Grief

Put Your Finger Here and See My Hands

Things at work have been quiet lately. With the majority of my team in Europe for three weeks I have been holding down the fort. I sip my coffee, play whatever music I want, send my emails, cross of my tasks, and think.

Without other voices and fewer phone calls my brain has been on over drive  – feeling the need to fill the spaces of vacant casual office conversations with measurements of accomplishment and tracking my goals.

I’m driven by productivity. All the personality tests tell me “efficiency” is one of my strengths.

And yet, this summer, the universe is telling me to shut off those dials I used to quantify life and sit instead, in quiet, with myself.

My husband has been playing softball two nights a week and gets home late.

My side hustle marketing job slowed to a trickle as my mentor also took a six week sabbatical.

My mom, much to my dismay, tells me she’s busy with dinner at friends, or on bike rides in Breckenridge, or at a movie with Martha who is the best movie theatre photographer you will ever meet. (pst… I didn’t forget)

Our bible study took a break and is perhaps falling apart forever.

I’m realizing kids go back to school this week (um what? I haven’t done any cool summer things besides climb a mountain) and summer is coming to a close.

I’ve found myself going from quiet office, to the gym with headphones on, to my house, where I cook and wait and read – voices of characters filling my head.

As an introvert, I proudly love to decompress with a book (I’ve got Hillary Clinton’s new one loading on my Kindle right now) and I politely turn down invitations to venture out into the world in favor of, um, my back porch and a glass of wine.

But I’m more comfortable there when my days are filled with tasks and to-do lists and deadlines.

This summer, I’ve had few deadlines and despite my best efforts, the ones I’ve created for myself have fizzled.

Quiet.

Two years ago, when Dad died, my mom was given the dark gift of time. She would sit and read hundreds of books by herself, flicking pages and wiping tears and I’d cook for her, angrily swatting at my grief gremlin, wondering when the hell would it be my turn to sit, and read, and cry?

The gremlin burrowed deeper into my pocket, nibbling as she went, saying she preferred to emerge in quiet.

I see why people are scared of silence.

We scramble to fill our time with other’s voices – of friends, of family, of bosses and self-help authors, and even literary characters. These outside forces demand a level of performance, perfection, and escape we can beat ourselves up until we attain.

This summer, others stopped talking and filling my time. My head got moving and my heart got gurgling and if I let them, both body parts pulled my grief gremlin up by the feathers on its head, out of my heart pocket, and into my hands.

“We’re ready” the head and the heart told the gremlin. They conspired to give me the quiet I needed.

This summer, while bosses were in Europe and mothers were out living again and husbands were out smacking softballs and swatting mosquitos, I sat and read and cried.

It was my turn. To sit and to process and let all of what I pushed down bubble up and ooze onto tissues while I ate dinner at the kitchen table by myself.

I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, but rather, perplexed by this huge open space. I’d shovel in stir-fry or noodles and look curiously at my heart holes. The voids of his missing mingling with all the remedies I’ve tried to use to fill my wound.

I keep thinking of Thomas in the Bible, when he doubts Jesus’ resurrection. I like to think Jesus takes Thomas’ hand and holds his fingers over his wounds.

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin,[a] was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” – John 20:24-29

Jesus knows Thomas has to touch the scars to believe not only in the truth of Jesus’ power, but to have closure so he can move forward.

Jesus goes right in, tenderly saying to Thomas ‘I see how my pain caused you great pain. How my wounds have given you some too. The scars can heal. Touch them and see. And move forward.’

This summer, all this damn quiet has opened my wounds.

People are busy and instead the spirit is present.

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Photo by aaron staes on Unsplash

She holds my fingers over my scars, touching and tending and healing as I sit and read and cry.

Noise will come again. People return from Europe. Task lists and projects and deadlines will loom.

But for now, I sit quietly, smoothing beautiful skin and wiping my glistening eyes.

 

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Isn’t Life Grand?

It was probably in the second month when we were in my clunky, blue car. I can’t remember where we were headed, but I was driving. Dylan was in the passenger seat and Mom sat in the back, folding her hunched shoulders over her knees. Her black rain coat covered her shrinking body and each time she sighed, the Gore-Tex material would crinkle along with her.

Waiting at the stop light at the intersection I glanced over my shoulder to look at her.

No tears in this moment, at least not yet.

“Claudia called today,” she mumbled.

“Oh yeah?” I responded, “What did she say?”

“Nothing much. There’s nothing to talk about with people. They keep asking me how it’s going and I just want to scream, ‘life sucks’. Nothing to talk about. Nothing to see.”

Her words were quick and full of bitterness. My muscles clenched.

“I get that,” I murmured.

The light turned green and we kept on going. Driving ourselves further into the muck of grief.

It gets worse before it gets better. And in our case, it got much, much worse.

Another three months later and she had a breakdown. In the king-sized bed with the plaid-checked comforter, where he used to lay next to her on vacation. Her tears would not stop. We brought in aunts and uncles and caring cousins and tried, half-heartedly to create a care plan.

Holistic practitioners scrawled solutions on pads of paper. Remedies of rest, tinctures and hemp oils to soothe a grieving heart. Nothing seemed to be working.

Brought in more medication. The western doctor said it best when he asked, “What helps the most?” and her answer, “red wine” got not a rebuff, but permission.

“Then drink a bit more of it” he said, “Right when you wake up.”

We hired a care-taker and continued to drive her around, always in the back seat, always in the rain coat. We’d stroke her hands and play soothing songs, tensing our aching hearts toward her when the songs prompted more tears, not less.

Sat in the dark. For months.

Watched the tears roll over and over down her cheeks. The drips of emotion puddling in worn jeans and wrinkles on her hands all the way down to her painted toes.

She knew she had to start moving those appendages. They were getting stiff.

Baby steps.

Two and a half years passed.

Some involving actual babies – a job at a daycare, a trip to Italy. Lots of therapy with said therapist.

Her black rain coat hangs in the closet now, above his hiking boots. It’s ready for the next storm, but no longer needed as a daily accessory.

She’s cooking again – real meals that taste good. Not just spaghetti with mush of tomatoes or toast with butter.  This time there’s lobster tails, and pasta with cream, and crunchy salads full of life.

Last night, we sat on the deck after dinner, and she relaxed back in her chair. Bending her torso back over the supportive seat, she ran her newly graying hair through her hands. She took a deep inhale – this one full of joy.

“Isn’t life grand?” she murmured.

The sauvignon blanc in her glass goblet glittered in the light, matching the twinkle in her eye. The one that returned.

 

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I wasn’t sure she would say such things again.

That life is grand.

Even without you.

That we are making it, and she is smiling, and we are no longer driving her around as she sits, waiting for something or someone, to move her out of the backseat.

 

August Favorite Things

There are hundreds of versions of this idea – what you put out into the universe is what you receive. I have a hard time with this concept. It feels too abstract for me. Then I think, ‘eesh, I don’t want to put abstract into the universe’ so I redirect. I want to radiate beauty, goodness, and kindness. I want to attract lifelong friends, lip smacking kisses and inspire viral blog posts into the universe.  I type those things here, and then I shrink. Hover over delete. It’s hard projecting what you want over the interwebs.

I’ve been reaching out to PR people and asking for money and contacting creators of podcasts and most of the time, I don’t hear back. That’s ok. I’ll keep trying. I believe when we share other’s brilliant work, they’ll lean in, give back, and be willing to share mine.

This month I’m sharing the work of some brave, creative people who are doing their thing. I’ve also got a tasty treat in the list, and a chance to give back to something bigger than you. Happy August.

August. Wow.

  1. Here for You Blog by Kellyn Shoecraft

I “met” Kellyn online when she bravely shared her work on the Modern Loss Facebook group board. She writes about her experience with loss, doodles brilliantly, and has found a way to channel her pain into helping others. I love her blog and her drawings which capture so perfectly the way I feel on my bad grief days. We’ve been emailing back and forth a bit about her post Angrief, which is so damn true. You can order Compassion Packages full of beautifully selected cards and gifts and a mix of practical things that are hard to buy for yourself when you are grieving. Think toilet paper, garbage bags, and gallon size freezer baggies for all of the breakfast burritos people send you when people die. A perfect gift for those of you who may be feeling “there are no words.”

2. Aaron Hill Photography

I met Aaron years ago when he was volunteering at the agency I worked for serving at-risk youth. His heart for the hurting led him to graduate school and he is now a social worker in the mental health field by day and takes photos by night. He has an eye for unique angles, golden-hour light, and magical moments in nature. We recently met up with him for a photo shoot and I can’t wait to see what he captured! If you are looking for an artist to work with to capture this stage of your life, he’s your guy. Why is he one of my favorites? He’s affordable, sensitive, sees people and believes we can change the world by how we treat one another. His work can be viewed here.

3. Dead Parent’s Society Podcast

You know what’s helpful? Knowing you are not alone! I came across this beautiful podcast on the Modern Loss Facebook Group post ( It’s helpful ok!) and I almost giggled in delight. One – there are enough people in this horrible club with me who have created a SOCIETY. Two- this group of WRITERS share their experience about loss in words, read their essays, and then talk about the work. I started listening to the episodes while I’m at the gym. Pounding my feet on treadmills and ellipticals I listen in to others words of loss, of hope, of recovery, of our the uncomfortable ache bubbling up when others speak of their dads freely. Pound. Pound. Pound. Yes. Yes. Yes. Grief is just as they describe. Listen in to this project out of Kelly Writers House and keep telling Jamie-Lee this project changes lives. It’s changed mine.
4. Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter

Remember Nutella? This stuff is better! We filled up our backpacks with hiking treats back when we hiked a 14ner a few weeks ago and now I bought a stash of these packets for afternoon snacks. Spread the stuff on toast, eat with an apple, or just squeeze right into your mouth.

5. My brave friend Jenny

My brave, childhood friend Jenny Stoecker is working in Bangladesh with refugees with Medical Teams International. She’s been back and forth several times over the year and I am floored by the work she is called to. Every time I feel overwhelmed I think of the people she is living with, working with, walking with, and I’m brought back down – perspective makes a world of difference. The issues facing Bangladesh are large in scope, complex, and full of political implications. Helping people on a global scale is complicated. What’s not complicated? Giving what you can of your life to those in pain. Consider donating to her organization Medical Teams International here. 

I continue to be amazed by her willingness to travel, advocate, and show up for those hurting around the globe. Follow her gorgeous pictures here.

I know not all of us are called to global work. Some of us hear whispers of creativity, build buildings, or tell powerful stories to delight people in the towns we grew up in. You don’t have to cross the ocean to influence a life.

What matters most to me? What are you putting out into the universe? And how are you giving back? How is the universe showing up beautifully in your world?


P.S. – I’m in the middle of planning a trip to England and Paris – if you know of quaint, affordable places to stay please let me know!

A Very Merry Un-Birthday

“One’s unbirthday should not be confused with one’s half-birthday, which only occurs once a year.” – Wikipedia – Unbirthday

I had a roommate in college who cut hair. She wore dark clothes and lots of boots and was able to rock short hair in a way that would make my round head look, well, rounder. She dreamed of dropping out of our university to attend beauty school. Instead of studying she would spend nights in our co-ed house dying the hair of the boys who lived down the hall.

The boys would emerge from narrow hallways smelling of bleach. They’d strut towards us, proud of their new, burnt orange do’s while swooping their freshly cut bangs over their eyes with a vicious tilt of the head. Smooth.

I was dating one of those boys. He later became my husband.

I’d watch from the worn, scratchy couch across the way as this roommate would confidently wield her scissors, tucking clips in her layers of black, kind and sure of herself in a way I wished I could be. I was not sure of myself in college.

This roommate was also sure of celebrations and firmly believed in celebrating her half-birthday. ONLY her half-birthday. She and her mom would give halves of gifts and eat halves of cakes and celebrate making it another tilted trip around the sun. She hated her real birthday.

I liked this premise and tried to make it my own.

Over the next four years, I started acknowledging my half birthday too. I wasn’t ready to renounce my real birthday and chose to adopt another day of recognizing me. I’d shout to myself as my half-birthday approached and remind people I loved with text messages and emails. My loved ones didn’t get my obsessive need for celebration. Most ignored my cries for recognition – I’d survived another six months, so what? In most minds, my half-birthday was just another day. As Alice in Wonderland would say, just another un-birthday. We have 364 of them.

Not in my dad’s mind though. He was one of the only people who would follow my whims, get onboard my excited text message chains and holler “woo woo!” throwing a fist pump in the air as I urged others to come along.

Sometimes, I really just wanted to be seen.

He didn’t have to understand the why of my absurd claims, he would just start to play along.

Sunday was my half-birthday.

I texted my loved ones and whooped quietly in the morning and they responded limply. I ate half a muffin and would have tucked a candle in my homemade banana cake, but the waxy old sticks rolled missing in my drawers.

This year, in his absence, my half-birthday felt like an un-birthday and perhaps that’s ok.

I’ve been working on a running list of the many things we don’t do anymore as his bubble of absence grows and pops.

Half-birthdays turn to un-birthdays. Move air. Blow bubbles. Pop.

Vacation traditions fall flat.

Car caravans leave without our vehicles.

Lines fill at taco stands with feet in Chacos, not ours.

They’ll sleep in the valley, under the stars while we keep mending here instead.

Move air. Blow bubbles. Pop.

We no longer eat small bowls of vanilla ice cream.

I was in my garden this evening and saw this giant snail, carrying its home on its shoulders. My dog sniffed and sniffed, her breath blowing the cobwebs and dirt on this creature’s muddied shell.

I paused and I thought, “What is this snail carrying that protects, but no longer serves? What debris of home follows you, little snail, wherever you go? And what of me? The things I carry, my dirt, my dust, my joy turned to wispy webs of systems and traditions no longer serving a beautiful, bubble-filled heart.

A very merry unbirthday.

To me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Mountain Metaphor

I’m a seasoned ‘church camper.’ As a teenager, for at least a week each summer, I’d pile into a fifteen passenger van with sweaty boys and anxious girls and venture to the Colorado mountains for whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and torture … er, mountain biking.

Each night, after facing our fears and relying on God’s mercy to survive hormones, and crushes, and camp food, we’d hunker down to listen to sermons from a pastor underneath a picnic shelter with flames flickering behind him.

The bible is full of references to mountains. How we ought to look to them, how God moves them, how they melt in his presence, or shake in his glory. God speaks to people on mountain tops, bushes burn, internal battles are fought. Tectonic plates are holy ground.

Wise, college aged mentors would french braid my hair as I sat between their knees. I felt safe, loved, and seen. The mountains I was climbing in that season of my life involved grades, crushes, and college applications. All age appropriate, and yes, privileged.  I’d have my mountain top experience, head back down the hill and return to normal life.

Ten years passed and I still hadn’t climbed all the way to the top of one of Colorado’s beckoning peaks.

This past weekend we rallied with our cousins to trek to the top of a 14,000 foot mountain. We picked an “easy” one. Never you mind that easy still means you’re climbing an f’in MOUNTAIN.

It was not an easy experience for me.

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At the end of the meadow stretch, full of waving wildflowers, I could look up the steep trail and see people moving in front of me where I was headed. Like ants, we fell in line and moved slowly up, up, up.

“Our faith can move mountains” – Matthew 17:20

But could it move me?

We stopped every 200 yards to catch our breath. All the blogs told me this was a normal part of the process. I’d keep looking up, and see people ahead, and I’d ask, “how am I going to get up there?!”

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord – maker of heaven and earth.” – Psalm 121: 1-2

The answer was adjust my blinders. I had to focus on the ten feet in front of me, and then the next ten, and the next, to keep moving along. Any time I looked to the top of the peak, I’d falter. Mentally challenged and physically tired my cousin offered me his trekking pole so I could stop stumbling.

 

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As we approached the summit, solid ground gave way to piles of boulders. Big rocks stacked over one another. Why would something so massive be made up of hundreds of moving parts?

The last 200 yards I was using my hands to pull myself up and over big chunks of stone. Why did God design mountains that way? Heavy, precariously balanced stones for us master?

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I made it to the top. I sat and caught my breath and inhaled God’s fresh air. He whispered to me, “look how far you’ve come.”

In this season, my mountains have matured. Accepting the loss of a parent is not meant for almost thirty year olds. Finding employment after job loss. Navigating marriage. Coming into our own skins with confidence and learning how to soothe broken hearts. Those were bigger boulders found when a previous foundation fell apart – the aftermath forming new piles in our way. Rubble. Crumbly, heavy, hurting chunks of stone.

We’ve moved these last two and a half years, holding hands, five feet at a time up, up, and up to this new summit. The view is beautiful, holy, and aching. For Dad is closer to the heavens than back at the trailhead, and he wasn’t waiting for me to return at home.

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“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken.” – Isaiah 54:10

It’s peaceful up there on piles of stone. Hearts soar and God speaks.

And then you have to come down.

Spiritually, I’m afraid of coming down for I know new mountains will form for me to climb. I don’t want to hurt nor do I want to find new footing.

We want the summit. We don’t want the work. Unfortunately, beautifully, you can’t have one without the other. 

As we trekked down and our knees screamed, God brought this song back to me from camp years ago.

The artist wrote this song from a mountain near where we spread Dad’s ashes. Funny how our stories connect. Funny how boulders mix with pebbles to create beautiful trails racking our lungs and pounding our hearts.

I’m offering up my broken cup. Keep climbing up. Willing to come down.

Keep stepping the next ten beautiful feet in front of me.

July Favorite Things

Every time they say “It’s nasty out there” I cringe. The world is falling apart. Look up the hashtag on Twitter #Americain3words and people are not full of hope. We’re depressed, and scared, full of fear and angry, and hurt and confused.

Some days I am these things too.

How can you not be?

I cringe because by focusing on all the ick we miss out on the good waiting there, like a puppy, hoping to lick the salt from your tear-stained cheeks. Yes, cry, wail, hurt, advocate! But also sit, savor, ingest the magic surrounding the cells that make up your fingernails. You are not an accident.

I’m listening to podcasts now at the gym (any recommendations? Or better yet, know anyone who wants podcast guests? I’ve got a goal to appear on one this year) and I heard mention of this poem tonight. It’s number one on my list of favorites for July.

We’ve got to find delight.

  1. A Brief for The Defense – by Jack Gilbert
A Brief For The Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils. But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick. There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta, and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay. If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the tiny port looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning. To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.

2. This Anne Boleyn Shirt

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My brilliant and creative friend Lynn Schwebach has crafted these funny, bold feminist t-shirts. Support a local artist, immerse yourself into the feminist narrative. I know this artist does not mean to downplay any harassment or trauma women have faced. Rather she stands in creative solidarity, pointing out just how absurd it is that women have dealt with these issues for the longest time. View her full Etsy shop here.

3. Grumpy Old Ove

I’m reading this book for book group and have been charmed by this grumpy old man. When we suffer it’s easier to want to be alone. In this book, the universe won’t let him. A poignant story on grief, joy, and showing up for others in the most unassuming of ways.

4. Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans

I brought a bunch of these little treats to work and filled up a bowl on my desk. Every time my co-workers go by they curse me under their breath, then pop two or three into their mouth. I’m a treat provider – what can I say. These are yummy.

5. 4th of July Gear

Most of us have complicated connections to what it feels like to be an American these days. I’m mixed on patriotism and still feel so amazingly grateful to live here. We’ve got work to do, yes, but much to be thankful for. So on Wednesday I hope you spend the day with family or friends, in the sun, and have time to lay on some green grass under bursts of fireworks in the sky.

Wear this shirt. People will love you.

This one works is a stupendous option to consider.

Order now. With Prime it could get here by Wednesday!

Growing Joy

It has been a few weeks. I haven’t been writing.  The end of May is approaching and I’ve been swirling between the weekly grind, remembering birthdays, softball games, late night dinners, and ukulele lessons. We are filling up our days and nights. When I lift my head I inhale a smile and think, “We did it. We are living again.”

This weekend we focused on our backyard. The sunshines strong rays threatened my sensitive skin and ants bit my legs. From under our deck we dragged outdoor furniture into the light. Didn’t we just put this stuff away? How did six months of hibernation pass so quickly?

Filthy, mucky water sat stinking and stagnant, pooling on the tarp covering my two-seater lounge chair.  While meant to protect our seasonal seats, the synthetic material wasn’t able to do its job. Instead the water soaked through, warping wood, causing paint to fleck, and chip. The original surface exposed.

Got out the hose. Found a sponge and some soap and changed my shoes to sandals.  Washed off the muck. More paint chips fell to the lawn growing at my feet. Clean water kissed my toes.

Our attention shifted towards our garden plot, four bags of dirt anxiously waiting for something to grow on its center. Poured fertilizer, placed water lines, tucked seeds in rows with potential one inch under the ground. Sweat poured off our faces and into the dirt. We rubbed each other’s backs and sat down to rest. Grass tickled my legs and held me close – grounded me as my skin graced the Earth.

She whispered, “See, I’ve got you. Look how far you’ve come”

Two years ago, the summer after Dad died, we would go to my mom’s house and sit in her backyard. We’d lay in the grass and feel Mother Earth, and squint as the sun glinted off our tears mingling with dirt on our cheeks. Many, many days laying in grass because nothing else seemed manageable.

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I can’t believe how far we’ve come.

Dad’s 61st birthday was two weeks ago.  It felt awful and funny and sad. I posted this on Instagram.

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This birthday felt like under the surface, seeds planted long ago were growing.

Seeds of joy. God planted them in our darkness – tiny little buttons composed of Dad’s memories and life and love for us – organic materials.

They told me this would happen.

That grief would soften to joy.

I didn’t believe them.

Yet, if someone told me flowers were growing under all that dirt in my back yard and I’d never seen blossoms before, I probably wouldn’t believe them either.

It’s true.

Under all that dirt. Washing off muck, and flecks of paint that cover the pain, we are still here. Our original selves.

Without him.

Growing joy.

A beautiful thing.