Butterfly, Caterpillar, or Dementor…which are you?

This week I found myself thanking God for my pain. I found myself thanking him for the suffering I have lived through. I found my heart overflowing with gratitude that he didn’t leave me in my comfort and mediocrity, thankful that he had pulled me into the deep and submerged me in a sea of suffering.

I’m not a masochist or anything. I hate pain just as much as the next person, but I have learned something about pain.metamorphosis-012

It’s our cocoon.

It is the key ingredient in our metamorphosis.

It is through pain that we emerge either in our splendor or…in a crippled and warped version of ourselves.

And the difference is all in our attitude.

One of my friends always throws a big halloween party, and I was excited to go this year as a bunch of my old gang, many who I hadn’t seen in over a year, were going to be there.

One of the things I hadn’t thought through was the fact that, the intervening year had been one of the hardest and most humiliating of my life. And of course, every single one of them was going to ask me how I was doing.

That was a loaded question.

How was I doing?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not one to just answer with the lame (and typically untrue) “fine.” One of my core beliefs is living with my life wide open. I don’t mean emotionally vomiting all over people (be honest, you just had someone’s face or name flash though your mind. We all have that one person). I mean being authentic and real.  Admitting to my struggles and open with my failures. No photoshopping my life to make it look better than it is. Just being me, in all my imperfection.

So if I was going to answer how I was doing and be real, I needed to do some real reflection. How was I really?

With a little bit of surprise, and a feeling of intense gratitude, I realized I was good, really good.

Wow.

Last year at this time, I was still feeling the ache (and sometimes sharp agonizing pains) of betrayal. I was still fighting the battle of humiliation. I was still battling (sometimes hourly) the fear of how I was going to make it as a single mother in an expensive city with zero child support.

Last year was a battle in faith. It was a battle in truth. And it was a battle of trust.

I put my stake in the ground, my hands up in surrender, and I threw myself in the arms of my savior.

Nothing made sense. Nothing was what I had planned. I didn’t know how tomorrow could possibly work.

But I knew my God. And I trusted that He had a plan.

god in the stormNot despite the devastation I was experiencing, but through it.

There were times I begged God to take the pain away. Times when I thought this life was just too hard. Times when the very idea of living made me feel weary.

But, beneath those times, and far deeper, was my knowledge, my unshakeable faith that, if I let him, the work He would do in me would be well worth the pain. All I needed to do was hold on. And hold to him with everything I was worth.

And here, only a year later, I realized that I had come full circle.

His promise to comfort was filled. His promise to heal was answered. His promise to provide was fulfilled.

And I found myself filled with gratitude for my suffering.

Because here I stand, not just a survivor, but an overcomer. Stronger than I ever imagined. Independent. More sure of who I am and whose I am than ever before. And it never would have happened if He hadn’t led me through the fire.

hidden strengthMany people have often told me how strong I am. But, I don’t think that my strength is exceptional. It’s just that suffering and heartache have burned away my weakness and revealed what was already there–I just didn’t know it.

I’m not stronger. I just let pain do it’s work.

See, growth is often not about growing, as much as it is about chiseling away the excess and revealing what is already there, buried beneath the surface.

The Bible calls it the refiner’s fire, burning away the dross.

And we have so very much dross.

We tend to see the fire as an attack from the enemy, or an injustice, or the unfairness of fate, but I believe that God is not just in the good parts of my life, but also in the storms, the disasters, and the darkest nights of our soul. They are a holy fire, a gift, yes a gift, and an answer to our prayers to be more like Him.

So many times, when I tell someone about Serena and what I lived through with her loss, they say they could never have done that, they never could have survived such a loss. But here’s the thing, I would have said the same thing if I hadn’t been forced to live it.

We simply don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re forced to it. Until we’re stretched and pulled and thrown into the fire we just don’t know what we’re capable of. Only then do we find out just how strong we really are.

If I have learned anything from this crazy, and heart-wrenching journey called life, it is this: Though our instinct is to run from pain, we should meet it with our arms open wide and embrace it, knowing that, if we let it, transformation is on the other side.

If we fight it, if we run, or if we hide, pain warps and it cripples, but when embraced, we are re-made.

The thing about pain is, it catches us all. There is no escaping it. It is part of the human experience.

No one gets to stay a caterpillar.

The decision we each have to make it who we want to be on the other side of it.

dementorThere are no short cuts when it comes to pain. There is no getting around it. Not tunneling under it. No hiding from it.

There is only getting through it.

When we hide from our pain, ignore it, or when we allow it to consume us, it turns us into something ugly. It is a poison that steals and maims.

And these people never emerge as who they were intended to be.

In truth, these people tend to become inflicters of pain. In their brokenness, they leave pain in their wake. They suck life from those around them, a real-life dementor.

 

But here’s the thing, it’s totally up to you.

You are stronger than you know. Are you willing to find out how strong?

You are capable of more than you ever believed. Will you dare to find out just what you can do?

And you are more amazing, more beautiful, than you can imagine. Are you willing to be transformed?

I won’t lie to you. It won’t be easy.

But it’s worth it. You can trust Him. He’s got you, and He’s got this.

 

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What kind of neighbor are you?

Do you know your neighbor? Do you? Do you know what’s going on in his world? Do you know the difficulties she faces? If they were in an emergency situation, could they come to you and ask you to watch their daughter for a couple of hours?

wilson_fencePerhaps you say hello when you walk your dogs in the morning.

Perhaps, when you meet across the mailboxes in the afternoon, you chat casually.

But do you know your neighbor?

I can’t say that I really do. As I get ready to leave this home I have lived in for three and a half years, I find myself convicted. I don’t know my neighbors–not really. We’re friendly. We say “hi” and “how are you,” but with the exception of one (and I’m so glad we became friends, Tianna!), the truth is, I’d be hard pressed to tell you their names.

Shame on me!

My whole life I have dreaded living what I have coined the “treadmill existence.” To me, this is the daily grind. We wake, we go to work, we come home, we sleep, we wake, we go to work . . . over and over again.

To avoid this, I thought I needed to do something exciting. I needed to live overseas and be a missionary. Or I needed to be a best selling author. Or I needed to find something other than this ordinary, soccer mom (or in my case football/gymnastics mom) existence.

Ironically, God seemed to determined to keep me in that soccer mom sort of existence–and if so, either he was okay with the treadmill existence–or (much more likely) I was missing something!

No, huge surprise here, but I now realize, I had it all wrong.

themostinterestingmanintheworld_1426The treadmill existence is not about the job we do or where we live. It’s not about a great list of accomplishments or a wall full of awards.  You don’t need to be the Dos Equis’ most interesting man alive to get off the treadmill.

It is about our mindset. It is about seeing the opportunity for the divine, for change, for influence in every moment.

Perhaps it’s a little easier for me to see this than most. Being a psychology professor, I see how the impact of what I teach has the possibility to change lives, and it transforms the way I look at those moments in the classroom. They are loaded with possibility, potential. What I say today has the potential of altering the course of a life (in a positive way, or possibly, even in a negative way–very humbling thought!)

But the truth is, every moment of our lives is filled with that same potential.

7089479-business-woman-rushingThe other day, I was cleaning up after my work out at the gym. I was in a hurry. I was running late for a conference call, and I needed to get ready to meet one of my friends for a night out. Just as with my neighbors, though I’m friendly with several people at the gym, I don’t really know anyone by name or well, so nothing should have gotten in the way of my mad dash for the door.

But there was this woman, a woman I had never seen before. And she sighed. Not just the “I’m tired” sigh. Not the, “this has been a really long week sigh.” No, this sigh was something different, and I couldn’t resist commenting on the weight of her sigh.

She responded that her workout had knocked her on her butt.

I made some comment about that being the sign of a good workout.

despairTo which she responded, “No, you don’t understand. It literally knocked me on my ass. I have MS. This is my therapy, and I can’t even do it.” And she sat down and started to cry.

I didn’t know this woman. If not for my inane comment about her sigh, I would have walked right on past, and never known the despair that was eating her up inside. I would have made my conference call, hung out with my friend, and this woman would have left with her burden of despair still firmly on her shoulders. Instead, I found myself with an opportunity of helping a fellow human being. It was time to get off the treadmill.

I didn’t know this woman, but I knew her pain. And I knew that I needed to stay and listen, and offer what comfort I could, conference call be damned!

That moment was one of possibility. It was an opportunity to be God’s hands’ extended. And I could easily have missed it.

How many times have I missed those moments, caught up in the hustle and bustle of the treadmill life, the relentless daily grind? How often, with my eyes focused at the task at hand, have I missed the divine, the chance to get off the treadmill, and to make a real difference in someone’s life?

Too often I fear.

Which of my neighbors has cried out to God for help? And I could have been part of the answer. Who has needed to know that they aren’t alone, but I’ve been too wrapped up in my own world to see?

I despised the treadmill existence, and yet I have had opportunity to get off that treadmill,  time and time again, but I have been too blind to see the opportunity.

In his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, John Ortberg put it this way:

sonrise-burning-bushAnd Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Everything turned on Moses’ being willing to turn aside–interrupt his daily routine to pay attention to the presence of God. He didn’t have to. He could have looked the other way, as many of us would. He would have just missed the exodus, the people of Israel, his calling, the reason for his existence. He would have missed knowing God. But he didn’t miss it. He stopped. He “turned aside.”

I don’t want to miss the reason for my existence. I don’t want to miss my calling because I can’t see what’s right in front of me.

I need to live my life in this way. I need to have my eyes open so that I see the burning bush moments, the moments when I get to be the arms, and the voice, of God.

I need to get off the treadmill.

And it starts with seeing.

Seeing our neighbors and their pain. Seeing our coworkers and their struggles. Seeing the needs of our community and stepping out of our daily grind enough to be the one to meet those needs.

Our society, according to a recent gallup poll, is one third Christian. Nine out of ten Americans say they pray everyday. And yet, we are notoriously bad about living with our heads in the sand, being too consumed with our own lives to see the struggles of those around us.

handsThis is what Jesus means by reaching the lost–and most of us are failing.

It is time for us to embrace our purpose. To see that each moment is heavy with possibility. To get our heads out of the sand, and to see.

Will you join me?

We don’t want to miss our burning bush–because that is what it’s all about.

 

A New Definition of Good

A friend of mine received bad news the other day. She has had a lot of bad, difficult, and painful things happen in her life. More than the average person for sure.

angryShe was angry. She was angry at the world, and most of all, she was angry at God. She publicly questioned the goodness of God. She pointed out the inconsistency, the unfairness, the disproportionate pain and difficulty even among Christians. Her conclusion, in that moment, was that God was not good.

Last week was my daughter Serena’s birthday. She would be fifteen years old this year. She’s been gone for fourteen years, and I still miss her every day. I too, most certainly have, at times, questioned the goodness of God.

Like my friend, I have not failed to notice the disproportionate amount of suffering some have to walk through when compared to so many others. Like my friend, it has caused me to question the goodness of God. But unlike my friend, despite the pain and suffering that I have walked through, that I am currently walking through, and that I, no doubt, will have to walk through in the future–still I say–God is good.

God is good all of the time.

It is our definition of what “good” means that has to change.

heroes_vs_villains_mediumAs human beings, we have an inbred sense of fairness, of justice. Jung liked to call them archetypes. It is the idea that if I do good things, good things will happen to me. Evil deeds on the other hand will be punished. If I treat people fairly, I will myself be treated fairly.

The problem is, despite these deep-seeded instincts, that’s not the way the world works.

And it’s not the way God works.

As I mentioned in my last blog, God is not all that concerned with our comfort. In fact, the Bible is abundantly clear that a walk with Christ is a walk of suffering. He talks of refiner’s fire, and he talks of needing our roots to go to deep to find the streams underground so that we can survive the times of drought. He talks of making a way in the wilderness–he doesn’t say he’ll remove the wilderness, but that He will make a way through it.

And yet, the Bible also says that God is good. His goodness is not altered, affected or diminished by the suffering we walk through.

How can that be?

Logically, it must mean that the suffering itself is good for us. Remember, God’s goal is not our comfort, our prosperity, or our happiness. His goal is our transformation.

Our transformation happens in the fires of suffering.

82e36afee241e4603f100c1355976f28It’s easy to say. It’s easy to preach the necessity of suffering. It’s easy to see the truth of it–but it’s mach harder to do it. To not only walk through it (often we have little choice in the matter), but to embrace it.

My personal world is in upheaval right now. The truth is, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself the other night. I don’t deserve what I’m going through. I was a good girl, who made good choices. I’ve always sought God’s will. I’ve never done drugs. I don’t get drunk. I didn’t have sex before marriage. I don’t lie, cheat, or steal. I am a basically good person who has tried to help people in need. Sure, I lose my temper sometimes, and sometimes I can be selfish, and sometimes lazy, but in the scope of things, I am a good person and I don’t deserve all this pain.

Like my friend, I was feeling full of self pity. My pain was unfair. Since I was twenty I have walked through one difficulty after another. It was unjust. Poor, picked on me.

But that same night, my daughter began to cry. She opened up about her own struggles with the goodness of God. She didn’t understand why she had to walk through this, when her friends didn’t have to walk through anything. She always tries to do what’s right, and yet, instead of being rewarded, here she is having to walk through a season of suffering and her friends don’t, even though her friends so often make wrong choices. Such hard truths to struggle with at the age of ten!

It’s hard to explain what I felt in this moment. I felt a little bit like God had called me on the carpet. The truth is, I knew exactly what God would say to this–we should not compare our lives to the lives of others, because what God has for us is not what He has for them. That God is not concerned with our comfort or our happiness, but rather our transformation. That life isn’t fair, that God never said it was, and He isn’t concerned about the “fairness” of it at all.

Shame on me for wallowing in self pity when I know the truth!

And shame on me for not living it in a way that my daughter can see the truth through my life.

I held my daughter as she cried, and I explained these hard truths to her, and I prayed with her.

I didn’t pray for her comfort or for her protection, though my mother’s heart very much wanted to do just that.

I prayed for God’s will in her life. I prayed that God would give her strength in the difficulties. Faith in the darkness. And the eyes to see the goodness of God even when all around her seemed to call that very goodness into question.

Facebook-20140427-123611I prayed that God’s will would be done. And I know what that means.

But, I want the best for my daughter, not the easiest–just like God does for me.

The easiest is very rarely the best. The best takes work. The best is hard. It is often painful. Sometimes it’s downright awful.

But, just as my prayer for Arabelle, God wants the best for me–for us.

And doing what’s right, even when it hurts, that is the definition of good.

I’m pretty sure it hurts God’s heart, just like it hurt mine, but he knows it’s best.

And yet again, I need to trust that my Father knows best.

So yes, God is good–all of the time.

God, help me to see your goodness, not as a measure of what you’ve done for me, not as a measure of what I have or do not have, but for who you are–a God who walks with me through my pain and through my suffering so that I can get to the other side and be transformed.

What do you do with your cookie, and what does that say about who you are?

hand-holding-cookie-bite-taken-outWe’ve all had that moment when we’re about to take a bite of the last chocolate chip cookie, and we’re anticipating the burst of flavor that will come with it when our sister/brother/friend/son/daughter/etc. comes on the scene and says, “Oh! A chocolate chip cookie! I want one! Where are there?!”

What we do in that next moment is a window into who we are, a window into how we live our lives, and it is a window into our heart.

Do we, scarf down the cookie quickly, and only then admit it’s the last one?

mouthfulDo we shrug and say “last one” and then take a huge bite from the cookie?

Do we break the cookie in half and cheerfully offer the other half?

Do we offer the other half, but feel a tug of reluctance, begrudging the loss of half of the cookie?

Or do we cheerfully hand the last cookie to the person we love because we’d rather make them happy than have the cookies ourselves?

It’s such a simple thing, a simple test, and we have moments like these every day of our lives. How we respond in these moments defines who we are on a basic level.

I’ve watched this played out among my children. Gavin would scarf the cookie down without a thought, fearful that I would tell him he had to share. Arabelle would hand you the cookie. Lily would struggle somewhere in between.

Every year for Halloween (or almost every year–we made an exception last year) the kids pick a theme and we all dress up, even mom and dad, according to that theme. This year the kids chose Wizard of Oz, or rather the girls did, and Gavin graciously deferred to them this time. We spent weeks discussing who would be which character from the very first days of October.

wizardofoz_085pyxurzLily wanted to be Glinda, the Good Witch, so Arabelle agreed to be Dorothy. I went online and found a Glinda costume, purchased it, and two days later Lily excitedly tried it on. She postured through the house, admired herself in the mirror–she was thrilled.

But then, a couple of days later, she changed her mind. She didn’t want to be Glinda anymore; she wanted to be Dorothy. Arabelle graciously said she would be Glinda (luckily the costume also fit her) so that Lily could have what she wanted. No harm, no foul. Great.

But then a couple weekends ago, I promised Lily that we would go to the store to buy her Dorothy costume, and as we were browsing the costumes, we came to a beautiful Wicked Witch of the West costume. Arabelle’s eyes lit up. “Mom, can I be the Wicked Witch instead?”

I was stuck. We already had the Glinda costume (and Lord knows I can’t fit into it!). I had promised Lily the Dorothy costume…

“Well, hon, I guess that’s up to Lily. If she’s willing to be Glinda, you can be the Wicked Witch.” Remember, just a few days before, Lily was thrilled with the idea of being Glinda.

When Arabelle asked Lily if she wouldn’t mind being Glinda as they had originally planned, Lily started balling, “But I want to be Dorothy!”

Arabelle patted Lily on the back and put her arms around her. “It’s okay, Lily. You can be Dorothy.” Great response from Arabelle. I wwas so proud of her, but…

But it wasn’t okay. I watched as Lily, without a thought, accepted her sister’s change of heart. And I watched the disappointment bloom on Arabelle’s face.

I pointed out to Lily that she hadn’t even considered for a moment what it was her sister wanted and whether or not she should let her have what she wanted instead of Lily getting her way.

crying-little-girlShe began crying again, “But I want to be Dorothy!”

“Yes, I understand that. But Arabelle wants to be the Wicked Witch. Why should you get what you want instead of Arabelle getting what she wants?”

“I don’t know.”

“You need to think of what your sister wants too, Lily; you’re being selfish.”

There in the middle of Target she started wailing, “You called me selfish!”

“No, Lily, I said you were being selfish. You have a choice in whether you are selfish or not.”

But the problem was, she didn’t want to choose to not be selfish. Though Arabelle tried to pretend that she was okay with it, she had gotten quiet and was obviously sad. Lily cared enough to ask her what was wrong, but when Arabelle told her, Lily would start crying again, stating, “But I want to be Dorothy.” She didn’t want Arabelle to be sad, but she didn’t want to give up what she wanted to take away that sadness either.

The whole exchange really bothered me, and stuck with me. Later that night, I pulled Arabelle aside to tell her how proud I was of her, that her heart, her love and care of people, was something rare and beautiful. I marveled at how she always put others before herself.

support-groups-empathy-signHer response humbled me. She said, “If I have a choice between someone else crying, or crying myself, I’d rather be the one crying.”

Wow. I felt like that statement shined a light on my own shortcomings, my own failure to live up to the example of my nine year-old daughter.

Would I willingly take on pain and hurt to spare someone his/her pain? I would do it for my family. I would do it for my husband, my children, my nieces and nephews, my brother and sister, but would I do it for anyone? Arabelle would. I’ve seen her do it. And even if I was willing to do it, would I do it with the grace and openness of Arabelle, or would I begrudge the action and feel resentful?

I fear it would be the latter.

And then I thought more of Lily and her reaction. She doesn’t want people to hurt, but she doesn’t really want to give up her wants and needs to take away the hurt of someone else. She feels compassion, but it doesn’t translate to action.

How often are we like that? We see the pain of others, we feel badly, but we don’t reach out to them, we don’t try to ease their pain. We see what ISIS does to children, and we feel awful about it, but not enough to try to find a way to help. We know that there are motherless and fatherless children all over our own country, and we feel so badly, but we don’t want our lives rocked or altered by the needs of a troubled child in our own home.

Compassion without action is nothing but a mask concealing selfishness.

And my little daughter has held a light up to my own selfishness. I am humbled.

What kind of person are you? Do you give the cookie away or do you keep it for yourself?

I fear that I split it in half, but give it away with a twinge of regret or even resentment.

I need to do better. I need to learn the lesson my nine year-old is teaching me.

CAM01287-1Thank you, Arabelle, for your kind and generous spirit. I am so grateful God put you in my life.

 

A Letter to my Students

child hospitalAs a teacher, I am continually exposed to the suffering of others. This year has been particularly bad. I hear of these kids struggling with real-life, grown up suffering well before they should be. I hear of their fights with cancer and cystic fibrosis and diabetes. I hear of broken families and death. I hear of rape. I hear of abuse. I hear of suicide. I hear the pain in the words they write, the things they share, and I see it in their eyes. They are too young for such pain. Childhood should not be shadowed by its presence. I wish I could take it away, make it better, do something. But I cannot take it away, and I can’t really make it better, though maybe by simply listening I do make it just a little bit better, because in listening, they know that they are not alone.

Dedicated-to-the-rape-victim--28502This morning as I was driving into work I was thinking of one of my students and what she has gone through. I see the effects of the trauma she experienced playing out on a daily basis. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She did not deserve what happened to her, but we seldom do, do we?

I was thinking of what I would say to her if I could. What wisdom have I gained on my own road of suffering? What pearls of wisdom could I pass on?

I thought of my journey, my own pain. I remembered the heartache. I remembered my idealism shattering. I felt the echoes of the soul crushing agony and how my journey of childhood, naivity, came to a bone crushing halt as I found myself thrust in to the heartbreaking world of realism.

I reflected on the story we’re currently reading in my classes, Annie Dillard’s “The Deer at Providencia.” Most of my fellow teachers hate teaching this story. It’s not an enjoyable story, but I find that I love teaching it. I love it for its realism, for the lessons it has to share. And I know those lessons to be true, and I am glad that I get the chance to share that wisdom with my students. Those are the messages I would pass on.

suffering1We all, when suffering comes our way, ask why. Why me? Why God do you hate me? What have I done that you turn your face from me?

We feel alone in our suffering. But we are not alone.

There is very little that is guaranteed in this life, but one thing that is is the reality that you will suffer. Life itself cannot exist without suffering. For our continued existence, something must die. Even if you are a vegetarian or even a vegan, your life is sustained by the ending of something else. It is the cycle of life.

When that suffering comes, we must remember that, though we feel alone in our suffering, though we feel like no one has suffered like we suffer, we are not, in actuality, alone. The person sitting next to us on the bus has suffered. The woman in the car next to you at the stop light has suffered. That friend from high school who seems to have the perfect life on Facebook has suffered. We might not look like we have suffered to an unknowing eye, but don’t doubt it, not for a moment, we have suffered.

It’s not like we wear a badge that says “Yes, I have had my fill of suffering.” We don’t have bumper stickers to announce it to the world, and most of us don’t splash it all over social media. But we have suffered. We all have. You are not alone.

angryThe next thing that I think I would want to tell my student is to allow herself to feel the raw emotions. Feel the anger, the rage, the bitterness. Allow yourself to acknowledge the feelings of wrongness. It was not fair. It should not have happened. It was wrong. Life shouldn’t be this way. Those feelings are there, and they need to be acknowledged. We cannot ignore them, push them down, and pretend that they are not there. It’s only in acknowledging them, embracing them, that we can begin to let them go.

I remember after Serena died I had a hard time seeing couples with a little baby. I felt a surge of anger and bitterness. Why was their child allowed to live when my darling girl had to die? Why were they allowed their blissful parenthood when mine was shadowed with pain? Why, in this world of healthy babies, was mine marked to die?

It did not make me less of a person to feel this way. It did not make me a bad person or less of a Christian. I wrestled with my feelings. I howled at the sky. I cursed God.

stormBut the thunder storm quieted to a downpour, and the downpour dimished to a rain, and the rain faded to an intermittent shower which gave way to gray skies . . . and finally . . . I found myself in a place of acceptance.

Eventually I stopped asking “Why me” and I began asking, “Why not me?” In this world of suffering, why should I have been given a free pass?

Let yourself feel what you feel so that you can come to a place of acceptance. Those demons need to be acknowledged, confronted and wrestled with. They won’t go away just because you ignore them; they will just keep rearing their heads and poisoning your life until they are dealt with.

Acceptance. That sounds sort of trite. Optimistic. As if I am giving my approval to what has happened, saying it was somehow right or good.

Let me be clear. I will never give my approval to these horrendous moments of suffering. I will never say it’s okay. I will not try to say that the pain is outweighed by the “goodness” or the growth that comes after.

heartI will never accept the “rightness” of what happened, because it will never be right. What happened to you was not right;what happened to me wasn’t right either.

You don’t accept that you deserved it, because you didn’t. She didn’t. I didn’t.

But you accept that it happened–you accept its presence in your life–and you embrace it.

The only choice we have in suffering, the only power we have, is in how we allow it to change us.

Suffering sucks, there is no way around it. It it not okay. It hurts us and it breaks us. It tears and it rends. It’s agony. But if we embrace it, acknowledge it’s inevitabilty, and it is inevitable, we can become stronger, better versions of ourselves.

innocenceIn Dillard’s story, “The Deer at Providencia” she begins the story with the description of a deer that is caught and suffering, awaiting its death. She describes this full grown deer in terms that would resemble a fawn in the area where I grew up. It was delicate and frail. Small and “thin skinned.” Fragile. Breakable. Childlike.

I think that her description of the deer is symbolic of what we are like before we suffer. Though we may or may not be full grown, we are still as children. Fragile in our ideals. Breakable in our naivity.

It is in the very process of suffering that we grow, that we understand. It is a part of our coming of age, though we don’t really define it as such.

It makes me think of the process of weight training. To grow our muscles, we must break them. We stretch our muscles beyond their endurance causing little tears. These tears, when mended by our bodies, cause our muscles to increase in size and strength.

Suffering is like weight training for our souls–if we embrace it and let it do what it is meant to do. The little tears mend, and we become stronger, better, wiser versions of our selves.

Unfortunately, many never accept it, much less embrace it. These individuals become lost in the past, in the world of “could haves” and “should haves.” They continue to feel alone, singled out, picked on. These inidividuals become angry and bitter. Instead of their souls growing stronger and into something more intricate and wise, the wrinkle and shrivel like raisins in the reality of their suffering. They become the worst versions of who they could be.

Some tears, some breaking, is beyond what we can easily endure. Just as with muscles, sometimes we are pushed beyond what can  easily heal. We rip the muscle. It pulls from the bone. We injure it beyond the normal process.

In weight training it can take months for the body to heal these kinds of wounds.

It can take the soul even longer to heal. But it can heal from the greatest and most horrific of suffering.

WieselI think of Elie Wiesel. I think of what he suffered, what he endured, living through the Holocaust. As awful as losing my daughter was, his suffering was so much more. It is hard to believe that the human psyche can survive what he survived, much less become anything but a bitter husk in the aftermath, but he, and so many like him, are living proof that even the grossest of injustices, the most debilitating of suffering, can not only be overcome, but can also be transformative.

The power we have in our suffering is to embrace its transformative nature, to allow light to be shed on our misconceptions, to send its searching eyes into the darkness and imperfections of our own souls, and to see our inclusion in this mad story called the human existence.

We are all part of the story, and we all contribute to the song of suffering. It is unavoidable.

So my dear students, I so wish that I could take away your pain. I wish I could ease your suffering. I wish I could tell you that this world was different, gentler and kinder, than it is.

But I can’t. I can’t tell you that all your dreams will come true. I can’t tell you that you won’t know loss and betrayal. I can’t tell you that you will never be touched by injustice or the wild spin of chance. I can’t tell you that suffering will not come to your door. I can’t even tell you that it will come once, but never again.

rainbow-after-a-stormWhat I can tell you is that you are not alone. I journey with you. We all journey with you. We might not know what it means. We might not know why we suffer, why God allows it, but I can assure you, that it doesn’t have to cripple you. You can be transformed by even the ugliest this world can give you. You can become beautiful in a way that is intricate and real, not despite of your suffering, but because of it.

And I can tell you that though the world is ugly, it is also beautiful. The very ugliness brings the beauty into such sharp detail because of the very contrast. Don’t allow suffering to overshadow the beauty that exists, but instead to throw it in sharp relief. Allow it to make you, and your world, beautiful in a way that is more real, and more true, than it was before you suffered.

 

 

We live in a Photoshopped Perfect, Plastic World

emotional vomitI have a cousin who is prone to emotional vomit.

Yes, she spews her emotions (typically rapidly changing from one extreme to the next) all over social media. I know every problem she has. I know when she’s not feeling well, when she’s angry at her boyfriend, when she decides that she HATES somebody–everybody (And boy! She holds no punches, dropping f-bombs and oozing hatred with every syllable), when she’s depressed, when she’s filled with self-loathing, and when she’s ready to give up on it all.

It’s all right there–in black and white–for the whole world to see.

Many times I have thought about saying something, but I know too well how she would respond, so I keep my peace. It’s simply not worth it. She will not hear. She’ll just point her anger and hatred in my direction, and frankly, who needs that?!

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way, because last week, when she posted something especially venomous, people started weighing-in. They told her (and there were many of them) in gentle, and not so gentle terms, that facebook was not the place to air all of her problems.

As I expected, she pointed her canon at them and started unloading. Most of what she said, does not bear repeating. But one thing was telling. “You guys don’t know the half of my f&^%$#@* life, So, until you walk a day in my d*$# shoes. . . Yeah sorry I don’t have 3beautiful kids an awesome husband and a family who supports me.”

Why was this telling?

photoshoppedBecause her assumption is based on a fundamental misconception: that who we are on facebook is an honest reflection of our lives. She honestly thought that the view she was getting of peoples’ lives on facebook was their reality, and when she compared that to her own life, she became angry and bitter.

I’ve blogged about this before (check out The Grass is Always Greener . . . ). Most of us do not do what my cousin does. We do not spew our worst days, our failings, and our heartbreaks all over facebook. We post our special moments, our successes and our good times. We post our best selves. We want the world to believe that we are doing it, that we are living the dream–that we’ve arrived.

This is a cultural failing that we have–this impossible grasping for perfection. Even our models, the most beautiful among us, are photoshopped, because even they are not perfect in their beauty. We, especially the women, live under a continual pall of insecurity because we cannot attain the unattainable–we cannot look like the     photoshopped images we see on a daily basis.

I absolutely love Meghan Trainor’s song “All About that Base,” because it addresses this head on. We are making generations of women feel as if they are inferior because they cannot be, what no one can be.

Facebook can have the same affect. We post only the pictures that make us feel beautiful, the moments that show that we are special, the events that paint us as successful. Our facebook selves are photshopped selves. They are the selves we wish we were, not the selves that we really are.

We are a disingenuous culture. We are rarely honest with anyone, even ourselves.

perfect familyTo the casual observer on my facebook page, I might look like I have it all together (with the exception of the loss of Serena which I am fairly open about). I have a handsome, intelligent husband, three beautiful children, a great house, and a great job. I get to have vacations every now again and do fun things. I look happy.

And sometimes I am.

But there is another picture. Another side.

Facebook knows nothing of my struggle with insecurity. It shows nothing of the days when I hate my body and feel too keenly my fading beauty.

Facebook knows nothing of the years of struggle with depression after losing Serena.

Facebook knows nothing of the shame I walked when Aaron lost his job and for six months we struggled to even pay rent–when, despite the humiliation, we found ourselves walking into the human services office to see about our options with public assistance. It knows nothing of the shame I felt every single time I had to scan that EBT card.

Facebook knows nothing of the resurgence of my temper in the wake of grief and stress. It does not see the ugliness I show when I am pushed beyond what I feel as if I can bare. The times I yell, the times I snap at my husband and children, the times when I end up sobbing from the weight of it all.

Fmom-chaosacebook does not see when my house is a wreck, and the dishes pile up in my sink, and the laundry starts to pile to the rafters. It does not see the relentless and endless drudgery of cooking and cleaning for a family of five. It does not see the times when I feel reduced to a cook and maid, a faceless, powerless drudge.

Facebook does not see the ways Aaron and I have wounded each other by both word and deed.

Facebook does not see the many times he and I have wanted to give up, to walk away, to say, “We’re done! We can’t do this anymore!”

Facebook does not know, cannot know, because I refuse to show it.

Facebook does not see–so you do not see.

barbieYou see the window dressing. You see the outer shell I choose to show.

Every once in a while, we give a window in, but it is only a window. It is a snapshot. Not the reality.

Do not compare yourself to these Facebook Selves, these shadow selves. They are allusions, projections, phantasms. They are not substantial, attainable or replicable.

Do not compare yourself to me or to anyone else.

Do not compare your life to someone else’s life.

Because, I promise you, you will be comparing yourself to something that does not exist.

How can I know this? How can I promise such a thing?

perfect lifeBecause no one is perfect, no matter what you think. And no one has a perfect life, though to an outward eye it might appear as if they do.

No life is without pain.

We all hurt. We all bleed. We all have moments when we feel as if we can’t possibly keep breathing, keep walking, keep standing.

Not one of us is untouched.

For some, the pain starts when we’re children, and we never know life without pain. For others, childhood leaves us untouched, and we enter adulthood with shining eyes and expectations of a perfect world, but at some point, somewhere on our journey, pain will find its way in.

People die. They get sick. They leave.

Sometimes, the ones we trust the most betray us. Sometimes the ones who should have our back, are the ones who slide the knife in. Sometimes our heart bleeds, it breaks, it shatters.

And everyone, every single person on this planet, will have these moments–because these moments are life.

The amazing thing, the wonderful thing, is our capacity to endure.

I've learned that you can keep going long after you think you can'tWhen we feel like we can’t keep going, we can and we do. When we feel like we can’t possibly take one more thing–when it comes–which it inevitably seems to–we find ourselves somehow battening down the hatches and fighting our way through. Sometimes we cannot run, or even walk. Sometimes all we can do is put one foot in front of the other, and that’s all we have. That all we’ve got to give. But we do it. One. Foot. At. A. Time.

How do I know we can do this, when life pummels us, and people fail us, when we fail ourselves, how do I know we can push through?

Because we exist. The human race is still here.

We live in the height of human existence. We live a life of plenty: plenty of food, plenty of the basic necessities (clothing, house, healthcare) and plenty of leisure/extravagances (entertainment, hobbies, options, etc.).

Historically, people lived in want. They went to bed hungry. They had limited, or no, healthcare. Death was a frequent visitor.

If anyone had a reason to give up, they did–but they didn’t. They kept living. They kept loving. They kept walking. They kept fighting. They gave us a future.

I am an anomaly having lost a child. Most people, at least in the developed world, do not have to bury their children.

In the past, they didn’t just bury one, but instead, usually several.

Men very commonly lost their wives in childbirth. Women lost their husbands, and, when they did, what options did they have to provide for their families? They either married again or were forced to walk paths that they never would have chosen.

keep goingLife was hard. It was ugly. It was survival–but they did just that–they survived. And because they did, we are still here today.

We need to end this delusion that perfection is possible. We need to stop hurting ourselves and each other with this endless striving for what does not exist–the perfect life and the perfect person. We need to stop pretending that it does exist.

We need to give others grace to be imperfect.

We need to give ourselves grace to be imperfect too.

My husband cannot be the prefect man that some writer has created in a book, or that some actor plays on tv. Those men don’t exist outside of words that were created by a clever person and put on a page. My husband can’t be that man. Neither can your husband.

Neither can I live the photoshopped lives that I catch on the pages of social media, the images I see in magazines, or the brief glimpses into others’ lives that I am allowed, when they choose to show me, what they choose to show me.

I can’t live those lives, and neither can you.

They don’t exist. They’re not real.

perfectPeople are not perfect. Our lives are not perfect. . .

And that’s okay.

Let it be okay.

Give yourself a break.

And give the people around you a break too.

 

 

 

The Sharp Jagged Edges of Reality

“It is strange that absence can feel like a presence. A missing so complete that, if it were to go away, I would turn . . . stunned . . . empty, when before . . . at least [there was] something.” Adapted quote from Crossed by Ally Condie.

I’ve been radio silent for a while. Bad blogging policy, I know. The thing is, August is hard. August is full of memory—the greatest of joys and the sharpest of agonies. August is always a journey of what was, what I wish had been, and a bitter contending with what is. August is the sharp reality that part of myself has died, and the overwhelming acknowledgement of the presence of loss caused by what should have been, but what isn’t.

I’ve been toying with ideas of what I could write for weeks. I’ve had several good ideas, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to wear a brave face or find the silver lining. I wanted to feel the sharp, jagged edges of my pain and remember. I didn’t want to sugar coat, when I was tasting nothing of sugar, but instead the sharp, acridness of bitterness.

The truth is, I have lived for so long with my loss, that I can’t imagine life without its presence. It really is strange that absence can feel more tangible and more real than things I can hold in my hand. That pain can feel more like living than happiness.

One of my favorite songs, even before the loss of Serena, is the Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris.” “You bleed just to know you’re alive.” Pain, sadly, is what makes us feel the most agonizingly alive—it’s not just me, it’s the human condition.

When our heart is breaking, when our soul seems to be splintering into shards of brittle glass, the very agony of it seems to leave us wide awake. We are pulled from the monotony, the apathetic, the mundane drudgery of daily living, and we feel mind crushingly alive.

pain

When I was young, the concept of this intrigued me. I recognized the reality that our capacity for joy seemed to be in direct proportion with the extent of our pain . . . aka Great Sorrow=Great Joy.

What I, in my naivety and idealism failed to understand was the great chasm, that black void of numbness that separated those two places. I had no inkling of the “zombie” years that follow intense grief. How could I, never having experienced any real loss? I was blissfully ignorant and so could love the theory, the philosophy of it, without being touched by the reality. The philosophy seemed deep and wise, almost compelling. It had the allure of the bad boy to it–you knew he wasn’t good for you, but there was something so darn seductive about that very darkness . . .

Cathleen Schine puts it so well through the thoughts of one of her characters in her book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport.

As a girl, she had affected despair and emotional pain in an attempt at depth. Now she had no need of affectations. The despair was real, the pain was real. And depth? It no longer beckoned, that rich, worldly dimension of sophistication, of adulthood. Depth spread itself out before her instead, a hole, a pit, a place of infinite loss.

I’m a fan of “Vampire Diaries” and in one of the first seasons Caroline Forbes, one of the main characters, makes a comment of how she wants to be deep, but she’s coming to the realization that she is anything but deep. She makes the comment: “I’m worse than shallow. I’m a kiddie pool.”

That quote has always resonated with me. When I was young, I desperately wanted to be deep. I thought I was, but the reality is, until you’ve lived a little, lost a little, and hurt a lot, you don’t have much capacity for depth.

Now . . . now, however . . . it’s a different story. Now that I am old, my depth spreads out before me like the pit that Schine alludes to and a part of me would give anything to go back to the ignorance that was my kiddie pool self, but that wouldn’t be real. It wouldn’t be authentic. It wouldn’t be living. It would be pretending, acting, going through the motions without allowing LIFE to touch me, impact me, change me . . . transform me.

We hide our pain because others are uncomfortable with it. We don’t want to be reminded that life has a dark side. We close our eyes to it, until it is undeniable—until it sinks its teeth into us and won’t let us go. Only then do we acknowledge its presence, the very real fact that life is as much pain as it is happiness, as much ugliness as it is beauty.

We want to believe that this is not so—that if we do the right things, we can have all of the happy with none of the sad, but life isn’t a simple mathematic equation where A +B=C (A being-if I work hard, B being, if I treat others kindly, then C, life will be fair and give me good things). Sometimes A plus B is going to equal X or maybe Z. In the words of Dan Allender in his book The Healing Path

        Most of us presume that if we work hard, play fair, and keep on doing what is required, life will work out well. And if it doesn’t, then we simply need to find out what we’re doing wrong, correct it, and presto—life works. But that formula doesn’t always get the predicted results.

I often think of the line in “Princess Bride” where Wesley tells Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Pain is a part of life. It is the reality. Why do we try to pretend otherwise?

So for today, this is my nod to my own pain, and a nod to your pain. This is me not pretending that I am okay. This is me acknowledging that, though I heal, I will never be complete, for a piece of my heart and soul went with my darling girl when she left me. I will not pretend that that can happen and that I will not be forever changed.

I wish we didn’t have to break. I wish we didn’t have to face betrayal, illness, and death. I wish life could be lived in the happy moments, without the sadness. I wish that the horrors of ISIS, the child sex trade, and abuse were not a reality in our world. I wish that there was no such thing as cancer or SMA.

But that is life. And life, despite the pain, is worth living. And I am glad to be alive—to FEEL alive—and to know, when I hug my son and my daughters, how lucky I am to have them here and healthy, and how incredibly grateful I am that I get to watch them grow.alive

When Dinosaurs and Fancy Nancy Go the Way of Puff

Parenthood is such a rollercoaster of emotions. The happiest day of my life was the day my first daughter was born–and the worst day of my life was the day I found out she was going to leave us.

Most parents (thank God!) don’t have to experience that lowest of lows, but there are still plenty of moments of pain, sorrow, disappointment, and frustration in every parent’s life. There are also the moments where your heart feels so full of love that you can barely breathe. Moments when you look at them and think, “This is what life is all about!” The moments that you want to hold on to forever and never let go.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my children at every age. I enjoyed them as babies, as toddlers, and as kids. But now, I find that I need to adjust to them as tweens. The problem is, I wasn’t ready for this transition. I thought I had more time.

Parenthood is a series of doors opening and doors closing, pretty much continually. I’ve recognized that from the very beginning. Because I understood that, I savored the moments, stored them up–like a squirrel with his nuts–deep in my heart, so that I could take them out, remember them, gaze at them, knowing that I had made the most out of every one of those moments.

You never know when a door is going to close. My daughter always called “Joe’s Crabshack” Crabshadrack (for years!), until suddenly, one day she didn’t. The door had closed. She was a big girl, and she could say the word right. It was a bittersweet moment for me.

For years my son has snuck into our bed at night, and for years, despite the fact that I often don’t sleep as well with him there, I have told myself to hold on to the moment–snuggle, enjoy his closeness–because one day he will stop coming, and he will never come again. That special bonding moment will be gone forever, lost to adolescence.

Ironically, Gavin still occasionally crawls into our bed at night, but Arabelle stopped coming a long time ago, and had I known on that last time that it was her last time, I would have hugged her a little closer, and snuggled a little longer–savored it a little more. But I didn’t know, and that door closed, never to be opened again. That moment lost to her growing independence.

Don’t get me wrong, I have not mourned the transitions–at least, not exactly. The truth is, one of the things that I think my husband and I have done exceptionally well is to foster our children’s independence and individuality. We have never been helicopter parents, hovering around, fearful of any misstep. In fact, we’ve always recognized that it takes some missteps to learn how to do it on your own. And we’ve always recognized that healthy children are children who are independent, but also well-supported children.

We’ve always felt very strongly that, despite how much we might want them to stay little, we need to encourage them to feed themselves, take that first step, run, take that big slide though they might be terrified (and maybe so am I!!), etc. etc.. I believe that it creates confident, independent children. They know they can come to us for anything, but they are also sure that they can take on this world and succeed.

Up until now, though my heart broke a little each time, I graciously handled the closing doors: the last time I breastfed each of my children, when they no longer needed help at bathtime or brushing their teeth, when they could take the big slides without a nervous glance at me–desperate for my encouragement, when they no longer needed me to tuck them in at night, when they started spending more time at friends’ houses on summer days than they did at home–all of these, though a part of me did not want them to happen, though I wanted to create “little pills” to keep them little so I could see Gavin’s happy dance one more time and have him crawl up into my lap to snuggle a little more, still, despite what I felt, I celebrated the open doors even though it meant some doors were closing.

I was proud of them. I felt a surge of joy at who they were becoming. Though it saddened me that Gavin’s obsession with all things dinosaur just disappeared one day, I embraced the new. Though a part of my was saddened to see Belle slowly neglect her Strawberry Shortcake dolls and her My Little Ponies, in exchange for Monster High and American Girls, I accepted it. I embraced it. Until now.

gav dinosaur

My husband always laughs at me. I’m very analytical. I think about things, I ponder them, and yes, sometimes I even obsess over them. I often do this years in advance. It probably has helped me with those closing doors. I anticipate the closing door, and so, think to myself, “Any day may be the last day I breastfeed my child. This could be the last time we have this particular kind of closeness, this particular kind of snuggle” and so, because I have anticipated it, I feel somehow ready–I know I have treasured it.

Despite all my forethought, somehow this whole “tween” thing really blindsided me. I knew it would happen, and I knew a little bit about it, but I thought I had more time. I wasn’t exactly shocked when Gavin, who is ten, started showing some signs of this transition (though diving straight into things like porn and dildos–yes, for real!! was a bit much). However, right on the heels of Gavin, Arabelle, who is only 8, started acting differently. She is still my sweet little Belle! I am not ready for her to step across that threshold into tween-ness! No! She is a little girl! She is my sweetheart! She is a child and no where close to being a teenager!!

I think I feel a little bit like Puff might have felt when he started to realize that little Jacky Paper wasn’t going to be coming back for much longer–in fact, he wasn’t going to be little Jacky Paper anymore. Instead, he was going to transition into someone different, someone simply known as Jack. Puff probably felt proud, but he also likely felt incredibly sad as he realized all those special moments of childhood had moved into memory, and those particular kinds of moments would be no more.

puff_the_magic_dragon_by_anubis3021-d4lru2v

I might protest it all I want, but the change is happening. One door is closing and another is opening, whether I want it to or not. She is spouting things like, “I need my privacy” and “I need some alone time.” She is posting “Keep out” signs on her door. She listens to her ipod rather than hanging out chatting with me and her father. She is pulling away–just a little bit, but it’s the beginning.

belles note

This time, I am not ready. I am not ready to put away all things little girl. I’m not ready to see the end of dress up and Fancy Nancy and tea parties at Grandma’s house. I am not ready for my cuddler to stop cuddling in exchange for “alone time.” I am not ready–but it doesn’t matter if I’m ready or not. It’s not up to me. My sweet, people pleasing daughter is ready to begin spreading her wings and asserting her independence, and though it might break my heart, I want her to fly! I want her to find who she is, and I will certainly not be the one to hold her back.

Still, I know where big sister goes, little sister is soon to follow. Lily will not wait long before she starts to emulate her sister.

But that is a thought for tomorrow. I cannot bare that thought today.

Today, Lily still clutches her blankie and sucks on her finger. Today, Lily thinks the whole world is her friend. She still climbs into my lap every morning and evening. She still plays with barbies and loves princesses. She loves dress up and tea parties. Today, she is still little, and I am going to wrap my heart around that littleness.

tea party

 

And I’m going to make the most of every one of these magical childhood moments and treasure them while I still can!

Who wants a vortex leading right into the nightmare of your past?

Having three little kids, I often don’t get out much. It usually means that I am terribly behind when it comes to the movie scene. The exceptions being, of course, kid films, and, since I have the coolest friend with the coolest job, occasional movie screenings with the illustrious Christa Banister.

Last week was a red letter week when it comes to me and the movie theater. I went to two movies in one week. The first was “Malificient” which I saw with my family, and the second was a screening for “Fault in our Stars.”

malificient

“Malificient” was good, but not great. Though Jolie was certainly a fabulous Mailificient–she lent the evil queen hidden depths– the plot line of the greedy humans and the fickle and increasingly disturbed King Philip was predictable and sadly unredemptive. There was room for something special, a new understanding, forgiveness, the reality of love itself–not the absence of hurt, but forgiveness in the face of it–but, par usual, Hollywood just can’t seem to quite see it through and, instead, we have an entertaining, but shallow remix borrowing from the greatness of those who have gone before. The one change that is notable was the change made to true love’s kiss, which, instead of coming in the form of a prince that Aurora had known for all of five minutes, instead comes from Malificient, her “fairy god mother”/mentor. Without that change, I fear the movie would have been nothing but a colossal disappointment.

But, I digress. My real purpose in writing this blog is to address “Fault in Our Stars.” I had read the book. I’ve had two years of fourteen year old girls telling me I absolutely HAD to read the book–that it was the best book ever. I have to admit, I dragged my heels. It’s not that I didn’t believe them that the book would be something special, but, well, it hits awful close to home for me. As anyone who has walked through an experience like John Greene’s Hazel (main character from the book) can tell you, there are days you can talk about it, and there are days you can’t. In the same way, I knew that I would have to wait for the right day to read the book–or I would be a total mess. So, I waited for a year and a half before I had the courage to read it, and though I wept, I loved it. John Greene wrote with an authenticity, a rawness, that I found freeing. Yes, I wept. I thought of my beautiful daughter and that horrific journey, but somehow, it felt like the shedding of a skin, not like diving into the great abyss of my memory. He didn’t sugar coat the reality–he let the cynicism, the pain, and the bitterness stand as it was, and for one who has lived it, it was so gratifying to not have to pretend for the space of the few moments between the pages of that book.

fault

Why am I talking about the book, when it is the movie I am supposed to be addressing? Well, it perhaps lends a little context as to why I thought I could handle the movie. When my friend asked me to go to the screening with her, I didn’t hesitate. I knew what I was getting myself into. I could handle it. After all, I had read the book and survived.

I had already had a tough day that particular day, so I was already at a disadvantage, but, that aside, I think my reaction would have been much the same. As Christa and I chatted waiting for the film to start, I watched the theater fill up with broken humanity. There were kids in wheel chairs, people without limbs, ventilators . . . and there was a feeling in the air that this was for them. This was a nod in their direction, that we see your pain, we see–we understand. It was more than just a movie.

I felt guilty somehow, to be sitting their whole and healthy, and yet, the irony was that I am not whole or healthy. I look it. I’m sure the walking wounded looked at me and thought that I was sitting there untouched. Perhaps some shot a bitter look or thought in my direction. But, the reality is, though my limbs are intact and my lungs breathe without help, I am”Hazel’s” mother. I stared that reality in the face, I walked through it, and though physically I came out on the other side, psychologically and emotionally, there is no “wholeness” after a child’s death. There is only a heart with a permanent crater, patched together with the force of will and desperation. The truth is, you are left with only the “before” and “after.” Before the pain, and after it, when you try to pretend that you aren’t permanently damaged from the nightmare that became your life.

I looked around the room and I couldn’t help but wonder how many others, like me, looked to be whole and there simply for a night’s entertainment, but were instead getting ready to take a journey back into their own personal pain. This movie meant something–for those of us who have lived in that darkness–it was something much more important that a movie. It was our past–our present–our future.

Serena

And then it began. I was sucked into a vortex, back into my own personal nightmare. Reading the book, though difficult, could not compare to seeing it. The imagery, those sterile halls of the hospital, Hazel’s oxygen tank, her bypap machine . . . all came straight from the halls of my memory. Mom and dad holding hands in a board room while the doctors talk to them about the fate of their child–mom, running terrified into her daughter’s room in the middle of the night fearing that she will not be able to save her, that she will be too late–mom, dealing with the agony that she will not be a mother anymore . . . these are all pages directly from the story of my past and I was not prepared to re-enter that nightmare. No sane person would be.

The movie was great from a movie standpoint. The actors did a brilliant job, especially Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters. The dialogue was true to Greene and brilliant, but, if this kind of journey is your own kind of journey, beware. There are times that taking a stroll down memory lane is a lovely, bitter sweet experience, but this walk down memory lane has nothing of sweetness about it. In truth, it is not even bitterness, it is sheer pain.

child hospital

For those of you untouched, go, enjoy the glimpse of the very real pain some of us have had to walk. Glimpse that nightmare and thank the God in heaven that it is not your story.

For those touched by terminal illness, a life and death struggle, or death itself, enjoy the book and its brutal irony, but spare yourself the pain of the movie. Some things should just not be revisited. It’s too real. It’s too raw–and it just plain hurts.

I made a right turn at love, a left turn at happily ever after, and ended up in Oz

Sometimes lately, I feel like I’ve made my way into someone else’s story. There’s nothing wrong with this story; it’s just not my own. It feels like some great cosmic trickster picked me up and dropped me into a life I never planned on living, and yet, here I am–going through the motions.

Have you ever watched a movie and drifted off for a couple of scenes and when you woke up, nothing made sense? You weren’t really sure how the characters got there or what it all meant? That’s what my life feels like. Like I drifted off for a while and when I woke up, I found myself in a world not of my own choosing, one that I never planned to live–an alternate reality of sorts.

It’s kind of surreal. Like I’m on a cosmic caoursel that just keeps moving, turning and turning, never slowing down, never stopping. Around and around I go . . . no chance to get off and to get on the ride I’m supposed to be on. And yet, all my choices led me here. . . Or have they?

carousel

 

We all set out with a destination in mind. When we’re young, the world is wide open, our minds are full of dreams. There are things we know we want–marriage, children–at least sometime down the road. Some things, we think we want–but when it really comes down to it–we don’t really want them at all. Others, we want, we pursue–but then life gets in the way. These are our dreams deferred, delayed, and sometimes, our dreams forgotten and lost forever. They drift into the land of “should have been,” “could have been,” and “if only.”

When I set out on this journey called “life on my own,” adulthood, or whatever you want to call it, I had it all plotted out. I knew what I wanted: where I wanted to go, who I wanted to become, the lifestyle I wanted to live. I saw it all as a story, and I was the heroine. My life was progressing from one logical chapter to the next logical chapter, and it all looked just how I wanted it to be.

outline

But then I met my husband.

He was part of my story, the story I wanted, the one I had planned. He was, but still he changed it–my story veered, turned, took a side road. The destination appeared to be the same, but it took a different route. He rode in with his charm and his own story–and a pile full of plans and dreams of his own, and so, he changed my story forever.

He was one of the characters I wanted, one I dreamed about, but the thing about life that is so different from a story is that it’s not written by the mind of one, but the mind and wishes and plans of many. Even though our dreams seemed to be in alignment, I was no longer making choices based only on myself–and so the story changed.

And after marriage, of course, come the children. That’s when you really start seeing the unfamilar territory. Road blocks, no outlet, detours. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t get rid of a single one of them (well, at least most days!). They are my joy, but, though we know in theory how much those little people are going to change our lives, the reality is so much more than we can understand until we live it. Nothing in our world is ever the same. It’s not the same story–we’re not even the hero anymore. We become a supporting character so that our children can be the hero or heroine in their own story.

The reality is that we can plot out our lives and outline our story, but life doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t follow our plans, and it certainly doesn’t consult us. Life is messy. Chaotic. Life is filled with the unexpected–disappointments, doors closing and doors opening. It is filled with heartbreak and loss, new birth and growth–and change.

life map

We think we choose our paths in life, but, in so many ways, we really don’t. It chooses us. In the past, they attributed it to fate or the cosmos. Today we sometimes say it is God or maybe mere chance–luck or unluckiness. Whichever way you want to term it, the reality is, so often our choices are few, and sometimes, even when we think we are choosing, our choices are really being chosen for us.

I recently read Lauren Oliver’s trilogy because my students are reading her book Delerium for my class. (I loved that book, btw! So much better than I expected!) In her final book  of the trilogy, “Requiem,” she makes a statement that puts it so well.

“They wanted the power to feel, to think, to choose for themselves. They couldn’t have known that even this was a lie–that we never really choose, not entirely. We are always being pushed and squeezed down one road or another. We have no choice but to step forward, and then forward again, and then forward again; suddenly we find ourselves on a road we haven’t chosen at all. But maybe happiness isn’t in the choosing. Maybe it’s in the fiction, in the pretending; that wherever we have ended up is where we intended to be all along.”

We start out choosing, but so often those very choices are dictated by the pushing and squeezing of fate and the cosmos. So few of us really end up where we intended at all. We come to terms with where we are. We might even love where we are, but it is not where we set out to go in the beginning.

narrow

Maybe this is where I was meant to be all along, even though it’s not where I intended to go. Maybe I ended up here because of random chance and a good dose of both luck and unluckiness. Maybe it doesn’t feel like the life I was supposed to live, but it is the life I am living.

Maybe I’m just having an early mid-life crisis and no one else has every felt this way or knows what I am talking about at all . . . 😉

Or maybe, life is about rolling with the punches, accepting the role of fate and making the most of the choices that God–life–fate–the universe–allow us to make.