we love is a beautiful thing, but it can also lead us to profound feelings of insecurity, guilt, shame. And sometimes the unsafe people in our lives see that vulnerability and manipulate it. They make us question whether we’re really The Weak One. The Disappointment.

This is what happens when our love for someone is deeply tied to our identity, and I’m in the midst of untangling myself from that. I have soaked up those words, “you’re so much like your mom” like the praise that it is, but if I’m being honest, those words have also fed my secret fear that at the moment I fail to be The Strong One, the Just Like Mom One, people will stop loving me.

But I’m just me.

I can’t try to fill mom’s shoes or maintain her relationships or her politics or her faith because I have my own.

And I don’t have to doubt that if she were here we might argue, but she’d love me. I’d be safe with her.

So I’m putting down the torch. I’m choosing not to be The Strong One. Not because I’m choosing to be weak instead, but because I don’t need that label.

The only one that matters is the one I already am: Daughter.

[Illustration by Cate Parr.]

Book Review : Refuse To Drown

I have a stack of books I received at Christmas that are begging to be read, but there’s one book I read this past month that had me ignoring all the rest. Friend and biographer Shawn Smucker has released a new book, Refuse to Drown, and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy for review. From the moment it arrived in the mail, I couldn’t put it down. I think I read the first 75 pages in one sitting.

Refuse to Drown is the true story of Tim Kreider, his son Alec, and the Haines family murders (Lancaster, Pa., 2007.) With the help of Smucker, Kreider recounts the circumstances around Alec’s illness, crime, and confession. It is as heartbreaking as you would imagine : a father who desperately wants to help his son treat his depression soon realizes that it’s too late. The unthinkable happens, and two families and an entire community are left grieving.

The writing is raw and honest. Kreider’s heart for his son and the Haines family is apparent in every sentence and carefully constructed scene. (If you haven’t already, you should read Smucker’s blog post about the three year process it took to create the manuscript.) But I won’t lie; though I couldn’t put this book down, Refuse to Drown is a hard read. The reality of the situation – the gruesome murders, Alec’s illness and guilt, the life sentence – is absolutely gut-wrenching. I am being completely honest when I say that the story kept me awake at night.

Even so, I’m glad I read it. Refuse to Drown is a hard read, but an important one, because Kreider is offering the side of the story that is so rarely told. Do we need the victims’ stories? Of course. But what we’re all afraid to admit is that we need the other stories too, of the criminal, the sick, the grieving other half of the truth. We need the story of the father who loved his son and tried to help him, and who, when the unthinkable happened, did the right thing for the sake of his son, the other family, the community, and now for you and me.

There’s a small passage that I found especially telling, right after the reality of Alec’s actions come to light. Tim is so grieved by it that he doesn’t want to speak to Alec, but his fiance Lynn says something important.

“I had called him each and every night since he had been admitted to Philhaven. But on that night, I was disappointed, confused, violated – he had gone against everything I had taught him, everything I believed in.

‘If he was sick with cancer, would you call him?’ Lynn asked me. ‘This is no different. Tim, he’s not well. He needs you now just as much as he would with any other sickness.’” (p. 62)

We could talk all day about the very real differences between cancer and mental illness*, but we would be missing the point. The truth of mental illness is that without the usual cues and helpful symptoms that tell us when a person is sick and needs our help, conditions like depression are stigmatized. Kids like Alec are taught to see their struggle through a lens of morality instead of health. They feel isolated by it; they can’t articulate it. These are the circumstances that breed tragedy, whether it is suicide or homicide. For too many families, their loved ones’ mental health problems don’t become apparent until the circumstances are past the point of no return. How do we help those struggling with mental illness feel safe to admit that they’re not okay? How do we encourage them to get help before they bring harm to themselves or others? How do we make this “invisible” illness visible before it becomes a news headline? How do we bring about a justice that doesn’t only punish the person that committed the crime, but offer them healing for the illness that provoked it? Or do we really believe that locking away a mentally ill person and withholding treatment is justice?

In a dark room, Kreider’s words have flipped on the light that we may better see the whole story. He has turned the worst circumstances of his life into the best possible opportunity to help us ask the right questions. There are no easy answers, but maybe in talking about it and telling stories like this one, we can help one another find healing.

*Recommended reading : No One Brings Dinner When Your Daughter is An Addict (A father talks candidly about the difference in community support for his wife when she had breast cancer and their daughter when she was diagnosed with bipolar and treated for addictions. Lynn’s words reminded me of this.)

One Word 2014 : Thrive.

I chose Faithfulness as my One Word for 2013. It’s from a favorite hymn of mother’s, the last one she sang to me before she died and the one we sang at her funeral. I had it inscribed as a tattoo on my wrist on the anniversary of her death last January.

The lyrics to the chorus go, “Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

But honestly, I think I got the Faithfulness thing backwards in 2013. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to achieve an elusive measure of faithfulness that would make me feel satisfied, confident and whole. And at the same time, I was trying to hide from the hard parts of faithfulness : the showing up and being present in my life every day, the vulnerability of it, the steady work that it takes – whether or not there’s an end or an accolade in sight. Yet when I sat down to make a list of everything that marked this year – books I read, music and movies I loved, places I went, people I met, friendships that flourished, words I wrote, tasks I accomplished – I was astonished by how full my life was.

For the record, this is what Faithfulness looked like in 2013 :

Books :
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed
- Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
- When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman
- Packing Light by Allison Vesterfelt
- A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver
- A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
- Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
- Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist
- Quiet by Susan Cain
- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
- Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott
- Rereads: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Series & The Last Summer (of You and Me) by Ann Brashares, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneggar, Homecoming by Bernard Schlink

People I Connected With (online, some face-to-face) : 

- Natalie Trust
- Tamara Barrick Rice
- Cara Strickland
- Abi Bechtel
- Suzannah Paul
- Dianna Anderson
- Dani Kelley
- Benjamin Moberg
- Micah Murray

Places I Went :
- The Dominican Republic : service project
- Eagle River, Wisc. : camping with the hubs
- Bloomington, Ind. : visiting friends from my study abroad trip
- Norwalk, Ohio : my first-ever speaking gig!
- Nashville, Tenn. : vacation with my hubs
- Fargo, N.D. : Thanksgiving with my sis in-law & niecey

Words I Wrote (most popular posts) :
- Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy & the Church
- RELEVANT : Angelina Jolie and Every Woman’s Choice
- I Am Done With Being Quiet
- When It’s the Worst Thanksgiving Ever
- When the Story Isn’t Mine to Tell
- It is Good : An Ode to My Body
- When I Say I Wouldn’t Trade It
- On Mourning Mother’s Day

Personal Accomplishments :
- got a tattoo
- paid off my credit card
- finally worked out a reasonable payment plan with Sallie Mae
- hubs & I both received raises AND bonuses from work
- finished & submitted a first draft of my book proposal + two sample chapters (update on this coming soon)
- got my first-ever speaking gig

BUT SERIOUSLY. Why had I been so hard on myself about living up to a measure of faithfulness when all of this good stuff was already happening? (Why is this always the question I’m asking myself?)

I’m reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly right now, and in her chapter “Vulnerability Armory” she talks about our habits of deflecting vulnerability. As I was reading, I realized that “foreboding joy” is a big shield for me : living in a constant state of anxiety over the worst case scenario. I use it in an effort to prepare for and/or shield myself from pain, but it has kept me from fully living into joy. It leaves me desperate and insecure, unable to see the blessings in my midst and therefore totally ungrateful for them.

This year taught me that every time I think faithfulness is about me and my ability to measure up or follow through, it is in fact, about God’s faithfulness – His radical, loving, everlasting and totally unconditional faithfulness to us. Just as the hymn goes.

I decided that this year I want to put down that shield of foreboding joy. I want to stop letting anxiety and desperation control me. I want to notice the blessings in my midst. I want to act from a place of abundance and enough-ness, instead of scarcity.

And so, the word that I’m choosing for 2014 is THRIVE.

It’s not a list of goals to accomplish or taking the year by storm. It’s not behavior modification with a bunch of new habits. It’s not about measuring up or fitting a standard. It’s about being vulnerable enough to feel joy and practice gratitude.

Thriving is about living into His faithfulness to me.

Advent Reflection : Love Made Flesh.

I went looking for myself yesterday. I do this sometimes when I’m feeling lost and numb; I go looking for the more hopeful, articulate, comforting version of me in the one place I know I’ll find her: my words. Lately I’ve been feeling sad and cynical and Bah-Humbug-ish, like I’m going through the motions of this season instead of really feeling its joy. Thus began my search for the me somewhere in time that had a better grasp on this whole Advent thing. I found this post that I wrote last year and it centered my heart right where it needed to be. I hope it does the same for you.

This is an edit and repost of a piece I wrote for Allison Vesterfelt last December.

A few nights ago, my husband and I went to a Christmas party. We sang carols and ate cookies and caught up with old friends, and to my surprise, a newborn baby found his way into my arms. Friends of ours just gave birth to their firstborn son a few weeks ago, and they brought him to the party with them.

Christmastime is a season of grief for me as I remember the last days of my mother’s life. It is difficult to reconcile the merry and bright with that sense of brokenness and longing, difficult to keep my heart open to the hope and joy of Advent when it is being swallowed by commercialism. But as I held that fragile, perfect, eight-pound peanut of a baby boy, the cynicism and cliche of this whole season didn’t seem so cheap. I looked at his sleeping face, felt his tiny heart beating against his tiny ribcage as I wrapped my arms around him and I was reminded of how Christ came to us:  not as a fully grown man, but as a baby. He could have chosen to come to us in any form He wanted. He could have chosen not to come at all.

But instead, He chose to take on the full experience of humanity from birth to death.

He understood things like grief and government oppression and the mundane brokenness of everyday life. He has always understood it, but He chose to demonstrate it in the most profound way possible, by taking on the journey of humanity.

When tragedy happens, we want an end to the pain and oppression and injustice. We want to make laws and condemn people, we want to overthrow governments, we want to eradicate all illness, everywhere, forever. We want change, and we want it by force.

But God has shown us in the life of Christ that redemption begins with humility, relationship, empathy. 

I find that so radical, so comforting, and it is this that fills me with joy in a season so riddled with cliches and catchphrases and commercialism. This is where I find healing for the hurt when I miss my mother or when someone says something terrible or when I hear that someone I love has lost someone they love :

That God saw fit to walk in our shoes, to put flesh on His love for us, to come directly into the darkness with us.

My hope is that we can offer that kind of hope to others this holiday season. Not the kind that offers any sort of platitude for their pain or any sort of policy to place over the brokenness.

Just empathy. Light in the darkness. Love in the flesh. Comfort and joy.

[Image.]

The Good Things.

Today I’m doing something a bit different on the blog, thanks to Hännah Ettinger over at Wine & Marble, who suggested that we link up and share at least five unidentified thanks to those who have made 2013 a better, more whole, and more healing year for us. Frankly, after the week I’ve had (first car accident, heavy work load, minimal writing productivity, internet crazies) I could do with a bit of gratitude. Also, I’m fiercely protective Thanksgiving season and I refuse to get Christmasy before first giving thanks. So there. Here we go :

1. At the beginning of the year, I got involved in an online discussion regarding a certain post (that shall not be named or linked to for the sake of everyone’s sanity.) One thing led to another, and basically, I had a mini meltdown on twitter, complete with subtweets and a call for Christian unity. #facepalm #NotMyProudestMoment. So this particular note of gratitude is to those that got caught in the crosshairs of my frustration, and I want to start by saying I’m sorry. I really regret it – both my opinions and my behavior. It was coming from a place of ignorance about a lot of different things and since then I’ve tried my damndest to shut up and listen to you. We don’t always agree, and I’m not very vocal either way, but it’s not because I’m not paying attention to you, it’s because I learned my lesson. Thank you for speaking up. Thank you for not letting me silence you. Thank you for not totally writing me off, and in some cases, for befriending me in spite of what happened.

2. As the only appropriate follow-up to Thank You No. 1, this is a thank-you to the people in my life who have walked with me through so many personal changes. A lot of what I believe about faith and politics have shifted in the last few years. I am deeply grateful to those of you who never treated me like a lost cause in my ignorance, who graciously offered me a new perspective, who heard out my doubts and frustrations and crazy questions, who continue to show me love and respect. Even if we never agree with each other on certain issues, you’ve taught me Grace.

3. For almost a year now we’ve been chatting to each other back and forth nearly every day about everything from the internets to birth control to career building to relationships, and I have to say it’s been a highlight of this season in my life. Thank you for letting me be vulnerable with you about the best and worst parts of me; thank you for being vulnerable with me about yours. We’re each going through so many personal transitions, but your friendship has been a steadfast place of comfort and encouragement. Whoever said that online friendships are fake is doing it wrong.

4. You’ve had a tough year, friend. But I’ve watched you flourish in it, too. My heart broke for you last fall, and again early this summer. We both know what it feels like to lose faith and trust for this whole hope thing, don’t we? And yet you continue to be brave and take risks and in case you haven’t noticed, you have community of women, a flock of beautiful birds, that have found a haven in your brave mama heart. I just want you to know how thankful I am for you, whom I consider a big sister in both faith and storytelling. Thank you for the moments we’ve shared of leaning into the hard places of our lives, talking about our fears, talking about our plans, talking about our dreams.

5. We don’t see each other or talk to each other every day or even every week, but we’ve been close friends for close to a decade now and your joyfulness, silliness, and go-get-’em attitude inspire me daily. You have always been there for me, even when I’m quiet, even when I’m angry, even when we lived together and I was forever leaving my dirty dishes in the sink without washing them off first. I lovelovelove you. Always.

6. Remember that day when you texted me the words to my favorite Shel Silverstein poem as an apology for that really ugly fight we had the day before? It’s been two years, and I still think about that moment every time I think about you and how much our relationship has changed. Your support means the world to me. I have a lifetime of thank-yous that I can’t list here, but this I can say : thank you for seeing me, for working hard with me to change our relationship, for saying you’re sorry and accepting my apologies too, and for always taking care of me the best that you know how. I love you.

The Nature of Things.

It is the great echoing of the universe that comes back to you, in your loneliness, to remind you that this vast, complex longing is what gives you belonging to this world. The ocean ebbs and flows, the weather rages and quiets, the day rises and falls to the light and darkness, with you. The trees burst and lose their leaves in a pattern of life and death as a reminder : this mournful, barren winter is real; this small bud of hope called spring is real. This substance of your self, skin and blood and bone and water, is the universe in and outside of you, too. It is your companion, the honest one that does not ask you to keep shining brightly when your day has ended and it is time to rest. When the tide is out, the slender white heron lands gracefully in the twilight, in the soft sponge of the bay to eat; everything at home in its time. Nature is an invitation: the world is yours, and all the seasons in it, you.

[Image.]

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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