If you are swimming in deep waters (Holding sadness and joy at the same time)

If you are swimming in deep waters (Holding sadness and joy at the same time)

In the middle of a midnight drive, in a terrible rainstorm, I saw it. A giant boat rising up on the side of the interstate out of the chaos.

A bubble of laughter burst from my throat unexpectedly. “That’s a boat! I mean seriously there’s a boat on the road!”

I thrilled a little in imagining it to be a modern day Noah’s Ark sort of situation. I giggled like a kid at the silliness of finding a boat all by itself on the interstate, ready to face the oncoming deluge should it devolve into a worldwide flood.

It had been a really terrible night. And a wonderful night.

My family and I had been visiting with old friends and were on our way back from Long Island to PA where I have family, when I accidentally directed us through Time Square. Yes. Accidentally. Who does that? I still think my GPS owes me an explanation for THAT set of directions. But we got to show that place of bustling craziness to our oldest son who had lived there with us as a baby.

“Mom, what is this place? Why are we here?”

“It’s New York City. And I don’t know.”

“I LOVE it Mom! Look at all the people Mom! This is amazing!”

We skipped through the traffic and did our best not to hit jaywalkers. We both laughed heartily when a car pulled around us in our left-turn lane to turn left from the right hand lane because we were not FAST enough. And I got a phone call, somewhere in the middle of the mad dash through Manhattan, that somewhere a baby had died.

Softly in his sleep. His mother, my community member, fellow teacher and fellow Mom, sat somewhere in devastation.

And I had to look back to my family. To give us directions so that we could find Lincoln tunnel before we got lost in the labyrinth of NYC forever. To talk to my son about where we were until he fell back asleep. To squeeze my younger son’s leg and make sure he was still breathing, because I needed to hear that. Over and over again I checked.

And my husband and I had this magnificent conversation about life, and love, and sadness. I had just received permission to use the name of another Son who had died almost exactly one year before. To use his name for the unborn child I now carry, a child who is to be my third son. He will bear the name of my own family’s lost son so that we can remember, and take joy in a life well-lived, and bring forth new life in the midst of sadness.

And it was one of those conversations that marks a place in time. As if we were getting to step outside of time for just a little bit to review where we had been. To muse on where we would go and ponder how we would walk through great tragedy should it ever come to us. We laughed, and we cried (Ok, I mostly cried and my husband sat in respectable somber silence). And we were at once joyful and hopeful and devastated. And I did my best to hold all of it without dropping any of those feelings, wrapping it like gossamer and thorns around my own heart. I held the meaning of the grief and the memories and the giggling all at once…

as we drove into one of the worst thunder storms I have ever been in.

And we spent 3 hours blundering through rain so thick we couldn’t see the lines on the road, only forging ahead because every other car had their emergency flashers on too, little blinking lighthouses to follow into the night that, themselves, could take a tumble off the road. My knuckles gripped my seat in anxiety as I continued to cry and laugh. I thought about our beautiful night, the real fear of driving on a road we could not see, and that I was experiencing all this at the same time another mother somewhere was having the worst night of her life, and two more I know were remembering the not so distant worst night of theirs.

And Jonathon and I, we held all of these things up. We tried to bear the weight with courage. To fully exult in the joyful and mourn for the brokenness and loss.

And that boat rose up from the storm, like a whimsical love letter to us straight from the God I’ve always thought was just a touch sarcastic and wry (in the best way of course). And I honestly don’t know if I was laughing or crying more.

And we drove home to where my brand new baby niece sleeps in her brand new home with my brother and his wife. Where there were more snuggles to be had and new life to be enjoyed.

And I was so very truly sad-happy in terrible and wonderful sincerity.

It was a treasure-all-these-things-up-in-our-hearts-night.

And we held it all together as we crawled into our bed to try and sleep. Full of wonder, free of fear, trusting that God would hold us whatever would come.

We laid there believing he holds those in grief so closely: past and future, all who have ever mourned and all who ever will. Like children believing our parent knows where we are going in the storm and that somehow, simply because of who they are, who HE is, no matter what happens, the car will stay on the road and we will be ok.

And I still believe that we will be.

If You Really Love Trees (When Anger is Hard to Explain)

If You Really Love Trees (When Anger is Hard to Explain)

I like to think of myself as a bit of a hobbit–because I can be the same old boring and quiet person day in and day out until out of nowhere…

I hurl an apple as hard as I can with a Tarzan-like scream at school bullies.

I try to break down the door someone had curtly slammed on my nose and wake up my entire dorm floor throwing myself at it.

I calmly and coldly stand still in front of a car threatening to run me over because he is driving on a sidewalk illegally behind me and it pisses me off.

I stand between two men about to fight and break it up even though my BABY is strapped to my chest.

I personally chase down on foot a bunch of football players on ATV’s throwing water balloons at people with that same Tarzan scream because one landed inches from my ear.

These are things I actually did. There are more stories like that too. If something gets me killed one of these days it’s definitely going to be my crazy out of nowhere volcano temper. Sometimes I think the only thing that saved me was that no one ever expected it from me. I always used to just shove those events back in the dark recesses of my mind as quickly as possible. I probably wasn’t going to do that again. Right? And I never really wanted to ask myself why they had happened at all.

Secretly, I have often thought of myself as a grumpy slob who would rather just live in a cave with cats (and probably resemble something like the crazy cat lady in the Simpsons who throws her angry cats at people for no reason at all) and a good coffee machine and maybe some books and video games. And some rocks to throw at squirrels. Because I think I am a horrible and selfish person. I only have good qualities because other people seem to want them and I seem to want other people in spite of myself. So I have been angry at everyone. And no one. And mostly myself.

Once, when I was at a a big church conference, there was a sermon on the power of healing people through faith. I don’t remember much, other than that at the end there was this opportunity to experience one of the most beautiful sacraments of the church–being anointed with oil. I sat and listened and casually noted that I had no physical needs for healing. I watched friends go down for healing who had cancer, or migraines, or various other needs. But to my own astonishment, I found myself walking down toward one of those doing the anointing. I had no idea what I was going to say. These are the words that came out of my mouth:

“I’m so angry I can’t bear it. I’m angry every day and every night and I think I hate everyone. I’m. Just. So. Angry.” A torrent of unexpected tears came, as I sank into my own horror at myself, and the relief that came at admitting to the acrid secret that tore at me constantly.

He awkwardly told me that my need wasn’t really what they meant by healing, but he prayed with me anyway.  He gave me no anointing. I walked away feeling empty and really unsure of why I had felt compelled to go down. And my own words were a shock to me. The angry cat lady was a thought I barely acknowledged even to myself. I shook off the tears and emotion and put the awkward healing prayer I didn’t need behind me.

Years later, after getting married, 3 moves, 2 kids, and a lot of realizing that I seem to be discontented pretty much wherever we were, it happened. I was sitting at a ladies lunch with friends listening to the story of another friend. She told a story similar to the one I had as a kid. She had moved to a new town and it hadn’t gone well. She eventually learned how to fit in and got new clothes and a great hair-do and became student council president and was successful in so many ways. (I know her own story was one about the follies of chasing approval by other people, and painful for its own reasons, but those things faded completely in the light of my own regret at my own life). It cracked me wide open. A hurricane of jealousy and hatred and rage filled me in that moment so that I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move.

Her story was not my story, and I wished it was. I was never popular, and never managed to look particularly cool or beautiful. We never had much money and my clothes were either used or from Wal-Mart. I had some academic achievement and a handful of friends and I knew that should have made me feel blessed. But in so many ways for so many reasons, some real and some imagined, and some so bad I’d never told anyone, I felt cheated.  And in that moment of jealousy and anger I was so ashamed that I couldn’t move on from these things. I put my head in my hands and cried great big ugly tears.


When I was small, there were these two beautiful trees in the back yard of our parsonage home. They stood next to a big chain link fence that divided our yard from the highway and the train tracks that lay on the other side. My brother and I each claimed a tree as ours. We used to climb up into our trees, hang on with one arm and wave and yell things at the conductors of trains that passed. One day one of the parishioners cut them down. All that remained were stumps. Someone claimed they were ugly and too close to the gorgeous (*cough) chain link fence back there. My young self didn’t understand at all, didn’t they ask if those trees belonged to anyone? I visited the stumps afterward, like grave stones. I talked to them (Ok, I know I’m admitting something about myself right here, but I also talk to my cats, my lamps, and oh whatever–I like trees and I talk to them.) I told them I missed them and I was sorry.

Years later, there was this tree in the front yard of the next parsonage we moved to. It was this enormous Maple tree that turned the color of fire in the fall. I loved that tree like a dear friend. But it only ever had leaves on half of it’s branches. The other half were dead and bare. It was broken, but in a way I delighted in forgiving it for. It was like me. Beautiful and Ugly. Dead and Alive. Awake and Asleep. I adored it.

One day, driving back from school with Mom, I came home to find it cut down and sliced up into pieces on our front yard. It’s sap was still visibly oozing and dripping down the slices. Like blood. I picked up both of my feet and slammed them into our car’s dashboard when I saw it. And I screamed something like “OF COURSE THEY WOULD OF COURSE THEY WOULD BECAUSE I LOVED THAT TREE! OF COURSE THEY WOULD!”

I think my mother almost drove into the curb in surprise at my outburst and complete change in demeanor.

Someone told me the tree was rotten inside. That it wasn’t any good. I think I said, “Oh, sure. I guess that makes sense. It’s just sad.” Inside I felt murderous. The people who killed the tree were the same people who had shut one of my cats in a room alone while my family was on vacation. He had died slowly of dehydration and infection as a result. I wasn’t exactly trusting of their respect toward living things.

It was the lack of control of my life that drove me crazy. My family didn’t own very much. We borrowed most of it. House, trees, furnishings, carpets, bathrooms, yards. Other people could decide at a moments notice there needed to be a change, or something had to go. And no one ever seemed to care or ask me how I felt about things. But I was also sure that it wouldn’t take anything too out of order for me to get my Dad fired or at least very very embarrassed. So I held it in and smiled at everything. And when I wrote in my journal sometimes I wrote so angrily I tore holes through the paper with my pen. And I secretly whispered to trees that I loved them and that I was on their side.

As an adult, I once had an ESL student tell me she thought I was the happiest person in the world. I laughed and without thinking said, “Oh that’s probably just because I’m from the MidWest! We all smile there. Even when we’re not happy at all. It’s pretty creepy actually.” I looked at her blank stare and realized it was probably the wrong thing to say. “Ha, ha, hey creepy! That’s a great word. Anyone know how to define the word creepy?…”

Smiling when I didn’t mean it had gotten to be a lifelong habit. And hating people who wielded any sort of power had as well. But it was buried so deep I could only find it in a moment where someone was throwing water balloons at me or hitting my face with a door. But it was unmistakable. I did not believe that the vast majority of people were on my side at all.


At that moment, the one where I was crying big ugly angry tears after my friend told her story, I felt a gentle touch on my head. I looked up to see the face of a lady at my church, smiling with so much compassion it melted my resentment in a moment. She had neat curly hair and square glasses perched on the tip of her nose. The eyes behind them were so kind. She didn’t ask me what was wrong or make me tell my story. She held my head in her hands and she prayed with me. And then, from her purse, she pulled out a vial of oil. She anointed me and asked God for healing.

One touch, even far after the fact, from one person willing to accept my anger and sadness and have compassion on it took this huge weight off of my shoulders I’d been carrying for so long. She didn’t make me prove I deserved compassion, like so many other people, or weigh me or judge me in any way. She was Jesus to me like that man at the conference had failed to be. Or the tree killers, the cat killers, or that guy driving his car on the sidewalk behind me.


Two years ago I got to plant trees in the backyard of the house I bought with my husband. My kids and I watched as the tree guys put them in the ground and tethered them to posts. “Look mommy! Baby trees!” squealed my oldest. I smiled, a real smile, and gave him a squeeze.

“Yes kiddo. We’ve got to take care of them as a family. They’ve got a lot of growing to do, but we’re going to help them.”

When all my family was asleep I snuck out into the backyard that night to water the new trees. I touched each one and let their leaves brush my cheeks. I whispered to each one.

“We love you. You are ours. We’re going to take care of you.”

If You’re Having Trouble Staying Awake (Adventures of a Wayward Lenten Fast)

If You’re Having Trouble Staying Awake (Adventures of a Wayward Lenten Fast)

For Lent this year, I decided to take a fast from self comfort and fill in the void with self compassion and intentionality. Basically I’m trying to force myself to feast on mindfulness until Easter. And you know what? So far I’m failing pretty hard. Even though I’ve totally refrained from coffee and tv and social media outside of communication (ok I slipped a little out of forgetfulness, but really I’m doing ok!), but it hasn’t really kept me mindful. It turns out that I can slip into a self comforting state of forgetfulness and distance from any pain in my world without any prop whatsoever. I literally have the ability to just sit there and turn off my brain. How on earth do I have this ability? I didn’t used to be this way.

I don’t know at what point exactly when everything became so hard. When I was a kid, I used to spend hours digging up rolly pollies just so I could watch them crawl across the ground and curl up into those funny little balls when I poked at them.  My best friend and I used to dig under bushes in almost religious silence, wondering about the complexities of the smallest thing.  Rain was glorious and produced fantastic puddles.  Chocolate was good. Tag was fun.  Blowing bubbles was a majestic miracle. And when you liked someone and wanted to be their friend, by golly, that’s exactly what you did.  The world was challenging, but always simple.

But as an adult, I flop the equation.  Most of life doesn’t seem that hard anymore. I fold laundry. I sweep floors. Money must be made to buy food. Kids must be bathed. Maybe when the challenge and wonder goes out of so much of life from repetition and familiarity, the sacred goes with it. I don’t see wonderful tiny creatures in the ground, I see dirt that can be tracked in. I don’t see the beauty of rain, I see the inconvenience that comes with being cold and wet. I don’t see playing tag, I see exhaustion and how out of shape I am. Everything is complicated but nothing is sacred and valuable. Things are easy but joy is hard to find.

I think at some point I decided that if I trip along, mostly surviving, never intentionally doing anything (good or bad, because I could mistake one for the other and that is not a risk I’m willing to take), arriving at the end of the day without any idea really how I got there, it was somehow better than making real decisions with actual responsibility taking. I want to be doing more than surviving and avoiding blame. I want to be awake to life!

So I decided that in order to accomplish this, I might actually have to consider planning my day. This is not something I really ever do. And I realized as I sat down to make my first plan, that it horrifies me. That much intentionality highlights what probably undergirds the whole problem: I don’t even know what I want to do because I am so afraid what I want might be wrong or it might not work. And that’s not a silly fear. I want a lot of wrong things and I do a lot of stupid stuff when left to my own devices. What can I do?

Quite awhile ago I was reading through The Jesus Story Book Bible with my oldest son. To my great frustration, he kept flipping the pages on me instead of letting me read. In my usual habit I unnecessarily flipped out at him. Bedtime was almost over. I was almost free! I couldn’t handle the delay.

“If you aren’t going to pay attention to me reading then I’m just going to be done reading to you!” *huff huff grimace.

“But mommy,” he said. “I just want to look at Jesus!”

My heart melted. I was a jerk. I let him look at Jesus all he wanted. I apologized for being rude. We talked about who Jesus was and why he is so good. I was  grateful that my son had managed to draw in my focus and push me up out of my need to just move past the things in my day that I had to do.

Every time something like this catches me, it feels like waking up. And every time I don’t really remember why I fell asleep again. Until I do.  Why is this so hard?

I’m only a few days into this, and I’m not sure I have any idea what I’m doing. Why on earth did I pick such a big huge thing as being mindful? But I have a feeling my son had the right idea. I can’t do this thing alone. And after all, it seems that what I’m continually looking for is cheap comfort in the face of a world that is too terrifying to think about very often, if I can stomach it at all.

But there is real comfort out there. So again and again, every time I’m feeling tired, or very mortal, or like eating when I’m not hungry, or tuning out to tv, or books or movies, or even just sitting still and thinking about nothing at all–I try to think about how my son knew exactly what he needed to be doing.

And I just want to look at Jesus.

This could totally be yet another example of how I really suck at picking reasonable project scope. But let’s face it, even if I crash and burn horribly at this and drive up to Starbucks tomorrow demanding a Venti-triple-shot-half-caf-mocha (Oh goodness, that was just off the top of my head. I don’t drink anything like that. Don’t judge me!), I’m headed in the right direction. And I will be present a whole lot more which is really good. And I will look at Jesus a whole lot more, which is priceless.

That’s my plan for now. That and maybe blowing some bubbles. Is there anything more like paying attention to the tiny pieces of the moment than blowing bubbles?

Anybody else out there feel like they may have bit off more than they can chew for Lent?