A time to embrace

It was a weird year to join a school staff. With Covid, all of our back-to-school meetings were virtual. We could see one another’s faces and occasionally hear one another’s voices, but we did not share physical space for those two weeks. Instead, each of us was safely distant from the others, working from our homes.

I wasn’t the only new hire, but I couldn’t be sure, just from looking at my Zoom screen, which staff members were veterans and which ones were rookies. The situation was complicated by the fact that two school staffs had come together for the 2020-2021 school year after one had closed, so even the teachers who had been on staff for three or five or ten years, might have been looking at new faces and wondering where they fit in.

And maybe that dynamic, the fact that none of us felt terribly grounded, created a situation in which no one felt superior; no one felt “new”. Or perhaps we all felt “new” in a way, since we were all learning how to do school online — learning how to use digital platforms for instruction, for behavioral incentives, for managing student work. I can’t know how everyone else was feeling, but from the beginning, I had a sense that we were all in this together. We were all uniting to meet the needs of our students during a pandemic — one that had decimated the community of Detroit in which our school is situated and where all of our students live.

From the beginning of the school year, our focus was to provide high quality instruction in a manner that was safe for our students and for our staff. We took every measure — providing our students with chromebooks and hot spots so that they could safely learn from home, upping the requirements for our all-star custodial staff who sanitized bathrooms and doorknobs on the hour, and allowing staff with health concerns to work from home. If a positive case of Covid was detected, everyone was sent home for two weeks while the building went through a deep clean and while everyone who had even remotely close exposure could get tested and watch for symptoms.

We were so careful, in fact — wearing masks in the building, staying six feet apart, sanitizing surfaces, and holding all meetings via Zoom — that even when a positive case occurred within the building, it was not spread. We were even offered weekly Covid testing every Monday, so when asymptomatic cases were diagnosed, the whole building could go home before any spread could take place.

Our leadership took every precaution to make sure our students and staff remained safe and healthy.

So what a shock it was, as we were all enjoying our summer break, knowing that we finished the year with minimal Covid impact, to receive a message from our principal that one of our coworkers, a well-loved teacher, just forty-four years old, had died very shortly after a cancer diagnosis.

It felt like a punch to the gut. I was stunned. How could this woman, who had volunteered to plan all the senior events (during a pandemic!) so that “our babies” would have a senior pinning, a prom, and an in-person graduation, have died? I had just been on zoom with her a few weeks earlier, discussing teaching strategies and sharing resources. She’d asked early in the year if I would mind talking with her from time to time as she was striving to be the best she could be for our students.

In the group chat where the news of her death had been shared, my colleagues instantly began sharing with one another how they were shocked and devastated. None of us could believe that just as we were planning to be physically with one another in the fall, this woman who leaned into every Zoom room, face fully on the screen, smiling and attentive, would not be with us.

Shortly after we learned of her passing, our principal sent out another note. We would have a candlelight vigil and balloon launch the following week to allow students and staff to grieve. I had heard of this practice just earlier in the year. Two of my former students from St. Louis and one of this year’s seniors all were killed by gun violence within weeks of one another between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Each of them had been remembered in this way.

Our principal’s note said to bring pink balloons (our colleague’s favorite color) and to come to the school. On that evening, my husband and I cut a family trip short so that we could be there. We pulled up to the building and found the principal and one of the custodians setting up. As we got closer, both of them moved toward us. After a whole school year of giving one another a wide berth, my principal and I instinctively hugged. I turned to the custodian, and we held one another.

It was no longer safe to remain distant.

As each staff member arrived, the hugging continued. Friends who had stepped around one another all year long, were offering comfort in the only way that would do — touch.

And tears.

Tears dripped from our eyes as forty-four candles were lit and balloons were shared. Markers were passed so that we could write tributes on the balloons. One teacher, who also happens to be a police chaplain, offered Scripture, emotional support, a space for sharing memories, and prayer. He told the dozen or more students who had gathered on a weeknight in the middle of summer that whatever they were feeling was ok, that the staff was grieving, too, that we were all shocked. None of us had known she was sick, he said; she hadn’t known long herself. He offered support through our social worker, our counseling resources, and himself. “We are a family,” he said, “and family supports one another through difficult times such as this.”

Our colleague’s mother moved to the middle of our circled bodies and shared that her daughter had loved our students, had talked about them all the time. Even from her hospital bed, she regretted that she was missing prom. We all nodded, knowing this was true, knowing that her heart had been fully with our kids.

As one, we counted to three and released our balloons into the sky. The cluster of bodies on the ground gazed upward, silently, for many long moments, watching the pink balloons lift into the clouds.

And then we lingered. Staff and students spoke to one another, shared memories, and stood closely in the silence. Gradually we began to chat: how is your summer? what have you been up to?

A baby was passed from his mother to students to staff. As though he knew our hearts were hurting, he lay his head our shoulders then lifted his gaze to smile us, instinctively bringing joy to the mourning.

One by one, the gathered began to dissipate, moving to cars, waving goodbyes, holding eye contact a little longer than we might’ve before, promising to see each other soon, knowing that we were connected a little more now than we had been a few hours earlier.

I don’t know how next year will play out. It holds promise for more proximity, more gathering, more sharing, and I hope we get that. It was appropriate to keep our distance for a while to protect one another, but it seems the best way to care for one another now is to come back together.

[There is] a time to refrain from embracing, and a time to embrace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 5 (Order reversed by me.)

Coronavirus Diary #27: Heavy

I knew the pandemic was heavy. Way back in April of last year, when I wrote Feeling the Funk, I was aware of the psychological weight of staying at home, isolating from our people, wearing masks, and altering the patterns of our lives. Ten months later, I’ve built up some muscle; I’ve gotten used to lugging around the burden and taking it in stride. Rather than moving in fits and starts, frantically watching the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Map as the case numbers and fatalities tick up, I have turned my gaze to daily life, kept steadily stepping, and tried to find joy wherever I can — a student who shows up to office hours, our dog neatly snuggled under his newly-crocheted afghan, or a fresh pot of chicken soup.

Yes, I plunk on the couch and watch the news each evening — looking squarely at the carnage, racial injustice, health care inequities, and political corruption we’ve all born witness to in the last months. Then, I detach via Netflix, go to bed, get up the next morning, drive to Detroit, and do my best for my students. I try to keep going and to focus on the the mission rather than what I’m missing. Yes, I watch the news, I know the deaths in the US have climbed to over 485,000. I realize that over 10% of our population has now received at least one dose of vaccine, but I am also aware that a return to anything resembling ‘normal’ is quite a way off. I am aware, but I try to not dwell on it. I try to get up every day, take care of myself, do my job, and find some joy.

So last week, when I logged into my online therapy session and heard myself sharing how thankful I was for my current job in a tone that sounded like I was delivering bad news, I was caught off guard.

I was telling my therapist that I had had an opportunity to be involved in a lived experience conversation with my colleagues — the first, actually, in what we hope to be a long series of group discussions about the varied experiences of the members of the group — what we’ve seen as white, black, male, female, gay, straight humans living in cities, suburbs, and towns. We’re hoping to learn about each other, to break down the walls of assumption and bias, and to further our quest toward equity for our students.

This is exactly the kind of work I’ve been wanting to do, so why did my tone sound so defeated, so depressed. I even remarked, “Wow. I’m making this sound like it’s bad news, when really I am very happy to be doing this work.”

Then my therapist said, “Almost everyone I’ve seen for the last couple of weeks has kind of been in a funk. We just passed the one year mark of when the first case was found in the US, and we don’t see a time when we will ‘get back to normal.'”

And I knew that — I mean, I wrote about it just a few weeks ago (post here), and I was still surprised by the heaviness of it.

The weight of living in this pandemic has been piling on. We are carrying an enormous communal grief — the loss of plans, the loss of livelihood, the loss of community, the loss of routine, and the loss of life. Some of us are feeling it more than others.

Many have experienced the uncommon loss of being separated from a loved one during their last days like my Aunt Margaret who hadn’t seen my uncle for three months when he died of complications of Covid-19. After 71 years of marriage, his last days were alone.

Many while carrying the heaviness of the pandemic, have also been lugging extra burdens such as caring for young children who are suddenly schooling at home, supporting parents with comorbidities who can’t risk going out, being displaced from jobs and struggling financially, or newly navigating the technology that allows working from home.

While the pandemic has been hard for all of us, it has been exponentially harder for people of color. Not only have they suffered and died from Covid-19 at higher rates, they’ve also been harder hit financially and have had to fight against systemic issues such as disparities in health care, education, housing, and employment. And, as always, they continue to experience violence and death at higher rates as a result of such systemic inequities.

As a white girl who, along with my husband, hasn’t missed a paycheck, is employed by an agency I love, and enjoys the highest quality health care my insurance can pay for and our money can buy, I feel the weight of this past year on my shoulders, but certainly not to the extent of those who live in the communities of color that I have worked in.

I was reminded of this over the last few weeks. One of my current students, who lives in Detroit, just missed two weeks of class because a family member with mental illness burned her family’s home to the ground. They’ve been reeling from that trauma and trying to find a new place to live, when finances are tighter than they’ve ever been before. They were already carrying too much; this must feel like more than they can bear. (Here is a GoFundMe if you feel moved to support them.)

Another current student has missed the last three weeks of school because he is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. A teenager with a gunshot wound. How heavy must it be for his parents, who were already managing life as a Black family living in Detroit in the midst of a pandemic, to now also be carrying all of the spoken and unspoken realities they and their son are now facing?

I feel an added heaviness just knowing that these students of mine who I’ve known just a few months are suffering, but what weight must their families and communities be feeling?

I got a taste of what such community pain might feel like this past week. Early last Monday morning, I learned that a former student, a member of the community of students, alumni, teachers, and parents that I was deeply involved with for almost 10 years — a classmate of two of my own children — had been shot and killed, along with her mother, in an act of domestic violence. She was 25, and now she’s gone. This determined young woman often showed up in my classroom after school to ask a question or just to chat. She’d been the first generation in her family to graduate from college, and within the last year or so, had reached out for a letter of recommendation for a position to which she was applying. After news of her death started circulating and I saw all of her classmates and friends posting on social media, I was in shock. How can such a promising young life be over?

Just three days later, I got another taste. Another former student, from that same community, a 30 year old husband and father of three, had died of a previously undiagnosed illness after five days in the hospital on life support. I remember the day he joined my class, having relocated to St. Louis from Chicago. He was a sweet soul, kind and tender. He, too, is now gone. (Here is a GoFundMe if you are interested in helping with funeral expenses and support of his family.)

These things are heavy, and our friends in communities of color have faced them so often that they know how to respond. While I am still sitting here shaking my head and wondering what happened, they’ve reached out to one another, organized GoFundMe campaigns, scheduled balloon releases, found photos of memories to post on social media, written poetry and tributes, and begun the process of mourning.

Me? I’m sitting over here still so stunned that I have no idea why my tone is depressed when I’m sharing good news. I haven’t processed the fact that my already heavy load just got a bit heavier. I haven’t realized that it’s time to put it down, to look squarely at the loss, and to grieve.

So, finally, as I write this, I am grieving — I’m mourning the loss of two young lives who will be sorely missed by their people. I’m grieving the realities of two more who are facing trauma upon trauma. I’m realizing again that the pandemic in itself is heavy and that some of us are carrying so much more.

Be kind to one another, friends. We’re in this for a while. Check in with one another — make a call or send a note.

Reach out to someone. What they are carrying is heavy; perhaps you can lighten their load.

Cast your burden unto Jesus, for He cares for you.

Gospel song.

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, A Re-visit

As we prepare to pack up our things and move a few miles away from our little house by the river, I am indulging in some reminiscing. This little place has held us and born witness to deep grief and miraculous healing; we have loved our years on this idyllic campus. Watching students transform from intimidated freshmen to courageous seniors has reminded us that life is a continuous series of transformations. We have had our own metamorphosis here. This post, written in October 2019, chronicles some stages of that healing.

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.

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 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 on the couch in the fetal position, sobbing; how much clarity could I have? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent and public.

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 re-sets 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 re-set. 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 re-sets happen.

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

Now — if you are at this moment 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

Epilogue: Replacing that sectional was so liberating. My husband and a coworker heaved the pieces into a dumpster, and we made the room ready for a sofa, a loveseat, a chair, and an ottoman. Just in time for the pandemic, we had a fresh space in which to shelter and begin to dream of what changes we would make next. We started by purchasing a new vehicle, then we took a deep breath and started looking at houses. It wasn’t too long before we found a little space full of surprises — an office, a second bathroom, two guest rooms, and an enormous garden — where we can continue to grow.

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