Spiraling and Strolling: Moving through Grief

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Sometimes thoughts of the past can leave me sleepless. All of life has not been picture perfect, and images of brokenness can lead to pain that prevents sleep. For this reason, I often try to avoid lingering on the past, but the other night I intentionally strolled down Memory Lane for a little while. I looked at some old photos and replayed some old film. This is a new strategy for me.

For the past several years, moments of memory have come in unexpected flashes. I can be watching a television sitcom, for example, and see a mother and daughter share a glance or break into laughter. It seems like a benign — even fun — exchange, but it sparks a memory, and I am transported back 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years to a scene where, in a moment of frustration, I snapped at one of my children when I could’ve smiled or even laughed. Later, after the television has been turned off and the lights are out, instead of sleeping, I flail amid images of that moment and others like it swirling on a screen in my mind. Rather than a stroll down Memory Lane, it feels like a free fall between black walls covered in video screens replaying moments of regret, disappointment, and failure.

Once I am in this free fall, I can go for hours. I might see myself driving a carload of kids, for example — my shoulders tensed, trying to get them where they need to go, mentally working out return trips, meals, clothing, and bills. I can feel the stress of responsibility, of course, but mostly I feel sadness and regret — realizing now how brief the moments with our children were and wanting to get some of those moments back for a re-do.

Maybe this sounds familiar. Perhaps all of us mentally cycle through memories, wishing we could go back and redo some of the moments that fill us with regret.

In families like ours that have been impacted by trauma, this experience may be even more intense. Flashes of memory may feel like mini-traumas. In my case, the flashes from the past I see often induce not only regret but also shame for my role in what did and didn’t happen.

Since I’ve made a commitment to only tell my own story, I will stay cloudy on the details, but I have shared before in this blog that our family has been touched by crime, violence, and a season of extreme overwork wherein the stress level in our household could become volatile. While I take responsibility, rightfully, for some of that stress, my brain sometimes gets confused and tries to convince me that I am responsible for all of the trauma, too. It tries to show me moments just before and just after traumatic events and to accuse me of what I could’ve done to make things different. It shows me how I might’ve prevented pain or how I should have been more active in comforting, and it continually points an accusing finger at me, showing me piece after piece of evidence where I failed as a mother, as a wife, and as a friend.

I am transported, for example, to a moment on our front porch where I asked a question but didn’t notice a detail, where I heard a response that I shouldn’t have believed. I tell myself I should have looked more closely, should’ve questioned more. I should’ve seen; I should’ve heard.

Then, I see another image, a midnight drive through the neighborhood to calm a crying teen; I see myself feeling tired, wanting to help, but not knowing what to do. I tell myself I should’ve listened more carefully, should’ve driven further, should’ve called off work the next day.

And from there, I fall to the next image…

When I am free falling through that accusatory slide show, I call it spiraling. I spin through images of moments when I wish I would’ve known more, acted differently, or seen the situation for what it really was. If only I could go back and do it differently, but I can’t, so I continue to spiral from one failed moment to the next.

Recently, as I felt I was nearing the end of a several day stretch of night-time spiraling, having had little sleep, and wanting the cycle to end, my husband, in casual conversation, brought up a topic that I thought might set me back into free fall. I said, “I don’t know if I want to talk about that. I’ve already been spiraling for several days, and I’m really ready to stop.” He was quiet for moment, and then he said, “I think it’s all part of the grieving process.”

I was silent.

It’s part of the grieving process? Going back through all these images and feeling all this regret, this ache, this shame? For the past several years, I’ve been trying to avoid spiraling, if possible, and to endure it when necessary, but if it’s part of the grieving process, I wondered, do I need to lean in and sit with it? Isn’t that what you do with grief? Sit with it?

When something dies — a loved one, a pet, a dream, a hope — it hurts, and the hurt does not go quickly away. No, it takes all kinds of mental and physical work for our minds and bodies to accept loss. We try to deny that it really happened, and we get angry that it did. We yell until we can yell no more, then eventually we cry and sob and groan as we acknowledge the loss to be real.

And, you know, we’ve got to give ourselves space for this. Loss is real — it happens — devastating, bone-crushing loss comes into our lives and we sometimes can’t bear to look at the reality of it all — but when we are ready, we must. We must look at devastation with our eyes wide open. We must see the totality of the pain and allow ourselves and all those impacted the space to grieve — to really, fully grieve.

I’ve been avoiding that full-on look; it’s been too painful to take it all in at once. However, my brain won’t let me rest until I lean in and take a closer look.

The other night, I was lying awake casually spiraling — I was too tired to be frantic, so I wearily submitted to the images that were swirling on the screen of my mind. I lay there and took it in — the accusation, the shame, the regret, and then I finally gave in to sleep.

The next morning, after my alarm jolted me awake, I wondered if it was time to shift to a different way of looking. Was it possible to instead of merely seeing the failures and sinking into shame that I might view the images through eyes of compassion — not only for the members of my family but also for myself?

When I find myself on the front porch, for example, can I acknowledge that I was home, that I was watching, that I was aware, even if I didn’t see the full picture? Can I give myself the grace to say that I was present? Can I acknowledge that to the teen, my questions were terrifying and lies were the only safe response?

When I find myself driving through the neighborhood at midnight, can I thank myself for getting out of bed, for loading a teen in a car, and for driving back and forth to allow the time for tears, even if I didn’t know what they were for? Can I have compassion on the young one who was feeling so much wrenching pain and applaud the strength it took to finally allow me to see the depth of it, even if sharing the cause of such deep hurt was still impossible?

Am I ready to make the shift from spiraling to strolling? Am I willing to slow down and look, really look, at the images? to see not just what’s in the foreground, but to see the background, the edges, and what was happening just outside the frame?

Am I ready to accept grief’s invitation to stroll down Memory Lane, to look at both the wreckage and the beauty, to see the moments of love and tenderness that sit right beside the devastation. Am I willing to see not only my failures but also the moments where I may have done the only right thing I knew to do at the time? Am I willing to believe that two competing realities can exist at the same time?

I think I’m ready to try; I think it’s the next step through this grief.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

A letter to my (our) mother(s)

Many, many years ago, you carried me in your womb, labored me into the world, and cradled me in your arms. You took me home to the nest you had prepared and began a daily practice of making sure that I was clean, well-fed, and protected.

You bathed me, diapered me, rocked me, fed me, and made sure that my older siblings were gentle with me. I was safe and secure in your nest.

My earliest memories have you shampooing my hair in the kitchen sink, combing out my tangles every. single. day., providing me with Sunday dresses and patent leather shoes, bringing home my favorite dot-to-dot books, and baking hand-cut Valentine cookies. I was loved and nurtured in our nest.

As I grew older and discovered my full-range of emotions, you laughed too loudly with me, listened compassionately as I railed about the injustices in my middle school life, stood on the other side of my slammed bedroom door, and felt my hurts.

In those early years, we often drove an hour to visit your mom, my grandma, in the space where you had grown up. She always greeted us with hugs and delicious meals. Although she was seemingly invincible–keeping an impeccable house and creating gourmet dishes for masses — I saw you quietly stepping in to help her — going up or down stairs to save her steps, lifting heavy loads, and helping her care for her mother, your grandma.

And when we visited your grandmother’s house, where laughter was abundant, the cookie jar was always full, fresh cut flowers were set out with intention and care, and my great grandma was queen, her daughter (your mother) stepped in with ease to fill a cup, lend a hand, or wipe a dish.

I grew up watching all of you, three generations of women, quietly care for your people — providing meal after meal, buying gift after gift, tending one sick or frail creature after another.

Eventually, I left home, but as I struggled to build my own life, I often came back to familiarity. On every return, I found a refrigerator stocked with my favorite foods, a bed made up with freshly-laundered sheets, and a heart full of love ready to receive and see me in whatever state I was in. You were one of the first to notice that I’d lost too much weight, that I’d found the wrong –and eventually the right — man, and that I was overwhelmed with parenting.

And, when you saw a need, you came to my nest — swooping in, as moms and grandmas do — bringing treats for the kids and a breath of reinforcing fresh air (and coffee) for me. Time after time you showed up and saw me where I was — in the midst of my less-than-perfect nest-building years — and you brought judgment-free support, some gadget or tool I needed, and candy. Always candy.

You also continued, during this time, to fly frequently back to your mother’s nest to care for her and your dad. As they grew older, you stepped in to accompany them to the doctor, to take them for lunch at Wendy’s, to arrange for care in their home, and finally, to help them leave their nest for good.

I believe it was the hardest work of your life.

Nevertheless, you carried on, not only helping me at my nest, but helping your other children with the nests they had, too, created. You flew from one to the other, providing support, offering food, and sharing joys and sorrows.

In time, you helped me launch my own into the world. We threw parties and wrapped gifts, and washed dishes — so many dishes. You’ve cheered them as they’ve found their way and consoled them when they’ve wandered off. When they’ve been absent, you’ve prayed them through, in groans sometimes too difficult for words.

And after so many decades of showing up, delivering supplies, and coming through in times of need, you find yourself at home, limited by illness and injury, and unable to do all the things that you’ve always done and still, in your heart and mind, would like to do. You feel frustrated and sad and so tired.

I see you, so I get in my car and drive to you. I don’t bring much other than companionship, an offer to drive you to the store, and a compelling need to eat all the candy in your candy dish.

I want to help — to decrease your pain, to take you places, and to support your desire to see your people — but mostly we sit and watch football, Animal Planet, or — finally — The Great British Baking Show. We look through pictures, we eat meals that you still insist on preparing for me even though I’ve been preparing my own meals for over thirty years, and we go to bed early.

You make sure I have plenty of blankets, something to read, and snacks that I can eat, when I am the one who is trying to help you. And finally, you allow me to iron a few pair of pants and a couple of blouses, to wash a load of towels, and to drive you to the doctor.

Thank you.

Thank you for showing me how to show up, how to pay attention, how to lend a hand. Thank you for letting me show up, pay attention, and lend a hand to you.

I am, after all, the next generation of women who care for their people.

And you are, after all, my people.

Her children rise up and call her blessed.

Proverbs 31:28

Sitting with it, Re-visit

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This week and last, I have shared posts that tell the story of my journey with autoimmunity. I have said in my posts that I am thankful for this journey. This post gets at the heart of why. Written in August of 2017, it conveys a critical part in my healing — the time I have spent sitting and considering the previous chapter of my life. Everyone doesn’t benefit from illness, but my physical illness has made way for a much deeper healing.

I literally have to sit here with it.

I would rather run, but I don’t have that option any more. I have to sit with it.

In my soldiering years, I was continually in motion. Dawn ’til dark. I was picking up, dropping off, buying, cooking, cleaning, planning, teaching, grading, and when I could squeeze it in, I was literally running. Though I was acutely aware that I had four other humans living in the house with me (who else was I picking up, dropping off, buying, cooking, and cleaning for?), I rarely sat still very long to actually look at them, listen to them, watch them, hear them.

I have to sit with that now. I’d much rather be running.

When one got migraines, went off to school, and then developed an eating disorder, I didn’t stop what I was doing. No. I drove to emergency rooms, packed boxes, drove miles, dropped off, made appointments, picked up, and kept moving.

When another joined the military and started jumping out of planes, I didn’t sit down and think about what that meant. No. I bought supplies, cooked farewell dinners, drove to a bus, dropped off, and kept moving. I can’t even remember if I wrote letters.

When another was brutally assaulted, I was so busy moving I didn’t even realize it had happened. For almost two years. And when I finally found out, still, I didn’t stop what I was doing, sit down, and grieve. No. I grabbed broken pieces, dropped them in the passenger seat of the car, and drove them to someone who I thought could put them back together again. And I kept on moving.

I have to sit with that now.

I didn’t choose this.

No. Even when disease started crawling into my joints, I tried to keep moving. I trudged through long days trying to manage responsibilities and ended up collapsing at home at the end of each day. All my good hours were spent in hot pursuit while my hours at home, with the ones who needed me most, were spent in a daze of pain and fatigue.

It’s been over three years since I admitted the need for change. In those three years I have tried again and again to return to my former ways, but I can not. This disease is literally slowing me, sitting me down, and forcing me to face the things that I have not wanted to face. It’s forcing me to learn new ways. And, still, I resist.

I try, futilely, to keep busy. I have crocheted a hundred scarves, hats, afghans. I have put together a million puzzle pieces. I have read thousands of pages of print.

But, without fail, fatigue comes, and I must stop the busy-ness and turn to stillness. And even when I am exhausted, as I am right now, it’s as though I fight against rest.

The past several nights I have limped to my room lugging heated packs that I drape on my neck, hips, back after I’ve awkwardly lowered myself into bed. Then begins the battle of shifting and moaning and repositioning that sometimes lasts several minutes but tonight lasted much longer, and I couldn’t turn off the images that kept playing out over and over on the HD screen that is my imagination. Finally I groaned myself out of bed.

Come on, Kristin. Sit with it. Admit that you missed so much. Acknowledge that the ones you love have hurts that you haven’t wanted to see. Grieve that. Cry.

Acknowledge that you couldn’t do it all. You couldn’t soothe all the hurts. You sometimes didn’t even try.

And the hurts keep coming. The car needs servicing. The dog is aging and ill. A laptop isn’t working. Can’t a girl get relief from some of this pain?

And then comes the realization that the physical pain is a symbol. A tool.

 A gift.

Man, I hate to admit that it’s a gift, but without it, I would still be running. I would still be accumulating regret.

The illness hasn’t solved my problems, but it has allowed me to see them.

And as I see them, I am finally taking the time to sit with them and cry. The tears keep coming as though they just have been waiting for the opportunity.

I’m trying, really trying, to sit with that. I believe the healing will come in the grieving. So, I’m going to take some time to grieve. Soldiering me wants to schedule the grieving for Mondays at 10am for the next three weeks and be done with it. 

Sitting still me isn’t in a rush.

I’m learning to sit with that, too.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Controlling and Carrying, revisit

This post, first written in June of 2017 and polished a bit in March 2019, reminds me of one of the most powerful life lessons I continue to learn.

I began trying to control my life at a very early age. At the risk of making this a confessional, let me just say that I routinely lied, falsely (and sometimes accurately) implicated my brothers, and physically overpowered my friends to get what I wanted. And that was all by the time I was in elementary school! As I grew older and learned what was socially acceptable, I found other methods such as emotional outbursts, dramatic power plays, and sly slips of the hand to orchestrate my life. My college years brought more maturity.  I learned that I could not control my environment, my peers, or my family, so I controlled my body through anorexia.

You would think that therapy and recovery would’ve exposed the truth that I am not in charge of my own life either, but I am either a slow learner or a control savant. I have devised many ways to create an illusion of control.  In fact, once I had children of my own, I was sure to create a rigid daily schedule to ensure that their lives were under control. I was going to make sure that they were safe and secure. No harm would come to them under my watch. We prayed together. We memorized scripture verses. I only let them watch PBS.  We ate dinner together every evening. They went to church every Sunday and often several times during the week. I was going to do this parenting thing right. My kids would be perfect, you know?

I couldn’t control everything, though, as I’m sure you can imagine. They didn’t stay safe and secure. Harm did come to them. Heart-breaking harm.

Many sleepless nights I have cried over my failed attempts at controlling my life; many more I have cried over my realization that I could not prevent my children from being hurt. And where has it led me?  Literally to my knees.

For many years now, when I have found myself facing the stark realization of my own powerlessness in the lives of my children, I call to mind an image that gives me great peace. I picture a cupped hand with my child nestled safely inside. I imagine that cupped hand held close to an all-powerful chest much like I might hold a newborn chick or kitten. The hand is strong and able to lift my child out of harm’s way, and sometimes, when harm determinedly finds its way inside of that hand, two compassionate eyes are bearing witness — they are seeing and knowing and caring in ways that I am unable to see, to know, to care.  This image of the One who does have control gives me peace in those moments when I am able to acknowledge that I have none

Photo of original artwork by Mike Lorenz, St. Louis, MO.

But there are many moments when I am not able to acknowledge that. Most of the moments, actually. Most of my moments I am filling with doing. Doing gives me an illusion of control. It calms my anxiety. It makes me feel like everything is going to be ok if I just get my house clean, if I just meet one more student, if I complete one more task.

But that is a lie. Everything is not going to be ok. 

Last night, when I finally admitted that I had done enough for the day and I finally lay down in my bed, I picked up Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way.  This is what I read:

Suffering asks us to bear under that which is ultimately not under our control, which proves to us we have no control.  And maybe that’s too much for us in our autonomous, do-it-yourself culture to bear.  Maybe more than we can’t stand physical suffering, we can’t stand not feeling in control (171). 

It’s silly when she puts it like that, isn’t it? And if I admit that trying to be in control is silly, then I have to admit that much of my life has been one big futile exercise. That’s embarrassing. And humiliating. And heartbreaking.

But it’s true.

However, it is also true that regardless of my foolish attempts, I, too, have been sitting in that all-powerful hand. I have been kept out of harm’s way many, many times. And, when harm has found me, One has born witness with compassion, forgiveness, and love. I am His child, after all. He has ordered my world.  He has hemmed me in on all sides. And He will continue to carry me.

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:5

Making Up for Lost Time, revisit

Editor’s Note, January 24, 2019: I’m looking back at old posts and seeing how they resonate with me now. This one, in light of what I wrote on January 21, 2019, reminds me of all the ground work that God did in anticipation of 2018. While we were trudging through, my husband and I often reminded ourselves, “none of this is a surprise to God.” This post, originally written in 2017, is evidence that He knew what was coming and was preparing us in advance.

During all my years of soldiering — of butt-kicking and name-taking — I was in constant motion, often simultaneously cooking, doing laundry, answering email, talking on the phone, and granting or denying permission to one of my children.  I got a lot done.  It seems that I was able to keep a clean house, feed a family, teach hundreds of students, and arrive most places fully-clothed for quite a few years. The down side? Very little time to reflect — very little time to examine options, consider outcomes, or feel.

I’m making up for lost time. Obviously.

In days of yore (Why, sonny, when I was your age…), I looked at the myriad obligations of the members of my family, the limited functions of two vehicles, and the tight schedules my husband and I kept, and I quickly formulated and executed a plan that accommodated everyone.  I planned my work and worked my plan.  “Here’s what’s happening today,” I would say, “You two will come with me to school.  After school, while you are at practice, I will get groceries. I’ll be back to pick you up.  When we get home, you’ll unload and put away groceries while I cook dinner.  Meanwhile, Dad will take you (other child) to your different school.  He’ll go to work then pick you up after your practice, stop by Walgreens to fill your prescription, then meet us back here. We will eat at exactly 5:30 because then, Dad has a meeting, I have parent-teacher conferences, two of you have homework to do, and the third one has to be at a study session on the other side of town.”  I would hit the start button and the plan would be executed.

Nowhere was there time for contemplation, negotiation, or revision.  We were in “go” mode.  In some ways, it was necessary for the season of life we were in with three kids in high school all at the same time, however, it could’ve been handled differently. I could’ve let some stuff go. I could’ve slowed down, allowed the kids to eat cereal for dinner more often, and let my laundry pile up. I could’ve valued processing over producing. Contemplating over completing.

So, yeah, I’m making up for lost time.

I’m currently reading three books. One is a book I am reading with my Bible study gals, Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way.  Another was given to me by my physical therapist/counselor/friend, Doing Well at Being Sick by Wendy Wallace.  I also picked up Shauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes.  Why am I telling you this?  Well, it’s interesting to me that I have time to read three books, for one thing.  Also, I notice that I am interacting with these books, writing notes in the margins, going back to my notes, and thinking about what the books are saying to me. And, third, I am intrigued by the fact that these three books are speaking to each other.  It’s like they are three friends that said to one another, “Hey, guys, Kristin’s been still for quite a while now.  She might finally be able to hear us.”

And what are they saying?  They are saying the same things that I have been discovering, thinking, speaking, and writing about for the past three and a half years.  However, I think what’s interesting is that I am noticing.  I am processing. I am digesting. I am not more interested in completing these books than I am in connecting with them.  I am not compelled to finish them; I am drawn to understand the meaning they have for me.

And really, the meaning is this — my soldiering is done. Even though I’m tempted almost every day to go back to that life, I am no longer capable. God, in His mercy, has chosen a better way for me.  He has allowed limitations in my life — real physical limitations — that stop me from soldiering so that I can live a life that reflects, that feels, and that makes space for others. Because on my own, I wouldn’t have stopped soldiering, guys.  I would’ve keep right on kicking butts and taking names.  God had something better for me. Yes, you heard me right. My “broken” life, my life with the limitations of chronic illness, is a higher quality life than my “un-broken” life.  In fact, my “broken” life is more whole than the “unbroken” one was.

It’s a paradox, to be sure. God is often paradoxical, isn’t He?  His brokenness makes us whole.  By His wounds we are healed. He turns our mourning into dancing. He doesn’t always make sense, but today I’m not going to question Him. I’ll just thank Him.

I Peter 2:24

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

You can learn a lot from a toddler

You can learn a lot from a toddler.

We spent last weekend with our sweet grand daughter.  As many grandparents will attest, there is nothing quite like the love one feels for a grandchild.  People had been telling me this for years, but it took gazing upon our own grandchild to give me the full picture.  In the fifteen or so months since she was born, I have spent a lot of time just observing her. I’m starting to compile a list of lessons that this wee one is teaching me.

  • Play is important.  And it’s fun!  I’ve spent so many hours of my life being serious; I have sometimes forgotten to play.  Not this little girl!  She makes everything into play — eating blueberries, getting her diaper changed, taking a bath, riding in the car, and waiting in line at a restaurant.  If she has a spare second, she’s playing peek-a-boo, chase-me,  let’s-knock-it-down, splash your Oma, or anything that will make her, and me, laugh.
  • Fun is contagious.  Every time this little one giggles, I giggle.  If she makes a silly face, I make a silly face.  I can’t hep myself.  She draws me in.  She walks right up to me, hands me a book, leans toward me with a smile, and I’ve just gotta smile back.  I don’t think I was serious for a single second all weekend, unless you count that moment when she face-planted at the mall.  At that moment she taught me another lesson.
  • If you’re hurting, you just gotta cry. In my almost fifty years of life, I have stuffed a lot of emotions.  I have concealed fear, subdued laughter, and swallowed pain.  Not my little girl; nope. When she feels something, she shows it.  When she face-planted, she cried loud and hard — the kind of crying that loses its breath and gets silent.  It was legitimate.  She bruised the very fleshy part over her cheek bone.  She hit hard. When she cried, no one tried to silence her; we let her cry.  We had seen the injury.  We felt her pain.  And she taught us another lesson.
  • When you’re really hurting, Dad is the safest place to turn.  Opa swooped her off the floor and rushed her right to her daddy who engulfed her in his extra-strong arms so that she could bury her face in his extra-large shoulder and wail.  He just held her and held her while she cried.  He kept her safe and secure while Mom checked out the injury, Opa found us a place to sit down, and Oma got some ice.  When the pain ebbed a bit, and Dad placed her in a booster seat at a table, her tear-filled eyes watched him as she drank her drink and ate her fries.  When he stood to get some ketchup, her eyes followed him to the restaurant counter and back.  She checked that we were all still sitting near her, but she didn’t smile until he was headed back toward her. It wasn’t long before she regained her composure and reminded us of another lesson.
  • When you fall down, you gotta get back up.  After the spill and the fries, our girl cautiously entered the children’s area, observed what the big kids were doing, and then tried out some of the toys herself.  Mom showed her how to push the buttons that lit up.  She ran from one end of the play area to the other. She looked up at the towering climbing apparatus and then showed us another important lesson.
  • You’ve gotta know your limitations.  She was clearly impressed by the kids who were climbing higher than their parents’ heads, but she recognized that she didn’t have the means, or perhaps the courage, to go where they were going.  She walked under the looming structure, but when she realized that none of her people had gone with her, she turned around and walked back out.  No one had told her she couldn’t go in there, she just knew that if we weren’t going with her, she wasn’t going to do it alone.  In fact, at that point, she’d had enough of the play area and was ready to go walking for a bit.
  • Exploring is interesting.  Our girl was happy to ride in the stroller as long as we were moving and changing her scenery.  We walked through the crowded mall and she had plenty to look at, but when we went into a store and the stroller stopped moving, she voiced her protest.  And there’s our next lesson.
  • Let your concerns be known.  This little girl does not shy away from communicating.  When she is ready to move, she makes some noise.  When she’s hungry, she goes to the kitchen cupboard where her snacks are stored.  When she wants up, she reaches; when she wants down, she leans.  When she’s happy, she talks and laughs. When she’s sad, she cries.  But my favorite of all is her way of communicating when she’s just tuckered out.  She goes to her Daddy, the keeper of all things safe, and gives the signal.
  • Because when you need a recharge, you go to Daddy.  She stands near him.  She rubs her eyes.  She might try to climb up in his lap.  Since he’s her dad, he recognizes the signals.  He lifts her up and holds her close.  She puts her head on his shoulder and just submits to his embrace.  She doesn’t necessarily sleep; often she just soaks up his love for five or ten minutes.   He holds her, enjoying this mutual love fest.  If she falls asleep, he lets her. If a brief charge is all that’s needed, he smiles, kisses her head, and lets her back down to go play and explore some more.

I probably don’t have to spell it out for you.  You’re smarter than that. You can see what I saw, can’t you?  You can learn from a toddler, too.

    and a little child will lead them.

Isaiah 11:6

Guys, He’s God

Have you felt the oppressive weight of hopelessness?  It seems that everywhere I turn I hear the message of doom and gloom.  Just this morning I heard reports of yet another devastating terror attack — this time in Brussels.  For the past several months the political rhetoric has fostered fear and hatred. I myself have been troubled by the uncertainties in my life. It seems that people all over the world are feeling desperate — hopeless.

What kind of hopelessness drives a person to strap a bomb to himself and willingly die while taking out the lives of others? What kind of fear causes people to lash out at complete strangers? What kind of desperation keeps me awake at night?

It’s the kind of fear that has forgotten that God is God.  It’s the kind of hopelessness that believes that our future is in our own hands. It’s the kind of desperation that wonders how life would’ve been different if I would’ve made different decisions along the way.

This kind of fear and hopelessness is not new; “there is nothing new under the sun.” The Israelites, standing at the base of Mount Sinai, while Moses was talking to God, started freaking out because he was taking too long.  They were literally bearing witness to the presence of God and they forgot about Him! So, turning to their own resources, they fashioned a golden calf, yes, that’s right, a baby cow made out of their jewelry. And, they started to worship the freshly minted calf, saying that it had brought them out of Egypt.

Say what?

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  I mean much more ridiculous then strapping a bunch of explosives to one’s body and walking into a crowded subway thinking that that will solve the world’s problems. Much more ridiculous than thinking that my 401k will give me security. Much more ridiculous than imagining that I will be happy as soon as I drop twenty pounds. Way more crazy than staying up all night wondering if I made all the right parenting decisions.

Those Israelites, man, they were crazy.

But no crazier than me. They had merely turned their faces away from the mountain and, that quickly, had forgotten that their salvation was right in front of them. I’ve turned my face, too. Over and over again. I have taken my eyes off of God and looked instead to my own strength, or the strength of those around me, to be my salvation.

What was I thinking?  That God was taking too long? Wasn’t I bearing witness to His presence and His power in my life?

Mm-hm.  I was.  And still, I turned.

Over and over I have found that I am not my own salvation. In fact, when I turn to myself, I unfailingly make my situation even worse than it was to begin with. Just like the Israelites.

You would think that God would get angry.  You would think He would say, “That’s it.  I am done with you. We’ve been over this. I’m not giving you another chance.” But He doesn’t. He pulls us close; He says, “I’ve got you. It’s gonna be ok. Remember, I’m God.”

Oh, yeah.  Guys, He’s God.

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—

    where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

    the Maker of heaven and earth.

still learning, re-visit

after writing about what some of my students are learning on Monday, I re-discovered this post, first written almost three years ago, about the lessons I have learned from my children and my students. re-examined on February 28, 2019

Parenting and teaching have changed me. At one time I was quick to pass judgment on apparent ‘misbehavior’, I often fell prey to either/or reasoning, and I saw most arguments as very black and white. However, through more than two decades of parenting and almost that many years of interacting with students, my firm — almost rigid — beliefs about almost everything have been challenged and re-shaped.

One of the lessons that my kids and students taught me is that there is always more to a situation than first meets the eyes. Let’s say a student walks into my class late, unprepared, and seemingly unengaged. It would be easy to assume that this student is apathetic about my class specifically, and perhaps education in general. However, a closer look might reveal that the student was doing everything he could to get to my class on time, but his parents had their own timetable — they made him take care of a younger sibling all night, they got home from work late in the morning, and then made my student wait while they showered before they brought him to school. My student wanted to complete the homework, but his sibling was demanding. He wanted to be on time, but he had no alternate way to get to class.

Or, let’s say one of my children is snarky, disrespectful, and seemingly bent on opposing every direction I give. I might assume that my role is to demand respect, give firmer demands, and heap on consequences, but a closer look, and some long hours of listening, may uncover some deep pain that the child is afraid, even ashamed, to share with me. Acting out is not the problem; it’s a symptom.

Another lesson I’ve learned from my kids and my students is that there is always a third option. “Mrs. Rathje, should I study education or medicine?”  “Mom, should I run track or play soccer?” “Would it be better if I took this job or if I didn’t work at all?” My answer — “Is there a third option?”  Why not consider a career as a nurse educator? Is there any other sport or activity that seems interesting to you? Is there a different job you could consider? more schooling? service learning?

Too often I have found myself trapped in either/or thinking:

  • Do I want to be a vegetarian or eat meat?
  • Am I a night person or a morning person?
  • Do I like contemporary or traditional worship?
  • Am I conservative or liberal?
  • Should I teach or write?
  • Am I a Spartan or a Wolverine.

Don’t be ridiculous, that last one was just to see if you were still paying attention.

In my earlier life, I found it safest to ‘choose a side’. I was forming my identity, after all. I wanted to find my place. It felt too risky to remain fluid. I wanted the security of saying that I was Lutheran or Republican. I wanted a box to check. I was anti-Disney, pro-Life, for the environment, and against dying my hair.

Here’s the thing: putting myself in those boxes positioned me against those who put themselves in other boxes. If I liked only wheat bread, I might judge someone who only bought white bread. If I only shopped at Kroger, I might look down on someone who only shopped at Wal-Mart. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to listen to why they preferred white bread or Wal-Mart. I knew I was right. No discussion was needed.

My attitude limited me. I unwittingly cut myself off from all kinds of people and experiences.  

Enter my children. And my students. Early on they were willing to listen to whatever I had to say. They were pliable. They wanted to please me. But over time, as they developed minds of their own, they began to question my positions. They began to challenge my opinions.

How dare they? I did not like this at all!! After all, I had been being right for so long. If I allowed myself to think differently, I was admitting that I had been — gasp — wrong!

But not really. That was some more either/or thinking. Here is what I have come to believe: once upon a time I held certain opinions based on what I knew at the time. Over the years, I have had many experiences that have caused me to re-think those positions. Based on what I know now, some of my opinions have changed. That, my friends is called human growth and development.

And here is the most important thing that I have learned. Life is complex. We can hold conflicting truths. I can, for instance, like the story line of The Lion King and still hate the over- commercialization of Disney and its portrayal of female characters. These opinions can co-exist. I can understand the health benefits of whole grains and still appreciate a nice loaf of French white bread. I can appreciate Wal-Mart’s low prices and still object to the business practices of the Waltons. I can eat both meat and vegetables, just vegetables, or choose a third option — vegetarianism on the weekdays and carnivorism on the weekends.

The amazing human mind is capable of far more complexity than we give it credit for. We limit its capacity to grow when we compartmentalize ideology into false dichotomies.

You might think I feel afraid now that I’ve moved outside of my previously confining boxes. Not at all. I find more room to breathe out here.

I’m telling you — a mother can learn a lot from her kids, and a teacher often learns from her students.

It is not only the old who are wise,
    not only the aged who understand what is right.

Job 32:9

All the Feelings, Re-visit

This post, originally written in January 2016 and cleaned up in April 2019, speaks directly to some of my thoughts in “It’s About Time.”

The inclement weather has given me another day of virtual stillness and I am noticing that when I am still, I think about the words that others have said, and I have time to consider them fully.

I don’t always like considering the words of others, you know, fully,  because then I get, you know, feelings. And feelings make me, you know, feel things. 

As a child and adolescent I felt a lot of things. I was an emoter. Ok, ok, I know I still am, but back then, I felt things in ways that other people could feel. I remember being told that I laughed too loud and cried too much. I can picture my chubby-cheeked, blonde-headed self, being told that it was time to leave my grandparents’ house, protesting with angry face, stomping feet, and clenched fists. I can feel my throat tighten and tears spill down my cheeks as Frosty the Snow Man melted into a puddle. I remember stomping through the hallways at school or flinging myself onto my bed and wailing into my pillow when I felt wronged by a friend or a boyfriend. Yes, my whole being knew how to feel things.

Now, I learned, for the comfort of others, not to be quite so demonstrative. I mean, it’s not socially acceptable to have all the feelings. In fact, I remember my cooperating teacher, during my student teaching experience, telling me to ‘not wear my heart on my sleeve’. Well, where else was I going to wear it?

Over the years I have tried to peel my heart off my sleeve and shove it deep in an interior pocket. I have attempted to push feelings deep, deep down into my subconscious self. And while I may have quieted some of my outbursts and hidden some of my feelings from my own awareness, my face has often revealed what my guts are feeling, even when my mind hasn’t gotten the memo. People around me have seen my truth-telling face and have taken meaning from it. They have picked up that I am angry, apathetic, shocked, judgmental, or horrified, even when I haven’t realized those emotions myself.

In my younger days, when I was using the full-body method of emotional experience, I often lost blocks of time to tears, flailing, and, shall we say, “verbalizing”. It was loud. It was messy. It was not concerned with productivity. Perhaps one benefit to tucking hurts away and refusing to indulge them is the ability to get a bit more accomplished. And it just so happens that I like getting things done, so a way of life commenced. I often refer to this time in my life as ‘soldiering’.

I became too busy to attend to emotions. Soldiers don’t have time for feelings. They are kicking butts and taking names. They don’t feel sad about it. And, they don’t really care if you feel sad about it. They have a job to do, dammit. So, either help or get out of the way.

Yeah, that has been me for a very long time. I have pushed people aside without considering how they were feeling. I wasn’t intending to do that.  Really. I was just on a mission. I was focused.

Here’s the thing, though. The people who love you don’t really care if you are on a mission. They just need you to care. They need you to stop butt-kicking and name-taking for a minute so that you can see that they, too, are having some feelings. They might also be trying to shove their feelings into their subconscious, but if you stop moving, you might see that their faces are revealing what they aren’t even aware of. You might be able to pick up that they are hurt, shocked, angry, lonely, overlooked, or terrified.

And when you see that, you can sit down beside them and be still with them together. You don’t have to have an answer. You don’t have to solve the problem. You just need to sit in the stillness with them, which will give them the time and the permission to feel — to really feel.

And when we feel together, we are joined by bonds that are not soon separated.

Aren’t those bonds far more valuable than all the butt-kicking and name-taking in the world? Yes. The answer is yes. Learn from me, grasshopper.  Take time in the stillness to feel all the feelings.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.

John 15:13

Sumballo, a Re-visit

This post, written right after Christmas 2015, seems relevant today. As you gather all the pieces of your holiday celebration and ponder them in your heart, may God grant you the wisdom to see the big picture.

This morning, I opened my morning devotion from Beth Moore’s Whispers of Hope: 10 Weeks of Devotional Prayer and found this verse from Luke 2 — the Christmas story:

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2:19

When I’ve read this verse in the past, I’ve pictured Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms kind of shaking her head in disbelief; I’ve imagined her saying, “Well, you weren’t kidding, were you? You said I would conceive and bear and son, and here he is!” I’ve imagined pondered to mean “wondered in astonishment.” However, Beth Moore, a biblical scholar, corrects my image a bit; she says pondered is translated from the Greek word sumballo which means “taking many things, casting them together, and considering them as one”. These words make me picture tossing many snapshots onto a table, discovering connections between them, and finding the theme of the collection.

Among Mary’s photos I see — her pregnant body on a donkey on that long journey to Bethlehem, her downcast eyes in the moment when her parents discovered her ‘situation’, her peaceful resolve during tense conversations with Joseph, and her brow beaded with sweat during the labor and delivery amid the straw and dung. I see images of the first glance at her child, I hear the knock on the wall of the stable when the shepherds arrived, I smell the frankincense when she opens the gifts from foreign dignitaries.

When she pondered those moments “as one” what did they add up to for her?

I’m sitting here three days after Christmas in my little house by the river, and I, too, am taking a moment to ‘sumballo’. I’m looking back at the events of the last few weeks — the parties, the visits with family, the gift buying and giving, the hopes, the disappointments, the laughter, and the tears — and I’m casting them together as one.

In fact, this whole blog — every post on every day –has been an attempt to ‘sumballo’. Since I started writing in the summer of 2014, I have been looking back over sections of my life: I’ve been ‘casting them together’ and ‘considering them as one’.

Sometimes we are  tempted to look at isolated moments as defining moments — that time that you lied to a trusted a friend, the year that your parents were divorced, the semester that you failed a class, that car accident that nearly claimed your life, the winning football championship, the Homecoming coronation, the birth of a child. Certainly these moments shape us, but they do not define us — not in isolation. They only offer hints until we sumballo  — until we put these moments into perspective as parts of a whole.

If I am going to look at the fact that for the ten soldiering years of my life I was way too busy, and I often overlooked the emotional needs of my family, if I am going to acknowledge that this behavior was costly to my physical, spiritual, and emotional health and to the physical, spiritual, and emotional health of my family, I can’t view that time in isolation. If I am going to truly sumballo, I need to look at other seasons as well. I need to remember that I also stayed at home with my children for almost ten years — nurturing, hugging, reading, teaching, correcting, and guiding. I need to acknowledge that for the past five years I have been recovering from soldiering and learning a new way. Within each of these periods have been awesome moments  — young children singing happily in the car on a road trip, teenagers rolling on the floor with laughter, and young adults gathering for the holidays. However, each period has also had moments of devastation — betrayal, trauma, and disappointment. If we grasp onto any one moment and let it define us, we get a a distorted view. In order to see the clearest picture, we have to cast all of the moments together. We must consider them as one. Only then, can we discover a theme.

And what is that theme? Way back in my twenties when someone challenged me to write my testimony, I wrote that the theme of my life was “rescued by grace”. Even in those early years, I knew that God had been protecting me, walking with me, holding his cupped hands beneath me to carry me through. He was overlooking mistakes, forgiving wrongs, and allowing me second and third and fourth chances. When I was careless, he protected me. When I was selfish, He was benevolent. When I was hateful toward others, He poured love on me.

He rescued me with grace.

As I am approaching fifty, I look back at all the events of my life, and I ponder them all in my heart. Time and again I see my  failed attempts to do things on my own followed by God’s miraculous provision. I see God transforming my pain into compassion for others. I see my pride falling into humility. I see the love of God.

I wonder what Mary thought as she pondered ‘all these things’ in her heart.  She had to see God’s miraculous provision in a faithful husband, a place of shelter, and safety from Herod. She had to see God transforming her pain and embarrassment into compassion for others. She had to feel humbled in the presence of the Christ child. She had to see the love of God for herself and for all of humanity.

Despite our weaknesses, our poor choices, our sin — He loves us. He has seen every moment — every victory, every failure, every injury and every recovery. None of it has been a surprise to Him. He has gone before us, and He has held us in the palm of His hand. He has cast all the events of our lives together and saturated them with grace.

That is the message that I find when I sumballo.