Righting the Course

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under re-construction.

We knew that we were stepping into change –my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have the answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68

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It’s About Time

Time. We have just enough time.

It never feels like it.

When I was a little girl, I couldn’t believe how much time I had. What was I supposed to do with three months of summer? No school, no homework, no obligations whatsoever. What should I do with all the hours of a Saturday and not a plan on the horizon? Why did it take so long to get from Thanksgiving to Christmas and from my birthday to summer vacation. Passing of time seemed to take so long.

As an adult, I never think I have enough. How will I fit cooking, laundry, and housework into a week that is already crowded with work, let alone find time for friends, family, and self-care? How will I be ready in time for a vacation or the holidays or the family that is coming to visit? When will I have the time?

I have it right now. I already have all the time I am ever going to have. It’s right here. I’m spending it as we speak. I’m trading in my minutes for an opportunity to put words on the page in the hope that they will reveal what’s been trying to surface from beneath layers and layers of doing.

Earlier today I spent some of my minutes paying bills, reading, doing yoga, and taking a shower. I’m sorry to admit that I also spent some of my minutes in rage at an inconvenience — an unexpected interruption to my day. And then I spent more minutes, possibly even an hour, dwelling in the emotion that the rage unleashed — sorrow, regret, and deep hurt.

I had plenty of time for all of it…because I have plenty of time.

We have plenty of time.

Sometimes I believe a series of lies — I have no time, I have so little time, I’m running out of time, or I’ll never have the time. But the truth is, time is the most abundant resource I have. One of the few knowns in human life is the fact of twenty-four hours each day. We each get the same amount, and we often get to choose how we spend it.

Now, I can’t deny that some choices are more malleable than others. We all typically feel obligated to spend large chunks of our days on some form of work or schooling or other endeavors that support our lives — earning money, buying and preparing food, caring for our homes and vehicles, and attending to the needs of those who are in our care. And some of us, through circumstance, or health, or position have much less say over how we spend our moments and hours and days.

However, many of us have liberty with significant blocks of time. In our culture of privilege, many of us have the luxury of spending hours scrolling through social media, playing games, watching television, or shopping. I must admit that in the past few weeks I have spent many hours watching college basketball — and I have loved spending my time this way. (Especially now that my Spartans are in the Final Four!)

I know many people who use what ever spare moments they have to explore creativity, to invest in education, to be entrepreneurial, or to serve others — family, friends, and even complete strangers. And some people try to do it all.

The pattern of my adult life has been to frantically cram as much activity into each hour as possible. I often blame this habit on the demands of our busy life in St. Louis — my husband in seminary and starting a new ministry, me working as a teacher/administrator, both of us raising three school-aged children. Yes, we had plenty to do, but we also had plenty of time. I didn’t believe it at the time, but after much reflection (both on this blog an away from it), I now believe that I chose to make myself busier than I needed to be. I crammed more activity and more stress into those days than was necessary. I had options for how to use my time.

I could’ve delegated more tasks, especially to our children. I could’ve let some things go, particularly housework, television, and my desire to make it look like I had it all together. I could’ve been more present, more flexible, more conscious of the ability to call an audible.

But what I’ve found in these less hectic, less demanding days of the empty nest, is that I still feel that urge to fill my minutes — with busy-ness, with usefulness, with any activity that will keep me from being still. I think deep in my core I am afraid of facing what will bubble to the surface when I finally stop churning out activity. So rather than face it, I just keep busy.

Did you know that years can go by before you finally sit still long enough to examine all the feelings you’ve suppressed by filling up your minutes and hours?

And do you know what happens when you finally do? You realize that you had a lot more time than you were aware of and that you could have been spending it much differently. You could’ve processed those feelings when they were happening, changed the way you viewed life, and interacted more with the people around you. If you’d slowed down in some of your moments, you might’ve lived differently. You might have made different choices. You might have seen more and felt more.

You might have realized before now that you have all the time in the world.

But you’ve realized it now. So sit down, breathe, and reflect. Write it all down if it helps. See a therapist. Change some patterns. Begin to live differently.

It’s safe. You have the time.

So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12

Calling an Audible

I was standing in our son’s kitchen Sunday morning, two granddaughters moving around between us. Just chatting, I said, “I have about four things on my checklist for tomorrow, and you know how when you order at a restaurant thinking, ‘I can definitely eat all that,’ and then having eaten only half, you realize that your eyes were bigger than your stomach? Well, I think my plan for tomorrow might be bigger than my stamina. I want to do it all, but I don’t know if I’ll have the steam. I get so attached to my list; I need to find a way to adapt in the middle of it.”

Very matter of factly, my son said, “It’s hard being comfortable calling an audible.”

And that little phrase has been echoing in my head all week.

The day that we were talking about, Monday of this week, my husband and I planned to get up early and drive a few hours so that we could be present for a family member’s surgery. He was going to stay with that family member for the week, and I wanted to drive home stopping once to visit an aunt and uncle, another time to pick up a gift, and a third time to attend a going away party for a coworker. It was going to be a long day packed with things that I really wanted to do, each of which had the potential to use up my energy. I had to admit from the start that I might not be able to do it all. I had to prepare myself to ‘call an audible’.

This is not easy for me. Remember me? the one who does all the things? After all these years and all this writing, I still hate to admit that I have limits, but I do. I need to get comfortable calling an audible.

A quarterback or coach, my son told me, calls an audible when he recognizes that the defense is set up to stop a play or that the conditions aren’t favorable for success. Seeing that his initial plan is not going to work, he calls an alternate plan right in the moment.

Why is that so hard for me?

I think in my soldiering years I became rigid — inflexible — because I was trying to pack so much into every moment in order to get every detail managed; I didn’t leave myself any margin for an alternate plan. If I had three hours to get groceries, swing by the dry cleaner, and get the dog to the vet, ALL of those things had to happen in that window or they just wouldn’t happen. I didn’t have another three hours in that week, so I set my focus, gripped the steering wheel, and got moving. I got it done, dammit.

I got it done, but not without damaging my body and my psyche and not without missing countless opportunities. I was moving with purpose leaving no margin for chance encounters, incidental conversations, or calling audibles.

What I didn’t realize was that it is in the moments that we don’t put in our plan where we often find the gold.

On Monday, in the midst of my checklist, two sisters-in-law and one brother-in-law arrived at the hospital for the surgery, too. We weren’t planning on seeing them — what a treat! The surgery was cancelled so we got to go out to a family lunch — what a surprise! My husband didn’t end up staying with the family member for the entire week, so we got to ride home together! A friend from three decades ago called me on the phone right before the party, and I got to take a few minutes to hear her voice, share some stories, and laugh! None of this had been part of my plan!

All the success of the day, all the stuff I will remember, all the interactions that mattered were born out of audibles. The day didn’t match my original plan — it was much richer than I had expected.

I have long struggled with mid-stream changes. When things haven’t gone according to plan, I have tried to cope, begrudgingly huffing and puffing all the while, but I have often missed the gold because I have not been comfortable calling an audible.

Coaches and players get comfortable with audibles, according to our son, when they get very good at recognizing and diagnosing situations and when they know the playbook and all the backup/alternate plays that might work well in given situations. They anticipate that things won’t always go according to plan, so they imagine alternatives in advance.

That’s what I did this week. We got in the car on Monday morning and I thought to myself and spoke out loud — “I have these four things I would like to do today, but I am going to see how it goes and adapt as needed.” Simply taking this one step, I was able imagine a variety of outcomes. I didn’t paint a full picture of the day in my mind, but I left the canvas mostly blank with just a few light pencil lines sketching out the plan.

This one shift left me in a position to adapt. I was able to recognize when the day wasn’t going according to plan and to change my mental direction in the moment. I wasn’t disappointed that the surgery was cancelled but was able to be compassionate and understanding. I wasn’t in a hurry to leave lunch to go visit my aunt and uncle, but could sit in the moment and enjoy the conversation. When we discovered we had plenty of time to drop by unexpectedly, we were pleasantly surprised to find my aunt and uncle together and available for a visit. After a leisurely visit with them, we were able to take the time to browse and find the gifts I was looking for, receive the call from my long-lost friend, and still get to the party on time! And, the biggest unexpected bonus was that my husband and I were able to spend the day and the rest of the week together.

All of that adapting had felt pretty comfortable. It’s a new way for me, this being flexible, but I am thankful to have had the practice this week when the stakes were low so that I might be be more comfortable calling audibles in the future.

Because let’s be honest, things rarely go according to our own plans.

In their hearts humans plan their course,
    but the Lord establishes their steps.

Proverbs 16:9

Hey, Thanks

A year ago, my husband and I were at the beginning of a season of difficulty. We were experiencing impact from past trauma which was affecting our emotions, our health, our faith, and our finances. Each day, it seemed, revealed new levels of despair, and we felt powerless. So what did we do?

Well, we cried a lot. We sought counsel — pastoral and professional. We prayed — “in groans that words cannot express.” We enlisted a trusted group of prayer warriors — confidants in arms. We made tough decisions. And we watched hours and hours of The Great British Baking Show — no joke, that show was one of the best choices we made last year. So much pleasantry and punniness — you can’t not feel lighter after having watched it.

And yet no quick rescue came.

Instead, month after month we continued — in counsel, in prayer, in judicious adherence to the decisions we had made, and in periodic detachment from reality by way of Brits engaged in a battle of the bake.

And slowly, over time, we began to experience restoration.

I’m reflecting because some friends invited me away this past weekend to engage in some restorative practices. It seems we’re all always walking in brokenness, and sometimes a pause can allow for healing.

We ate great food and talked and laughed. We did yoga together. And then one friend pulled out presentation boards and a pile of magazines, scissors, glue, and markers — she had provided a project. Our goals were broad — to find words and images that could express who we are, where we have come from, or where we are hoping to go.

We sat at a large oval table in front of a window overlooking a frozen lake, quietly flipping through pages, clipping out words and images, and arranging and re-arranging them on our boards. Pandora was playing Lauren Daigle and Corey Asbury, and voices could be heard humming or singing along. We occasionally commented on what we were doing, but mostly we were focused and quiet.

After we had each gathered a pile of clippings, we began the process of arranging them on our boards.

the process

As I experimented with layering images, I discovered themes emerging. I began reflecting on the past year and how our difficulty had led to so. much. healing. One section of my board captures my continued physical healing with images of tea and yoga and aromatic flowers and fruits. Another reflects on the transformation of my spiritual life — praying hands, a solitary walk, and ‘searching the scriptures’. A roll of dollar bills sits on a plate near the words “Reset your expectations” and “God Provides” signifying financial healing.

I was surprised by the number of flowers on my board, particularly after such a long year of grief wherein I cared little about what I wore or how my hair looked, let alone the adornment of jewelry or flowers. But as each bloom grabbed my eye — roses, wildflowers, hibiscus, and lilacs — I tore and clipped. I lavished my board with flowers. I couldn’t seem to get enough, because, guys, I’m not mourning any more. I’m celebrating. I’m thankful.

As I arranged words and images on my board, I was overwhelmed with thanks — for physical healing over the last several years, for spiritual healing in the past several months, and for newly discovered financial healing.

I heard Pastor Brian Wolfmueller say recently that when we give thanks, we “shift our view from doing to reviewing.” That’s what this process of clipping and arranging was for me — an exercise in reviewing.

A long Margaret Townsend quote about the importance of breath sits in the lower right corner near a box of tissues, a hand, and a photo of my husband and me taken at the height of last year’s difficulty. We’re smiling in the photo, but I can assure you that tissues were not far away. I am thankful for this photo because it shows that despite the fact that we were desperate for most of last year, we were committed to being desperate together. In the midst of trauma, our marriage bond was strengthened. We learned the importance of breathing through difficult situations and sitting in them together. One of the reasons that we were able to grow through these very difficult circumstances was the support of loving friends who continually made their presence known in very tangible but unobtrusive ways. They were compassionate rather than judgmental. They loved us when we were hurting.

And I guess that leads me to the last set of images. Our story of unspoken broken is centered in a city. Most of our trauma happened there, so you would think we would want to run from all things urban, but the opposite is true. Although we are safely nestled in a little house on an idyllic little campus, in a cushioned community, our hearts continue to lean toward the city.

Just before Christmas, we traveled to Detroit. We hopped off the highway to get a view of the neighborhoods — to see the brokenness and abandonment and to witness the opportunity for transformation. As I was paging through magazines this weekend, I found images of Detroit and I couldn’t turn past them. We love our life in Ann Arbor — our church, our friends, our jobs. We have experienced so much healing here and are so thankful for all the opportunities we have been given. I don’t know why I was drawn to this photo, but I put the city in the center of my board. It seems to belong there.

finished product

When we were all finished creating, we each retreated to privacy — to soak in a tub, or nap, or write — and then we gathered again. As one-by-one we shared our boards and what we had discovered, I was reminded of one more thing to be thankful for — the community that surrounds me, supports me, weeps with me, and celebrates with me.

I am so, so, thankful. And the words of Pastor Wolfmueller remind me that I can sit here and be thankful to the One who is making all things new. I can review the blessings for a bit. I can focus on what what’s next some other day.

 I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.

Psalm 9:1

Narrative threads

In Michigan this year, winter had stamina.  It seemed to begin way back in October and continue halfway through April. The temperatures were low, the snow banks were high, the skies were gray, and all felt bleak.

My daughter once informed me, after I had been an English teacher for well over a decade, that when nature imitates the mood of the story, literary critics refer to the phenomenon as pathetic fallacy.  

We see it all the time in literature and movies: rain falls during funerals, the sun shines on parades, lightning flashes and thunder claps as the evil villain hatches his plan.  Writers use the setting of a story to create mood and to signal for readers how they might feel about the action of the narrative.

Sometimes it seems to happen in real life, too.

As the winter wore on this year in all its bleakness, and as circumstances in the narrative of my life unfolded, I took my signal from nature and wrapped myself in gray.  I didn’t see any buds on trees, any new growth in my garden, or any other signals from nature that I should hope.  I saw the earth hunkering down under the weighty blanket of snow, and I hunkered, too.  I wrapped myself in crocheted afghans, drank cup after cup of tea, and waited for the earth’s axis to tilt once again toward the sun.

Some moments, I didn’t believe it would. I felt we were stuck in winter forever. Storm after storm raged. Winds blew. Temperatures dropped. The world outside was harsh and unforgiving.  I had no reason to believe that we would ever again see tulips sprout from the earth.

I didn’t, of course, spend the whole winter under covers. I did what everyone who lives in the north does in the winter. I slathered my body in moisturizers, layered on clothing, pulled on boots, hat, gloves, and coat, and trudged into the elements. Day after day after long, cold, dismal day, I drove over slushy roads, stepped in salty puddles, and scraped icy windshields. The cold gray weather was both real and symbolic.

The problem with pathetic fallacy — with letting the setting signal the mood — is that you can lose your frame of reference. All winter I was shrouded in gray, so all of the action in my narrative seemed to take on that hue. Now, to be honest, my life narrative is cluttered at the moment with conflict and unresolved tension. Villains too numerous to list are executing evil plans and threatening to harm those that I love. However, in the midst of the gray of winter, I failed to see that simultaneously, a parallel plot is unfolding — one in which battles are fought and won, victory parades are held, and loved ones are reunited.

All. is. not. gray.

It’s been hard to see that — what with winter lasting so long. It’s been easy to fall for the fallacy — the mistaken belief — that all of life is cold, dark, dormant.  In fact, I have over the last several months been pathetic — filled with all kinds of emotion. I have leaned in and felt things that I have not allowed myself to feel for a very long time.  I have cried and yelled and moaned because I have looked fully at one strand of the narrative. I’m not sorry; I needed to see it. But guys, winter is gone.

I have a rhubarb plant outside my back door that peeked through the soil on my birthday at the end of March. Since then, it’s been slammed with winter weather — snow, sleet, wind, and rain — and still it is thriving.  My garden is a bed of weeds, my yard is a mole metropolis that is sorely in need of raking and mowing, but the sun is shining, and all I can look at is that rhubarb.

The villains haven’t dropped their weapons, the conflicts have not all been resolved, but one stubborn plant that pushed its way through frozen ground way before winter had subsided reminds me that there is more than one thread in my narrative.  I have reason to bake pie, to plant seeds, and to fold up my afghans.

Earlier this week when I arrived home from work, my husband said, “Before you sit down, go look at the patio.” I knew before I looked what I would find — the adirondack chairs that my father-in-law made for us years ago had been put out after their long winter inside.

He had seen it, too: the sunshine, the rhubarb, the reason to hope.  So hope we will, as we sit on our patio, faces tilted toward the sun, and let this season have a chance to direct our feelings about our narrative.

Psalm 27:13

I am confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

 

 

Bits of Truth

Words matter so much to me.  I realize this is pretty obvious: I do put a couple thousand on this page every week, and my chosen profession requires me to use tens of thousands  every day. Yeah, I love words; I’m drawn to them.

I typically read several hundred pages of fiction and/or non-fiction every week, and when I see words arranged in a way that resonates with me, I use my iphone to snap photos of them. Also, whenever I gather with two or more, I arrive with a notebook and a pen, prepared to write down the meaningful and the trivial.  I scratch out notes at work, at church, and in my small group.

I spend my life surrounded by words, and I tend to horde them. As I was making my way to this space today, I grabbed a couple scraps of paper from my desk, my phone, a notebook crammed with sermon notes, a book I’m reading, and my laptop.  What do these items have in common?  They all contain words that I have gathered from one place or another and carried home with me. One bit of paper travelled all the way from my trip to St. Louis last November. Another is from a visit to Cincinnati about a month ago.  My shoes and toothbrush might not have made it home, but these scraps of paper not only survived the trip, they have remained on top of my desk through several frantic clutter-clearing purges.

What could they possibly say that would validate my gripping them so tightly?

The one from November, which I scribbled while sitting in church with dear friends, says “I can have hope that He will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.”

The paper I shoved in my pocket after church last month in Cincinnati says,  “Lord, if you don’t do something here, we are in trouble.”

In my notes from our small group Bible study I find, “This life is unsettled and incomplete,” and “hope wins.”

Last night, I started Jodi Picoult’s small great things.  I opened the cover and read these words from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

Pithy phrases all.  Concise.  Succinct.  Power-packed.

Why do I store these clusters of words?

Because in the emotional haze in which I have been existing, I wander around searching for beacons of truth. And, for me, truth is usually found in print.  I don’t write down every word I see, but when I see words that speak truth, I capture them. I hold them.  I carry them around.

Here’s why. Emotions are powerful.  They are expressions of deep feelings that need to be experienced, but they don’t always tell the truth.  My emotions tell me that all is lost, that hope has died, that everything counts on me, that I’m the only one with problems, and that none of this will ever work out.  I weep on my bed and get so carried away by my tears that I never want to stand up again.  Overwhelmed with sorrow, I reach out my hand and grab something to read to quiet myself.  Without fail, I find some shred of truth that breaks through my exaggerating and misled emotions.

I find myself speaking out loud:

All is not lost; God will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.

Everything does not count on me; Jesus is doing something here.

I am certainly not the only one with problems — despite what social media wants me to believe — but my only chance at working through the problems I have is to face them.

All of this will work out. Sure, life is unsettled, but hope wins.

My pulse slows.  My breathing returns to regularity. I close my eyes and move toward sleep.

Yes, I feel dark things still — anger, sadness, grief, and pain.  These feelings are valid,  and I will quash them no longer.  I will sit with them.  I will feel them.  And, I will speak truth to them.  I will not be overcome.

John 16:33

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

 

 

 

 

Feel This

Barbara Brown Taylor, in Learning to Walk in the Dark, asks “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them?  What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going?  Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happens next?”

Gasp. Trust my feelings?  That is not one of my internal constructs.

I received the message very early that I was supposed to control my emotions, not trust them.   I’ve often been told that I laugh too loudly, cry too easily, and “wear my emotions on my sleeve.”  Although many have tried to encourage me to rein in my feelings, I’m starting to understand that I have been designed to feel fully and express loudly.

My great grandmother, bless her heart and rest her soul, was possibly the first to encourage me to tame my emotions. She was of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality that had enabled her to marry a widower, raise his daughter plus one of her own, run a household, and remain financially stable even when she herself became a widow at a fairly early age.  I loved being around her.  She was a feisty woman with a sparkle in her eye who always welcomed me into her life of baseball games, crocheting, gardening, and baking. She seemed to be at the center of  family gatherings where over twenty of us would eat, tell stories, laugh, and play. Often, near the end of these get-togethers with all the people I loved, I would become tired and sad. Most people in my family just accepted the reality of going home; they grabbed their things, piled into cars, and left.  Me? I bawled. I sobbed. I ugly cried.  Ill-equipped to handle such unbridled expression, my great grandmother tried shame: “Stop that crying, do you want people to see you looking like that?  What if I took a picture of your face right now?”  Those words still sting, but because they came from a woman I loved and admired, I tried to learn how to hold in my tears and behave like the rest of my more reserved family.

That didn’t go well.  Sadness turned in, in my experience, becomes anger.  I can be found in many family photos glaring into the camera lens, because dammit, if I can’t cry, I’m at least gonna be pissed.  And pissed I was.

When my parents divorced, my three siblings seemed to deal with their grief in much quieter ways.  I don’t remember them yelling the questions I yelled, or crying the tears that I cried.  Nor do I recall them throwing things at my stepfather across the kitchen table and stomping out the door to ‘run away’ over and over again.

My middle school memories include scenes of me sobbing in the hallway, yelling at classmates, and getting made fun of for my extra-obnoxious laugh. The reactions of students and teachers to my emotional expression gave me one consistent message — you’re too loud! Calm down!  So, I attempted to calm myself and to soothe my hurts.

How does a preteen do that?  Hours and hours of television, libraries full of books, pounds of potato chips and dip, sodas by the million, and retreats into my room to listen to music and write.

I also tried creative elaboration (lying), academic achievement (perfectionism), and subtle coercion of my friends and classmates (bullying).  None of these strategies had the lasting effect of quieting me; they merely added more emotions — shame, pride, guilt — to the pile that I was already trying not to express.

All was not terrible, of course.  I had friends with staying power and a family who loved me in spite of my emotionality. I was successful in school and well-connected at church. Nevertheless, my feelings were always simmering right at the surface.

High school, in my memory, was a blur of exploring the emotional spectrum.  I felt everything — anger, sadness, joy, love, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy, pride, fear.  Those four years were a wild ride that involved laughing with friends, glaring at teachers, perfecting the art of sarcasm, breaking rules, being ashamed, and lashing out.  Even in the emotional hotbed of adolescence — I stood out.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was voted “moodiest” by my classmates –a designation memorialized in my high school year book.

The transition to college allowed me an opportunity to be different — to be less emotional.  I think I tried, but by the end of freshman year, my coping mechanism of eating had packed on some pounds, and my fear of “getting fat” caused an overcorrection that became an eating disorder. I turned my focus to restrictive eating to control my weight, and devoid of emotion, I moved through my routine, barely interacting with the people in front of me, and deeming each day a win or a loss on the basis of my total calorie count and the number on the scale.

I may have finally controlled my emotions, but they remained, lurking deep beneath the surface.  I was terribly sad, but I didn’t cry.  I just soldiered on until I collapsed, gasping for breath.

That was over thirty years ago.

Therapy and maturity have healed some hurts, and I have, of course, learned how to more appropriately manage my emotions.  I was certainly going to get it right with my own children.  I was going to let them feel what they felt — cry their tears and laugh their laughs. My intentions were good, but life gets complicated, and when it does, we fall back on old faithful patterns.  Surely my children watched me hold back tears; they saw me swallow anger and soldier through difficulty. Despite my best efforts, my estranged relationship with my emotions has had an impact on the people who have shared a home and a life with me.  How could it not?

So when I consider Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘what if’ question, I’m challenged to try a new strategy.  She offers me an opportunity to feel what I am feeling, to lean in and explore sadness, regret, grief, and anger.

These are not pleasant feelings, but I’m learning that they must be felt.  They don’t go away.  If I paste on a smile, square my shoulders, and strengthen my resolve, I am only delaying the inevitable.  And the inevitable eventually shows up at the front door with a summons, refusing to go away until you get in the car and ride to the place where you face all of your realities.

So now when I wake up in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, franticly worrying over things that were or might be, I don’t wish myself back to sleep.  I lie still for a while, looking my feelings straight in the face, and after a while of sitting with these strangers, I get out of bed, come to the keys, and write.  Of all the strategies I have tried over the years, this is the one that allows me to tap deep into the well of feelings that have been locked deep inside, under armor and facades and lies.

Here, I tell the truth, and the truth is: I am hurting.

I am so sad. I have lost so much. And finally, I am going to cry.

It might be loud.  It might be messy.  I might attract attention.

I’m ok with that.

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who needs permission to weep. I’m not the only one who needs a chance to be surprised by what happens next.

Ecclesiastes 3:4

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;