When Grief Catches You…

Martha Hayden’s “The Allegory of Grief”

It’s an odd sensation to come face to face with Grief when you’ve been avoiding her for so long. She catches you fiercely and winds around your chest and all the things make you catch your breath and squeeze feelings from your eyes.

It’s an even odder sensation to be in a mental/emotional/spiritual place to welcome Grief as a guest at your emotional table. Especially when, as the eternal optimist, I have never thought to leave a chair for her. I actually cast her as the villain in my story…alongside Anger, Sadness, and the cameo actress, Boundaries.

Grief snuck up on me quietly here in this space. I should of known she would…she’s been patiently waiting in the corner for everything else to quiet long enough for her to say, “Umm….hello…are you ready to chat now? Can we have a cup of tea and talk about all these other feelings in the corner over here?”

So I down an antidepressant with my coffee and pull up a chair at the table. “I’ve got a few days….what ya got?” I approach her like a to do list. Let’s get this one checked off, shall we? She smiles her gentle smile and shakes her head ruefully…Her big green eyes well with tears as she comes to the realization that I am not ready for her quite yet.

Grief…we prepare for it when we loose a loved one to physical death. It’s acceptable…allowed…heck, encouraged as part of the process of healing. So often, we forget that we experience death in so many ways in our lives….death of ideals, death of dreams, death of relationships, death of an identity. It feels like another world, but just last summer I helped write an original ballet about grief….you would think I would be a pro at accepting and processing it.

From the ballet, “Reckless Love.” Photo credit Flash 160

But truth be told, to grieve is to accept…and to feel…and I am so scared of those words right now. So I have powered through healing the giant hole that was left in my heart when I had to walk away from the dream I dreamed. I dealt with the guilt of pouring all my time, energy, heart, soul, health and finances into something that I eventually had to say I couldn’t be a part of anymore. With my therapist, I worked on healing the parts of me that had allowed relationships to become so terribly toxic they nearly tore me apart. I am working on setting boundaries and finding safe people to share my life with. I am learning so much about myself. It has been a golden road of self discovery and so, so cool to travel. Hard, at times, but very cool. But self discovery is a partially an intellectual process and easily compartmentalized in neat boxes that sit on the shelf of things I know about myself.

Grief is different. It’s a spaghetti bowl of emotions and memories and Kleenex commercials that tug at your heart. It’s missing people and situations and for me, it’s particularly difficult right now because all of those people, places and things have moved on without me. It’s fighting the envy monster inside that wants all of those things to grieve for me as much as I grieve for them. It’s not knowing if I should look at photos and watch videos and like all the instagram posts about how great things are without me (because truthfully, life goes on and shouldn’t I celebrate that?).

So I sit across from Grief at the table of my heart. She asks if I am ready for some others to join us…Anger saunters up and sits at the head of the table and Sadness and the bittersweet Nostalgia join us. I sit quiet and listen as they start to share with me. This is a process and more than one pot of tea and more than one moment of introspection will be shared here. I know that these companions will be with me for a bit, and that’s ok now. I also know if I want to invite Forgiveness and Acceptance to my table, that I must become friends with these here with me now.

Grief reaches across, and lays her hand on mine…”Let me introduce you to someone else who’s been waiting in the corner with us.”

I look up and look deep into two brown wells of compassion. “Cari, this is Peace. You’ve met before, but it’s been a while. ” He sits across from me with a smile and lays his hand on top of Grief’s on mine. This journey may be long, but it isn’t all discomfort and painful experience…Peace travels with us too.

A Resolution from a friend…

Breaking free is sometimes hard.

It was a delightful birthday meal with friends….great Cuban food, laughter, plans for future vacations. My heart felt safe and warm and reveled in feeling of it all.

This time of year, my good friend, Alisa, is all about the resolutions. She’s one of the few people I know that actually writes them down and tracks her progress throughout the year and it is always great fun to hear what crazy antics she is planning for herself each year. I think it drives her nuts that I don’t set resolutions anymore…so in a moment of seriousness, she leveled her gaze at me and said, “Let’s set each other a resolution for this year and promise to keep it.”

Ya’ll this is a loaded request. Alisa doesn’t play with her resolutions. They are hard! From run a marathon and jump out of a plane, to read a book a week and cut sugar out of your diet….they tend to be full on life changing type statements that she takes seriously. I looked at my husband, he nodded slightly, and I said, “Ok…let’s do it!”

We went around the table…some resolutions were immediately rejected. It was honestly difficult to come up with something as I love these people in their current state so much. It came time to receive my resolution from Alisa and she looked at me hard…pursed her lips…leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. This one was gonna be difficult. I could tell by her posture.

“Your resolution is to forgive all the stuff that happened this year and move on. Let it all go.”

Crap.

Ya’ll this year has been the hardest of my life. There are people who have hurt and wronged me beyond what I thought was possible. There were relationships that dismantled my identity to the point that I considered ending my life. There was cancer and systemic infection and cures that seemed as bad as both. There was a loss of a dream that I thought was from God and in result, the shaking of what I had previously thought was an unshakable faith. I stopped writing, painting and creating…I stopped speaking and teaching…I stopped living and started surviving and it nearly killed me.

Through it all, the people at the table with me had held me up and walked me along. They (and so many others) had fought for my heart and reminded me who I was and just wouldn’t let me give up, but, Dear God- it was so close! And now, she was challenging me to “Let it all go.”

There is so much wrapped up in that statement. Forgiveness foremost. Of people…of myself….OF GOD. On (mostly) the other side of things, I can see all the things that I have learned and all the beauty that has started to blossom from the ash, but it doesn’t make the hurt less and I am reminded of it each day. Each day, as I see it, the grieving I thought was grieved wells up alongside the tears in my eyes, and I feel the ache of the loss I have avoided dealing with for the last few months.

Checking your bags is hard when you are in the middle of unpacking them, but I met her gaze and said, “Ouch….OK.” I agreed to something I honestly have NO IDEA HOW TO ACCOMPLISH, but I know this pack of mine will surround me and help…and I guess I’ll bring you guys along with me as well. Buckle up, ya’ll, we may be in for some turbulence!

Returning to this place…

Rapha….to release…to let go….

It’s been so very long since I have written in this space.  So very long since my words have been released out into the ether for people to read.  

So much has happened over the last two years, and especially, over this last year in my life.  It has been one of the most difficult seasons of my life.  But so rich…so full of beauty and adventures.  I have been holding onto the stories of this last season, waiting for complete healing and understanding before I share.  Waiting to arrive at a destination of wholeness to start leaving bread crumbs for others.  

I am not there yet…

I begin writing from the journey not the destination. I am learning so much in the season, and I feel the distinct call of God to share it from this space.  Someone, somewhere needs to hear this and I need to write it…so here goes…today…this day of Thanksgiving…I begin. 

And I begin by saying, “Thank you…”

I need to take a moment to thank my pack….not my tribe…my pack (look for a post explaining that statement!) I have learned so much about safe spaces for full vulnerability.  I have learned so much about who to allow to speak into your life- who gets the opportunity to challenge your identity and your value.  I have learned so much about relationship and life. 

I lost myself completely.  In doing so, I lost so much….my faith, my relationships began to suffer, and in the process, I lost the guiding message of my life….that the ONLY entity that has the right and voice to speak to my identity and value is God.  I gave away that power to a person…and it nearly destroyed me. 

But God is faithful…and never leaves us…and He never left me in that season.  He spoke to me through the people He placed in my life to call out that I had run myself into the ditch.  People who continuously questioned my thinking and didn’t give up on me….even when I made mistakes…even when I acted out of character. 

I cannot thank these people enough.  These light bearers kept shining on me….wouldn’t leave me no matter how I pushed away.  And I thank God for them every morning when my eyes open.  Thank you for my friends, for my family, for my pack that gathered around me, that nursed me back to health, who prayed and listened and sat silently with me when I didn’t have words or the strength to speak.  They came for me not once, not twice, but over and over and over again…and I am here today because of them.  

I want to share what I have learned with you…leave bread crumbs along the path…I’m steering clear of labeling the journey because I think what I have to share with you is so applicable to life as a whole…so here we go…a return to this space.  A return to writing.  A return to sharing. 

I’ll be honest, I’m a little rusty. It’s been years since I’ve written anywhere other than my journal.  And I am scared to death to share this story with you.  But I am leaping anyway.  

Love to you all, 

We’re all speaking in tongues…

“Denominationally, we have chosen to be at war with one another. We use our words as weapons…words central to our faith.” – Charlie Kaufman

“I’m looking for couples who express the fullness of God’s gifting in their lives to walk along side me in a new work.”

I cocked my head to the side and looked hard at him for a second.  It’s taken me years to learn to say these next words….

“Tell me, exactly, what you mean by that…what does that look like in real life?”

He began again in simple words, but strung together in way that sounded more like poetry than the mathematics I was looking for, and I had to stop him.

“I’m not sure you’re speaking a language that I understand.”

It was his turn to cock his head and look at me quizzically.  We had been serving together in ministry for years, and, I think, misunderstanding each other for about that long.  I watched as that realization broke like dawn over his face.

“I need some couples who are mature and secure enough in their faith to pray with me, to serve in church with me and, most of all, to tell me when I don’t make sense.”

This conversation got me thinking…as a person who began her religious education as a practitioner of Wicca, converted to Christianity and practiced as a Southern Baptist, and now finds herself as an ordained minister in a non-denominational church plant while working on staff at a Lutheran (liturgical) church- I have a fairly ecumenical vocabulary.  But I have noticed that we, the  people of the church, often use the same words to mean vastly different things…or perhaps at times incrementally different things…and either way we use those differences to draw a line in the sand and create a deep sense of disunity.

Some of my most frustrating conversations find their source in these misunderstood words.  I generally have no problem asking about words I have never heard before.  This is a good thing- my work in the Lutheran church has forced me to rub up against a whole new Christian vocabulary, but I do find myself wondering if the words my friends, pastors and other Christians are using mean what I think they mean.

Surely, I am not the only one…so I asked my Facebook community to share with me words they found were commonly misunderstood, particularly across denominations. I found the replies very interesting.  I guess I was fairly certain we would misunderstand the larger theological concepts between denominations (and we do, largely)…but the words folks struggled with the most were words like:

God

Saved

Jesus

Gospel

Holy Spirit

Grace

Words formative to our identity as Christian.  Words that are central to our religion as a whole….these are the words that, by and large, Christians are unsure of in a general ecumenical context. Or, worse yet, we think we are all speaking the same language, but in reality have very different understandings of the these words that we interact with every day as Christians.

Turns out…we are all speaking in tongues…and most of us don’t even realize it…

Perhaps what we need is more folks with the gift of interpreting….

Or religious dictionaries that strictly define these words…

Or better yet, lots of coffee and tea and open discussions about faith, belief and the foundations that form our traditions…

That’s scary business and requires a disciplined insight into your own language and the ability to step into the fire of the question, “what does this word mean to me?”

It’s time though…

to stop drawing lines in the sand and start pulling chairs up to the table…

Coffee, anyone?

Remember You Are Dust…

It has been forever since I’ve occupied this space with current thoughts and words from my pen.  A year to be exact…I have missed this quiet corner of the multiverse.  As a part of my Lenten journey this year, I have committed to sharing thoughts and reflections each day…bear with me…there are many bad habits to break. My life is so different now than when I first started this blog and I find myself with little time to write thoughts (I am so often sharing them through spoken word) and far too many “to do” piles on my desk.  So here we go…

“Remember you are dust…and to dust you shall return…”ash wed

The pastor speaks with hushed tones as he reaches toward me.  He brushes away wisps of hair that refuse to be confined by the barrette at my temple.  His hand sweeps warm across my forehead as the acrid scent of palm ash and musky smell of frankincense and myrrh mingle in my nostrils.

My Grandma always told me that prayers are a sweet aroma in heaven and I wonder if this is what it will smell like- life consumed completely by age and fire and the sweet perfume of holy gifts well spent.

The ashes feel strange on my forehead- not sticky, but not dry either. I ponder the words as the pastor speaks them over and over.

Over my head- middle aged and graying beneath vibrant hair color…

Over an elderly woman in a wheelchair, breath of life whirring from a portable green tank slung over the back of her chair…

Over the young mother with twin Tasmanian devils dashing between her legs and bumping off people like bumper cars…

Over the precious baby…just a few months old…crossing her eyes as the pastor crosses her forehead.

He speaks mortality over us as a blessing. The cross writ on our foreheads as a reminder to die to self and sin and to count our numbered minutes precious.

This is my first time receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday…coming new to experience a tradition not my own and I find the service profound and deeply moving.  I bear my commitment like a brand and sit in my car letting solemn moments pass as I seek God’s heart with my own… and confess that I have been struggling with my faith these last months. This is my mortal moment of reckoning and it  steals my breath and steels my heart and I find in surrender to Christ the freedom to be okay.

I think you are supposed to confess BEFORE you receive this ashy symbol, but I came to this place as a student, with a purely academic motive.  Not seeking God, but seeking an understanding of a faith tradition that has long felt shrouded in mystery.  I researched before I came. I knew the ashes were made from the burnt remains of last years’ palm fronds.  I knew that they are mixed with fragrant oils to dilute the acidity of the ash. I knew the phrases that would be spoken over me. I knew that this tradition has rich symbolism that draws people close to their own mortality and sinfulness. I knew this was the way many enter into the waiting of Lent. I knew everything there was to know and nothing at all…all at once.

I, being ever the student, had reached out to my friends in the clergy in the weeks leading up to this day.  I asked what Ash Wednesday meant to them and how it affected them. I planned a purely journalistic report based on history, research, their answers and my would be experience.  Their answers stunned me, awed me and, yet, in no way prepared me for the beauty of the imposition of ashes. Overwhelmingly, my friends spoke of the beauty of speaking out loud human mortality and the impact of repeating that process over people from all walks of life.

My new friend, Pastor Clint Schnekloth, tells me:  “As a pastor the most powerful part of the imposition of ashes is writing them on all the different foreheads, from heads at death’s door, to heads recently emerged from the womb. The range and texture of our mortality is a powerful, tangible thing.”

And my blog sister and fellow writer, Sara Miles, whose book, City of God, a friend gave me last year says, “Almost invariably, the people I give ashes to– parents, old ladies, gang kids, hipsters, day laborers, drunks– say “thank you.” I say it, too: touching strangers with such intimacy in public, admitting what we share (our mortality), feels like a gift, one that turns the lies of our culture upside down.”

My Yoda and spiritual director, Judy Turner of Christview Ministries, tells me that she believes “at the beginning of Lent, the imposition of ashes can be a meaningful, tangible way of expressing our commitment to die to sin so the Savior can live more fully in us.  It is a powerful reminder of our mortality to help us focus our lives on what is eternally significant.”

They were beautiful sentiments, really.  An indication that  serving a community as Pastor through these rituals comes with its own equally charged graces.  They gave me insight into their lives as leaders of church communities…but they didn’t prepare me for the moment ash touched head and contrition settled into soul. Neither for the sensation of solidarity as I glanced around at the 30 or so foreheads marked as mine…infant, child, adult and elder…all bearing the blessing of our death to sin. It was stunning, and powerful and I am forever changed by it.

Merciful Father,
we have sinned against heaven and before you.
We do not fully live as your sons and daughters.
We use your gifts to our own ends.
Forgive us and restore us,
that we may resist all that draws us away from you,
and be at peace with one another. Amen.

Memoir Writing Prompt…a little test for you :)

Grade A

Every now and again in Old Friend from Far Away, Natalie Goldberg throws in a little test.  These are multiple writing prompts that you write on for two or three minutes each.  It is a fun experiment to flex your writing muscles.  Let’s do one today! 

Here’s what she says about the test:

Here is a test.  The good thing about it is all answers are correct.  Right off the top you receive an ‘A”.

You have two or three minutes to answer each question.  Make sure you are specific.  Nothing vague.  You might want to begin each answer with ‘I remember.’

Ready? I’m going to share all the prompts with you, but only some of my writing responses cause…well…cause it’s my blog and I can! Don’t skip any though…you can do it! Here we go!

  • The first one:  give me a memory of your mother, aunt, or grandmother.  If it’s an aunt say her name, for example, “I remember my aunt Gladys…” Be detailed. Here’s mine for example:

My aunt Margaret was a brash drunk of a woman.  Her wealth made her lack trust for anyone around her, especially young children and she yelled about as if we were all servants.  She loved roses.  Her roses were the most beautiful bushes I’ve ever seen and like her, screamed the warning, “Behold my beauty! Beware my thorns!”

  • Give me a memory of the color red.  Do not write the word “red” but use words that engender the color red when you hear them.  For example, ruby, tomato, fire, blood.

His Chuck Taylor’s waited at the end of his feet begging for notice-signature shoes that shared his name and shouted Arkansas school spirit.  He wore them always with matching Umbro soccer shorts, even when it was cold. They matched his nose when the sun would bake it or the cold wind would chap it.

  • Give me a memory of a sound.  Again, try not to use the word “sound” in your writing. Here’s an example:

The hum of the generators was a lullaby at 2 am, especially when the fate of the world rested on my alertness. The low rumble of it vibrated the seat I was in and made everything else feel quiet and peaceful. While watching for the end of the world, I leaned my head against the padded wall and thought, “I will just rest it here for a while.”

  • Give me a picture of a teacher you had in elementary school. Two minutes..
  • Tell me about a meal you loved. Where were you when you ate it? What was the weather like out the window? How old were you? Who were you with? Two minutes…go!
  • Last one, tell me about a time you remember rain. Rain might not be the main focus of the memory, but write about a time when it was there with you.

He offered me his umbrella as we climbed the hill to our next class.  I was reveling in the feel of summer as it dropped on my skin I told him.  He looked at me as if I was a walking poem- desire lighting his eyes and closed the umbrella.  He turned his face to the sky, but he couldn’t be free so he opened the umbrella and continued to walk beside me.  It was the beginning of the end of our relationship.

So what’s the point here?  What are we trying to learn?  Nicole is teaching us to use our senses when we write.  We didn’t write about smell, so right now, list ten smells you remember. Be specific. For example:

  1. Wet dog
  2. sage and onions
  3. Charlie’s sweat
  4. buttercream frosting
  5. spring after rain
  6. Aunt Lora’s house
  7. old books
  8. White Shoulders perfume
  9. baby poop
  10. perm solution

 

This is what Nicole says about using your senses when you write…I love it:

Naturally, you are not going to cover every sense every time you write a scene. But doing this “I Remember” test is like acupuncture pricks alerting your mind when you write.  You go along describing something and then-ah yes, Snow was falling wet as my heart when I asked her to marry me. The word becomes bigger. Your love includes weather now- and feeling.

Memoir Writing Prompt…and thoughts on memory..

Memory is a funny thing.  I sometimes think my experience with it is exceptional because I know first hand what it is to be without one (I lost my mine once when I had a traumatic brain injury.) Sometimes I don’t trust the memories I have because I simply don’t know which ones are mine and which I have created based on stories I have heard.  In the end, it doesn’t matter….we all have exceptionally creative brains that fill gaps and rewrite stories all the time….can anyone really trust their memory?  No, I don’t think so…which is why I write at times….because at least then there is a record of what I believed when I believed it.  Memoir is an exercise in memory recall.

Did you write on our last prompt?  My friend who was so excited I was starting this series was disappointed that it was something so mundane…But Natalie Goldberg suggests that there are four prompts we should flex writing muscles with all the time: “I’m thinking of../I’m looking at../I remember../I don’t remember.”  So we continue with lifting the ten pound weights before we transition to the 25 lb ones.

I want to share a bit of what Natalie shares with those beginning this practice:

“Don’t cross out. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar.  Be specific. Not car, but Cadillac. Not tree, but sycamore.  But don’t worry, if you write “bird” instead of woodpecker, you can figure out what kind it was two weeks later when you reread it. The important thing is to keep your hand moving. If you get stuck go back and write the prompt again…

Say what you want to say, not what you think you should say. Trust what you put down, even if the editor or critic inside you says it’s wrong or you made a mistake…feel free to write the worst junk in America.”

So here are the rules:

  1. No editing.  Write what you write.
  2. You may choose to share your post- just post the link in the comments.  Or you don’t have to.  I sat on some of these writings for a year before I was brave enough to post them.  Let them be true…without thought of audience AND then choose what you will share with the world at large.  If you choose not to share, will you share some thoughts about your experience writing this prompt?
  3. Write for ten minutes….at the end of your ten minutes, wrap up with a final thought and end your piece.

That’s it! Easy-peasy, right?  So let’s go!

Write for ten minutes on the prompt- “I remember.”

n-WOMAN-CHALKBOARD-large570

I remember the year we left the Christmas tree up until March.  It was after my sister, Lora’s, birthday before we took it down.  I think Lora thought it was something special we did in honor of her in that way only young children can imagine that the most mundane of things is a gift to them.

I remember my mother was filled with shame at the thought of it.  I wonder if she felt it was an outward reflection of an inner failure on her part that the tree was still up and glistening with icicles and homemade ornaments. We never turned the lights on after Christmas.   Those lights were great blinking beacons to her failure and a lighthouse alerting all who would come near that this home did not have it all together. 

I remember the day that she admitted truth….that we didn’t have it all together and that, in fact, that made us a stronger family not a weaker one.

I remember my grandmother was dying that year and my baby sister, Alexis, was young, celebrating her second year on earth- or perhaps she wasn’t born yet- perhaps I don’t remember that part at all.  I simply remember that there were good reasons for our delayed response to removing the tree at a socially acceptable time.  I remember that life had intruded with busy schedules and more important priorities and had stolen from us any of the moments we might have taken to stow away our Christmas memories.