Friday, December 24, 2010

what you can learn from stories you have never liked

over the past several years, it has become our tradition to give luke the gift of a special family outing for christmas. i'm not sure how it started, really. probably accidentally. but it is meaningful in so many ways to us now. for one thing, it's hard to compete with what awaits luke on our annual christmas pilgrimage to our "homeland," aka syracuse, new york: mountains of snow, all of his grandparents and all their requisite indulgences, dozens of cousins, doting aunts and uncles galore, big black poodles...what more could a boy ask for, really? his same-old, same-old parents--with their limited budget, inability to conjure up snow on demand, and dog-less-and-local-family-less life--can hardly compete. and so, instead of trying, we decided several years ago to invent something new.

we celebrate what we call our "family christmas" in north carolina the day before we pack up the car and head north. luke looks forward to finding out first thing in the morning what the day holds; this year, it was tickets to see the voyage of the dawn treader in 3d, followed by dinner out at an italian restaurant. it was, as is always the case with our family christmas outings, a fun time together and a special treat.

the movie choice this year was all sam, though. while luke and sam love the chronicles of narnia (along with the rest of the world, as far as i can tell), i have never been able to get into them. (insert here the collective gasp of most everyone reading this post, for whom the narnia books have either been life-changing or childhood favorites or both or something else ridiculously significant.) i like to read most anything, but fantasy has never been a category i've been able to get into. i'll confess that i have started the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe more than once and have never finished it. if you know me and my ocd-ish inability to leave a book unfinished, you'll know how significant that is. anyhow, i had no argument with sam's choice: of course, this would be a perfect choice for luke. and i'd be glad to tag along despite my shameful lack of knowledge of narnia.

anyhow, that's an unnecessary amount of rambling to get to the point. the movie was great fun, although my boys tell me that it departed from the book in lots of really significant ways. for my part, i'm almost convinced to pick the books up again and give them another try. although i'm not all that good at entering into the fantasy, the allegory intrigues me enough that i think i'll give it go. but all this background is to lead up to this, perhaps my favorite line from the movie (which luke and sam tell me is not from the book, unfortunately): "i spent too long wanting what was taken from me and not what was given." it's king caspian who says this, and it doesn't really matter why, not insofar as this blogpost is concerned, anyhow. but the line was striking to me in many ways.

i won't go into all of them here, but suffice it to say that sam and i spend (and have spent recently) a significant amount of time wanting what was taken from us. but how much do we focus on what is given to us? i think of luke and my recent ramblings about my wishes for my mothering of him; of anastasia and her busy life inside me, soon to be outside; of my family and friends; of my work and the people i am privileged to serve and serve with there...i could go on and on. caspian goes on to say that he has been given people and that's what he must focus on as their king. similarly, i have been given people whom i am meant to serve--my family, my community--and i cannot be so wrapped up in wanting what i have lost that i fail to focus on what i have been given to do.

caspian won't forget his father, of course, nor do i plan to forget wishing eliza were still here. but the line stuck with me, is all, and made me eager to adjust my focus, at least sometimes. what amazing gifts and callings i have been given, and i'm glad for the reminder not to lose sight of them.

(and now that christmas eve has nearly become christmas morning, i'll quote another favorite movie line, this from forrest gump: "and that's all i have to say about that." at least for tonight.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"we got no troubles..."

"life is the bubbles under the sea," sang sebastian (you knew it was sebastian, right? from the little mermaid, of course. my favorite disney movie of all time, in case you were wondering.)

i have always loved the water, for at least as long as i can remember, and probably longer. pool, ocean, lake, river, whatever. if i can swim in it, i'm happy. really big bathtub? great. in fact, i remember when we moved when i was in sixth grade and our new house had this really fantastic huge old fashioned tub...anyhow, i digress.

my wallpaper on my computer at work (that would be the computer at the editing job i just quit, thankyouverymuch, which is a story for another time) caught my eye the other day. actually, to be honest, it was my last day there, and i was staring at the screen trying to get motivated to edit one more flier before i could punch my proverbial card for the last time. anyhow, i was staring at the screen, mesmerized by the picture there and completely ignoring the flier, since i'm being honest, and it got me thinking about how and when we learn about the sharks.

the wallpaper was this picture of paradise:

amazingly crystal clear blue water. dreamy. it made me think of what the water used to look like when i was a kid--the first glimpse of a pool below as we flew over florida en route to nana and papa's house, of green lakes in the summer when we went there to swim, of the rivers and hot springs we swam in and jumped off cliffs into on our trip to yellowstone. you can't see it in that picture as well as i could when it filled my desktop, but that water is perfectly clear. no seaweed, no rocks, nothing swimming as far as the eye can see.

but i know those things aren't true. after all, that's a picture of the ocean or some sea somewhere (and oh, how i'd like to know where because i'd really like to live there). and i know full well what lives in oceans and seas: fish and crabs and other relatively harmless (and yummy) things, plus other things of varying harmfulness, like the jellyfish that stung me a few years back or the sharks whose attacks make the news every summer. so what i wondered as i daydreamed in that desktop was when i realized those waters weren't completely clear after all.

there comes a moment, doesn't there, when we lose our innocent joy? when what we've learned in school about sealife collides with our family vacation and we realize that things live under that beautiful playground in which we swim? there are sharks in those waters.

it's the proverbial sharks i was thinking about, of course, in our proverbial waters. like when we realize our parents aren't always right. or that doctors can't make everything better. or that some things that hurt can't be fixed. or that there isn't always a happy ending like in disney world. it's a gradual process, i guess; we don't realize those things all at once. i'm sad that, at age seven, luke has already learned some of those things. it makes me cringe to think of it, really, because i want his waters always to be the crystal clear playground in that photograph, with nothing lurking underneath. can we regret growing up? or, at least, regret that others have to?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

because i'm not a one-trick pony

(here's the proof that i think blog-worthy thoughts about things other than grief sometimes, too.)

we finally decorated our christmas tree today. it has become a tradition for us to get our tree on the first sunday of advent--which was two weeks ago, mind you--but somehow this year it took us those two weeks to finally drag the boxes out of the attic. it was those boxes that got me thinking.

most every ornament on our tree has a story, as does most every ornament on most every christmas tree, i'd wager to guess. and there are ornaments not on our tree that have stories, too, like the ones given to us for christmas in 2000, the first year we were married. before we headed home for christmas that year, we put up a sad little fake tabletop tree and discovered we had basically no ornaments with which to decorate it. that christmas was a year of practical gifts, things our budding life together needed--a shiny new metal toolbox for sam, and, among other things, quite a few very delicate, beautiful ornaments for the next year's tree. without my knowledge, my dear new husband packed all my beautiful ornaments in his shiny metal toolbox--"packed" in the sense of just putting them in there--and checked that toolbox with our luggage on our flight home. needless to say, those ornaments never made it on our next year's tree.

but i digress. (you should know that we can--and often do--laugh about those ornaments now. but in january of 2001...well, they really had been beautiful.)

what i was struck with as we decorated the tree this year, though, was not the stories behind the ornaments. i enjoyed those stories as much as always, of course. but as i unpacked the boxes, i was struck with their familiarity. the boxes! a few years ago, i bought some of those fancy rubbermaid ornament storage boxes, as our now-overwhelming collection had outgrown the few random boxes in which the ornaments were packed--"packed" in the sense of wrapped carefully and individually in bubble wrap or tissue paper, of course. but some of the old, un-fancy boxes have retained their contents, too. i was amazed at the stories those boxes could tell.

they're random shipping-type boxes, these are. at least one was from gifts shipped to us that same first christmas and bears our first address together--that ghetto apartment in durham that not many of you who are reading this have known us long enough to remember. several boxes have years' worth of scribbled out labels on them. one bears the now-obliterated words "for luke's eyes only"; it was used the first year he was in preschool as he brought home things he had made for us over the course of december. he needed somewhere secret that he knew was safe to stash these treasured projects (or he needed somewhere for me to stash them for him after i unpacked them from his backpack, somewhere safe where i was sure not to see them), and so he used this box, which he kept under his bed, labeled to ensure its safety.

the wrappings for those ornaments are also strangely familiar, like the perfectly-square pieces of bubble wrap, leftover--it must be--from our move from the ghetto apartment to the middle-of-nowhere-but-in-the-middle-of-everything townhouse that, again, few of you will remember. (we wrapped pretty much everything very carefully in bubble wrap for that move, traumatized as i still was from the only-six-month-old memory of my lost ornaments.) i think some of that bubble wrap is in those boxes, still protecting ornaments from our second christmas. there was--until this year, and i wonder what happened to it--in one of those boxes a yellow plastic bag from fay's drugs, our drugstore throughout my childhood until it was taken over by eckerd in 1997 (so says wikipedia, since my memory is not that specific), also protecting some ornament with a story of its own.

protection, containers, vessels...i'm pretty sure that on most nights i'd have something more profound with which to connect my thoughts about boxes of stories and ornaments. earthen vessels? hmmm. perhaps not tonight. i think maybe it's enough to just enjoy the stories in those boxes.

(maybe i am a one-trick pony after all. at least maybe this week.)

Friday, December 10, 2010


don't let this define you, he said.

i think i may have mentioned here before (darned if i can find where) that, as has anyone who has been through a significant loss, i heard some comments that were less than helpful after eliza died. i knew that all of them were shared with the best of intentions, and so for the most part in each case i was able to receive the good intention and ignore the foolish vehicle for its delivery. but these words didn't roll off my back so easily. don't let this define you. thankfully, they were offered in the context of a conversation in which it was appropriate for me to push back--and so i did. i had completely forgotten that conversation until i recently heard the same words offered to a friend who had just been diagnosed with cancer: don't let this define you.

before i explain my pushback, i should explain that i understand the good intention behind the words. for my friend with cancer and for me in my loss, the intention (i believe) was the same: don't cease living because of suffering, don't give up on all you know and are because a bad thing has happened, don't lose your identity because of this new label you wear: cancer patient, grieving mother. i am grateful for those good intentions.

but what i said to the friend who offered me these words was this: i believe that losing eliza is intended to define me. not in the sense that i should always and ever be only a grieving mother; those of you who know me well know that was never a risk for me. but in the sense that in some inexplicable, providential way, this was intended for me and is meant to change me. death is evil--don't get me wrong--and was never what God intended for us. but "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose" (romans 8:28). even evil things He can and does use for our good.

i know that losing eliza has changed me, which is not to say that i wouldn't give it all back if i didn't have to lose her after all. but since that is not mine to decide, i will decide what i can, which in this case is to be grateful for those changes and the way that her life and death were intended to define me. if i believe in a God who is God of the whole universe and of every single hair on eliza's head, a God who is all good and wants the best for me and eliza always, a God who is completely in control, then somehow or another, God is in everything i experience, be it joyful or painful. He allows the painful things...or something equally hard to swallow: one way or another, He is in them. and they are meant to define me. what has resulted from the trial of losing eliza was meant for me, and God is all over it. He has defined (in the sense of creating) me through losing eliza, and that is--somehow, and the Lord only knows how--good. in one sense, my friend was right: i shouldn't be defined by losing eliza in the sense that i might become nothing but a grieving mother. but in quite another and perhaps more important sense, i know that i needed to let losing eliza define me. this suffering is mine and i am God's, and through this as through everything i experience, He is making me into what he has intended for me from the beginning of time.

let Him define you--that's my advice, i guess--even when the vehicle for the defining feels more like painful re-fining.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

turn, turn, turn

it's time to be sad again, he said, kneeling by the bed in the dark. we had been arguing, i think--and who knows about what, as is almost always the case with those things--and i suppose i had gone to bed, seeing no other way to put an end to it. it's time to be sad again, here in the dark.

it seems to me that for the most part, we resist cycles. we artificially heat and light the annual dark, cold seasons; we medicate monthly bad moods; we travel to warm places when it's cold and cool places when it's hot; we starve and exercise and surgically rearrange bodies that mature into sagging or stretching or drooping. we strive for equilibrium in our emotions, our environments, our habits. we don't want change, cyclical or otherwise.

but resist as we may, we live in a world dominated by cycles. if you go to school with luke, you'll probably learn about the water cycle. there's the cycle of time: resist as we may, whether we get out of bed or not, morning will follow night, every night, for as long as the Lord sees fit to perpetuate that cycle. the seasons are cyclical, of course, as are the holidays that appear in them. for many people, emotions are cyclical, affected by light or weather or hormones or other indeterminate factors. this is part of why i appreciate the liturgical church year, as i think i've mentioned before. ordinary time is always followed by something extra-ordinary, green followed by purple, red leading to white. (if that's all foreign to you, here's a decent, brief explanation of what i'm talking about.) try as we may to celebrate christmas in july, like luke with his interminable whistling this summer, that's not the time for it, and christmas will not come then.

i'd prefer to resist the cycle of sadness, too. i'd prefer to call out in the dark, no! it's not the time to be sad. i won't be told when to be sad! i won't let the calendar dictate what this sunday will look like for me--or any other day, for that matter. last year, as december 12 approached, sam and i were convinced that it would be a day like any other. it was clear when 9:15am arrived that day that we were completely wrong.

i'd prefer it if this were not "the time to be sad." i'd prefer to preserve advent and christmas as times of joyful waiting and leave the sad for some more convenient time--or never. but the fact is that i have no choice but to submit to the darkness when it arrives. unlike in my modern, electrified house--in which i can flip a few switches and pretend that this cold, dark night is in fact a warm, sunny day--i cannot turn a dark emotional season into a bright one. there are dark seasons that cannot so easily be turned on or off. and maybe there are times to be sad.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
(go ahead, sing it. you know you want to. i am. turn, turn, turn.)

what ecclesiastes 3 goes on to say is that God "has made everything beautiful in its time" (v11). the fact that everything has its season--birth and death, planting and reaping, weeping and laughing, casting away and gathering in, seeking and losing--is no accident. the cycle of seasons is made beautiful in its time. i have to believe that we're built for submitting to those cycles (inasmuch as they're healthy, of course, in which i do not at all mean to ignore the fact that in our brokenness, those cycles can be broken, too). put simply, if it is time to be sad, i'd do well to listen to that, to submit to it, to learn in it, to grow through it.

and in kneeling in the dark, recognizing that it is time to be sad again, i will all the more appreciate the light, the morning that follows night every time in its turn.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

grieving gratefully

grief doesn't go away. and today i figured out another reason i'm glad it doesn't.

in the past, i've been glad it doesn't go away for some reasons about which i have some questions regarding their health value. i've been glad to hang onto it as a last remaining tangible bit of eliza. i've been loathe to let it go because it felt like all i had left. like losing my pain about eliza's death is somehow "getting over it" in a way that means having lost her more completely than before. that's real and true and far from unique to me, i know. i'm not sure, however, how healthy it is. but today i figured out another reason i'm glad to still grieve having lost eliza, and i think this one is much healthier.

last night, sam and i were talking about what we have done with our grief--or perhaps more accurately, what it has done to and for us. i had a few thoughts on the spot. i think i've developed a different type of compassion. i've learned something about how to show up for people. i understand myself and my own needs better. i know suffering in a way i never knew before, and i'm able to share that with others. i have become more transparent for sure, as evidenced by some of what i post here. none of this is meant to sound like i have it all nailed, of course. but God has used my grief to teach me some things, is all, and i think those things have clarified for me who i am and what He has for me to do.

but the part of that conversation that really broke me was when i talked about what i wish my grief had done for me. this is the really raw, hard part: i wish it had made me a better mother. if anything, i'm afraid it has done the opposite. i wish that in losing eliza i had learned to be more grateful for luke. i wish my selfish impatience with his seven-year-old-ness--his slowness to make his bed in the morning, his lies about whether or not he has brushed his teeth, his failure to unpack his backpack after school despite repeated requests, his constant arguing with any parental directive at all--i wish my grief could cause me to see past my impatience with these childish failures and allow me to be grateful that he is here, and he is seven, and he is healthy, and he will someday (deo volente) be eight. why is all my eternal perspective and compassion for others and yadda yadda yadda completely lost on my child? why is it that while most of my life seems to benefit from the good parts of my grief, luke gets only the exhausted, impatient, fragile part?

it was as i sat waiting for luke in the carpool line today that i realized this is the great mercy in the persistence of grief: it is not finished changing me. if it were gone, if i were over it, then its failure to make me a better mother would be over and done with. but the fact that i still grieve, the fact that this week is painful and life-changing still and all over again, means that my grief is not done with me. it means that i can still look forward to the changes it is effecting and will effect in my life. and i can pray that growth as a mother will be one of those changes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

sufficient unto the day

"Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (matthew 6:34).

a nearly-crash landing on our flight today should produce in me some deep thoughts, no? while my head was as near my lap as it can get (not very near thanks to anastasia, i'm afraid), while my arms were braced against the seat in front of me and sam was holding luke's head down by the back of his neck (read your seatback emergency instructions--who knew that's what you were supposed to do?), while the flight attendant was ensuring everyone knew where the closest exits were--while all of that was happening, i should have had some sort of life-flashing-before-my-eyes moment, shouldn't i have?

not so much, as it turns out.

don't get me wrong: it was scary. but honestly, until after we landed and found out the whole story of what had happened--pilot's panels out, cockpit filled with smoke--we didn't have the time or information to realize how scary it should have been. the pilot and flight attendants did an amazing job of making sure we knew how important it was that we did what we were told without causing anyone to panic, despite the fact that they gave us very little information.

this is what surprises me the most. as i was just sharing with a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer and is about to undergo a major surgery, i'm the type of person who wants all the information. throughout eliza's life, i was so frustrated by doctors who wouldn't explain it all to me--all the possibilities, all the ramifications, all the possible treatments. even if none of it proved to be true, i wanted to understand everything i could so i would be prepared. i felt that way about God, too; i could handle whatever was going to happen with eliza, just as long as He prepared me for it.

despite the fact that many of eliza's doctors learned that i could in fact handle whatever information they had, that i would persist in asking questions until they told me what they could, they very often had few if any answers to give me. the same was true with God: although He has all the answers, obviously, He did not frequently give me lots of information in preparation for all of the many important moments in eliza's life. the lack of information i had throughout eliza's life and since then has always frustrated me. if only i knew! and i have for a very long time been convinced that since this was how i was wired, it must be right and good.

our near-crash landing (which ended completely safely, by the way) today is a good real-live metaphor for what i apparently refuse to learn: just enough information--and not all of it--can be a protection and a gift. had the flight crew answered all of our questions in the moment, had they given us all the information we thought we wanted--what was going on? what was going to happen? what were all the possibilities for landing scenarios?--not that there was time to answer any of those questions...but if they had, would that have helped us? would we have been safer or calmer or better prepared? no. we were given what we needed for the moment, and that was it. i'm pretty sure i've read that God works the same way.

"The LORD said to Moses, 'I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, "At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God."'

That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, 'What is it?' For they did not know what it was.

Moses said to them, 'It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat. This is what the LORD has commanded: "Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent."'

The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.

Then Moses said to them, 'No one is to keep any of it until morning.'

However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.

Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much—two omers for each person—and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses. He said to them, 'This is what the LORD commanded: "Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning."'

So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. 'Eat it today,' Moses said, 'because today is a sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.'

Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, 'How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.' So the people rested on the seventh day (exodus 16:11-30).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

the alpha and omega

this week, as our church staff sat down together for morning prayer, one of the other staff members mentioned how satisfying it was to begin on page one. if you've ever used the book of common prayer, you'll know that the scriptures with which morning prayer open are determined by the season; and if you pay attention to the liturgical calendar, you'll know that advent is the beginning of the year. thus the opening scriptures for advent are on the first page of the morning prayer rite.

i had just been thinking the same thing when the other staff member mentioned his appreciation for starting on page one. i had chalked my page-one satisfaction up to my ocd-ish need to have things complete, start to finish, and added it to my list of obsessions with patterns; my absolute inability to leave a book unfinished, even a bad one; and my refusal to start watching a movie from anywhere but the beginning, even one i've seen before. but i got to thinking, of course, about advent being the start of the year.

i have heard one friend of mine quote another mutual friend (though i've never heard him say it directly) as having said in defense of liturgy that if the church doesn't tell us what time it is, the world will. (having acquired this brilliant quotation by hearsay, i'll feel free to interpret it at will.) if the church doesn't tell us that christmas comes at the end of four weeks of waiting, the world will tell us it begins on halloween. if the church doesn't tell us that easter comes only after long weeks of penitence and self-examination, the world will send us bunnies and colorful eggs right on the heels of our valentines.

but do i really think of advent as the start of the year?

for me, advent feels more like it's about endings than beginnings. this next couple of weeks is a time of waiting to recognize for a second year the anniversary of eliza's death, this year smack on gaudete sunday (more on that here). then i wait a couple more weeks for yet another christmas when i won't hang her stocking along with the rest of ours (or will i? i can't remember what i decided last year). then after christmas, i'm yet again waiting, this time for eliza's birthday, just a few short weeks after epiphany.

that seems all wrong. i'm supposed to start the year in this waiting anticipating beginnings, not dwelling on endings. or am i?

the thing is that beginnings and endings don't need to be all that different after all. (here i'm tempted to bust into singing "the circle of life." but of course i won't.) because what is the point of an ending but to begin something new? of course, the prime example here for me is the knowledge that the end of eliza's broken, painful, earthly life was the beginning of her eternal, heavenly, whole one. the advent of her real life, so to speak. then there's the whole seed analogy--that something has to die in order for something new to grow--repeated in too many trite sympathy expressions for me to bear repeating it. but how is it for me that this season of waiting to remember endings can be about starting the year afresh?

because in my pain, which i will not deny at this time of year any more than any other, i can be brought to my knees afresh. i can bathe in fresh gratitude for the gift that is christmas--and the many, many other gifts in my life for which i forget to be thankful. i can start over precisely because of my brokenness and suffering, because i've already been driven to my knees in my wrestling with endings. what better place to start the year than on my knees, keenly aware of my need for what is offered to me anew yet again?

(and here i'll rejoice in living in the south where i can avoid yet another requisite trite image of a world that is a clean slate, bathed in snow just in time for starting over at christmas. but do with that what you will.)