This morning, I woke up early in the great state of Georgia.
Two of my dearest friends in the world accompanied me to a conference that addressed a faith reconstructed. It was incredible. The teachings were what so many evangelicals (and I was one for most of my life,) would consider utterly scandalous.
Y’all, LOVE that rich, pure, and bounteous SHOULD be scandalous. The most passionate love stories always are.
I didn’t move for a while when I woke, because I simply couldn’t. (If you don’t already think I’m nutty, you might now. And I’m okay with that)
I was pinned in place but this momentous, ridiculously extravagant sensation of love.
It was so thick in the air, it felt womb-ish, like a swim in calm ocean, flowing and bobbing. Or being swaddled like a baby, feeling nurtured and safe.
I didn’t fight it, like so tend to do. I didn’t negate it with my usual self-loathing talk. I always feel “powerless” against my own thoughts. My insecurities are members of a terrorist organization of sorts. During my (literal) “come to Jesus,” I discovered that I don’t have to negotiate with terrorists. I get to choose.
No, instead of fighting and fretting against the swell of love, I just rested in it. It was overwhelming, glorious, and unlike any experience I’ve had in a half-century of Christian fundamentalism. There was not even a trace of shame involved. I was fresh out of bothers for a spell.
At some point, I “feel” God say something to the effect of: “Please don’t talk and think mean thoughts about my little girl. I love her so much.” Wait WHAT!?
“You heard,” says gentle but firm Holy Spirit, her voice strong and convincing.
That little girl is me.
This weekend was like a speed-dating session with my true identity. Lots of uncomfortable moments. Lots of connecting. Lots of nerves. The result is this radical, rich, ridiculous grace for others.
I MUST share what I experienced in the wee hours of the morning with you. I have to. Because it’s LIFE.
Love is life.
Sometimes the supernatural doesn’t come like a lightning strike, dramatic and jarring. It’s not always signs and wonders that the church proper chases for a dopamine hit and considers evidence of a Being of pure Love.
No, sometimes it’s a soul hug first thing in the morning. Supernatural revelation can be realizing you aren’t a cosmic mistake; that you have belonged to Source since before the formation of the Universe. That He belongs to US. I know it sounds strange. But I’m okay with that too.
I welcome the chance to tell you how incredibly loved you are this day.
I don’t want to convert you.
I have no ulterior motives.
I don’t want to change you.
I have no agenda.
I don’t want to push religiousity. Matter of fact, religion is the whole problem. It has almost nothing to do with the actual Trinity, which invites us to a beautiful dance that includes us all.
And as a result of this Great Forgetting , the church can be stingy with the very thing it’s attempting to sell: Love. Purpose. Being.
This weekend, I feel like I had a heart transplant, and I couldn’t be happier.
My prayer today is that you wrap your arms around yourself and hug. Don’t rush it. Really hug yourself tight. Consider it a hug from me.
And so much better – it will be a hug from Papa God. He is wild about you.
May you come to the overwhelming realization of who you really are, and that the opposite of Love is fear. I learned that I don’t have to rent Fear a room in my head. Evict that sucker.
May your awareness of the supernatural be increased so that you can recognize when God “winks” at you.
May you come to know and (this is the hard part) ACCEPT the TRUTH about your inherent value, which is priceless.
Take one lifetime of Old Time Religion. Stir in two cups of Fear-Based Theology. Sprinkle in 2 tbsp of unintentional judginess, three tbsp of Obviously I’m Right, work through dough. Add additional The Bible CLEARLY Says! to taste.
While religious “dough” is trying to rise, but just kind of petering out, prepare in a shofar – I mean BOWL:
Two cups each of Chronic Pain and Debilitating Illness powder that has been sifted through a “name it and claim it” sieve for 40 years, but it’s still lumpy.
Add 4 tbsp frustration, and a dash of Must Not Be Worthy of Healing. Stir in a packet of What Will My Fundamentalist Friends Think. Cry about this step for approximately three more years.
Check ingredients in first bowl to make sure dough is indeed rising. But nope. It’s just sitting there in a big glop.
In yet another bowl, add one adult child who has come out as bisexual, which was NOT in the original recipe, so sayeth the Expectations Set Forth by the Church. Add a smidge of What Will My Fundamentalist Friends Think (if you have any left, which is doubtful. We go through it like gangbusters around here!)
Decide to add many dollups of Mother Love anyway (heck, dump in however much you have,) and set the kitchen timer to two more years on the “acceptance” setting. This is a wet ingredient, so thinning it out will just make it easier to spread. Use liberally.
Open up the pantry and see what else you have that might somehow make it more palatable.
Aww, shucks. All you have is a Costco-sized box a bag of Everything Else Life Can Throw At You. That stuff is SPICY. Always check the label…let’s see…it contains Mental Health Challenges, Losing Mobility, Family Estrangements, Crippling Anxiety, Bouts of Financial Struggle, Alcoholism, Codependency, Childhood Trauma, and 1000 grams of pure Shame Concentrate.
Going back to the bowl, taste the batter. See that it is bad. Mix all ingredients. See that it is WORSE.
While waiting for the timer, it’s important to assume that the Master Chef is angry and frustrated with you. Kind of like an astral Gordon Ramsey or something.
Assure yourself the whole Universe is against you, as is everyone you know and love who is following directions from a 2,000 year old book of recipes that several hundred fallible human people contributed to. Kind of like Gramma’s recipe box that had a hundred food-stained index recipe cards from her friends shoved into between the pages. Make sure to take everything out of context for best results.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and when timer sounds, decide on how much savory Self-Doubt to use. Seasonings come in “I’m a Worthless Sinner,” and “Searing Disappointment” flavors.
Ask yourself WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Am I just a shitty cook, or so I just have so few ingredients to work with, I’m having a hard time accepting the result?
And what if I’ve been forgetting the Main Ingredient all along?
Next (scary) step:
Decide you’re tired of fear-based faith, dust off your hands, open your heart, ask the Universe to help you see what is Truth, battle-weary, heavy-hearted, and feeling raw inside like dough that won’t rise.
Decide to put all judgement and Christian-ese down the garbage disposal. The Expectations of Other People went bad a long time ago and is really stinking up the place.
Decide to fold Unconditional Love into every single recipe. Never run out! Keep it on the top of every list so you always have enough.
Follow the example set by Jesus always…He is always cooking up something GOOD.
Next, march all three containers used previously out your back door. Gently set down all three, and leave them outside to think about what they’ve done.
Now – this is important – turn off the oven. Nobody is burning on my new watch!
You are not alone, Chef Self.
So join a “cooking” club – one that is comprised of other Seekers with open hearts who want to get at the meat of the Truth, and offer you endless sugar.
Flip the script. Read the instructions anew.
Take one bowl – the most chipped and beat up one you got, and butter it with kindness.
Then invite all your friends over to help you create a masterpiece.
All you will need is:
8 cups HOPE – brimming. Five tbsp of self-forgiveness. A heaping scoop of Studying what the Cookbook Really Calls For – reading between the lines. A tbsp of of Learning to Love Yourself Too will hold it all together when you want to throw in the towel.
And last, but MOST importantly, add All the Jesus You Have, all day every day. All of it. Tip it over and smack the bottom of the box for every molecule of Jesus it’s got. Really pile it in on. Study his ways in the context given, and leave room for Holy Spirit in every dish.
Oh, and tell your friends that All the Jesus is just another measurement of LOVE. Get to know HIS way around the kitchen together.
These few ingredients are all you need, Junior Chef, to mix up a reconstruction of faith for the ages. And keep in mind:
If you feel like you have to keep Fear on hand “just in case,” know that God is not the store where you purchased Fear. That stuff is very in-organic.
If you’re grieving the losses of this hard life, pull up a chair and come sit by me. There is always plenty of room at Christ’s table. And mine. *Pulls out chair and pats the seat in a welcoming invitation.*
If you’re ambling around aimlesssly, your chef hat askew, join me. I’ll be celebrating that I finally understand, “It is for freedom you were set free.”
And if you’re deconstructing your faith, and If you’re being called “deceived,” “fallen” – or (and I’m okay with this one) – “ex-evangelical,” remind yourself that the Word of God is an actual person. As Master Chef, he wants to see you succeed.
If you were enticed to read this piece because the title sounds low-key fetishist, move along. I mean, nothing would surprise me anymore. This is no kinky boots I’m talking about…hardy har har.
I’m referring to the oft-quoted, stoic-to-a-fault narrative that when you’re hurting. You know – the old adage: “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps requires you handle it yourself. That’s the whole point of having bootstraps…self-sufficiency. Two little loops are supposed to save you from whatever mayhem you may be facing.
I was thinking about this yesterday because having a pity party is a very lonely experience. It necessitates solitude for proper misery. But as the only attendee, I got pretty sick of myself.
Which is exactly why I texted my dear friend. It was a high-pain day. I had been more or less bed-bound for four days previous. I still am, actually.
My therapist has taught me to consider my “days off” (days when I have no proverbial “spoons” – Google “Spoon Theory…”) as true days of rest. She encourages me to take that time to write, read, even binge watch something to take my mind off of things.
It’s a great idea and it was working great until yesterday. Yesterday was the day I was going to feel better and do better. Except that my body decided NOPE, it wasn’t the day.
The thing about chronic illness is that the world keeps going. You may have the best support circle, and still feel lonely sometimes. I’m losing myself in a days-long pajama binge of watching TikToks and writing mid-grade poetry. Everyone else is out doing All The Things. I’m happy that everyone else is doing All The Things. I just sometimes want to do them too, and resent having this lifestyle “forced” on me.
So rather than sink into a deeper funk, as I said, I finally texted my friend.
I think I said something like, “I’m not doing so well.” And she replied, “Need a hug? I’ll be right over.” This, as it turns out, was the perfect thing to say.
Usually, I rebuff my friends’ offers to come wallow with me. But I was in just the right mood to accept help, I guess.
Usually, I say “No, it’s okay. I’ll be alright.”
Usually, I would honestly rather isolate, because it takes too much mental and emotional energy to engage with another human.
Usually, I don’t reach out at all.
Usually, I pull myself up by my bootstraps (or just kick ’em off and run around barefoot.)
But not yesterday.
I called out to my Bootstrap Buddy and she took time out of doing All The Things in her busy life to come sit with me, hold me, and listen to my blathering about not being able to do All The Things, too.
The origin of the expression “pull yourself up by your bootstratps” is: To improve one’s situation through hard work and self-determination, rather than getting assistance from someone else. But upon researching the beginnings of the term – which seems to have become popular in the turn of the 20th century, it seems it was often made tongue-in-cheek; the idea being that pulling oneself up off the ground by one’s own bootstraps is actually a physical impossibility.
The original verbiage meant to “elevate” oneself. To literally leave the physical ground. It was a smart-ass comment about doing for oneself what is is only possible to do with help.
I don’t always have it in me to put in “hard work” and “self determination.” Sometimes I’m empty. in those times, it cannot be done; although we can fall on our faces trying, blinded by pride.
We all need that one person – or several people – who will get into the muck and mire to help pull our boots up, out of the mud. I’m fortunate to be married to one. But I also have friends willing to hold space for me in that place.
All the self-reliance and pride in the world cannot compete with being held and listened to when we are at a low point. There are times when lifting ourselves is a physical (or mental) impossibility.
Thank you for elevating me, and picking me up off the ground, my precious Buddies.
If there is one thing chronic pain and illness remind you of, it’s that we are all dying. Or as my former pastor used to chide, “We are all terminal.” (And yes, I’m fine – not going anywhere anytime soon. Just in a very reflective mood.)
So, why then do we put all of those spoken things on the back burner? Not all of us will have the opportunity to take them out of layaway.
Too often, our “famous last words” turn out to be neither famous nor last, and precious things often hang in the air unsaid. And life is too short for that.
Something that my mother used to say has taken on new meaning to me lately: “Flowers are for the living.” Why wait for funerals to give flowers or kind words?
So I’m telling you now – yes, you who are reading this. I don’t talk to you enough. Worse, I don’t listen to you enough. But I want you to know you are always on my heart. I care about every word you ever said, and its woven its way into the tapestry of our friendship. Because at the risk of sounding hippy-dippy, we are all connected.
When things you told me – profound and trivial – come to my mind like random thoughts are apt to do, my face breaks out in a little state of happy.
When all the struggles you shared met my ears, my heart filed them away and brings a poignant pang to my soul when I remember even still.
Nothing you have ever confided in me ceases to exist. Nothing ever goes to waste.
All of the weaving becomes who we all are: The smiles, the jokes, the lessons we painfully teach each other and ourselves. The music we share, the memes we post.
All of it.
Perhaps if you’ve known me long enough, you remember when we were teenagers, and we would cut pictures out of magazines and make collages of our “futures” – page after page of handsome men we hoped to marry, sporty cars we dreamed to drive, trappings of all the careers we were going to excel at, picture-perfect children we were sure we’d raise. We made vision boards before there were vision boards, and we went through untold numbers of glue sticks in our quests to summon perfect futures.
Thank you for sticking through when nothing turned out as we’d hoped. Thank you for staying by my side when things turned out more difficult than our 13 year old minds could conceive, and more wonderful than any of our dreams we could have imagined.
When we bore our babies and did the “Mom Circuit’ together – lazy days of trips to Gymboree, the park, McDonald’s ball pits, endless breastfeeding sessions and diaper changes, co-rejoicing with one another over each ad every milestones our babies reached?
Remember always feeling like we were missing the mark somehow? But still, we never did allow each other to entertain the idea that we were less-than stellar mommies. Encouragement was the order of our tired mommy days, every day.
And as the kids grew, we somehow lost ourselves. All didn’t go according to plan after all. But you were there for me, always. I never felt like I was going it alone. Thank you. It’s impossible to put a value on always feeling understood.
Little did we know that those were the easy times. Ah, but they were, by FAR. Because by the time I had a chance to catch my breath, I had to figure out who I was – apart from “MOM” – all over again. So did you.
And as we reached middle age, friendships took on new importance. No longer were they relationships to be sandwiched in between the chaos of parenting and busy marriages, but tantamount to every aspect of our lives, our very selves.
Thank you, life-giving friends.
Thank you for mourning my losses with me. Thank you for understanding when I feel like I don’t measure up, and assuring me I do anyway. Thank you for finding the humor in all the things that could otherwise easily take me down if I didn’t learn remember to laugh about them. Thanks for inside jokes, and finding joy in chocolate, and getting pissed off with me about all the stupid stuff. Thanks for reminding me that faith isn’t a lofty ideal and goal to shoot for, but a resting place and a safety net.
Remember that time I reached out to you in desperation, all full of despair and tears, snot and hopelessness? You swore I’d make it through to the other side, and my darling? You are one of the direct reasons I did.
The times I swore I would pick up a drink, but didn’t…
The times I was so lonely I thought I’d die…
the times I felt life’s greatest losses so keenly I was sure I would not survive another day…
Thanks for believing that I wouldn’t die from the pain.
That I’d survive,
That the gains and blessings in my life would outnumber those losses.
From this day forward, I want to cultivate a lifestyle of giving voice to things big and small. I don’t want opportunities to show gratitude to pass us by. I don’t want to miss a chance to laugh over something ridiculously silly, or a chance to forgive something hurtful.
I want to say I’m sorry when I am (but learn not to apologize for things that aren’t my fault.) I want YOU to know that you mean the world to me. Whether I know you well or just barely, you bring something to my life you cannot imagine bringing – just by being you.
if I never get the formal opportunity to thank you, friends….please know who grateful I am for each and every one of you. There are more reasons to be grateful than I could ever count.
I was all set out to write a pithy little piece in tribute to the Great Shel Silverstein, if for no other reason that he taught me to love words and even sometimes love the WORLD, janky as it may be. It was a little ‘wherever you go, there you are’ piece, except my keyboard jammed, taking me to a magical, mystery land of four-letter words and sucked the whimsicalness right out of me visa my aft end, and then -right that minute – I got a brrrrrring notice from my iPhone alerting me that someone very special to my life was possibly having an existential crisis right that very moment, so heads-up. In her text was a lovely family reunion picture, my friend’s hand rested on her little baby bunp (the child they’d prayed and hoped for and long awaited. My dear friend has survived a LOT of bullshit in her young life and has come out with faith intact (miraculously) and I am so stinking proud of her. She has battled and overcome Anorexia and a host of other chronic, debilitating maladies – things that would make a lesser woman (me) not even want to get out of bed in the morning. AND she takes awesome care of her hubby and service dog, and loves on EVERYONE, working hard for those facing even more difficulties than her own. She is my hero.
So after I enjoyed the lovely picture for a minute or two, I scrolled down to read what someone had posted in response to the picture. Presumably someone else in the picture.
It said, “Well, stop faking your fake disability and keep your fingers out of your throat.”
And then I stopped to read it again because SURELY NOT.
Surely there are not people who are Lex Luthor/ Bob Cratchet/Lucifer/Any and all evil parts in movies played by Jack Nicholson/Wicked Witch of the West/Scarface/Hannibal Lechter HYBRID of villains.
But there it was, for God and all creation to see.
“Well, stop faking your fake disability and keep your fingers out of your throat.”
More hurtful words I cannot imagine coming out of the mouth of a demon. I know God loves this nasty person and loves her dearly. I, on the other hand, think she’s a real asshole. Hey, I’m working on it, but I ain’t yet arrived, as we say in the South.
And to my sweet, brave, amazing, mama-to-be friend? You have always always brought to mind the song by “Nice & Wild” – Diamond Girl. It was written long (long, long) before you were born, but you’ve always made me think of it. Youtube it, or download it, or do whatever you young people do these days to listen to music, but just take a listen.
Shine on, Diamond girl. You sure do shine. Kick off them haters – don’t pay them no mind.
(That last line is compliments of yours truly, but I think Shel Silverstein would approve.)
One of my favorite places in the whole world are the mountains of North Carolina. They aren’t sharp and pointy like the Rockies, demanding awe of their majesty. Rather, they are vast and rolling and a thousand shades of blue and purple – those Blue Ridge Mountains. And some of our favorite places to visit are not at the tops of mountains, but in the valleys or ‘gaps.’ Surrounded on all sides by massive, ancient mountains, it always gives me pause.
Little towns named for the gaps they settled in always have the most dramatic names: Deep Gap. Windy Gap. Air Billows Gap. Smoky Gap. And my favorite, Roaring Gap.
It’s called “Roaring Gap” and not “Whispering Gap” because when the winds pick up between the mountains around it, it roars.
Today I was privileged to pray for a dear friend whom I love very much. She is in a difficult situation in which there will be no easy resolution. She is scared, of course. Her anxiety is palpable, and I don’t know what magic words to tell her that will make things instantly better.
She is encountering a ‘gap’ in her life, and she just needs someone to stand in it with her, to bridge her reality with the answered prayer on the other side.
I don’t know why so much scripture describes “peace in the valley” because in between mountains can be an anxious place. Unless, I suppose, you can rest in the gap with full faith that those mountains will move.
Many of my friends right now have fallen from ‘mountaintop’ experiences and are just hurting. They cannot see a way out of the roaring, all-encompassing gaps. I pray for them, but it doesn’t seem like enough to do.
I was raised Baptist and often heard people refer to intercessory prayer as “standing in the gap” for someone. This morning, as I prayed what I felt were insufficient prayers, God reminded me of what it means to “stand in the gap” in prayer for others by giving me a visual.
(He does that for me sometimes. It is literally as if the Almighty is saying, “Dang, girl. Do I have to DRAW YOU A PICTURE!?”
Yes, Papa. Sometimes you do.)
I saw myself in a mountainous gap, worried for a friend. But I wasn’t standing.
In the vision, I am sitting cross-legged in a beautiful mountain valley and imploring God to please help my sister in need. And then I look around me and try to find routes through the foliage. I wring my hands and close my eyes, and ask the Father again for resolution. Then I start wondering what the dimensions of this gap are. Hmmm. I wonder where God IS already?
Then I look behind me and there stands my sister-in-need. She is standing upright, but just barely. She is crying into her hands and trying to keep her balance, wavering on her feet.
She just needs me to stand with her. She needs me to stop trying to figure out how to fix her problem, and just to stand with her, help hold her up, and implore God on her behalf. She is too tired and weak to do it on her own.
I like to ‘fix’ people and situations, you see. Maybe you do too. Or maybe you feel your prayers are insufficient.
If you have a prayer language, use it. Think of your friend and her needs and her heart, and let the words flow, echo off the mountains they are facing.
(If you don’t have a prayer language, ask God to give you one. It’s not as spooky as it sounds and is incredibly intimate. He wants to fill you with those words you cannot even understand!)
If your sister is sad, hunker down and be sad with her. But prayerful always. God can fix what she is going through.
God doesn’t expect us to survey the gap…or question WHY is this gap here? Who left the gate open?
He just expects us to stand in it. He expects us to stand firm on the promise that He is still at the helm. However much we love our suffering friends, He loves them infinitely more.
Fill that gap with prayerful petition to Christ on behalf of your sister. One day, her struggle will be behind her like one of those endless and beautiful ancient ridges of blue mountains.
And just stand there, even in the roaring.
Lord God Almighty,
So many of my friends are hurting. Their spirits are wounded, and they are standing, but just barely. Help me to stand with them. Give me the words in this otherworldly language to plead their cases before you. Waste not ONE BIT of their struggle, but lend them comfort in the midst of it. Hold them, Abba. Douse them in your Love. Remind them that you are faithful.
Joe is a Christian who struggles to keep his blood pressure under control. Following his doctor’s advice and having the support of his family, he manages to healthy. He keeps encouraged by those who love him, and that makes all the difference.
Also a Christian, she is a survivor of breast cancer. She has suffered through a double mastectomy and many chemo treatments, and is currently in remission. She surrounds herself with people who love her to stay in a positive mindset, and has the admiration of the community for the brave fight she has waged.
Sam’s diabetes demands constant care. The dietary and medical choices he makes impact his life every day. Sam is very open with others about his condition, as he depends on their support and his own healthy choices to keep him going.
Joe, and Sarah, and Sam. They each battle a disease. Each need a place to rest, as rest is essential to wellness.
In this life, we will have trouble. If God’s own son was not spared suffering, we will surely not be either. Health challenges are simply a part of life.
Now meet Amy.
Amy is a follower of Jesus Christ who suffers from mental illness. Perhaps you know Amy – or someone like her. We all do.
Maybe she cuts herself. She might even have visual and auditory hallucinations.
Perhaps depression weighs her down, making even the most mundane survival tasks difficult.
She could have anxiety, the dreaded foot race between her worrisome thoughts and the beats of her heart.
She may have crippling compulsive behaviors, making her a social outcast.
Her moods may soar to the top of the stratosphere – beyond logical control – and then crash and splinter in too many pieces for her to put back together.
Her emotions may be too wild for her will to handle.
She might rage or isolate, with the same outcome: shame.
Amy is just as sick – but no sicker – than others with chronic diseases to be managed, but that makes some people feel uncomfortable. So she hides, even from her own church. She knows there are others who struggle with issues like hers, but she is wary to share her story with them.
She depends on Christ to help her through each day, but desperately needs other Christ followers to walk with her.
Christians struggle with mental illness, too.
A brain that does not regulate serotonin levels is – spiritually speaking – no different from a pancreas that does not regulate insulin. The biological propensity toward addiction and alcoholism should carry no more stigma than having genes that could carry cancer.
High blood pressure can be managed and so can mental health. And having a mental illness has nothing to do with having a relationship with Christ because that relationship is simply, not “all in one’s head.” It is all in one’s heart.
The church is the first place that the mentally ill should seek to stay encouraged, become surrounded with love, and depend on the support of one another.
To bear our own crosses while we help others keep from collapsing under the weight of their own.
To manage the pain of life and all the challenges it doles out.
To combat the stigma of mental illness, and nurture the brave ones coping with it every day.
To stay encouraged by those who love us, which makes all the difference. To have a safe place to find rest.
Joe, and Sarah, and Sam. They each battle a disease. And so does Amy.
It takes a village to build one another up, yes – but it also takes a church.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus. (Matthew 11:28, NIV)
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – Jesus. (John 16:33, NIV)
“But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it’s over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:
Death swallowed by triumphant Life! Who got the last word, oh, Death? Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?” – 1 Cor. 15:54-57 (The Message)
I have a dear friend who lives many miles away, whose dear friend is dying from cancer. I’ve never met the woman suffering , but I have implored God to heal her. She is forty-four years old, in the prime of life – and until a few months ago – expected that life to be a long, full one. My dear friend is brokenhearted. She tells me that her dear one is wasting away, tethered to IV to cords of fluids and nutrition, to buy her a few more days. In short, her earth suit has a very finite warranty, but the essence of who she is will break free of it and know no more pain.
The woman with cancer… she prayed for healing, and believed. Why is she not miraculously whole?
Life, and death. And Life.
Last night, while in fervent prayer for this cancer patient, I had a bit of a vision about the confounding cycle of life and death. God gives us what we need to make the journey, but only to make the journey.And then …. life everlasting.
Have you ever seen a picture of a human embryo floating in its mother’s dark womb? First-conceived babies are alien-esque; plump, pink, funny-looking things, tethered by a cord of fluid and nutrition. They look like little pods, really – and in fact, they are. Little pods of spirit poured under skin and over bone (or what will become bone – the super neat thing about life in this stage is that the cells have intellect of sorts, they know where they are to go, and what they are to be, to become what the Creator deemed long ago they become.) Humans are transparent, at this stage …you can see through them; and from the moment their earth suits are crafted, they are destined to change the world.
Some say our bodies – our intricately designed, one-of-a-kind pods – are cosmic happenstance. But my faith isn’t big enough to believe that.
I say they give us form and physical function to make a journey. They are suits that enable us how to have an experience – simply put, how to learn to love God and love each other. Our Creator pours us into them for this assignment, in which every nerve reaction puts forth a ripple, affecting the trajectory of the lives of every other journeyman. So when the essence of who we are breaks away from the pod, we are well-versed in love for the journey that is only beginning.
My friend’s friend is breaking away from her earth suit. Her form of life is transitioning, getting ready for another birth. She is sallow now – yes, skin and bones. Her pod is worn-out from an insidious sickness. Her cells, which God once orchestrated into perfect harmony, are suffocated by cells that don’t belong there at all. They have lost their intellect.
But her spirit ? It is changing the world. Having set into motion shock-waves of love that will ripple long after her body has expired. She has gained enlightenment, because she was transparent with the world in her love for God – and others – on this crazy journey… others who could only know love through the vehicle of her life.
This letter is a gift to someone who is a gift to my life. I asked her permission to publish it, to which she responded:
“You have full permission to publish it if you want—I hope it inspires others to have real friendships like ours!”
Amen, Sister-Girlfriend. The world would be a much better place.
My sweet Melissa,
Do you remember the first Christmas that we became friends? Our daughters – now freshmen in college – were fourth-graders who had just declared themselves Best Friends Forever. I was a struggling, single mom, just having divorced my children’s father after fourteen years of marriage. My little girl was having a terrible time. I got her a good therapist, and tried to calm her fears of loss, which were pretty well-founded.
What she really needed was a very good friend. Your daughter was that very good friend to her.
It was a horrible, awful time in my life. I was working four jobs to feed my girls after being a stay-at-home mom all of their lives. They became latch-key kids. I became a hot mess from the guilt.
When we first met, I was holding on to my four-year-old sobriety by a single thread, it seemed, and living on high anxiety. You invited me over anyway when the girls were having a play-date, serving coffee (and, I’m certain) sweets. You asked questions that nobody else had bothered to ask, and didn’t judge me when I answered honestly.
Sometimes when you stop trying so hard, God makes mystical things happen. Like our friendship.
At the time, you were wary of organized religion, and I was wary of everything. But in your guest bathroom, you had a display of decorative crosses. Every time I went to the loo at your house, I thanked God for you and your kindness. I prayed that you would trust Him again, even as I struggled to trust Him myself. Yes, on the loo! I can tell you that now, all these years later.
That Christmas, I sat with all of our girls while you went on a date with your hubby. Before you departed for the evening, you gave me a pretty little wrapped gift box, and instructed me to open it when you left. I did, and it was a lovely new wallet.
When you came back home, I thanked you, and you said that I should make sure to look inside of it. Folded in the zipped compartment was a hundred-dollar bill.
“Get your girls a little something for Christmas,” you said, like it was not a big deal.
It was SUCH a big deal, Melissa, to fill the girls’ stockings that year. Such a big deal.
Little did I know that praying for you on the loo would be the least of what we would come to discuss as our friendship deepened! No subject was off-limits, no pretending to be who we were not. No pretense, all acceptance – what a wonderful foundation for a friendship.
I have to tell you, my friend, throughout the storms, you were my safe place. And always – even if there were tears – laughter was ultimately the order of the day.
We are pretty cool that way.
Over the years, we have really been through it together, have we not? With six daughters between us, holy cow – have we ever!
Teenagers and all the stupid stuff they do. Teenagers and all the awesome stuff they do.
Through a divorce and a new marriage (both mine) you were such a support. Through your steady marriage, you taught me so much.
When our husbands drive us bonkers, we have a kvetch session, and are a-okay again.
When our kids drive us bonkers, well … together, we find the strength to soldier on.
We’ve done the Mom Circuit, and weathered the “Mom, leave me alone!” syndrome.
Between us, we’ve done new careers, and unemployment.
We’ve drowned our sorrows in Queso dip at every Mexican food restaurant in town. (Cheese plays a major role in our relationship, as well it should!)
We’ve had pajama parties, and felt the betrayal of gravity (especially me….you look MAHVELOUS!) and – as we schlepped into our forties – the reward of chasing dreams and catching them, on occasion. (Or should I say, we sashay gracefully into our forties – and beyond.)
We’ve struggled with the discovery of what is out of our control (everything, essentially) and celebrated what we which we can control (keeping the faith.)
We’ve threatened to write a book together – which, incidentally is still TOTALLY happening!
Most meaningfully, when my own family members high-tailed it out of my life, you ran towards me.
You and I …. we’ve had spiritual crisises and awakenings, stumblings and triumphs. And shared with honesty every experience.
We discovered together that we are NOT orphans after all, but beloved daughters of the Most High King….princesses, really!
And that makes us sisters. Family.
Even our husbands became MFFs (Man Friends Forever…please don’t tell them I said that,) and our daughters as close as any siblings.
Family, like I said.
Your love, prayers and steadfastness have helped keep me sober. Honestly, I doubt I would have maintained it without your support.
That love….those prayers and acceptance – they have kept me from running away from home on numerous occasions (“This parenting teens thing? I QUIT!”)
In the midst of building this friendship, you had a revolution in your spirit. When God lit a fire under you, he used spiritual kerosene!
Girl, you were on FIRE, and you are still on fire! It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever been witness to.
A spark from the heart of Jesus himself caught the hem of your garment, and you just had to serve Him. You served Him by helping other women, like you helped me. By genuinely loving them – fiercely. From it came additions to the sisterhood – the WAYwards – and lots of tears and laughter.
And laughter came in handy during the difficult times.
Several years ago, when I got sick, I stayed sick for nearly three years. It was another awful, dark time in my life. Chronically fatigued. Endlessly in pain. And with no answers in sight, living on high anxiety once again.
For three solid years, I fought numbness, pain, fatigue….every single day, and bitched about it plenty. My complaining and frustration had to have tested your dedication! But you listened every time, and never gave up.
You prayed for my health fervently. Sometimes, when I was in the middle of exhaustion and complaint, you would just extend your right hand toward me and pray so hard that we would both cry – even when I was right in the middle of a bitching session!
It’s hard to be hopeless when someone is that dedicated to asking God to help you.
But sometimes – when you stop trying so hard – God makes mystical things happen.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I remember telling you. And I meant it. “I can’t!”
“God can,” you said, with no judgement. More listening, more praying, more encouraging. You listened. Like a true friend, you loved fiercely, calming my fears of loss, which were pretty well-founded. “Father,” you prayed. “Please heal my friend. But even if she doesn’t get better, we praise you. We LOVE you!”
Because you see, what I really needed was a very good friend. You were – and are – that very good friend to me.
All these many years later, how many cycles have we gone through !– Distrusting organized religion, and calling on God. Trusting God, and being there for each other.
I’m so grateful for you.
Thank you for being so steady a prayer-warrior. Thank you for never, ever saying, “This friendship thing? I QUIT!”
Thank you for all the times you still give me encouragement (and chocolate) and for being my “nothing is off limits” sister.
When I think about who you are and who you’ve become, and all God has in store for you, it brings me to my knees.
When I pray for you, I ask God to take that beautiful, bright, effervescent and glorious spirit of yours and just unleash it on the world in a way that brings him glory. I pray that the same joy your spirit brings me gets unfurled on the world, and comes back on you like a tidal wave.
I never forgot the Christmas that you folded a Benjamin in the gift of a new wallet … so that I could give my daughters a Christmas. But more importantly, I never forgot that you reached out to this hot mess girl, that you went out of your way to be kind.
I never forgot that you treated my frightened, maddeningly insecure and hurting fourth-grade daughter like your own. Now a confident – gregarious, even!- young woman, she never forgot your love, either.
I love that you never stopped praying for my healing. I love your heart, that it breaks for hurting people.
I love that the most important prayer I ever learned to pray, I learned from you – “I trust you, God. I may not understand a single thing you are doing, but I trust you.”
It was a beautiful thing to do for an old friend, to teach me that prayer.
I love you with all my heart. Thank you for being a friend. Thank you for being family.
There is something cool about the number twelve. It makes me think of the famous recovery“steps”, fresh, hot doughnuts – and the beloved disciples of Jesus – not necessarily in that order. It also brings to mind the song about the twelve Days of Christmas that just passed; the lyrics of the song I never really understood, having little appreciation for Lords a’ Leaping or partridges in pear trees.
But I have all the appreciation in the world for addiction recovery, so in honor of God and His making the past 12 years possible (joy-filled, even!) I wrote a little redux. I pray it blesses you, and I look forward to living sober for my lifetime with the Father’s grace… one single day at a time.
In the first year of recovery, My Father gave to me – a helping of humility.
Step 1: I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and compulsive behaviors, that my life had become unmanageable. It was hard to admit I had zero power over a silly substance, really humiliating, actually…but in the best way possible. I had to learn how to bite off one without drinking day as it came, and then another and another – in complete surrender to God. I still approach sobriety that way.
“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” – Proverbs 11:2
In the second year of recovery, My Father gave to me – reckless, steady love, and a helping of humility.
If you don’t think you deserve to be loved, it is a hard thing to accept. But true love doesn’t come because we deserve it at all; it comes when we can’t possibly deserve it. God’s love is reckless in nature, and He wants us to learn how to love one another similarly.
“In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.” – John 12:26
In the third year of recovery, My Father gave to me –hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
Oh, the mess I’d made of things. Surely I’d used up all of the favor I could reasonably be shown. Blessedly, God is not reasonable in promising hope and favor for the faithful!
“I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.” – Jeremiah 29:11
In the fourth year of recovery, My father gave to me – grace through massive changes; hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
Now I had some major decisions to make about my life. Some of my choices were good and healthy at this stage, and some were not good at all. Through trial and error, and floundering effort – I just didn’t drink. And I tried really trusting in the Highest Power instead of my own barometer.
“God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
He’s all I’ve got left.” – Lamentations 3:22
In the fifth year of recovery, My father gave to me – fine clarity!
Grace through massive changes, hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
Life keeps happening, and without a numbing agent. Not everything that light is cast upon shows up in a rosy light. Acknowledging character defects became a priority, and remains one. By necessity. The learning curve is constant, but God loves me right where I am today. He is so awesome that way.
“But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But Godisn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.” – Romans 2:1-2
In the sixth year of recovery, My Father gave to me – mercy overflowing; fine clarity!
Grace through massive changes; hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
When I humbly request that God remove my shortcomings, the space gets filled up with much better stuff. Love, grace, joy and mercy. (Step 7, for those who are wondering). This was a time that God stormed the shores of my life with people to love me (think the beaches of Normandy!) It still amazes me that He sends just the right people into your life with such care and mercy.
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” – John 13:34
In the seventh year of recovery, My Father gave to me – coping skills for living; mercy overflowing; fine clarity!
Grace through massive changes; hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
Not easy living, mind you….but complete life. That is how I cope: bring it to the Highest Power. He is always available when help is needed. When I struggle to stay sober, he goes to the mat to fight for and with me.
“ God is a safe place to hide,
ready to help when we need him.
We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom,
courageous in sea storm and earthquake,
Before the rush and roar of oceans,
the tremors that shift mountains.
Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.” – Psalm 46:1
In the eighth year of recovery, My Father gave to me – permission to be happy; coping skills for living; mercy overflowing; fine clarity!
Grace through massive changes; hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
I love the Serenity Prayer, especially the little-known end of the Reinhold Niebuhr poem because it helps me differentiate between having joy and being happy. We all are on a quest for happiness, but sometimes reasonably happy is enough.
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen. And AMEN!
In the ninth year of recovery, My Father gave to me – comfort in His Presence, permission to be happy; coping skills for living; mercy overflowing; fine clarity!
Grace through massive changes; hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
And what of the “joy” thing? It comes only from His presence, which is the most tangible when I am still and quiet; when I stop trying so hard to anticipate what He is communicating to me before my heart has a chance to have a good listen. This is sincerely a work in progress! Recovery itself is work, in progress. But there is nothing sweeter than His presence.
“Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” – Psalm 46:10
In the tenth year of recovery, My Father gave to me – acceptance through surrender; comfort in His Presence; permission to be happy; coping skills for living; mercy overflowing; fine clarity!
Grace through massive changes; hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
The only formula I know that works is: constant, daily surrender to God + hard work you often don’t feel like doing + helping others = forward moving recovery. Sometimes it inches and sometimes it races, but giving it all to the Father is key. I am still one drink away from repeating my old, self-destructive patterns. Accountability in a group is important. Step 10: We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”– 1 Corinthians 10:12
In the eleventh day of recovery, My Father gave to me – a better perspective. comfort in His Presence; permission to be happy; coping skills for living; mercy overflowing; fine clarity!
Grace through massive changes; hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
The human condition: assuming victory over one area of struggle only to have temptation rear its ugly head or have another struggle knock me down. It seems to happen when I least expect it and nothing I do seems right; I have a long way to go, and so much yet to learn. But when I let God pick me up, I can see a little better than when I’m wallowing around in the pit. The view just isn’t that good from there. His righteousness makes up for my weaknesses.
“God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.” – Romans 3:26
In the twelfth year of recovery, My Father is giving me – a way to pay it forward. a better perspective. Comfort in His Presence; permission to be happy; coping skills for living; mercy overflowing; fine clarity!
Grace through massive changes; hope for a future; reckless, steady love and a helping of humility.
When I was active in my disease, everything revolved around drinking. Hiding my secret was my first priority. Now – a dozen years after starting this journey – I cannot keep quiet about addiction recovery because I was lost, you see. And now I’m found.
What drinking left room for are peace, comfort, healthy relationships. A second chance to be the mother my daughters deserve and the wife my husband should have. I have to write about it, talk about it and tell other broken people with secrets that I am broken too, but that God actually prefers to use broken people over the ones who think they have it all together. Or….as Step 12 states: Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
“That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going. Do you suppose a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us? When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming.” – 2 Corinthians 5:7
I am so grateful to God, because He is the Author and Finisher of my faith and my recovery. Without Him, I never would have made it a day without alcohol (and for many years didn’t.) With Him, I have hope for the future renewed every day, because it is fresh every morning and comes like my sobriety – one day at a time in full measure as I need it.
In the (first) 12 years of recovery, My Father gave to me:
I made a lemon ice-box pie today, for no good reason. Several sad things have happened over the past few weeks – the pinnacle of which was the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, the saddest of all. And I had a jar of lemon curd in the refrigerator (very Rachel Ray of me, no?) that was on sale at the new Trader Joe’s last week and a pre-made graham cracker crust leftover from Thanksgiving, so I figured…why not make a lemon ice-box pie?
I’m fighting the funk a bit these past several days. The Sad is a powerful thing.
Lemons are yellow, the color that is supposed to lift your spirits. And the recipe also called for sweetened condensed milk, which is the antidote to whatever ails you. Throw in some cream cheese and lemon curd and I had a pie filling so yummy that for the two or three minutes of spatula-licking involved, all was right with the world.
Except that it wasn’t, of course.
So after putting my pie in the freezer to chill, I sat down and attempted to do the same. I was thinking about how much the yum reminded me of my childhood – my grandmother used to make all kinds of ice-box pies. There are things about my childhood that don’t exactly put me in a cheery mood, but there are also many things that do. My grandmother is one of them.
She was from an era before mass school shootings and Doomsday Preppers, a time before it was considered dysfunctional to ease suffering with sweets and feed your family to comfort them. I was a skinny little kid back then who resented that I had to eat at all, much less enjoy food. I was too busy discovering things.
Childhood made me think more about the babies who died in Connecticut last Friday, so I started to cry…again. All through the day today, I checked the news websites to see if they’d come up with any answers (as if there COULD be any) and cleaned the house to distract myself from what I’d just read. My friends, who have recently experienced loss and depression, I am crying for them too.
Busy work, busy work that only made me tired.
There is a pretty well-known verse in the Bible about feeling exactly this way – grieved, exhausted, overwhelmed. As I sat down and tried to fear the quiet stillness that enveloped me, I told God that The Sad was overwhelming. Sometimes there are so many feelings and thoughts milling about in my mind that I can scarcely communicate them with a tangible person, much less an invisible God. But I pray anyway, because sadness is powerful, but it will not prevail if I ask for help:
I’m lugging around The Sad, and it’s heavy.
I miss my family…the ones with whom I’m estranged through a series of most unfortunate events, and the ones who have passed out of a world that has to deal with such horrors.
I’m disappointed in myself on a couple of different levels. Help me to see myself the way You see me, God. Not through the scratchy lens of self-condemnation.
I don’t understand what is happening all around us.
It isn’t fair that children die. That their parents won’t ever have the opportunities afforded to so many of us. Daddy-daughter dances, little girls standing atop their father’s shoes to waltz perfectly; Mommies to clean the mud out of soccer cleats and teach their boys how to be good husbands.
I’m so tired, Lord.
I know He is there, I feel His Presence intensely…like a strong wind. You can try to touch the wind; you can try to hug the wind but it’s far too big for that – it envelops you. It can either knock you off your feet or fill your sails, but you cannot deny it is present. I am like a tired toddler right now, I know, with my relative misery while the whole world seems to be falling apart. I need sleep and comfort (and more pie). Most of all, I need to know what my Daddy says about sorrow:
My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. – Psalm 119:28 (King David’s lament to God….well, ONE of them. He was another of the Father’s needy children).
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. – Matthew 11:28 (I love this one)
I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint. – Jeremiah 31:25 (Refresh us, Lord!)
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:3 (Even Jesus Himself became weary)
Knowing the children who lost their earthly lives are in a perfect place, discovering wonderousness beyond our comprehension dents the grief. They are – I believe – surrounded by yellow there – experiencing ultimate uplift-ment. All is right in their worlds now; they suffer no more, but their families? I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through. They carry the heaviest burdens anyone can be expected to carry. We cannot allow evil to prevail, but we must ask for help.
Jesus, give them rest.
Maybe we can all learn a bit about living in the now. Spend less time in busy work and more time in honest conversation with our Creator. Hold our families as close as we can for the time we are given. Go a little easier on ourselves, learn to forgive ourselves.
When we’re weary, take time to be enveloped in the Wind and listen to what God says about strengthening, refreshing and giving rest.
And, of course, make lemon ice-box pie for no good reason.
Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. – John Milton
I don’t know what I would do without everyday epiphanies.
In recovery circles, they are called “aha!” moments…those times when things suddenly make sense just a little bit. My favorite brand of “aha!” moments are the ones of reverent, intentional gratitude.
Yesterday, my husband and I visited with some old friends at the beach. It was – at the risk of sounding dramatic – as perfect a day as I’ve ever had. We hoisted beach chairs to the water’s edge and talked for hours about how fast our babies grew up, about all of the things that surprised us about parenting (a lot!) We swam in the salty sea and snacked on chips with homemade salsa. And spent the evening having dinner on the back porch, which overlooked the marshes. We shared so much laughter, our cheeks ached.
Several times, I reached over to touch my good friend, because I felt so blessed by her that I wanted to make sure she was real! God loves on us through his other children….Aha!
On the drive home, I held my husband’s hand, which is not at all unusual. But we locked fingers like we have a thousand times before and I thanked the Lord for this perfect fit. And that prayer led to gratitude for all of the other ways I love my husband. I can’t count all of my blessings if I don’t start with “one” ….Aha!
Washing my sandy feet in the tub before bed, I considered the events of the day. I thought about friendship – and said a quick prayer to let the Father know I appreciated his orchestrating those relationships. I smiled, thinking of the ocean and complimented Him on His handiwork. I couldn’t remember a day in recent history in which I’d felt so humbled by blessing, so full of gratitude. It isn’t because I’m not blessed; it’s just that worry has been renting the space in my head that joy rightfully owns. Worry is a destructive tenant, opposite of thankfulness in every way.
God is always bestowing gifts big and small to us, but sometimes I don’t encounter grateful-ness because life is full of not-so-wonderful days, chock full of them. Things seem to go wrong more often than right, and days are not often even close to perfect.
I know that we are not here to be blessed, but to bless. But I also think God gets tickled when we notice the things that we, ourselves, cannot take credit for – the things we shouldn’t take credit for that change forever how we experience life and the world. It takes almost no time at all to say “thank you” but it can change the whole trajectory of mind-set.
Being truly thankful makes sense of things, I think.
This week, as I celebrate the birthdays of my friends Cris and Liz, I am posting today’s piece in honor of them, and in honor of our friendship. I love you, girls!
By: Jana Greene
My friend Liz and I had signed up for the “Gymboree” class together. Gymboree was kind of a “Mommy and Me” class for moms and their babies to meet and play. She and I were fledgling friends back then; our husbands worked with one another and our daughters were born six months apart. When her Caroline was a newborn, already lithe and lean, I would bring Alexandra over to visit and we would sit on the sofa and drink International Delight Coffees and breastfeed our babies while we got to know each other. It’s been nearly twenty years now, and we’ve been talking ever since.
We met our friend, Cris, at the same Gymboree class. Her son Billy was a blonde, blue-eyed doll of a boy, the same age as our girls. Cris, a sweet and gentle, maternal spirit, found her identity in being a mom, too.
The three of us took our babies all over the ” Mom Circuit” in those early days, which is to say we frequented Chuck E. Cheese, the toddler program at the local library, and a human gerbil-maze called “Owlberts”. We chased our kids through every park in Raleigh, including our favorite one, Pullen Park, which has a real train to ride and the kind of ancient, metal playground equipment that we had played on ourselves as kids. We taught our toddlers how to swim at public pools on sweltering summer days, and met at the mall to feed the kids at the food court on the chilly winter ones. At one-another’s houses, the host-mom would often serve lunch sandwiches cookie-cuttered into stars and hearts, or chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs. The kids would play and fight and run and nap together. And we moms were bonding, too.
We three just “clicked”. Cris and I were brand-new at this parenting thing, but Liz had a five-year-old son as well, so we looked to her for advice. The three of us were stay-at-home moms with beautiful new babies, and truly – it just doesn’t get any better than that.
It was becoming apparent that the three children were individuals; that there was something to the “nature” portion of “nature vs. nurture. As they grew, their personality traits surfaced a bit, showing us a glimpse of who they were born to be. Caroline, the quietes,t was the most driven to succeed at building a Lego tower or stringing the best macaroni necklace. Billy had a competitive streak, and was all about the playing games, and being outdoors. Alexandra was all about the dress-up, creating some of the most interesting outfits, and talking the whole time. She was bossy and extroverted, and strived to be the center of attention.
Still, we moms had tons in common. We built relationships with one-another beyond play groups and potty-training. Beyond sharing recipes for homemade play dough, our friendships were about sharing life, albeit with a lot of interruptions.
Most of the conversations we had with children present were stuccatoed with motherly reprimands: “I know, it is so hard to find a babysitter who NO, ALEXANDRA-YOU PUT THAT DOWN…. BILLY WAS PLAYING WITH IT FIRST you can trust and who GET THAT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH! WHAT IN THE WORLD? Has good references….”
Or tinged with worry, about what is “normal”:
“She has had a fever for days now, and the antibiotics aren’t touching it.”
Or with our heads cocked with “Awwwww!” at the cutest things they did; Liz ever-ready with a camera, recording those moments.
One summer, Cris invited Liz and I (and our now nearly 2- year- olds) to her mother’s beach house a few hours away. It remains to this day one of my favorite beach trips of all time. Cris had a daughter now, too, and she was only a few months old. We swam with the kids in the pool and sang Raffi songs, played in the waves, and while the toddlers were getting drowsy watching Barney VHS tapes (ad nauseum) and napping, we ate chips with Cris’s homemade salsa and had glasses of chardonnay and talked without much interruption.
We- this Band of Mothers – forever linked by the sweet years of our children’s babyhoods, and the saltiness of the ocean.
A few months later, we met met one afternoon at the local McDonald’s to let the kids blow off some steam at the new playground. While the cultural phenomenon (and germ receptacle) of the “ball pit” was not new, it was new to us and new to our town. There, I told Liz and Cris the great news that that I was pregnant. Six months later, I had my second daughter, Ashleigh. And what couldn’t possibly get any better, got so much better.
And deep inside, I think we knew this, and feared it – that these were the best parenting years; the easiest ones. We felt like we knew what we were doing to some degree, and we suspected that it would not always be the case.
Shortly afterwards, some major life-changes happened in quick succession. The children, who had gone to preschool together for years, started different Kindergartens and I homeschooled Alexandra for school. Soon after that, me, my girls and their father moved a few hours away from Raleigh, to the beach. Goodbyes were hard, but we kept in touch for awhile.
Our kids did not.
Christmas cards each year told a little about our friends in Raleigh. Photos of grade-schoolers missing front teeth, shots of Billy in his Football jersey, Caroline in dance recitals. And later, in the awkward adolescent years, reluctant siblings posed together in family photos near the Christmas tree, faces sprinkled with a little acne. The next year, new hairstyles and more genuine smiles. Eventually, they morphed into the young adults that we didn’t realize they would be. Strangers with the inclinations of our babies, but so different from who they were nearly two decades ago.
Christmas card snapshots tell you so precious little.
It would be over ten years before the three of us and our children would reconnect, gathering once again at the beach for a reunion. There was awkwardness among the kids, for the simple reason that they were virtually strangers. They scarcely remembered spending their earliest days at the park together, finger-painting pictures in preschool for each other.
But we remember it. We, this Band of Mothers, now in our mid to late 40’s, we remember it all.
We remember when the biggest issue our child could face on a given day might be sitting in the “time-out” chair for refusing to share. We remember agonizing over choosing the right chewable vitamin, and getting the little ones signed up for the best Vacation Bible School each summer.
We remember laughing at the antics of our beloved babies in what would indeed turn out to be the best and easiest parenting years.
And sharing our innermost thoughts about motherhood with each other without fearing judgment, the truest measure of a good friend.
Since those easy days, each of us has been thrown he inevitible curve-ball or two. I am divorced from my daughters’ father, and I’ve also been sober for 11 years from the alcoholism that nearly killed me – the alcoholism that I hid from my dearest friends across the miles because of shame. Each of us has lost loved ones during the many years we were apart; there were medical issues that presented themselves in each of our lives to be dealt with.
And the kids?
The Dancer; Caroline….still the quietest, lithe, lean, driven and successful.
The Handsome Jock; Billy…still a blonde, blue-eyed doll– in a rugged, manly way, of course.
And Alexandra, the Free Spirit…still the chatty, opinionated spitfire she ever was.
They grew and challenged boundaries, and found low-grade trouble to get into, and learned the consequences. They made good choices and and soared, made poor choices and gave us all gray hair. One of them got a tattoo (mine, of course) and one of them got into an excellent out-of-state university (Billy), and one has also gone to university and found so much success as a Dancer that I won’t be surprised if she becomes a Rock-ette in New York City.
But I think the biggest change in nearly 20 years of friendship for the three of us is this: Our faith has gone from being a minimally-important in our lives, to an absolute necessity on a daily basis where our kids are concerned. Whereas we would think to pray bedtime prayers with them when they were small, each of us Mothers has a deep, abiding trust in Jesus Christ and we cover our kids with prayer continually. We were right back in the day: we wouldn’t always know what we were doing as parents.
And this deepened faith has also deepened our bond to one-another, Liz, Cris and I. We are A Band of Mothers not just for a season. We supported each other through the play date years, and enjoyed one-another’s company. We thought we knew our children intrinsically, and helped each other out with advice. But now, I see the three of us for who we really are: A Band of Mothers sharing a friendship for a lifetime, supporting each other through the really difficult times (should Caroline move to NYC to dance? Billy wants to go out of state to University! Good Lord, Alexandra finally went and got her nose pierced), through marriage crisis, through health scares, and diagnoses, and through crises of our very identities as Moms.
Who are you, really, once the kids are out of the nest. Who are we now?
We are meeting at the beach again this year, to enjoy one-another as who we are now, all these many years later. Because we are not just a Band of Mothers, but a band of Sisters in Christ, and friends on a level that many do not understand. On a level that I, myself, don’t even understand.
We will talk – uninterrupted now – about sharing new recipes, about sharing life. We will still wonder “What is normal?” but perhaps less frantically. Frantic takes energy that we don’t have as much of now, so we try to hand it off to God, having learned that we can’t handle it.
We- this Band of Mothers – forever linked by the sweet years of our children’s babyhoods, and the saltiness of the ocean.
Joining a local writer’s guild almost kept me from writing. I say “almost” because I have since come to love it and look forward to the monthly meetings. It was because of fear – yeah, that old chestnut – that I nearly didn’t participate at all.
From the time I could hold a crayon, I wrote about things. I can remember forming “J”s first, and from there, looping and dotting kindergarten hieroglyphics to tell my story. Because even then, I was a historian of sorts, not a fiction writer. I felt the need to journal everything I experienced and observed, wanting to chronicle my own life story. My name is Jana, and I am six was my first story. And later, I wrote about the things that happened to me as a child – some of them traumatic – that I could not speak about aloud. Many times, in middle and high schools, I wrote angst-laden pieces about my social awkwardness, with titles like: I don’t fit in anywhere .
What a strange little girl I was. But writing things down helped me deal with things, big and small, that I couldn’t reconcile in my spirit any other way.
At forty-three years of age, I am still a strange bird. If I am going to tell my story, I’d better start doing it now. I am becoming annoyingly forgetful, and I don’t want to erroneously tell someone else’s story by mistake. One of my dearest friends, a woman named Melissa, also finds comfort in the writing, and has her own story to tell. We are forever vowing to write a book together about overcoming struggles and such, but we can’t seem to lasso one issue onto the page before another is bucking and rearing back, thus our tales never seem to get written. This is why we joined a writer’s guild, a Christian writer’s guild.
I missed the first monthly meeting , which was kind of an orientation. I was sick that day. But the following afternoon, Melissa left a breathless voicemail on my phone about her experience.
“Jana!” She began. “Guess what? I know what we are supposed to DO with our lives! Call me!”
I could not dial her number fast enough. Our very purpose, made clear! (Of course I would be absent on the day my life’s purpose was designated!) Her line rang only twice. When she picked it up, I could feel her warm energy burning through the line.
“Write,” she said, instead of ‘hello’. “You and I, we are supposed to write!” With her sweet, Georgian accent, she launched into a synopsis of her time at the meeting. There were other women, she said, just like us, who dream to translate a tiny little fraction of what God whispers into our lives onto the page.
But of course! We needed support! Support from a group was the missing ingredient; it might even override the fear….the fear that still says that I don’t fit in anywhere.
That evening, I could hardly wait to write a piece for the next month’s meeting. But what to write? Whisper to me, Lord. Please whisper.
Nothing. Like the proverbial author who sits down to his typewriter and taps out the word “The”. And that’s all.
I strained for ideas, for eloquence. I longed to write as Helen Steiner Rice, the prolific Christian poet whose very prose rivals those of the Psalms. I wanted to present something that would glorify God and really showcase my writing style, except that those two things are sometimes mutually inclusive.
Stalling, I logged onto the guild website and paid my dues (literally, with MasterCard). No turning back now! Surfing through the site, I noticed that one of the membership perks was a free critique.
Critique. That sounded a lot like critic, the root word of criticism, which I am not a huge fan of, constructive or otherwise. Immediately my concern went from channeling Helen Steiner Rice in order to glorify the Almighty, to how I would soothe my own bruised ego when the bruising commenced. Ashamedly, I was licking my wounds before the whip was anywhere near.
It is those self-serving thoughts that result in articles titled “The”, wherein the main character – me – does nothing. Writes nothing. Glorifies no-one.
God, what do you want me to say?
And with that prayer, a pseudo-crisis appeared in my life just in time to become the subject of an actual story. The issue was that my eldest daughter decided to make good on a lifetime threat to get a tattoo, and I was upset about it (hey, don’t judge me for judging her!) so I wrote about the experience from a mother’s point of view. As usual, a serious bout of writer’s block was averted by the antics of one of my children (thanks, girls)! The piece I wrote was raw and real, and more importantly, helped me heal from an event I couldn’t work through my mind and spirit any other way. It was twice as long as the guild guidelines allowed for, and did not follow proper grammatical rules. Also, it contained the word “damn”. It was a rather rough “rough draft”.
I removed the naughty word, but left the rest alone. With no idea what to expect (or who my fellow guilders were), Melissa and I agreed to meet at the front door of the church that hosted the meetings. Still, I wondered…..what if I don’t fit in?
I drove there with my hands on the wheel at “9’o clock” and “3 o’clock”, just like they teach you in Driver’s Ed. My hands were shaking that badly.