The best of us.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

–Abraham Lincoln

****

About an hour from Louisville is Hodgenville, KY. Population 3000ish. It may well be known for many things, but it is for sure known for being the birthplace of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

My daughter’s school is named for Lincoln, and every year they make a big deal of this president’s birthday, usually hosting a local (and very convincing!) Lincoln impersonator and in general making a big deal of their namesake.

This year, they went all out–and decided to attempt to break the current Guinness Book of World Records record for the number of people dressed as Lincoln in one place.

Yes. You read that correctly. Charming and oh-so geeky, yes? I love it.

The previous official record was 250ish. The unofficial count yesterday–because such things do have to be verified–was 550ish. I’ll let you imagine 500 kids and their teachers outfitted in all black with paper beards and top hats, situated in the school gym while stewards counted and general fun was had.

I got the full play-by-play after the fact, and as CG rattled off the events of the day, I asked, “So, what did you learn about President Lincoln?” And without batting an eye she told me what she knew about the man, some of which I’d had no clue about. When she was done, I asked, “Know what my favorite thing about Lincoln is?”

And I told her about Lincoln’s deep desire and fervent conviction that in a country torn apart by battling ideologies and war, our better angels would prevail.

And then I asked, “Do you know what prevail means?”

And she said, “Yep. It means he wanted the good parts of us to win.”

I’ll let you imagine my jaw drop and the prick of tears against my eyelids. Because…holy hell, she had it right. Exactly right.

He wanted the good parts of us to win.

Y’all, how I am dying for the good parts of us to win. “I can’t, I  literally just can’t,” I said to one dear to me last night, both of us smiling over Valentine’s Day revelry while also staring stunned at the smart phone screens telling us more children had died at the hands of gun violence.

I want the good parts of us to win. The parts that recognize that in each of us is this God-shaped hole, just desperate to be filled with love and belonging and wholeness. The parts that recognize we bleed the same blood. The parts that recognize that–by and large–we’re after the same things: safe places for our children to grow into their full potential as human beings, places where fear is replaced by the confidence that they are loved.

We are, of course, screaming at each other via social media again. Because this is our poor excuse for public discourse in 2018. We formulate our hot takes and point our fingers and cast blame and rage at anyone who disagrees with our particular view…. And meanwhile we live in a world where teenagers are so angry and sad and lost that shooting up their classmates with too-accessible assault rifles almost weekly news.

And it breaks my heart. Because the din of our division and fear and anger is no place for real solutions, real action, real peace to emerge. The stage of our rage at each other is no place for our children to learn what it means to be community. 

I recently binge-watched (for real–BINGE!) the series Hell on Wheels on Netflix, the story of a Confederate soldier and former slaveowner Cullen Bohannon, who, post war, and having lost everything, heads west to avenge his wife’s death, and finds himself working on the railroad. Get yourself to Netflix right now if you’ve missed it. It is raw. Gut-wrenching. Heart-breaking. But it also often gets right to the issues of what it means for competing world views and different life experiences to somehow make a new start together. As evidenced by Cullen’s deep friendship with a former slave, Elam. It is a rocky relationship, but it’s real. And honest. And is a vivid portrayal of how we find the bits of humanity in one another, and are then able to put our feet in the same direction and walk towards some sense of hope for a future we can’t name quite yet, but are determined to live into.

Y’all. We need to heed our better angels. With all we’ve got. I’m not entirely sure how we get to a point where those angels are our first and best guide, but I suspect there are two key things that have to happen. We’re going to have to 1) Listen first. and 2) Refrain from demonizing those who do not agree with us.

Look, I’m mad and sad as hell that our children are dying. And I have to repeat my own words, that I do not have time for fear, every damn morning that I take my precious daughter to school. Do not mistake my insistence on finding the humanity in one another, in asking for us to set aside our rage for some kind of cooperative effort, as my having settled. Or having been desensitized.

I’m mad and sad as hell.

But I also believe, with all that I am, that overcoming our inability to walk into some sort of No Man’s Land of this social-media driven battlefield we find ourselves in and find some common ground is going to take more guts, more grit, than we have ever known. It will take looking each other in the eye and saying, “I want my kids safe. You want yours safe. How can we do this together?” It will take naming again our values and listening for where our values are the same, even if by a slim margin, and building on that bit of sameness. It will take ceasing to attack and then seeking to heal. It will take laying off the snark and really talking to one another.

Y’all, I get it. We’re scared. All of us. And this is a mighty, complex and terrifying reality, this national crisis we’re in. But for the love of all that is holy, for the love of our beautiful children, we have got to find a better way.

Meanwhile, I’m praying fiercely this morning for Maddy.

And for Ruby and Gabriel. And for Livy and Ethan. And for Ellen and Sarah. And for Anna and Evan. And for Tedi and Chernet. And Madeline. And Dereon. And Graham and Ethan. And Grace and John. And Beckett and Jett. And every other kid I know and love, and their moms and dads, who I know, like me, will have to summon some extra courage to let them walk in the school building this morning.

Better angels. Better angels. Better angels.

The good parts of us. The good parts of us. The good parts of us.

May we find, somehow, a way for these things to prevail.

May it be so.

****

PS–Shoutout, as always, to Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School, for being a place that teaches kids first, and always, to take care of each other. They are family. And we are grateful.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The shape of tears.

I came across a story this week about an United States Army chaplain in World War II, who somewhere along his travels through Europe during that war, began to collect pieces of stained glass from bombed out churches. Years later, he had those pieces of glass fashioned into new stained glass windows. He wanted something beautiful and peaceful to come from the destruction he had seen. And so…the windows. “Peace Windows,” he called them.

It reminded me of some brilliant words from the ever-wise Glennon Doyle I read this week, “You can be shattered, and then you can put yourself back together piece by piece.” She goes on to write about while we’re putting ourselves back together, we discover that we’re being formed into something new–a new shape, a new size, a new way of being. “You’ll be whole again. You’ll just be a new shape. And that, my friends – is the whole point of breaking.”

The whole point of breaking….

Breaking (and I’m speaking here of the emotional/mental/soulful sort) is painful. Sometimes excruciatingly so. And we generally go to great lengths to avoid it. Even if it means exacting our pain onto someone else or some other situation, just so we don’t have to fully experience it ourselves. But it’s like when you knock a wine glass off the kitchen counter and it lands, shattering, on the kitchen floor–once the fall has begun, the inevitable result is the shattering.

I’m a weeper–always have been, always will be. I cry over movies, over sweet commercials, over amazing things my daughter says, over precious memories or thoughtful gifts. I cry when I’m filled with joy, overwhelmed with beauty, or just inexplicably moved by a word or thought or deed. I am often a crier when I speak in public–because the things I’m saying mean so much to me that I can think of no other way to express it.

I have always suspected my tears are sometimes uncomfortable for those around me. Despite all evidence pointing to the necessity of tears, we still chalk them up as a sign of weakness in our culture. “Big girls don’t cry,” and all that.

This one does…though I’ve learned to curb it, control (#sortof #notreally #keepreading) the extent of it, over the years out of professional necessity, and a desire not to upset those around me.

What I can’t curb, can’t control, are tears of anger or sadness. And because I know I can’t control them, I generally attempt to push them back, tamp them down with everything I’ve got. If the flood gates open in these moments (and eventually, they always do), it’s an ugly cry all the way down and like most everyone else, I’d rather skip that part. Such vulnerability is hard. Exhausting. And it leaves you feeling like you’ve just set your heart loose to wander about without protection, even more subject than normal to bruising and breaking.

But here’s the thing–there’s all kinds of science about the healing power of tears. Of just freaking letting go. Letting it out. And I was reminded of that, too, this week. Someone I love reminded me that tears can sometimes help wash the pain away, or at least make way for something beautiful to come of it. Like an ancient river, maybe, that rushes across a landscape with such power and grace and force that it forms a canyon, a vast gaping space that then becomes a thing of beauty, something to behold with awe and wonder.

Mostly, I think, tears are a physical expression of letting go of that great illusion we have known as control. Control over those around us. Over our own emotions. Over our own lives. Control is, at best, a cruel joke, and those who don’t know that are either kidding themselves or are simply narcissists of the worst kind, believing they can manipulate everything around them to their own purposes.

If you’re really going to live at all, there is only leaning into this life–with all its joy and all its pain–and trusting that there is goodness in the journey, even when it’s hard to see.

There’s a time and a place for bucking up, buttercup. And I’m a big believer in the necessity of instilling that thing called “grit,” that is hard to define or qualify, but so essential, in our children and practicing it ourselves. Resilience matters, and sometimes you just have to do what needs doing. Even (and most especially) the hard things.

But I also believe that sometimes the greatest indication of our strength is our willingness to say, “I need help. I need you to be with me. I cannot do this alone.” And that can mean the all-important tears of letting go. Of simply letting the pain express itself, so it can do its work on our lives and lead us into the beauty that is possible on the other side of what we have experienced as destruction.

Look, avoiding the pain, whether by ignoring it or self-medicating, or masking it–it doesn’t work. I promise. And attempting to do so is only going to wreck your life or make you a miserable human being.

We were meant for so much more. And living fully into what it means to be human is to know both love and loss–each in their own way terrifying, life-altering, and beyond any shred of any supposed control.

Assume that pain will come, even as it takes our breath away when it does. But assume, too, that it was never meant to be shouldered alone. The unbearableness of it is not forever, even as it will never quite leave you. Follow it. Sit with it. Cry it out. Even better if you’re so wildly lucky as I am to have someone who can stand your ugly cry….

Something new is being formed by your tears. Maybe even something beautiful, that has never been before.

 

 

For Maddy (really, for all our kids)

Dear Maddy,

I’m sitting in a mostly empty and very large high school auditorium. I’m pretty comfortable in such places, because I spent a lot of my adolescence and young adult years in auditoriums–usually singing or acting, and, later, sometimes speaking.

This time, though, it’s you who needs to be here. I’m just a choir mom, squirreled away on the top left row, so far away I can barely pick out your topknot and hot pink headband among the other talented and eager 5th and 6th graders you are with. You all are the 2018 5th and 6th grade All-County Choir for Jefferson County, which means that all of you have a more than decent ability to put over a tune, and some of you will turn out to be quite, quite good. Some days I think you might be one of those…but, as my former teacher Harry says, “There is time enough for finding out how good she is, Julie…for now, the love of the music is enough.”

He’s smart, that Harry. Made me a better singer, and more importantly, helped me be a better human, and I hope your life story will hold at least one fine educator and mentor such as he. And you do love the music. Even the very hard musical work you are doing as part of this choir.

And I’m so glad for that–because if you are anything like your mama (and, for better or worse, you are), the music is sometimes going to save you. The full rich harmonies. The melodies that dig deep under your skin and remind you of something bigger than yourself. The lyrics that help you express joy or heartache. The hooks that catch you fast and firm and leave you seat-dancing in the car or with a spring in your step that wasn’t there before. The working until you sweat on a difficult piece, with a vocal small group or choir, so hard that you all feel like you might give up at any moment, and then, suddenly, it comes together, and…gold. Pure gold.

You all have such young and just-forming voices, and I’m so impressed with the way the director is coaching the very best out of you. She’s tough. And I can see the work wearing on you during breaks, but I can also see it giving you life. And this is what I am most excited about.

Especially today. 

The first thing you said to me when I picked you up from school was, “Mommy, we were supposed to have an intruder drill today. (long pause) But, we didn’t. And I don’t know why. They just didn’t do it.”

My first thought was the impulse to fight back the nausea I always feel when I hear “intruder drill.” Because honestly–what the absolute hell?

My second thought was, “I bet I know why you didn’t have that intruder drill. Because today, not far from here, in our beautiful Kentucky, there was (another) school shooting, and some kids are dead, and more are injured and everyone is scared and anxious, and by the time your school started that other shooting was already happening and already hitting the news and so it was not the day for a drill about such things. Not when it was real, unfolding as you went to your classroom and started your day.”

I did not say these things to you. To you, I simply and calmly said, “Well, I don’t know either baby, not for sure,” and you let it go.

And now here you are, singing–beautifully and hopefully–with a bunch of other kids and all is well.

Except it’s not, really. Because I join every parent of a school-aged child in the scared and anxious. Because any day, any time, it could be your school, and even as my fingers shake as I type that, I know the truth–your school, any school.

I know and love people who think gun control is the answer to the problem of mass shootings in this country–some who just want tighter restrictions, some who hate all guns, some who…gah! Never mind–it runs the gamut. I know and love people who think better mental health care is the answer. I know and love people for whom it is solely a political issue, and I know and love people for whom it is solely a moral issue.

For me, it is not entirely any of these things. It’s bigger than any of it. And it’s destroying so much. And I am sick to death of the constant arguing over which one it is instead of some sort of real and proactive and helpful conversation or solution. The loss of compromise, and constructive and compassionate discourse, in this country has made your mama’s heart hurt for quite a while now.

But all that aside, tonight I’m just a scared mama. Wishing I had answers. Fearing for the world I’ve delivered you to and what it might do to you. And then I think of what this world, this life, has already done to you and my heart breaks all the more. Because you are so lovely and so brave and so mighty…and you do not deserve what you’ve already known in your life.

And then I remember exactly how brave you really are. And how compassionate. And how insightful. And I hear you and your peers learning to sing better together and I think, “Breathe, Jules…all is not lost. Just like you always say…all is not lost.”

Earlier tonight, your director didn’t feel as if you and your peers were really giving it your all. “Y’all seem unsure,” she said, “like you don’t know if you’re supposed to sing. Like you might be scared to.”

And then she said, “Look, if you know the song, sing it. Loud. Just sing. We do not have time for you to be scared!”

My heart almost burst. “We do not have time for you to be scared!”

Damn if that’s not amazing vocal instruction. And even better life instruction. I mean, sure, a little healthy fear in the face of an icy road that leads to caution–that’s cool. But Maddy–otherwise? We do not have time for fear. 

We do not. We just have time to live. And to try to do that the best way we know how. With all the heartache that has been and that will be. With all the joy that has been and that will be. We just have time live.

Sing bravely, sweet girl. I know you can. Because you live so very bravely.

I’m so very proud of you. And think I’m the luckiest for getting to be YOUR mom.

Love,

Mama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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!)