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For When It’s Too Late to Turn Back.

In May 2007 I found myself climbing the side of a mountain in Northern Ireland without being entirely sure how I got there.

I had joined a missions team at my evangelical university, and we planned to spend two weeks ministering to local youth in Dundrum, a little bayside town of Northern Ireland. The climbing-a-mountain thing was one of those spontaneous group activities that seemed like a fantastic idea until I was actually doing it. The mountain peak didn’t seem so, well, vertical, when I was admiring it from sea-level.

But suddenly there I was, fingers gripping rock with every last ounce of strength I had. I didn’t know if I could make it to the top without killing myself. I didn’t know if I could make it back down without killing myself. I had to decide which would be the more honorable death.

I usually tend to dwell on that euphoric moment when I reached the peak of Mount Donner with pride, but today I reflect on the in-between moment, when I was clinging to the side of the mountain and had a singular thought running through my head as I looked back down the steep incline of how far I had come:

“Shit. It’s too late to turn back.”

In September 2008 I found myself embarking on a semester abroad alone. I was sitting on a flight I had just boarded by myself after tearfully saying goodbye to my fiance for the next three months. I had been anticipating this experience since high school, had been planning and saving for this particular trip for more than a year.

To this day, I still say that it was the best decision I ever made for myself, choosing to study abroad. It widened my worldview by thousands of miles and it helped me grow in a million important ways. My memories of that time are still so vivid – - the sights, the smells, the sounds, the memory of good meals and remarkable moments.

But I also remember that in-between moment, after I left and before I arrived, when the wheels went up and Chicago shrank to a spec outside my airplane window and I was all by myself. All of the anticipation I felt, all of my bravery and courage and motivation, felt like it had been sucked out of the plane. I could hardly breathe.

“Shit. It’s too late to turn back.”

There is this hard, messy part of every adventure that no one wants to talk about.

The part where you realize that you are very far away from home, and you’re really on your own. The part where your expectations meet reality. The part where it gets frustrating and expensive. The part where the plans you make collapse into one another like a stack of dominoes. The part where you have to tell yourself, “it’s too late to turn back now.” The part where you say a few swears because you’re scared.

I don’t think this feeling can accurately be called regret.

I don’t regret moving to Nashville.

Just like I didn’t regret climbing that mountain in Northern Ireland.

Just like I didn’t regret boarding that plane to Europe.

What I’m feeling is anxiety, and I know that this anxiety I feel doesn’t mean that I made the wrong decision. I don’t necessarily want to be in the position I am now, broke and struggling to make things work, but I also don’t want to be anywhere else. I just want to move forward. I’m under no illusions that I would be any happier or more fulfilled if we had stayed in our rundown, overpriced, single-bedroom apartment in the Chicago suburbs.

In fact, I knew that it was entirely possible that there would come a point about six weeks into our new life here when money would get tight and plans might be out of sync and I might miss my support system back home. If you’re at all like me, you spend a lot of time trying to prepare yourself for every conceivable consequence before embarking on adventure, but in the end it doesn’t save you. The inevitable moment will still arrive when expectation meets reality and you have to keep going, no matter what. Even if you do feel like a chicken-shit.

And just like all the adventures before this one, there will come a day when I remember this with season with gratitude, pride, and fulfillment. And maybe even a little compassion for whatever in-between moment I find myself in then, too.

SheLoves Mag : Chaos, Our Constant Companion.

My heart has been heavy this week, with so much tragedy happening in the world. Racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri. The tragic death of a beloved actor. The ebola outbreak in Africa. The conflict in Gaza. Not to mention what’s happening in my own circle – one friend’s scary diagnosis, another’s depression relapse. All of it, outside my immediate control. The chaos of the world and my own heart feels like too much right now. I have no answers, I’m fresh out of platitudes. I’m barely hanging on to hope. But early this week I had a small revelation, and in a small act of faith I wrote about it. You can read the whole story at SheLoves Mag today: Chaos, Our Constant Companion.

Chaos has been my constant companion of late.

My husband and I packed up a moving truck six weeks ago and relocated to a new city. For months beforehand our living room landscape looked like boxes everywhere, holes in the walls, spaces on the floor to mark the ghosts of furniture past. We’ve been living in a temporary apartment since the move, which a gracious friend offered to us for free while we look for a more permanent place.

It was all going relatively smoothly until this week, when a small leak in the kitchen ceiling turned into a steady rain.

#FaithFeminisms : Bearing the Fruit

Today I’m over at #FaithFeminisms, sharing part of my story of coming to feminism after growing up in white evangelicalism.

I am on a journey. It is a journey of faith, it is a journey of feminism, it is a journey into the Kingdom of God. Like every journey, it is both a walk away from something, and a walk toward something. It bears the tension between the now and the not yet. (Read more here.)

I’m so excited and honored to be included in this series. When we started dreaming and scheming this over a week ago, led by the fearless and badass Mihee Kim-Kort, Jes Kast-Keat, and Suzannah Paul, we could not have predicted just how positively people would engage it. I hope you’ll take the time to read and process the stories being shared there this week.


Nashville, Three Weeks In.

“Oh Lord, I wasn’t ready to go / I’m never ready to go
Let it ride / Let it ride easy down the road
Let it ride / Let it take away all of the darkness
Let it ride / Let it rock me in the arms of stranger’s angels until it brings me home / Let it ride, let it roll, let it go …”

- Let It Ride, Ryan Adams

It was the first song that came drifting through my car stereo on our way out of town. The Chicago skyline loomed in my rearview mirror as I followed the UHaul trailer hitched to my husband’s Mountaineer.

We were leaving home, we were headed home.

It wasn’t until I had listened to the song several times on repeat that I realized Adams was singing about Nashville, our new city. And for a brief minute, I felt the strain of those lyrics like a knot in my throat, “Oh Lord, I wasn’t ready to go / I’m never ready to go.”

We’ve lived in Nashville for three weeks now. It doesn’t quite feel like home yet, since we live in a temporary housing situation and half of our stuff still sits in storage. But I do feel a sense of certainty and groundedness in this new city and new routine. I spend my time and earn my keep by cleaning houses and doing freelance work for a handful of clients. I’ve left the 9-to-5 office job behind, and in its place I have a freedom and flexibility that makes me feel alive again, adventurous, willing to take risks for my own happiness and fulfillment.

Moving our whole life to a new city was not an easy transition, though. For months before we moved, I was a tightly wound tangle of nerves, constantly tallying up our funds, checking the calendar over and over again, trying to make sure that all the logistics were aligned. I was exhausted. So many nights became long, dark corridors of sleeplessness; my mind wandered through every what-if and worst case scenario.

I worried about what I was leaving behind.

I worried about whether I was actually going toward anything at all.

What if we moved and then didn’t find the jobs, the community, or the creative opportunities we’d hoped for? What if the move turned out to be a waste of time? An empty dream?

I think sometimes we talk about “chasing our dreams” in a way that idealizes the experience, and totally ignores the stress of that process. Selling all your stuff, quitting a job you don’t love, moving to a new city and starting over. The clean slate scenario sounds so romantic. We do ourselves no favors with this, because once we’re knee-deep in it, too far in to turn back, we think to ourselves that something must be wrong. We didn’t know it would be this hard.

So, here’s my #realtalk for you, three weeks in : It is hard. Really hard.

A lot of things can – and do – go wrong, disasters large and small that ruin all your best laid plans to do this “the right way.” A lot gets left behind. The ironing board and the lily plant, because they couldn’t fit in the Uhaul. The sense of security you had, even if it made you bored. The feeling of knowing how to navigate your life, literally and figuratively. The feeling of being known.

And just like that song goes, you’re never ready to go.

But you go anyway.

We live here now. And I may yet live to regret this decision, but I have a feeling I won’t. In any case, the lovely Tennessee breeze that cools me off after a long afternoon of cleaning houses reminds me that today I am just proud of myself for trying. And that is its own happiness.

#FaithFeminisms : A Calling Out

This week I’m excited and deeply honored to participate in #FaithFeminisms, a flashmob online discussion on the intersections of faith and feminism led by some wise women who have taught me SO MUCH about both – Mihee Kim-Kort, Suzannah Paul, Jes Kas-Keat, Austin Channing Brown, Abi Betchel, Becca Rose, and others. The introductory post, “#FaithFeminisms: A Calling Out,” went live this morning. Join us and add your voice to the conversation here. Here is our hope for this conversation, in a nutshell:

“We seek to acknowledge the gap between our value systems and our actions and actual relationships, recognizing that this chasm indicates communal brokenness, persistent inequalities, and human fallibility. We desire to create more room for vulnerability, honesty, growth, and a willingness to be undone by each other – our assumptions and long-held notions, our ideologies and blind spots, and the ways we speak, work, and name God.”

This conversation is born out of our hope and longing for authentic reconciliation; not mere equality, but true liberation from oppression for all of our fellow image-bearers. My hope and prayer for this discussion is that all of us who choose to participate will adopt postures of listening and grace toward one another.

I’ll be sharing my contribution on Wednesday, so stay tuned. (You can read more about my how my faith and feminism inform one another here.)

[Image source.]

Guest Post | Love Showed Up

Today I’m over at my friend Leanne Penny’s blog with a contribution to her Love Showed Up series. If you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one(s), then you know that faith and hope are hard to come by, but that Love always shows up right when you need it most. I have loved reading the stories in Leanne’s series, so I’m honored to contribute today with one of my own about the community that carried my family and I through my mother’s illness and death. I hope you’ll read it, and that you’ll read the others listed in the series because they’re incredible.

I have a hard time believing in miracles. It’s not that I don’t believe in God. It’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus really performed the miracles recorded in the Gospels. It’s just that my own story is marked by the miracle that never came: my mother’s healing. (Read more here.)

A Mother’s Day Card for My Internet Sisterhood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’m Into, April 2014

Hi, friends.

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

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

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

Books Read & Reading :

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

Blogs :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Films :

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

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

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

Music :

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

Food :

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

Favorite meals this month : 

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

My Whereabouts :

Festival of Faith & Writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch with SheLovelies :

Dinner with Twitter peeps :

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

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

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


My Writing :

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


Things I love :

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

Other random favorites :

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

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

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


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

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

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.”


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.)

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