Bleak. Beautiful.

Some years ago–another lifetime it seems–I once had a dog named Gitzy. And it’s safe to say I am the only person who ever loved her. To be honest, she wasn’t all that lovable. And she’d already been returned to the shelter where I found her twice by the time I came along. She was cute enough–black and wiggly and with a silly grin–but she was the most high-strung, anxious creature you have ever known.

The week that she was adopted from the local shelter, just a few months old, it snowed. It was February, I think, and it snowed several inches. And here I was, a new puppy to house-train. I remember very clearly pulling on snow boots in the wee hours one night, dawn still a good while away, to take her outside. She was so little no leash was necessary, and so I plopped her gently down to do her business.

Everything around us was pure white. Pure cold. Pure still. Pure dead of winter. That deep, deep part of winter that happens just before it all gives way to spring, that part of winter that makes you wonder if spring will ever come at all.

Against the snow Gitzy looked like a pile of Kentucky coal tumbling about, and I laughed at her as she tried to navigate the snow with her short little puppy legs before scooping her up, congratulating her on a job well done, and getting us both back inside and back to bed.

I loved the winter then.

The vast landscapes of it. The stillness of a cold, snowy night. The promise of life that I just knew was pushing against the frozen ground, ready for just one sunny spring morning to begin growing again. I loved that winter made everyone slow down. Take a breath. Just…be.

I loved the winter then.

But the truth is, then, I had yet to really know what it means to feel as if your soul is locked in winter. I had yet to really know what it means to feel the cold chill of loss and heartache pushing against you with fierce intensity. I had yet to know what it means to feel as if everything around you is simply…bleak.

Bleak.

I loved winter before I ever really knew what it meant for it to settle into your heart and make it seem like spring might be a mere pipe dream.

It’s one thing to drink in the visual loveliness of snow and twinkly lights and glorious full moons and the romance of bare branches against a dark clear sky.

It’s another thing entirely to feel the icy shards of broken dreams and shattered expectations (even of yourself) grip your heart the way ice works it way down an old pipe and freezes it hard.

For the last few years, winter has not been my friend. I’ve been cold, deep in my bones. Perhaps just aging, perhaps an iron count that is never quite where it needs to be, perhaps my psyche manifesting it’s own change and struggle and chaos via body temperature. Whatever the reason, I’ve needed warmth more, searched out sunlight more, felt the weight of the weather more.

Today has been the first real snow of this winter in my part of the world. It’s been cold for weeks–very cold–but no snow. And finally, today, it came. “Mommy! It’s snowing!” my Curly Girl hollered from upstairs and at the sound of her glee I ran to the window to see for myself.

Sure enough, it was snowing.

And in that moment, I pulled from deep in the recesses of my memory, a similar day, when she was only 3 or 4, and the snow had begun to fall, and she ran to the French doors that opened on to the patio of the house we lived in then, and she squealed. Squealed! Loudly, and with such joy. And she threw her chubby little preschool arms out wide and said, “Mommy! Daddy! Look what God made!”

Look what God made….

She has no school tomorrow, but she’s been sick so I sent her to bed early anyway, and as I was walking through the kitchen after, turning off the bright light of it, because otherwise that bright light sneaks into her room at night, I stopped, just at the sink, and caught a glimpse of outside.

One of my favorite things about the house we live in is that there is a big window over the kitchen sink, and it looks out into a fenced backyard and I love that I can see what’s happening out there most any time of day.

Tonight, what was happening out there was more snow. A strong breeze rippling through the branches of the huge tree that graces our backyard. The brightness of the snow reflecting against the sky so that is was all the most beautiful shades of grey and white and shadow.

I stood there for a moment…and for a few minutes, I remembered what it was like to love winter.

It was bleak, certainly. But it was somehow also beautiful. And before long, even if the days will seem so long between now and then, spring will come to the Bluegrass, and with it my grandmother’s daisies, currently taking their long winter nap under all that snow.

Bleak. Cold. Bare.

But underneath it all there is, I am certain, life.

Beautiful, abundant life. 

And so…hope.

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Saving what we love…

“That’s how we win. Not by fighting what we hate. By saving what we love.” –The Last Jedi

****

Those rebel scum in Star Wars should never actually win. Not statistically. Not even theoretically.

They are always outnumbered. Out-manned. Out-gunned/shipped. Out-everything-ed.

Except when it comes to their gigantic hearts and enormous spirits and determined mindset not to let the First Order rule. Not ever. Not as long as they can help it. Again and again they refuse to succumb to what is purely powerful when they can choose what is truly right. Again and again they choose the greater good, even at the cost of their own lives. Again and again they get back up. No matter what has (temporarily) decimated them.

It is so, so easy to walk out of a movie theater, having seen a Star Wars episode, and think, “Ok. I’ve/We’ve got this. All is not lost. If Darth Vader can be saved from his own darkness…if Rey can resist Kylo…if Leia can survive losing Han…if Luke can be rallied…if Poe can keep hopping in an X-Wing to blow things up….” If they can do all that…still…in the face of the sort of evil that pervades, consumes, seeks to thoroughly control…well, surely, I can (fill in the blank).

And in this last episode, the oldest truth about those Rebels struck me in the newest of ways…they lead with love.

First and foremost, they lead with love. For one another, for their world, for the lives they seek to live, for the peace they believe is possible. They lead with love.

Which made it the most perfect movie to see as 2017 faded into 2018 and a host of memories, regrets, sorrows, angers, joys and questions flooded my brain like an open gallon of milk that has been knocked over and spills out in great waves before you can do anything about it. Because, as I watched the most delightful Carrie Fisher play perhaps her finest role for the last time with such grace and commitment, I broke out of my own NYE reflection reverie long enough to acknowledge, “She’s still leading with love.”

Not anger. Though she certainly is. Not sadness. Though her life has held so much grief. Not tyranny. Though she likely could get away with it, as much as they all bow to her. Not fear. She has no time for that and has seen it all anyway.

No. She leads with love. For her family. For her people. For her world. And I am convinced that this makes all the difference for those who would follow her to Jakku and back, time and time again, if she asked.

Y’all, there is more to be angry about in this life than I could even begin to name for us all. Private betrayals. Corporate abuses. National debacles. Personal losses. Shattered dreams. For all of us, there are deep griefs, and those griefs often have no home but anger at what we believe has led to what whatever it is we’ve lost. And such anger can feel as though it might destroy us. Such grief can feel like it might drown us. There’s just so much…too much, it can seem.

But I believe with all that I am that when we lead with grief or anger, we fail to lead at all.

Do not misunderstand me–there is a time and place for both grief and anger. They must be faced. And we cannot simply ignore their presence in our lives. But also, we cannot give either room to riot…to control…to wreak havoc on any goodness that might remain. Because to do so is to simply fight what we hate…instead of actively seeking to save what we love.

It’s a choice really, for each of us to make–do we fight what threatens to destroy us with anger? Or do we seek to save what’s best about us, and our lives, by continuing to first, love?

Maybe it’s the same thing and I’m simply playing with semantics, but I don’t think so. Mindset matters. So does intent. And so do the longings of our beautiful hearts, each of them made with a desire to love and be loved. And I cannot help but believe that when we lead from that place of love, we do ourselves and the world around us one better than has been done before.

I don’t know what leading with love looks like for everybody. But I know for me it requires two things: constant expression of gratitude and careful attention to listening.

Constant expression of gratitude for the goodness in my life.

Careful attention to listening to those who think, believe and act differently than I ever have or ever would.

These are the things that help me love. And love hard. Because ohemgee, loving hard…it is so necessary and so difficult both, in these days that we are living.

I think, what I want most in 2018, is to be like General Leia Organa: grounded, grieved, determined, hopeful, and, most of all, still, despite all things, filled with love for those around me.

Most days I suspect I’ll be tempted to be more like Poe, ready to just blow some sh!t up and scrap against whatever I see rising against me. And maybe sometimes there will be a need for that.

But mostly…mostly I just want to be about saving what I love, not fighting against what I hate. Because honestly, in the end, I think that might be our only way.

Maybe even our only hope.

 

 

Justice League: #availablehope

So here’s the thing. Aside from my lifelong love of Wonder Woman, I am a bit late to the DC and Marvel movie bandwagon. But a year or so ago, I got hooked via Wolverine and the stories around him. And that led to DC. And then of course Gal Gadot blew up moviedom with her Wonder Woman and now I’m fiercely going through “back stories” and catching up on all things superhero.

Justice League had me at hello with a line about how hope is like your car keys, easy to lose, but generally close by if you dig around for it. I grinned as I heard the words, knowing that if we were starting with that kind of framework there was nowhere to go but up. Because ohemgee, how I love an epic good v. evil film in which it looks so much like evil’s gonna win…and yet….

But I don’t want to be a spoiler. In fact, I’ll try real hard not to in what I want to say, but consider yourself warned before proceeding with the things I loved about Justice League, and why it’s all about exactly the sort of outrageous hope we all need these days.

They are all SO jacked up! Superheros they may be, but man do they have baggage! Way more than even generous Southwest Airlines would allow. Batman’s wealth is handy, sure, but dude is so closed off from the world he can barely function, and is so overloaded in guilt about Superman’s death he will stop at nothing to somehow “fix” it. His scenes with Wonder Woman, about her own baggage of Steve Trevor are both painful and priceless and deeply humanizing. A couple of broken hearts trying to do some good past what has wrecked them. Aquaman is so jaded and drunk, a bit like Wolverine at his worst, completely focused inward on what can make him forget wherever he’s been. Cyborg is raging mad at his dad for making him what he is, and yet also has, from the beginning, at least, I thought, this cautious desire to see if he can really live and have any kind of being in his current state, and The Flash is like every middle schooler I ever worked with in youth ministry: eager and confused and insecure and so unaware of how completely brilliant he is capable of being.

I mean, basically, y’all, they are like all of us after we’ve done some living. Trying to live past what’s been and figure out how to have life again after what they’ve done and seen and lost. They are all so achingly human. Except…not.

They’re ready to die for it. They are ready to straight up die if it means defeating Steppenwolf and his lust for power. “If we make it through the night,” Batman says to Wonder Woman just before the last epic battle, and they clink their whiskey glasses as only desperate heroes can do. There is no sugarcoating what they are up against. It’s crazy, really. But they are determined to do what they can against such raging evil. They are, in their determination, the sort of things we all are at our very best–after goodness and love and peace, and ready to fight for what’s necessary to make those things real again.

They know that real power is grounded in love and relationship, not violence and destruction. Steppenwolf is mighty, to be sure. He is loud and fiery and angry and willing to destroy whatever he has to to quench his desire to rule all things (even if all things are dead, apparently…). But his bloodthirst is no match for the hearts of the Justice League. No. Match. And isn’t this always true? At least, isn’t this the story we are always after? Harry Potter. Star Wars. The Hobbit. Always, it’s the ones who don’t want the power to begin with who wind up winning. Always, it’s the ones who are simply after goodness and grace who save the day.

This is what it means to be a superhero–to know that there is something bigger than you at work, and no matter the heartache, no matter the cost, that something bigger is worth dying for, worth giving everything for, if it means that in the end, love wins.

Love. Wins.

Let me be real clear I know it seems impossible. I know that it almost seems as if Steppenwolf or Voldemort is going to triumph. Like you, I’ve known days that seemed so damn hopeless, and so it was futile, at best for me to even try to insist that not all lost and it was still possible for something good to happen. Just yesterday, someone so dear to me insisted that “justice is not served like that, Julie,” in response to my insistence that something good was still possible. And I get it. I so, so get that feeling.

But also? I know that every day we are given is one more day where we can make hope a conscious choice. And I do not mean pie-in-the-sky optimism. Don’t talk to me about Pollyanna or rainbows and unicorns or fairy tales that end nicely. Just. Don’t.

What I mean is deep-down, way inside our hearts, burrowed in the depths of our souls. And it is gritty and real and raw and terrifying: it’s hope. That most dangerous of words (h/t Shawshank Redemption). Hope. The tiniest, almost imperceptible bit of it. Stubborn enough to insist on its own way even in the face of everything–everything–that stands against it having a chance at being real.

Y’all, we need some superheros. All over the place. And yet…this capacity that we have for hope…it can make us our own superheroes, ready to do what needs doing such that our lives and our world might be the sort of place we’re proud to leave our children. 

This is what the Justice League has to teach us–that it’s possible. Even if by a sliver.

At the end of the day we all want to belong. To be loved. To be held safe in a community that makes us our best selves and calls out of us our best actions. This is Superman and The Flash facing off right at the end–pushing each other to their best, teasing out of each other their very finest. All of it for sake of something good and real and more than they could ever each do on their own–even as superheroes.

In fact, most especially as superheroes. After all, “You can’t save the world alone.”

 

 

 

Expectations managed. (Or, 5 things that wreck this time of year and thoughts on surviving the wreckage.)

If you’re a Harry Potter fangeek (Julie raises her hand…) you know about the  Marauder’s Map, a charmed map used by Harry Potter and those before him to engage in all sorts of mischief during their school years. Once a map’s user is done with their sneaking out or pranks or whatever, they simply fold up the map, tapping it with a wand and proclaiming, “Mischief Managed!” — and all evidence goes away. Just like that.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Mischief. Managed.

How I wish it were so easy to manage expectations. Especially this time of year.

Expectations. Of happy families. Perfect presents. Norman Rockwell (still!) images of the way things are “supposed to be.” Happy carolers. Innocently mischievous elves. Joyful hearts. Grateful attitudes. Giving spirits. You know–Christmas happy– this is what’s expected the most wonderful time of the year. Mostly because Hallmark.

December has always been my favorite month. I love how everything in nature quiets down and softens up. There’s beauty, to me, in how simple the landscape looks with bare trees and grey skies. It’s almost like the world has paused for a moment to catch her breath. And I’ve always loved Christmas. The lights. The music. The food. The family and friends. The presents–both buying just the right one for someone I love, and receiving one that tells me I’m loved.

It was always my favorite time of the year, and, at heart, I think it still is.

But it’s not so easy now. My expectations of what this time of year brings and how it’s celebrated have been drastically changed. And I’m not quite sure, still, how to navigate December in light of that. Maybe that rings true for you, too.

Maybe this will be your first Christmas after having lost a loved one. Or maybe that loved one is still just missed so much that the thought of seeing her empty place at the table is more than you can bear.

Maybe you’ve been through a divorce, and the realities of what that means for your children and you at the holidays is more painful that you think you can stand.

Maybe money is tight and so the ads for Apple watches and Pandora bracelets and Samsung flat-screens and enormous Lego sets are things you desperately wish you could buy and so sources of shame.

Maybe you’ve lost your job. Or have been deployed overseas (or love someone who is). Or are very sick. Or battle clinical depression.

Maybe…. Maybe…. Maybe….

Whatever your “maybe,” there are some things I want to say in the face of it (and, as usual, I’m saying it to myself most of all). And those are things are these:

  1. Grief is powerful and shows up whenever she damn well pleases. She does not give one small care about the time of year, and she is a mighty force to be reckoned with. Whatever has you grieving, whatever loss has leveled you, I simply want to say, “Me. Too.” And I can name many, many others who could join my Me. Too. chorus. Because loss is inevitable. And sometimes, it threatens to destroy us. You are NOT alone in your grief. Please hear me say that. You are NOT alone. And perhaps the most Christmas-y thing we could do this year is simply sit with one another while we face the loss together, just as God created us to do.
  2. I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth saying again: the dreams we have (or had) of what would be for our lives are often brought full center, straight into the spotlight, this time of year. And when those dreams have been dashed, shattered, slammed mercilessly against the backdrop of our lives…whew, y’all. It is hard. HARD. to get through a season like Christmas. When we long for what we thought would be, or secretly dare to hope might be again one day. So…be kind to yourself. Trust those around you to be with you in the heartache. And trust especially that God’s heart is hurting for yours, too.
  3. Best Buy and Amazon do not own Christmas. And this comes from someone who LOVES wrapped presents. And squeals like a kid, well, at Christmas! when she opens one that means an especial lot. After all, the magi did bring baby Jesus presents. And those gifts were not necessarily practical. There IS precedent for pretty things after all! Still…it isn’t the real point, and it is so difficult to remember this, especially when you see the priceless smile on your daughter’s face when Santa did manage to find an enormous stuffed giraffe in time for Christmas morning. And if you’ve ever been through a particularly lean Christmas, or had a holiday with zero cash to spare at all…gah. You know the pain of that. The shame, even, of it. And I’m so, so sorry, if you have. It’s no place to be. Still…the presents…as lovely as they can be, as much as they can be expressions of love…they are not the point.
  4. Happiness and joy are two very different things. As I have said before, coffee and Bon Jovi and caramel M&M’s and a finely poured bourbon make me happy. My daughter and other favorite people bring me joy. Deep, abiding joy, even when it seems sadness or fear or stress might win any given day after all. Sometimes that joy gets clouded. Sometimes I don’t express it or acknowledge it or even want to look for it. But it’s there, still…somewhere inside me, a voice that believes in such joy and trusts it to do the work of reminding me/you/us that we are loved and that all is not lost.
  5. Memories can be both beautiful and awful. They can lift us up and they can drag us down. And it can feel impossible to keep them at bay either way. And this time of year, remembering what once was can bring a whopping dose of pain. Y’all, I can be the sappiest, most waxing nostalgic girl on the planet, and the 42 year-old Santa ornament at the top of my tree is strong evidence of that. As is the Han Solo, given to me just last year, and a reminder of people and experiences new and amazing. But…the truth is that there are some ornaments I no longer hang on the tree. And this is evidence, too, that not all memories are helpful, and these unhelpful ones are really stubborn, as you may know, these days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Look, here’s the deal. In the end, the Christmas story, as it is told in Judeo-Christian faith, is a story of two terrified and unlikely parents, their son suddenly named as savior of the world and nothing going as they expected.

Did you get that? NOTHING going as they expected. And with even more heartache to come.

And so, in the midst of remembering the joy of the story, we have to remember, too, that in the story is fear. In the story is uncertainty. In the story is brokenness. There’s nothing Hallmark about it at all. And it was likely messy and terrifying, just as our lives often are. And this somehow gives me hope–because it tells me that not only did God come into an imperfect world, God came into that world imperfectly. Not at all like we might have planned or expected. Still, God came among us–right into our jacked up lives and said, “I am with you and you are loved and you are worth it.” (Excuse me while I loosely paraphrase the Gospels!).

Always. Without exception. In our most vulnerable moments. No matter what.

That’s Christmas. God being with us. With you. With me. In all of our good, bad and ugly. And the really tremendous joy to be known in that is that there are no expectations attached at all. Just love…pure and real and unlike anything else we really have ever known.

And my prayer for you…for me…is that the goodness of this is enough for even a glimmer of hope for what might still be possible for our lives to take firm root in our souls, so that we are able to expect, above all else, that love still wins after all…and always.

 

 

 

Britton (guest post)

NOTE: The post below is written by my friend Tiffany. Tiffany and I, and her husband Drew, grew up in the same small town in Georgia, and went to the same high school, and sometimes even the same church. They are dear to me, and you have perhaps read things I’ve written about them before. What follows is Tiffany’s account of the loss of their second child, a baby boy, Britton. We first discussed her telling this story on this blog almost a year ago. And, now, she has. Tiffany’s telling of this story is one of the bravest things I have ever known a person to do. I’m grateful for her strength. For her faith. And for her tremendous witness to what it means to survive, even live, beyond the most awful and devastating of things. This is her story….

Early 2008 was filled with excitement as we began telling our friends and family that with one baby barely a year old, we’d be welcoming another baby into our family. I secretly hoped for a girl; but, I was certain I was building a baseball team.

This time of year, Facebook’s TimeHop reminds me of memories that I don’t want to forget. Like Claxton wanting to name the baby “Dawg.” And, I cling to a picture of a swollen belly and flushed cheeks. It’s a memory of a sweet baby I would never get to know, because he would never take a breath on earth.

There are moments that are ingrained in my memory. Like Claxton cutting his fingers with scissors as I was in a rush wrapping presents. We spent the evening in the emergency room where they strapped him down and stitched his little fingers up while I had to wait on the other side of the door listening to his cries. They didn’t want me to go into labor early. But what if I had? Would my baby be with us now?

Naming this baby was hard. When you’re a teacher, names are difficult. Names bring flashes of faces… some good, some not as good. Names have stories behind them. Our first son’s name was sentimental and decided on well before the wedding rings were even placed. The second son was much harder. Eventually, we decided on Britton Beck. His first name came from my twin sister, Brittany. I prayed that my two boys would have the same loving relationship that she and I shared. Britton would share his middle name with my husband’s stepfather, an amazing man who love my husband as his own. My baby’s name was strong and carried with it love and devotion.

That year the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season–shopping, eating, visiting–included getting ready for a baby. December 29 it was time for Claxton’s stitches to come out. I had seen my doctor just a few days earlier. The only thing they were concerned about was my blood pressure. I had an appointment for the next day, but if I could get my blood pressure checked, I wouldn’t have to come back in until it was time to deliver. We took Claxton back to the emergency room to take the stitches out. While we were there, I had the sweet nurse take my blood pressure. Everything was perfect. That night I had a hard time sleeping. I watched the clock most of the night as our baby boy practiced his field goal kicks, and, the next morning I decided to go ahead to the doctor. Drew was at work, but I was confident everything was fine and proceeded alone to the visit. I was running late and talked on the phone all the way to Athens, making plans with a friend for lunch with not a care in the world.

The ultrasound started out as normal, cold gel rolling on my gigantic stomach. But then the nurse kept rolling…and rolling. She would move the doppler to another spot and roll some more. She asked a few questions that I don’t remember and changed positions again. She left the room bringing back a more experienced nurse, my favorite. I texted Drew. I knew things were not right, but I assured him everything was fine. The nurse came back and tried again. More cold gel and more rolling, then the suggestion of a heartbeat…then the suggestion of an ultrasound to put my mind at ease.

As soon as the nurse left the room, I called Drew and told him to head toward Athens. I knew something wasn’t right and started praying. The nurse and a doctor came back in. She asked if I wanted to wait on Drew, but I think the reality of what could be happening had not set in. What could go wrong? I was days away from a scheduled C-section. I was WAY past the first trimester. We had several ultrasounds. Britton was perfect. What lurked in the back of my head would never happen to me.  I assured her it was fine and to move forward with the ultrasound. I will never forget the silence in the room. I will never forget those words. The words I never thought I would hear. “There is no heartbeat.” It was like an out-of-body experience. I could hear myself crying, even tried to get myself to be quieter because I didn’t want to upset other moms, but the wailing would not stop.

Drew arrived and I asked for another ultrasound. I just couldn’t believe this was real. After confirmation of the news,  they sent us home only to return for a C-section later that afternoon. Before we could even get home, our house was full of all my best friends and family. I can still picture their faces, full of grief and sadness.  I remember sitting in the chair in the living room, feeling him there, stretching and moving, praying this was all a bad dream and they were wrong. But, deep in my heart, I knew my Britton was already in the arms of the Lord.

The hours after our news were long, although I remember very little about them. The surgery was pushed back because another baby was in distress. There was nothing they could do for our baby. When it was finally time, Britton came into the world without a sound. All you could hear were the cries of his parents and the sniffles from the medical staff around the table.

Once we returned to the room, a photographer came to take pictures that we cherish to this day.  The room was full of love. Britton was passed around to each family member. He was held, kissed, sung to, marveled over. But the room was not full of joy. It was full of pure heartbreak and sadness.

BBPAs it came time to take him away, the family remaining and our pastor gathered around our bed. With my lips on Britton’s head, our pastor prayed. This is one of my favorite pictures. It symbolizes the love in that room. Love for Britton. Love of family. Love of friends. Love from nurses and caregivers. Love from complete strangers that changed out of their scrubs and sat by my bed to pray with me. Love of friends like family that came and never left. Love through tears that fell from me and for us.  

Britton was made with love and left us in love.

In the days that followed, it rained. Hard, cold rain. For days it rained every single day. It rained as we drove to the funeral home to plan his memorial service. It rained as we drove to the the cemetery to pick out his final resting place. It rained as we met with our preacher, as family and friends delivered food, as we made decisions that no young couple should ever have to make.

And in those rainy days I embraced something I will never forget and that continues to shape my walk with God: He isn’t threatened my heartache. His heart aches too. I remember turning to Drew as we were driving in the rain, “He’s crying with us isn’t He?” His heart breaks with mine. He cries when I cry. He wasn’t threatened by my anger any more than He was threatened by the rain. He knows the rain will fall, just like I will fall. He is big enough for my questions and my anger. I called out to him in the rain. I called out to him as we placed Britton in the ground. I cried out to God for days when I couldn’t leave my room, and I was certain the neighbors could hear my cries. The rain fell, the wipers wiped, and He listened as I cried out to Him.

I now believe that these days were just the beginning of my relationship with God. Don’t get me wrong, I had professed belief long before. I was baptized and baptized again, just to make sure.  🙂 I led children in Discipleship classes. I was a youth director, led small groups. But I’m not sure I really knew God, because I had never really had to reach out for Him. My story is like many others going through crushing, devastating loss. It could be the loss of a loved one or a child or maybe the loss of a job. Maybe you have a sick child or have watched a loved one suffer. Maybe you’re in the fight of your life against drugs or alcohol. For some of us, that’s what it takes to really have a relationship with the Lord. I could either run from Him or run into His arms. But regardless of what direction I ran, His heart broke for me.

Our pastor, Jim Brooks, said at Britton’s memorial service, “God did not will Britton’s death or your pain. God is with you in the midst of it all and will help you through it. God is for you. God understands your pain. Britton’s life made a difference in this world. His life was short but his presence among us will last a lifetime and beyond. Cling to that hope- that promise of our God- and allow your tears to wash away the pain.” I cling to those words when the doubt and questions wash over and the grief creeps in. He is with me.

However easy it may be to allow myself to wail over my loss, it is a far more satisfying thing to believe that all of this is a brief season. The Lord I have placed my trust in tells me that I will see my child again, and while He stands beside me, He weeps. No, Britton  will not return to us, but one day we will go to him.

I think what I have learned most through this experience, is that God is truly always with me. While I permanently bear the mark of a woman who has lost her child, I praise Him. Through Britton’s life, we have been shown love like no other. My heart still aches for the baby I only held for minutes. I never got to kiss his feet or hear the cheerleaders chant his name. I never got to see him walk or kiss his bride or hold his own child after birth. I mourn those moments. I wonder what he would be like and who he would be, but God has shown himself in my life and my children’s lives so many times since then. And so:

Psalm 116

1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;

   he heard my cry for mercy.

2 Because he turned his ear to me,

   I will call on him as long as I live.

Everything that happens in our lives, no matter how awful, is an opportunity to acknowledge God’s goodness. Every time the anger rages in my heart,  God says, “Bring it to me.” If you want to scream, we have a God who is big enough to take it. I can either live a life of resentment or a life of gratefulness. Britton changed my life. In so many ways he made me brave. He made me want to be want to be a better mommy, a better wife, a better daughter to the King that will hold him until I am able to one day.

During those darkest days, and sometimes still, there is a song I listened to on repeat. I feel like it tells the song of my heart as I have walked this journey:

I can count a million times

People asking me how I

Can praise You with all that I’ve gone through

The question just amazes me

Can circumstances possibly

Change who I forever am in You

Maybe since my life was changed

Long before these rainy days

It’s never really ever crossed my mind

To turn my back on you, oh Lord

My only shelter from the storm

But instead I draw closer through these times

So I pray

Bring me joy, bring me peace

Bring the chance to be free

Bring me anything that brings You glory

And I know there’ll be days

When this life brings me pain

But if that’s what it takes to praise You

Jesus, bring the rain

–Bring the Rain, MercyMe

 

Anything can happen.

His voice broke through the Tuesday morning buzz of businessmen meeting and moms chatting and baristas calling out orders. I was focused on making sure I poured just the right amount of cream in my grande Pike Place when I heard him ask, looking up at me over his newspaper as he did so, “Big day, long day, so-so day?”

I glanced around, just sure this stranger was talking to someone else.

Nope. Me.

So I answered his question.

“You know, sir, I don’t know yet–it’s the day before a couple vacation days and honestly anything could happen.”

We both smiled, and he said, “Well, yes, I guess it could.”

And then I was on my way, and he was back in his paper.

The whole thing seemed so beautifully funny. And so human. And so exactly what we need these days in our communities–the sort of random connection that reminds us we are not islands unto ourselves after all.

Two traffic lights and a mile or so down the road, the truth of the words I’d spoken to him struck me, “…anything could happen.”

Always and every day. Anything can happen. Good or bad. And we never know until it actually does.

I know it probably seems so obvious, but sometimes the obvious bears saying most of all: Anything can happen–and this is exactly why gratitude matters. Gratitude for whatever goodness and generosity we can find, even if it’s slim pickings.

Look, y’all, if I’m being completely honest, there’s a boatload of things I am not grateful for. Not. At. All. A whole lot I wish had not happened or wasn’t happening in both my personal life and the life I live in the various communities I am a part of. It’s hard–maybe impossible–to truly be grateful for the stuff that breaks our hearts and steals our dreams and shakes our souls.

Last night, I could not decide where to put the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree I bought on clearance last November not knowing I’d be in a different house by this coming Christmas. It simply would not fit anywhere.

I rearranged the living room three times (and that’s on top of  the rearranging I did of it last week…) to figure it out. After the second time, I lost it. Flopped down on the brick fireplace edge and cried.

Yep. Over a Christmas tree placement. Tears. (Maybe not my finest moment?)

Of course…the issue wasn’t the issue and it really wasn’t about the Christmas tree at all. It was about everything that has led to me and my girl being in this house. All the change. All the brokenness. All the uncertainty. All the sadness. All the fear.

All the things.

I let myself wallow in self-pity for about 5 minutes. And then I thought, “No. Not like this.” And so I stood up, and looked around, and realized clear as day what needed to happen,  and Rearrange Number Three worked just exactly right, and that tree got put up and plugged in, and the lights worked their magic, and I was able to breathe again.

And I was able to remember how deeply grateful I am for this house I never imagined living in. And how deeply grateful I am to be that Curly Girl’s mother. And how deeply grateful I am for the friends and family who have helped us make that house a home with free labor and free meals and free furniture. How deeply grateful I am for those we do this crazyhardbeautifulgutwrenchingamazing life with.

How deeply grateful I am…. Even in the moments when the things I am not grateful for threaten to undo me.

Anything can happen. In the blink of an eye all hell could break loose…or all angels could come tumbling down with more mercy and love than we’ve ever imagined could be ours. This is so hard to see, so difficult to believe, when we are in the thick of grief or anger or anxiety or fear. Still…I believe it, even if I sometimes forget that I do.

Big day? Long day? So-so day? I don’t know…anything could happen. And so, for now, I think I’ll be deeply grateful for that quick five minutes in Starbucks this morning, and the much-needed perspective that came with my coffee.

 

 

 

 

Anxious, much? (and trying to breathe past it)

I could feel it happening. The familiar tension in my shoulders. The quickened step. The terse directives to my daughter to put her shoes on and brush her teeth already. My stomach knotted and I reached instinctively for my coffee mug, searching for something familiar to help me breathe.

Just. Breathe. 

We were running late, and for as long as I can remember, running late has made me anxious. I’m sure this is rooted in some DNA pattern or life experience I know nothing about, but regardless, it’s true. And my sincere apologies to my loved ones who have suffered my sharp words if I’ve been with you while also about to be late for something. I know it’s not pretty. And please know this–I don’t care if you aren’t on time. My sister’s been showing up late for every day of her life and I love her madly and will take her in my life late or otherwise. I’m just worried about me.

So yea, me running late makes me anxious. So does money. And so does any general unknown–like not being sure where I stand with someone, or the possibility of heartbreak, or not having a clear idea of what I’m supposed to do in any given situation.

Otherwise? I’m totally chill (insert self-deprecating laughter). I don’t worry about colds or someone stealing something from my car or running out of gas or a thousand-and-one other ordinary things one might worry about. I mean, we’ve all got our baggage, right?

(Please understand I am not speaking about the kind of anxious that spins out of a mental illness of some sort–the anxiety born of generalized disorders or depression is a whole ‘nother ballgame, and I know and love people who struggle mightily against this monster. And I watch them fight against it and I want so much to make it stop…because I know they are so tired, some days, of trying to silence it’s effects on their brains and hearts.)

What I know in my own life, and see in the lives of others, is the every day anxious that happens when we come face-to-face with the very real truth that we are not, after all, in control. Of very much at all. Sometimes not even showing up to school on time makes the list.

We can do our best to make good decisions. We can work hard to point our feet in the right direction on any given day. We can read books and attend seminars and talk with friends about what kinds of choices we want to make and what kind of person we want to be. But control–of any absolute sort–is a complete illusion, and our insistence on trying to grasp at it feeds, I think, a sort of anxiety that is rooted in a very well-grounded fear.

Fear of catastrophe. Fear of not being able to provide for our children. Fear of losing someone we love. Fear of loneliness. Fear, most of all, of not being enough. 

Anxiety lies and bullies. I’m convinced of this. Whether situational or mild or not, it lies, and convinces us we do not have what we need to get through a particular moment or be in a relationship with a particular person or excel at a particular task. And so we reach for some imaginary control panel and try our best to reign in our lives so that they feel safer. More manageable. Less frightening. We go searching for security in things (always a disappointment) and we lose sight of what matters most and how it is that those things that matter most (like the scent of the very center of the top of my daughter’s curly head) are sometimes everything we need to get through.

Above all, the biggest lie anxiety tells us is that we cannot do it–whatever “it” is. We can’t survive the grief. We can’t excel at the new job. We can’t find a way past the anger. We can’t thrive past brokenness. We can’t…we can’t…we can’t….

And the thing is, we CAN. We absolutely one-hundred percent CAN.

It’s hard. Really, awfully, effing hard. But we CAN.

I was talking to a friend last night who told me that for the first time in a long time, he feels like his head is above water. Like many of us traversing the landscape of 40-something, he’s been through a divorce (and all the emotional and financial stress and feeling of failure that comes with it), and a job he wasn’t fulfilled in, and the every day drama of raising teenagers–the hard stuff of life. Rebuilding your life is serious and difficult business, and god, some days, you just want to give up. Wave a white flag and call a weak truce with what has undone you.

But you can’t. You have to keep going. Swimming up–because one day, eventually, your head breaks the surface and you can breathe again. Even if there is still hard work to do, you can breathe again.

Just. Breathe.

And this what I want focus on. The breathing. The taking a deep breath of gratitude for all that has gotten me this far. And trusting that something is at work to lead me/us into what’s next.

(I just really, really want to be on time when “what’s next” starts!) 

 

 

 

 

If I were to get a tattoo…

…I mean, don’t worry. I’m not. No judgment, AT ALL, towards those of you who have gone that route, but I’m not a tattoo kinda girl. And somewhere around 39 1/2 years old I accepted that. See, that year, a friend wanted me to get a ginkgo leaf (because I love them so) tattooed on my ankle for my 40th birthday. I thought about. Pored over possible designs. Scoped out possible locations. But in the end…no dice. I just couldn’t do it.

But if I were…if I were to do it, I think it would not be a ginkgo leaf. Or a fleur-de-lis (which I also adore).  Or even my daughter’s initials (who I adore the most). It would simply be this: Romans 8:38-39.

Maybe even just 8:38-39 (except probably that would like some sort of odd ID number and cause a major stir!).

More than any other verse in the Bible that my whole existence has been founded upon, Romans 8:38-39 brings me strength. Gives me hope. Helps me put one front in front of the other. Reminds me I am loved, and, therefore, need to set about loving others. Tells me, in no uncertain terms that I am not alone. Not ever.

On our way home from church today, I asked my Curly Girl, “Hey kiddo, what’d you talk about in class today?” She’s in a class at church for 5th-8th graders–the Tweens of the church, they are, but they officially call themselves the Jesus Peeps. Which I think is hysterical and brilliant.

Anyway, I asked. And she said, “Well…we read about King David.”

After a pause, knowing that reading about King David could pretty much run the gamut, I asked, “Cool–what about him?”

“Well, we read about King David and Bathsheba.”

I paused. Swallowed. And then managed, “And…what did you think about King David and Bathsheba?” (If you’re fuzzy here, readers, King David and Bathsheba basically equals a soap opera of epic and disastrous proportions.)

“Well, Mommy, I read it aloud for the class and it is a REALLY weird and UNCOMFORTABLE story!”

(go ahead…laugh…I did!)

I pulled myself together, choked back my laughter and said, “Yep. It is.”

And then we talked. About how King David did some really awful, terrible things. And how he was really quite selfish and impulsive and impatient. But also about how he did some really good and important things. And somehow, despite the awful things, God was able to use King David for good. Somehow…past all the horrible choices, God was able to use him to further God’s work.

This is no small thing. In fact, it is maybe everything.

She noted that there were consequences for King David. I said she was right. “Always, honey, there are consequences. But no consequence can take away God’s love for you. In fact, nothing, no matter what, can take away God’s love for you. And that was true for King David, too.”

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39, NRSV)

She nodded. Said yes, she believed that. And I told her that I did, too.

I stake my life on it. 

In any painful moment of my life, Romans 8:38-39 has been present. Whether read by a loved voice or shared from a pulpit or lectern, or read to myself at night in desperate prayer, or pulled up from memory as a promise that the sun would indeed rise the next day…whatever the instance, whatever the situation, when my heart has been shattered, Romans 8:38-39 has helped me put it back together again, even if not quite the same as it was before.

I have run out words for how concerned and afraid I am in these days we are living.  I approach news and social media both with hesitation these days, literally fearful of what fresh hell might have emerged while I was away from the steady stream of information and opinion and clickbait.

And despite the goodness in my life, I know that it can all be gone in a heartbeat. Just like that. And many days, I wonder when the next shoe will drop and I’ll once again be plunged into heartache. Because this is what happens when you have known pain or grief or anger or loss. And we have all, in one way or another, known these things–and if not…well…we will.

But we have also been promised that such things are not to be faced alone. We have been promised by the very One who created us and gave us love that not a single second of our lives is to be lived without the Love that gave us life in the first place holding us close, pulling us near, surrounding us with mercy.

Nothing can separate us….

Look, I don’t know how it happens. And I know–believe me I know–that there are days when all feels lost and like nothing good will ever happen again and where we are is where we’ll always be. There are days…when not much seems to matter at all.

So y’all excuse me if I’ve gotten all church-y here…but I simply know no other way to traverse this life except to insist that 1) we are loved and 2) we are not alone and 3) there is hope.

This does not get us off the hook in speaking up when we need do. In helping those who need help. In living lives that help justice flourish and peace maybe become a possibility. No…not at all.

But it does fuel us for the journey. Help us forward when things are awful. At least…it does for me.

Because what I believe, out of my own experience, is that to each and all of us God has said, “I’ll keep you.” And nothing will ever be able to separate us from that. And given all the days when I have felt so very unworthy of such keeping, felt so far away from such love…well, I’ll take it. Because nothing can separate us…I am convinced. 

And more than anything I want for my daughter, I want her to be convinced, too. 

 

 

 

 

Courtroom #310

IMG_0604(NOTE: Grateful to the bartender at one of my favorite spots who lent me a pen so I could furiously get this down and to my Curly Girl, who is forever leaving scraps of sketched upon paper in the backseat of my car.)

None of us are there because we want to be. Except perhaps a mercenary or eager-to-prove herself lawyer or two.

My own lawyer sits right next to me, not apart from his client, as so many others do. His presence is as reassuring as his twenty years of friendship have been. That we are here together is testament to my stubborn belief that we all belong to one another in this life, and that our chosen family matters, too.

It’s mostly estates we hear brought before the judge–decisions to be made about a person’s physical effects and financial property, all that’s left of someone’s father or brother or mother or daughter or lover, as if the soul never mattered most after all. Probate court sounds so clinical–but what you’re really talking about is people’s legacies. And often that’s about, as we are there for, making the best decisions possible for the financial futures of children who have lost a parent or caregiver.

One case before ours got to me, tears pricking behind my eyes as I heard the judge ask, “Where is the father?” and the lawyer equivocated, “He’s…at-large,” only to have the mother, his client, chime in with the truth, “He’s on the run, sir. That’s what he means. He’s a fugitive.” And I think how grateful I am not to be saying that, even though my own presence in the room indicates that life hasn’t turned out like I’d planned either (Does it really, for any of us?). Such is the reality of imperfect dreams.

Smoke rises up from the jacket in front of me, and I shift, uncomfortably, at the smell, instinctively shrinking from it, as I wish I could from all the harsh reality around us.

It’s easy to judge. Easy to say, “How did she get there?” or “How did he let that happen?” as cases are presented, easy to want to say, “Oh, that’s not me…my story’s different,” but the truth is that the unexpected can happen to anyone and life can be brutal. In spades. And some of us are luckier than others.

A dark-skinned woman with gorgeous chocolate eyes taps me on the shoulder, whispering in broken English a question.

“Is this right room?” I think I hear her say and I nod, after checking with my lawyer to be sure. Truth is I hadn’t noticed what room we were in. Not until she asked. She is alone, a young son with her. And I am reminded that I am not alone; and, that even if I were, somehow, it would be okay. Because I am not in the room for me. I am here for my daughter, doing my best to shield her from the heartache she has too early and too painfully known.

For her I can do anything; and every day, including this one, I’m seeking space for her to learn a new hope, to dream new dreams. And this means I can stand tall as we approach the bench and say, with a truly grateful heart to a truly kind judge, “Thank you, sir,” as he affirms decisions and signs his support.

And then we exit–quietly, quickly, and it feels like maybe I can breathe again. Courtrooms are always hard. Because in them is often the worst and best of humanity nestled right up next to each other. And I breathe a prayer of thanksgiving for my own village and hope desperately for those still inside. That they’ve got someone in their corner. Someone or something to fight for. Some pure grace like my Curly Girl to remind them that yes, life is brutal. But oh my…it is also beautiful. And so very full of goodness.

We are all our very worst and very best. We are all vulnerable to brokenness. We are all made of the potential for good and evil both. Still, we are loved. Fiercely. No matter what. And this truth makes it possible to face what is worst about us and then strive towards what is best. I’ve no idea what it is about Courtroom #310 that helps me see this–but for the humility and grace of it both, I am, somehow, surprisingly, thankful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering the Future

The most painful state of being is remembering the future. (Soren Kierkegaard)

The words literally took my breath way. Popped out of the character’s mouth in the TV show I was watching, and knifed into my heart with such urgency that I tapped the screen’s “pause” icon and stopped, speaking the words aloud and letting them sort of settle into me.

The most painful state of being is remembering the future. 

And I immediately, that proverbial light bulb burning with sudden brilliance in my head, understood why it is that a treasured pastor of mine says “Julie, sometimes, the hardest thing there ever is to grieve is a dream.”

Because to remember the future is to realize that what we thought would be has not, in fact, been. Not at all. 

A dream lost. A dream destroyed.  A dream broken apart by forces seen and unseen. A dream of what could have been–what you’d hoped, planned and prayed for–shattered on the kitchen floor like a wine glass that has slipped through your fingers, the pieces flung far and wide and sometimes not to be really found or uncovered until we least expect it, when some tiny shard pricks at us until the ache feels fresh again. Like it was just yesterday that it all fell apart and you wondered how in the world the sun could ever have the tenacity to rise the next morning in the midst of all the darkness.

Broken dreams burrow inside our souls, taking up residency with the same insistency the dream did to begin with, when it was whole and happy and not some jacked up version of what we’d imagined for our lives. Whether it’s a lost relationship or lost innocence or a lost career or a loved one’s death or departure–these things knock us off our game, bruise our hearts beyond recognition, and leave us asking “What’s next?” with the desperation born of tremendous sorrow and gripping fear.

Broken dreams are capable of destroying us. This I know is true. And so to remember the future is to stare in the face that which could, if we let it, rip us apart. And this is terrifying.

And when a person is in the depths of grieving a broken dream, there is no telling her the very real truth that it will, one day, be okay again. That she will, in fact, survive. You can say these things. You can believe them with all your heart. And she might even want you to say them. But that does not mean she can believe them. Not yet, anyway.

Not quite yet.

I always say there is so much I don’t know. And that’s true. But I do know this: that it is possible for a broken dream, even as it pains you to the core of your being, to end up being the very thing that makes way for something new. Something previously unimagined. Something you’d long ago given up on. Something you never thought could be.

I know that it is possible to rise up from the shards scattered on the kitchen floor and claim space for a new dream to be made known…to be born.

I know, too, that the old dream, the one that has been left dashed against the hopes you once had, never to be made real after all, is one that you never quite let go of. You always will remember what might have been. You always will remember the future. And every time, it will cause your heart to twist…though if you’re very, very lucky, the twisting becomes less fierce, less tight, less painful as the years pass and you learn what it is to laugh again. Breathe again. Live again.

There is no erasing the things that have broken our dreams. There is only seeing what can be made of them, what might be salvaged from the wreckage and crafted into hope or joy or peace, such that we’re able to stand on both feet, proud of where we’ve been because it has made us who we are.

“The most painful state of being is remembering the future.” Kierkegaard’s mic drop if there ever was. But also a signal that not all is lost. That perhaps in the remembering we’ll also be reminded of what new things are now possible, what new promises might be made, and what new hopes might be able to pull us into whatever is out there, calling for us, beckoning us to please come home, to please find safe harbor in the midst of what has almost undone us and, then, finally, rest in the grace that has held us safe the whole way through, and that will go with us always.

Through whatever darkness may come. And into whatever light is waiting.