Tempted by Despair; Choosing Hope

And just as I’ve set my resolve to Take Care and to Be Kind for the holidays, just as we’ve decked our halls humming fa-la-la-la-la, I find myself with a weight on my chest and a lump in my throat.

It’s December 1, the first Sunday in Advent, and I am sitting here talking myself away from the ledge of despair. Why? One innocent Instagram post suggested that my hopes might be disappointed — that all my resolve-setting, and hall-decking might not end up in joyful reunions, restored celebrations, or a meeting of healed hearts.

After all of our healing work and intentionality, we might still find ourselves broken.

I can’t bear to face that reality. I can’t imagine the possibility of another holiday sprinkled with tears and punctuated by slammed doors followed by hours of silence. But I am beginning to imagine it, just as I was beginning to have hope.

I was beginning to picture smiling embraces, laughter at the table, and intimate conversations filled with sustained eye contact. In my mind, I saw four generations sharing stories, sitting closely, leaning in. I imagined games and coloring and gifts and food. I saw tenderness, forgiveness, cuddling, and love.

These images were born out of longing — a longing for restoration, for healing, for reconciliation, for an end to a long, long season of grief.

All year, we’ve been removing layers of mourners’ clothing — a black veil here, a grey dress there — and we’ve been eyeing the party gowns in the closet. Do we dare to hope that we might be celebrating? That we might kill the fatted calf, invite all the neighbors, and make a feast to announce the return of joy?

We’ve prepared rooms — fluffed all the pillows, set out new towels, and lined the manger with straw — but what if no one comes? Or what if they come, and they leave disappointed?

What if the gifts are not right, the food too much (or too little), the conversations strained, and the accommodations inadequate? What if there is no joy?

I can’t, I won’t entertain those doubts.

I won’t feed my longing with manufactured images of despair. I won’t, sitting here hungry, imagine a table filled with rancid food. I will hold onto hope.

We’ll prepare the space, hold onto hope, and wait.

Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog this weekend: Advent simply means “coming” – so for me, it is about the waiting. When people talk about “living in the tension” I think of Advent. It’s the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth and we also acknowledge that we are waiting here still for every tear to be wiped away.

And as I’m waiting for them to be wiped away, they just keep coming.

We’ve come so far! We have seen evidence that all things are being made new — the blind receive their sight, the sick are made well, we’ve had good news preached to us, and then one Instagram post can send me reeling.

I spiral quickly from choosing hope to drowning in despair.

Like Sarah Bessey, I need my Saviour who suffers with us, my God who weeps, who longs to gather us to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks.

I need to be gathered, just as I long to gather my own, to hold them close, to provide warmth and comfort, and to feel their warmth and their comfort.

I am longing for that warmth. That comfort.

Advent is for the ones who know longing, says Sarah Bessey.

And, if she’s writing about longing, she probably is familiar with it — that ache, that desire, that wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night hunger for wholeness, for healing, for restoration.

I’ve been so caught up — for actual years now — in longing for the restoration of my family and for healing for those I love, for peace in our world, for an end to violence, poverty, hunger, and pain. I’ve been feeling my brokenness.

We’re all broken — every last one of us.

We all are longing to be made whole, aren’t we? We’re longing for all things to be made new. We are watching in the distance for the arrival of a Savior who, we trust, is coming to gather us into His arms.

And He. Is. Coming.

In fact, He is here. He is already making everything new. We see evidence all around us — when long-lost friends reunite, when we share small kindnesses with strangers, when we realize we are forgiven.

We rejoice when we see these glimmers of hope, and we will celebrate even more when we finally see every broken piece put back into place.

We will see every broken piece put back into place.

And in the mean time, we’ll deck our halls, fluff our pillows, and make some room.

And I will continue to hope, even if reality doesn’t meet my expectation — if my gifts are all wrong, the food doesn’t turn out, and if everyone leaves disappointed. Because although I am longing for restoration, I know that it comes in ways that I don’t always expect and that I don’t always recognize.

Small glimmers accumulate over time…and then all at once, He wipes every tear from our eyes.

I will not lose hope, because Hope. Has. Come.

And He is coming again.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Revelation 22:20

On and Off the Couch

Five years ago, when I moved into the little house by the river, I was exhausted and physically ill. For the first time probably since my childhood, I gave myself permission to plop on the couch and be unproductive. I didn’t come to this on my own — my medical team had advised it, and my husband had supported it. I needed some time to let my body recover from years of hard work. I needed to exit crisis mode and hit ‘reset’.

This is no news to you if you’ve read my blog — in fact, one of the reasons I began to write was that I was, for the first time in over thirty years, not going to be working or caring for children. I had no idea what I would do with myself if I didn’t come up with a daily task. And, writing proved, as you might have guessed, one of the means for healing. The pouring out of thoughts onto a page allows them to be seen and felt. In the seeing and feeling, the healing begins.

So, the first layer of healing began with time on the couch and a commitment to writing. I spent a lot of time on the couch (and in bed, and in a chair, and on the floor). I drank countless cups of tea and have now written over 400 blog posts in addition to the countless pages that I have written in spiral notebooks and journals in the past few years.

That decision to spend some time on the couch and to commit time to writing every day laid the foundation for a much more thorough mental and spiritual healing that would follow the initial physical healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six months in the little house by the river, was a dress rehearsal for the next several years.

In addition to the physical fatigue and illness that I brought with me to Ann Arbor, our whole family also carried with us some deep wounds from years of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction was not too atypical — a family doing too much, trying too hard, and overlooking critical moments and emotions in the frenzy of day-to-day living. However, some larger issues were less than typical– eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, and sexual assault. And even writing the words, I realize that though these were devastating, they are not as atypical as I would like to believe.

And I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing about them. Sure, it is hard to admit that our family — the one for which I had high hopes for perfection — suffered in ways that we had never expected, but just as surely, pain happens to everyone. Every one of us suffer.

And so, when, a couple years into life in this house by the river, we looked our pain full in the face and crawled back onto the couch and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t stop writing. I didn’t retreat into my room, as I had in the past, to “close the door and draw the blinds”. I didn’t want to air each of our private pains publicly, but I also didn’t want to hide the fact that we were indeed hurting. I am not sure it was a conscious choice at the time — after all, I was lying wounded on the side of the road bandaged and bleeding; how much clarity can you have in that situation? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent.

I didn’t write the details — I guess each of us can fill in our own. We can all find ourselves on the couch, immobilized, hurting, and in need of a re-set.

And I am here to tell you that resets happen. People get off couches. They start walking. They begin to smile. They feel hope again.

It doesn’t come quickly. Some people find themselves plunked in a great big sectional sofa for a couple of years or more. In fact, they’ve been there so long that the sofa itself takes on an appearance of grief, anguish, and decay, and they hardly notice. They sink into dilapidation, and it feels like home. So they stay there, watching Netflix night after night after night.

But slowly, gradually, light starts peeking in from behind the blinds, and they start to notice that the couch is visibly tired of performing this service.

It’s served its term.

So they stand up. They start taking walks, dreaming dreams, and envisioning a world where every day isn’t laden with grief. They start picturing places that exist away from the couch — places inhabited by people and experiences and opportunities. Venturing out seems a little daunting at first, so they proceed with caution — a coffee date here, a shopping trip there.

Soon they realize they are meeting in groups outside of their home, not only to gather support to sustain them in their long hours on the couch, but also to share support, love, and friendship. They discover they have energy for a walk before dinner, shopping in the afternoon, and rearranging the furniture.

But that sectional takes up so much space — what with the grief lying all over it, spilling over the edges.

It’s got to go.

It’s all part of the reset. Room must be made for the new — new experiences, new dreams, new life.

So out it goes.

And just like that, a weight is lifted. A corner is turned. A brightness is felt.

Imagine the possibilities of life away from the couch. A life of dinners at the table, of walking in the park, of meeting up with friends. Of laughter, of joy.

I am here to tell you that resets happen.

I am here to tell you that I am off the couch.

Now –if you’re slunk down in the cushions, chest sprinkled with potato chip crumbs, staring at a television playing mindless shows with laugh tracks, I have not one ounce of judgment for you. I only offer this: when you have cried countless tears and lain awake long nights, when you have thought that you will never feel joy again, hold on.

It may be a while, but the light will peek in from behind the blinds, and you, too, will find yourself rising from the couch. You’ll start walking. You’ll find yourself smiling. You will again begin to feel hope.

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Of Reality and Social Media, a Re-visit

In Monday’s post, Honor One Another, I mentioned the effect of social media on the psyche of our culture — how comparing our own lives to curated perfection can leaving us feeling less-than. While that post was a challenge for us to recognize the inherent value in one another despite accomplishment or status, this post is a friendly reminder that social media does not reflect a complete picture of anyone’s lived reality but a collection of snapshots from our highlight reels.

’tis the season of social media celebration, is it not?

If you’ve scrolled through Facebook or Instagram in the last few weeks you’ve seen photos of families posed in their Easter best, grads celebrating in caps and gowns, and smiling moms lauded as nothing short of perfection.

How you doin’?

I’m feeling kind of shitty, if I’m going to be honest.

I mean, yes, I love seeing all these photos, I really do.

I am happy for ya’all.

I am.

But am I the only one who is tempted to compare my life’s reality with the curated perfection often portrayed on social media?

Am I the only one who needs to talk myself back into the world of reality rehearsing words like, “What a lovely photo. How great that they were able to capture it! Surely their lives are full of all kinds of ups and downs, and they managed to capture an up.”

I have to remind myself that I, too, recently posted a smiling family photo that reflects just a moment, not the totality of our reality. We take a photo and post it on a day where we all managed to get dressed, comb our hair, and gather ourselves in the same location. We don’t post one on all the other days when we are in yoga pants lying on our couches watching Netflix and trying to find the motivation to be productive.

We post the miraculous moments when things are as they should be — when family is together, when babies are well, when friends reunite, and when we are celebrating life.

We don’t post ourselves trudging through the grocery store at 11pm trying to find an “item to share” for the work party the next day. We don’t share our stories of hair loss and psoriasis. We don’t post when our families experience brokenness, or betrayal, or heartbreak. Nobody wants to see all that.

But when I’m scrolling, I forget that, and I start to imagine that the photos reflect the full lived experience of the people in them:

The mother holding her newborn spends 24 hours a day gazing lovingly at a blissful bundle swaddled sweetly in her arms.

The capped and gowned graduate is always photo-ready — hair coiffed, make-up air-brushed, and outfit fresh and pressed.

The family hugged up and smiling never experiences conflict — rather they live in bliss and harmony seven days a week.

And when I’m looking at images in that way, I begin to compare my life to their lives, and I start feeling shitty.

Why do these people look so polished? How do they have such happy lives? Why don’t they struggle like we do? Where is their hurt? Where is their brokenness?

I don’t imagine the same mother, pajama-clad, hair flying, as she runs to the crying baby in the middle of the night. Or the college student, sleep-deprived and underfed, stumbling into the final exam, barely earning enough points to pass. Or the members of that family shouting at each other, ignoring one another, or crying, each alone in separate rooms.

Because we don’t post that stuff.

We post images like this:

Me with my dad and my godmother on Mother’s Day

Not this:

Me, blogging right now.

We want to show the beautiful, the picture-perfect, not the raw, unfiltered, reality of our flawed humanity.

But, let me assure you, behind every curated photo — every moment of celebration, every coiffed ‘do, and stylish dress — is struggle, conflict, challenge, and disappointment. We are all broken. Even those who appear near-perfect.

Perhaps that’s the reason we love social media so much — we love to show the world that, “see it’s not so bad after all!” We might be a walking hot mess six days of the week, but on the seventh we managed to pull it together, so we post photographic proof that it happened.

When I scroll through social media with that mindset — acknowledging that my feed reflects exceptional moments — I am able to smile and celebrate with the people in the photos. Good for you, Miss Winston for getting your Master’s degree! Congratulations, Emily on running a 5K with your family! Way to go, Tiger, for shooting that turkey! You did it! Hooray!

You’re all doing a great job. I know things aren’t always as great as they are in your photos, but I’m glad you occasionally get moments that are good enough to commemorate with a photo shared on social media.

For those of you who haven’t had a photo-worthy moment in a while — and I know you are out there — it’s ok to take a vacation from social media for a while. If you just can’t see one more perfectly posed image, walk away — delete the app for a while, be kind to yourself. It’s ok to sit on the couch with your hair uncombed and your teeth unbrushed, especially if the brokenness is too palpable, too fresh, too tender. Watch some Great British Baking Show, read Ann Voskamp or David Sedaris, listen to Lauren Daigle or Stevie Wonder, lean in, cry, write some words, take a bath, get some rest.

The season of shittiness will shift and you will have another day of celebration, and we’ll be watching for it. We’ll laugh with you, we’ll cry tears of joy and celebration, we’ll click ‘like’ or ‘love’, and we’ll clap our hands.

In the mean time, if you want somebody to come sit on your couch with you–eating potato chips and flicking the crumbs off your chest — reach out. Plenty of us are willing to come into the swamp with you. And, who knows, maybe we’ll take a moment to post a picture.

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

Ecclesiasties 3:4

From Mourning to Hope, a re-visit

After posting on Monday about choosing hope over despair, I thought I’d revisit one of the first pieces I wrote this year, to remember how far we’ve come.

2018 was the year that I stopped rucking. I finally had to set down my pack.

According to my son, who served in the 82nd Airborne, “rucking” is a long march, 15-20 miles or more, with a heavy pack of gear strapped on your back.

Image result for ruck march
Ruck March

The soldier carries necessities — provisions, weapons, extra socks, and the like — and moves forward. The more he does this, the better he gets at it — the longer he can go, the more he can carry. Soldiers practice rucking, of course, so that when they have to go on a mission, they have the strength and endurance they need to endure.

I had gotten pretty good at rucking in my former life of soldiering — when I survived a season of high demand by butt-kicking and name-taking. That old lifestyle was built on the premise that I had the strength within myself to accomplish whatever task was put in front of me. It depended on bravado; I believed that by the force of my will I could solve all the problems and complete all the tasks. I could ruck.

I’ve learned a lot since then.

Over the last four and a half years, I’ve chronicled in this blog the retraining I’ve undergone to stop living the soldiering lifestyle. I’ve changed physical things like my diet, exercise, healthcare providers, and job, and emotional things like the taking time for therapy and daily writing and rest. Yet, while I have been very intentional about stepping away from soldiering, I am still prone to strapping on that backpack when the going gets tough.

And it does get tough, doesn’t it?

This past year was one of the toughest yet. And I might’ve gone back to soldiering, if it would’ve done any good. But even I couldn’t muster the strength to carry the kind of heavy that 2018 brought. The inner mantra I used to live by that said I could handle anything was silenced. The heaviness of 2018 was more than I could carry. I could no longer ruck.

I sat down, let my pack fall to the ground, and I cried. Over and over this year, I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

I grieved most of 2018. I grieved for many who are dear to me whose losses are great, and I grieved for myself — for all the losses I have failed to grieve over the years. Likely the biggest grief of all was realizing that — that I hadn’t felt all the feelings when I should have been feeling them; instead, I had been rucking. I’d been carrying a load of hurt shoved down deep in a bag, when I should have been spreading all the griefs out on a blanket, examining them one by one and recognizing the weight of each loss.

So, that’s where I started — I opened the bag, dug deep inside, and brought out all the hurts that lay crumpled deep inside. I spread them all out, sorted through them and described each piece in writing. I took stock of the damage, and I prayed and prayed and prayed. I invited others to pray with me. I spent hours and days and whole weeks talking with my husband — rehearsing forgiveness and grace. And, finally, I think it’s time: I think I’m ready to take a break from grief.

At the very beginning of our season of grief, as though to provide for me a literary symbol, the necklace I wear every day was broken. It’s a gold chain that carries a small heart charm– a baptism gift from my godparents that I wear to remember whose I am — and a butterfly charm that my mother gave me when I earned my master’s degree that I wear to remember that I have been transformed. I’m not big on jewelry. In fact, my skin rejects all but the finest of gold, so when the chain broke about a year and half ago, I didn’t find the wherewithal or the resources to deal with it.

But on Christmas morning, just a few weeks ago, as we started to believe that the gray fog of grief was lifting, my husband gave me my repaired gold chain. I’ve put it back on, because I need a physical sign that the season of mourning is over. I need a daily reminder that I am a child of God who has been transformed and that the times of refreshing have come.

Certainly 2019 will not be free of trouble. We may be devastated again today or next week or next month, but for now, I am going to acknowledge that we were carried through 2018 not by our own might, but by the Hands of God who saw every tear, heard every prayer, and who, right now, is turning our mourning into hope.

You have turned my mourning into dancing for me;

You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”

Psalm 30:11-12

Sitting with it, Re-visit

Click here for audio, or read on.

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.

Don't wait for Christmas, a Revisit

Back in December 2014 when I first wrote this post, I was just starting to recognize how hard the holidays can be — how isolating, how anxiety-producing, how uncomfortable. I’ve always loved Christmas, but I’ve had a taste of how celebration can feel during a season of grief. I’ve begun to understand how difficult it can be to be with family and friends — even when you love them. And I’ve been learning a new way.

We spend a lot of time and money getting ready for the holidays. Over the last month many of us have attended parties, dinners, and gift exchanges with family, friends, and coworkers. We have cooked special foods, decorated our homes, and dressed in finery in order to celebrate.

We celebrate the love of family. We celebrate that we get time off from work. We celebrate our friendships. We celebrate the birth of a Savior.

We celebrate by eating, drinking, laughing, and sharing. We celebrate by giving and receiving gifts, by sending Christmas cards, by calling those we love, and by worshipping with our church families.

But there are many among us who just can’t celebrate. And they probably aren’t telling you about it. They may decline invitations, bow out early, or just refuse to answer your calls. It’s not that they don’t want to be there. They really do want to be there. They just can’t. 

It would be easy if they had a contagious disease, were recovering from surgery, or had a compromised immune system that prohibited them from joining in the festivities. Then you would understand. “Oh, too bad Bobby can’t be here, you know he just had that surgery, and he’s recovering in the hospital.” Everybody gets that. In fact, many of us would load up our gifts and drive over to the hospital to bring the celebration to Bobby because we love him and don’t want him to be left out.

But some people can’t celebrate and it’s because of something that you can’t see — something you may not understand.

Kay Warren, wife of well-known pastor, Rick Warren, who lost a son to suicide in 2013, recently posted on Facebook and then wrote in Christianity Today about the pain she has endured over the last two Christmases as well-meaning friends and acquaintances have sent Christmas cards filled with photos of smiling families and newsletters proclaiming all the good stuff that has happened for them over the year. She received these celebratory cards and letters and got angry. She couldn’t possibly celebrate. How could she, knowing that her son had taken his own life? Even if she believed that Jesus was born in a manger to save the world from their sins, even if she trusted Him and believed that He held her in the palm of His hand, she couldn’t possibly smile, or laugh, or rejoice.

She’s not alone, guys. While we deck the halls and kiss under the mistletoe, many around us can’t fathom the “oh what fun it is”. Not today. Not yesterday. Not Christmas Day.

They’ve lost a child. They are in the middle of a divorce. A loved one has cancer. They just lost their job and can’t pay the mortgage. Their father is on life-support. They have experienced pain that they can’t even talk about. And the idea of joining you or me in our merriment, knowing the pain that they know, is unconscionable. It just can’t be. 

So they stay home, miserably wishing they could be there, wishing they could celebrate, wishing they could be part of the joy. Angry that you can be. 

Moving forward, I’m going to spend less time and money getting ready for the holidays. I’m going to try to shift my focus to the here and now — to little moments that I can be with those I love —  in their tears,  in their laughter,  in their anger. And if we get glimpses of celebration, we will seize them — we won’t wait for Christmas.

And, if they happen to come at Christmas, well then, we’ll be all the merrier.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4