ON FACEBOOK MEMORIES, AND OTHER TECHNOLOGICAL BEDEVILMENTS

Facebook memories.  A blessing and a curse.  Never in a million years could I have anticipated the wide spectrum of emotions they would evoke, vacillating between joy and sorrow.  And never did I expect a world-wide virus to become fodder for a blog post.  In fact, I have been stubbornly refusing to let it be so, convincing myself that to use this pandemic as a writing prompt would be succumbing to the hysteria that I see playing out in the news and on social media.  But on days like today, the pendulum swings more to the sorrow side.  In fact, the grief is palpable.

Pam Marone Ahlstrand checked in to The Colonial Theatre.

April 1, 2017 at 7:39 PM · Phoenixville ·

Livingston Taylor

 Pam Marone Ahlstrand

April 1, 2016 at 9:47 AM ·

On the road again. Heading to OM States in Pittsburgh!

Pam Marone Ahlstrand is with Jacob Ahlstrand at MoMA The Museum of Modern Art.

April 1, 2015 at 1:09 PM · New York, NY ·

City day with the youngest

Pam Marone Ahlstrand

April 1, 2013 at 8:45 PM ·

Great day with Jacob Ahlstrand at the Met…

 

Ordinarily, these memories would make me smile; they were recorded, complete with photos, to do just that at a later date.  But today, and for the past few weeks, these social media memories lead me to a place of anxiety such as I have never known.  There are moments of overwhelming fear that these simple pleasures – museums, concerts, trips- are events that shall forever be relegated to Facebook “memories”. There are moments when I let my thoughts do that negative cascading thing that psychologists warn against, and I’m convinced I will never again set foot inside a museum or enjoy the sounds of a live concert.

The most difficult thing about these last few weeks is the longing I have to see my children.  Not just see them, but spend time, share a meal, a hug. I listened to someone share earlier today in a Zoom meeting (which has become my new normal for social contact) that he drove over an hour today to see his daughter and grandson, and spend time “visiting” from the driveway, aching to give them a hug.  I so related to that! We have had to cancel planned visits from our sons; stay far from our immunocompromised daughter; abandon any plans of a family Easter gathering (although my sister has already put plans in motion for a virtual Easter beer hunt).

I know I am not alone in all this. I mean, my losses are merely inconveniences compared to the real tragedies many are enduring. But there are days, moments really, when this is really hard.  I keep coming back to the place I was almost a year ago, not understanding God’s plan, doubting his goodness, screaming “But God!” once again.  It’s exhausting.

When I shared that post (has it really been 9 months?!), I was climbing out of a place of doubt and despondency to a place of trust and dependency.  I clung to that promise that my faith would not be shipwrecked in a storm (S Eller).  I had certainly weathered many “storms” in the past.

This latest storm hasn’t left me shipwrecked either (although I do feel as if I am stranded on a deserted island most days).  The fact that it seem to come out of nowhere, especially when I was getting back into a somewhat better spiritual frame of mind did remind me of being out on a small boat off the coast of Maine and having a sudden wave swamp the boat. One minute we were laughing and enjoying being out on the water; the next minute I saw my husband’s eyes fill with fear that his new wife and two young children were going to be tossed into Casco Bay.CascoBay

But just because I felt blindsided, I was reminded recently that God is not at all surprised by what is happening.  In fact, not only did God know this would happen, he also knew how I would feel. (Isaiah 46: 9, 10) (Psalm 139:1-16) My overwhelming sense of sadness is not new to Him; he has seen me go through times of “suffering” before, and he “keeps track of all my sorrows…collects all my tears in his bottle.  Records each one in his book” (Ps. 56:8).  What an incredible visual at a time like this!

God is aware of all my memories, Facebook and otherwise.  I can trust him to remind me that my boat may be swamped, but not shipwrecked.  All I need to do is look back on all the times he’s bailed me out in the past. Literally and figuratively.

So I will continue to gather memories as they come, even though they may be in the form of Zoom family meetings and group text messages for now.  And I will continue to trust the one who “stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8).  There may be days when I add more tears to that bottle, but this too shall pass.  And I know I can look forward to the day when I don’t have to blow kisses to my children on a computer screen.

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Tears

(above photo credit Pinterest.com)

 

CLUTTERED

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Recently, I have begun the task of sorting through all the “stuff” that we’ve accumulated over the years in a futile attempt to de-clutter; to pare down all the junk that we’ve moved from one side of the country to the other, and back again.  I sorted old photos into plastic bins; held an unsuccessful yard sale to try and eliminate excess collections; took a car-load of household items to donate to a local church. I even tried posting things on E bay which resulted in having to pursue a claim with the post office after the items I sold and shipped arrived in California completely shattered.  And resulted in a whopping profit of $17.00.   And of course, it never looks like anything has changed.  There never seems to be a dent made in the ever-increasing piles of mementos and miscellaneous artifacts to the point where I can notice a difference.

My mind, most days, is as cluttered as my closets are.  My time is spent running scenarios through my head on how to best handle all the current situations in my life- health, finances, children, work- all while giving lip service to the “day at a time” philosophy I have spent over 30 years incorporating into my armory.  I’m not worrying, I claim, just processing things.  Which really translates to overthinking and becoming overwhelmed.

The spiritual parallels are obvious to even a novice in the area of self-examination.  I read books like Lysa TerKeust’s The Best Yes” and even reflect back to the teachings of Elizabeth George in “A Woman After God’s Own Heart” (Is this “good, better or best?”) when I try to “prayerfully consider” whether to undertake another ministry position or service opportunity. I put on my wisdom hat and claim that I am trying to focus on what’s really important; to not spread myself too thin so I can best serve others.  If I’m truly honest, I’m just looking for reasons not to commit to anything; trying to avoid volunteering for what seems like an endless list of thankless tasks which I can then cynically claim have resulted in absolutely no real good for the “kingdom”.

The end result is that I find myself in a brain-fog, unable to focus on any one thought in order to make a decision; unable to spend time in that coveted place of meditation; unable to pray.  It’s like looking into an overflowing cabinet and hoping to find that one photograph that I vaguely recall in order to create a clever post on Instagram (which I actually did recently- about an hour of my life that I will never get back.  But I found the picture).

I heard a song recently while I was driving early on a Saturday morning, trying to beat the crowd at Walmart (another vain attempt to avoid busyness).  It was entitled “Open Space” by a group called Housefires.  As I listened, I started crying inexplicably.  The words aren’t particularly sad or emotional, at least not words that would bring you to tears.  But they brought me to a place of grieving- grieving the loss of my old self; of the person who was young in her faith and open to anything God had planned.  Until the plan unfolded and things became cluttered.  Crowded with life, with things like bills and illness and responsibilities.  The naïve dream that I could really make a difference if I just loved well and let God lead.  That ever-elusive “Spirit led life”.  I longed for that comparatively care-free younger woman who could stand with her hands and heart opened, “caught up in the wonder and mystery”, as the song says.

I spent this morning pulling weeds, clearing out the overgrown clover and unsightly grasses that are cluttering the yard.  And there was a visible result which was somewhat rewarding.  And I spent some time trying to recapture that feeling of newness and naivete – to allow myself time to just get “caught up in the wonder and mystery”.  It’s a practice I think I need to incorporate back into my arsenal of tools, which will hopefully help to de-clutter my mind and my spirit.  Hopefully the results will profit me more than my E bay experience.

Thanks for spending a few minutes with me in my foggy, overgrown mind-

 

BUT GOD!

Rocky Coast

“But God!”  There are times when I’ve yelled this, much like a toddler stomping her feet at the parent who tells her no; or like a teenager who screams in exasperation “that’s so not fair!”

But God! I’m pregnant again after that miscarriage, and now my husband is going to die without ever seeing this child!

But God! We were just going to move back to live near my parents, and now you took my mother!

But God!  We were getting ready to sell our house and I got cancer!

But God!  Enough!

This idea that suffering builds character, draws us closer to God, brought some comfort at first.  Slowly, each new situation whittled away at the self-sufficiency I had been so proud of accomplishing.  I saw how pride was truly my downfall; that with each bit of control I surrendered, I experienced a little bit more of that “peace that passes understanding”.  But after a few years and a few more “challenges”, I thought perhaps I had enough character for one person. I felt like one of those “wine-pressed” Christians that a former pastor had described: ordinary people who, for some inexplicable reason, endured more than their fair share of “suffering”.   And then it just became ridiculous.

A few months ago we were preparing for a trip to Wyoming to see my youngest graduate college.  To say I had mixed emotions is an understatement; more like a smorgasbord. Excited, certainly, to see my son graduate, and to have all my children and some friends and family attend; proud, because my son had overcome some personal challenges in the last few years in order to graduate, cum laude, with a double major, in just 3 years; anxious about what was next for him as he prepared to go out into the world “without a net” for the first time.

Just before we left to make the 1700 mile drive my daughter, on her 32nd birthday, had a biopsy.  And as we were about half-way across the country we received the call that no parent expects, with the words no one wants to hear- “it’s breast cancer”.  Really God?? Are you kidding?  I have to be honest, my first response was not “holy”; the first words out of my mouth were not prayerful or humble, but angry and resentful.  Seriously?  After everything else that’s happened?

I was angry.  Really angry.  I guess I thought I had “paid my dues”; that I was entitled to a break.  I mean, I had spent years doing all the right things, being grateful for the second chance I had as a result of surrendering my will and my life to God.  I studied the scriptures, spent time in prayer and meditation every day.  I practiced acts of service; tried to seek God’s will instead of mine as often as I could. I had gotten through miscarriages, the death of a husband, the loss of my parents, and much, much more, all with the assurance that God’s ways were not my ways; that his plan was better.  I had even heard those fateful words directed at me-“it’s breast cancer”- and managed to trust Him through that.  But this was different.  This was my child.  My first-born.  This was the last straw.  I began to really doubt the goodness of God.

I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I didn’t want to hear the platitudes; I didn’t want to hear people say “we’ll pray for her” or “God has a plan”.  A few months before, I had read Lysa TerKeurst’s book It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way and my heart resonated with her description of living a life “between two gardens”, of learning to “wrestle well”.  But now, I felt the words were trite, the promises empty.  I felt more like TerKeurst’s description of “dust”, being shattered beyond repair; of having the “hope of God…snuffed out by the consuming darkness all around us” (p. 17).  Around this time I wrote in my journal that I had gone from quoting psalms, expressing gratitude about being pulled from the pit, to being despondent (I even included the definition: “in low spirits due to loss of hope or courage”).

I stayed in that darkness for a while.  I didn’t want to tarnish the image I had spent so long building by admitting to anyone how low I had gotten, so I kept up the strong front that I had spent years honing.  I tried to “act as if”, a tool I had learned early on in my recovery journey when I was struggling with the idea of the “God of my understanding”.  I had signed up for a 21-day on-line study of “Following Jesus in a world that feels chaotic” with Suzanne Eller.  I didn’t “feel” like doing it, but I did it anyway.  And a few days in, I read this: “Doubt isn’t the demise of your faith.  It’s an invitation to go deeper”.  Suzie wrote “Your faith will not be shipwrecked in a storm” (p. 159, Come With Me). I soon had a community of women I didn’t even know praying for me; and I found I could pray for them as well.

I started to turn those angry, resentful cries of “But God!” to thoughts of encouragement-

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ….” (Eph.2:4)

But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26)

“But as for you, you meant evil against me, But God meant it for good, to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” (Gen. 50:20)

But God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” (1Cor. 10:13)

But God has surely listened and has heard my prayer.” (Ps. 66:19)

But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.” (Ps. 9:18)

But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.” (Jer. 10:12)

Slowly my perspective is starting to change.  I’m not quite to the point of embracing this latest round of difficulties as a welcomed path to a deeper faith.  But as I sat last weekend in the emergency room with my youngest son (seriously- a week before he was to move to Boston, he ended up with a bizarre viral infection that left him unable to eat, struggling to get out of bed, with a high fever and terrible eye pain and sensitivity to light.  Really??) my first thought was not “But God!”  Instead, I sat at the hospital, sending emails and making phone calls to ask for prayer.  I didn’t make the self-centered assumption that I was being punished for some failure as a parent, or that this was a “sign” about my son’s future.

I’m once again learning that it’s not all about me; that life is sometimes difficult and unfair; that God may not always follow the script I have so cleverly written for my life or the lives of those I love.  For tonight, I am choosing to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23).  That may change tomorrow, but for tonight I am choosing to say “It is well with my soul”.

 

 

Saturday night ramblings

My thoughts are all over the place tonight. As this Saturday draws to a close, I am trying to gather the conflicting feelings of grief and hope that have plagued me all week and put them into a meaningful post that will both encourage others and quiet my soul. But sometimes it is difficult to find meaning in grief.  Hope can be equally as difficult to quantify.

This week has been difficult.  In fact, this lenten season has overwhelmed me in a way I haven’t experienced before.  Not entirely in a bad way; I have been seized with times of deep contemplation which have allowed me to look at this “holy” week from a different perspective.

As I think about Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdelene preparing the oils and spices in order to go back and anoint his body, I am struck by the familiarity of the tasks which so often follow the death of a loved one.

I am in the process of purging and cleaning out boxes, and this week I came across a box full of journals.  Sorting through them  I found one from 1991, the year my late husband got sick and passed away. As I read the entry from the day after his death, it occurred to me that all of us who have experienced the loss of someone have had to endure a “holy Saturday”.  The day when we do the simple but necessary tasks: making the funeral arrangements; calling friends and family to share the sad news; picking out the clothes to bring to the funeral home; sorting through photos of our loved one.  In some ways it is the easiest day we will have compared to the days ahead because we are busy.  Busy with the mundane chores that keep our minds off our pain and grief.

So when does the hope come?  I read a number of devotionals or posts these last few days which said “without Saturday there is no Sunday”, or similar thoughts.  Comments meant to bring hope, promising light in the darkness.  But how many of us have sat in that darkness on that Saturday night, after all the preparations were made and the busyness had ended, and wondered if we would ever see light again, longing for that hope that we cannot see.

I know I have spent many dark Saturdays. And oftentimes I cannot see the hope of the future until I look back at where I’ve been.  Again, one of those contradictions that may never be explained.  But I know without a doubt that light comes.  Time and time again I have come through times of grief and sadness, not only resulting from death, but often as a result of, as one writer I read this week said, “standing in the Garden of Eden and choosing to be like God” (Joshua Bocanegra, Kansas City, MO).  My pride and my self sufficiency keep me in darkness more often than the tragedies of life.

But there is hope. There will be Sunday, when the stone keeping my soul in darkness is rolled away; when my pride and stubbornness are overcome by a relentless love, a love that has defeated death.

So although I may not be able to explain this hope in a dictionary definition kind of way, I can tell you that without a doubt it is real. I can look back and see what I have come through – addiction, widowhood, loss of parents, and so much more – and the darkness always lifts.

Tonight I will do as Mary and the other women did after all the preparations were done – I will rest. And I will rest assured.

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This is definitely NOT us (ruminations on parenting and other regrets)

FB_IMG_1553095371311FB_IMG_1553095220098I used to take pride in my parenting skills.  Not that I did everything right. God knows no one does. Maybe pride isn’t the right word.  But I tried to approach parenting as a “challenge and an opportunity”  as my late husband often said.  I tried to be fair, treating each of my children as the distinctly different people they are, yet with consistency.  I didn’t rely on parenting self-help books or put too much credence in psychological theorizing. Rather, I sought wisdom from the Bible and from others I felt had endured some of the same challenges I faced, first as a single parent and subsequently as a “blended” family.  My husband and I were careful to present a unified front, and tried not to react in anger.  Although I know there were areas where my decisions erred on the side of caution  I considered myself blessed to have three wonderful children who are high functioning adults.  All good  right?

Then came “This is Us”.

Yes, a television show has shattered any illusions I had about being mother of the year, or even a runner-up.  Without giving away any spoilers to those who may not be current on this season, there was the episode where Rebecca, the perfect mom, sat watching old family movies, crying over the memories. And I cried right along with her. My tears, however, were because I realized that I didn’t HAVE any movies or videos of my children or family.  Not one. First major motherhood failure.

And then there was the episode when Jack, the perfect dad, was going through a tough time and was not his usual charming self. Of course, before the episode’s end he realized his foul mood was affecting his children, and he allowed a free for all in the form of a confetti fight break out, without concern of the mess or the cleanup that might ensue.  And perfect mom Rebecca’s only response was to smile and say “I’m not cleaning it up “. No yelling, no time outs, no drama.

Major motherhood failure number two. I cried again, this time because I realized that I didn’t play enough, didn’t allow my children to just let loose once in a while without worrying about the mess. I mean, I told them that Play Dough was an outside toy because I didn’t want it stuck in the carpet!  What good mother does that?

And of course there is the ever present theme that runs through the entire show – the idea that, no matter what, they have each other’s back. Even if they don’t share the same life goals, or career paths; even if they live on opposite coasts; even if they are alternately (or simultaneously) struggling with addiction, a moral crisis, an emotional breakdown; even if they aren’t biological siblings in the true sense of the word.  No matter what, these three adult children of the seemingly perfect parents are always there for each other.

Which is the one thing I hope I have successfully taught to my own three children.  That family is it. Whether or not you like the same music, whether you are “Marvel” or  “DC”, no matter where you live or who you marry (or don’t marry). Family is where you get to practice unconditional love, the place where you should feel safe to be yourself. And where you let others do the same. 

I have encouraged my children many times to stay connected  to each other, to maintain the relationships that are the most precious.  Without trying to sound morbid, I have told them that there will come a time when their father and I won’t be here to plan gatherings and foster conversations. All they will have is each other.

So on that count, I seem to be on the same page as the perfect parents Bec and Jack.

In a recent episode the Big Three, as they refer to their collective selves, were at a high school graduation party, discussing their futures and what their relationship would be like. Randall wisely said “As long as we stay in each other’s lives  we’ll be okay.” Amen to that Randall.

So we may not have any movies (a ton of pictures though), and maybe my children were stifled by not experiencing enough uninhibited play times.  Maybe you won’t see me on the cover of Parent magazine, and you can rest assured there are things I wish I had done differently.   But I take comfort in knowing that as long as they stay in each other’s lives, they’ll be okay. Thanks “This is Us”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RETREAT

Beach
Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge, Steuben, Maine Photo by Pamela Ahlstrand

 

Definition of retreat (Entry 1 of 2) (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary)

1a(1) : an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable

I wish I could live my life on retreat.  A quiet place, away from the intrusive noise and distraction of the day to day.  Just me and God; a time to rest and refuel. But not just for a day or two, or even a week.  For good.  Recently, I came across this verse in Jeremiah 9:2 – “Oh, that I could go away and forget my people and live in a traveler’s shack in the desert.”   Clearly not the teaching intended for that morning, but words I certainly resonate with.

Of course, I would love to convince everyone (including myself) that my intentions are highly spiritual, desiring only to spend time connecting with the God of my understanding, praising Him and seeking wisdom from above.  But that’s not the case.  My motives are purely selfish, driven by the sometimes overwhelming circumstances of life and the fatigue which results from trying, day after day, to do the right thing.

It’s wearying- the bickering among families and friends; the discontent spewed on social media; the negative news and natural disasters.  The thing that makes it exhausting is that, despite my best efforts, nothing changes.  No matter what I do or say, I cannot “fix” the ills of the world, or even my own or those in my own family.  And oftentimes it feels as if God isn’t bothering with them either, even though he certainly could, for “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 18:27, Matt, 19:26).  So why bother.

I’ve been accused of putting my head in the sand because of these feelings, this desire to run away from the world and hide, at least figuratively.  But after 62 years of daily “trudging the road of happy destiny”[1], to coin a phrase, I am just plain tired.  Especially when it seems there are no results from my “trudging”. 

When will I see those promises that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose”? (Romans 8:28); that “my God will supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19); that whatever we ask in His name, He will do? (John 14:13).

I recently finished a study based on a book by Lysa Terkeurst called It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way, in which the author writes in the introduction: “Disappointment isn’t proof that God is withholding good things from us.  Sometimes it’s His way of leading us home”.  Presumably home is with God.  Ah, the old “reliance on God and not others” challenge.  Which conceivably justifies my shack in the wilderness scenario.  Free from the things that distract and disappoint.

 

But, alas, I don’t think that’s what God had in mind.  (Does anyone really use “alas” in a sentence?)  While I can certainly understand Jeremiah’s frustration when he cried out those words, saying that he would “weep day and night” (Jer. 9:1b).  It seemed that all the warnings and laments that he shared with his people fell on deaf ears, and he was heartsick.  But God had a plan, one that neither Jeremiah or the people he preached to could envision. (Jer. 29:11-14).

And He still does.  On the days when I can see past my self-centered desires and the plans I had that are not falling into place as I had expected; when I let humility creep in just enough to acknowledge that I don’t always know what’s best for everyone; then I can believe that “As for God, His way is perfect; The word of the Lord is proven; He is a shield to all who trust Him” (Ps. 18:30).

So for now I will stay, even though it may be “difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable”.  I will trudge on, doing what I can to make my little part of the world a better place, even if I don’t see the results I would like to see.  I will continue to make those “retreats” from my chair rather than to a literal shack in the wilderness (mine would have to be on a deserted beach); to spend time with God refreshing and refueling as often as I can; to “give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting and …make it seem better for a while”[2] (in the words of that great theologian Iris DeMent). 

I recently shared a verse with one of my children that is a good reminder on days when I feel like running away-Habakkuk 3:17-18- “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; thought the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; Thought the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stall-Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

It’s not about retreating when things aren’t going my way; it’s about trusting and trudging when they’re not.  Hope some of you will trudge with me.

[1] AA Big Book, p. 164

[2] Iris DeMent, “My Life”

Habakkuk

 

CHRISTMAS MORNING MUSINGS

 

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A bleak midwinter morning

Christmas morning,1981. I can see him through the floor-to-ceiling front windows as I pull up to the house.  My father, dressed in his camel hair sport coat with the suede patches on the elbows, cup of tea in his hand.  He doesn’t come to greet me as he sees me; instead he turns and walks away, prepared to leave.  Not because he is heading out on some early morning holiday errand, but because I am there.  And I am not welcome.

I’m not sure why that Christmas morning, of all the Christmas mornings in my six-plus decades of life, came into my memory this year.  But as I sit this Christmas morning, watching the red sunrise through the bare trees, a scene many might consider dreary and foreboding, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

The gratitude is not for the warm, comfortable home that I now sit in, with the lights of the tree and the family that will soon join me downstairs; it’s not for the welcome that I will receive later in the day at the home of my sister, surrounded by siblings and their families who truly love me; it’s not even for the favorable doctor’s visit that I had a few weeks ago, declaring me another six month’s removed from my cancer diagnosis.

These are all wonderful blessings which have come about in my life, unexpectedly different than what I thought my life would look like on that lonely Christmas morning 37 years ago. It took a few more years for my father to welcome me back into his home; a few more years that my mother and siblings had to endure the heartache that my selfish choices created; a few more years before I would lay aside the arrogance and stubbornness that I chose to wear as a badge of honor, claiming independence and self-sufficiency.  A few more years before I would put down the alcohol that I used as a source of comfort and courage and accept the gift of freedom that comes with true surrender.

But my gratitude this Christmas morning, as tears streamed down my cheeks, comes from acknowledging the underlying reason for all these blessings and many more.  It overwhelms me when I clearly see the one real difference in my life, the “common denominator” to which all the dramatic changes in my life can be attributed.

The woman who pulled into that driveway in 1981 was alone, terrified, yet indignant at being judged; a 25 year old law student who thought she knew all about what was important in life, even as she sported two black eyes, a partner in rehab, and a barely functioning car.  She didn’t arrive bearing gifts for her parents and siblings but was seeking comfort and “familiar”.  It took years before she found what she was looking for, before she even realized something was missing.

I sit here now, a 62 year old mother of three, 33 years away from her last drink, a cancer survivor, who was able to help care for her father at the end of his life.  Sometimes I wonder how I got here.  But this Christmas, I know it is only by the grace shown by my heavenly Father that I have been able to make this journey with any degree of success.  An infant, born in a “bleak midwinter” over two thousand years ago, unwelcomed in ways I can’t even fathom, and my belief in what some consider “just a story” is the only real difference between my life then and now. 

It makes no sense, yet it makes perfect sense.  I can’t point to any other event that could explain the transformation that has taken place in my life, and in the lives of others.  I have been shown forgiveness and thus have been able to forgive; I have been comforted in loss so that I could comfort those experiencing similar grief (2Cor 1:4); and I have been welcomed where I once was an outcast.  For those who knew me then and now, I pray they recognize a difference, and acknowledge the reason for the change.  For those I have met during these last 3 plus decades, I apologize if I have taken any credit for where I am today, for it is only by God’s grace.  And for those I may meet going forward in this new year, may I never be ashamed to give a reason for the hope that I have (1Peter 3:15).

I may experience some “bleak midwinter” mornings going forward.  Things may not go as I hope, or as I think they should.  But in those times, I need to remember where I was all those years ago, and how differently my life turned out from what I had imagined or planned.  And I will remind myself, with God’s help, of the source of that life-changing event, a Christmas morning which demands my attention and gratitude every day.  “Now to Him who is able to do more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3:20-21)

 

HEAVY BLANKETS

I have a quilt that I bought while on a trip to Oklahoma. I love the colors and the scalloped edges; the matching pillow shams; the way it looks on the wrought iron bed. But the weight of it is sometimes too much- too heavy. It is almost unbearable to have that weight on my feet some nights.

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That’s how I feel lately about life.  There is a sadness about it that is suffocating. I find myself crying in the middle of the day when someone comes to mind. I hear about those for whom the sadness became too much. Not just the ones in the news like Spade and Bourdain, but people I know or whose families I know.

I read an article the other day about a young man who, after years of love and encouragement from his family, after years of treatment, who was gifted and talented in so many ways, just went for “a walk in the woods” because he couldn’t find a way to the surface. And I was overwhelmed with sadness.

I look at my children and each of their individual struggles and wonder if life is too hard for them.  Are the expectations too high? Will I be the recipient  of a text, as this young man’s mother was, which says “I’ve gone for a walk in the woods”?   And it makes me sad.  Rather than crawling under that blanket for comfort, it becomes a source of oppression.  And instead of finding comfort in the words I read in the Bible, as I so often have, they too become like a weight.

I think back to my life in my late teens and 20’s- when I was in the throes of addiction and alcohol was the only thing that relieved that sadness of life. Or so I thought.  If I’m totally honest, I thought more about taking my life after I stopped drinking than I ever did beforehand.  I understand all too well that “jumping off place”[1]; the feeling that life is just too hard.  It becomes like walking in wet sand, and each rush of water acts like a suction cup, making it impossible to move your feet.

The sadness comes from my seeming inability to “make things better”, from the lack of enough eloquent words or persuasive encouragement which will lift friends and loved ones out of those pits of despair. While I know it’s not my responsibility to do so, there is still a part of me that wants to fix things.

I try to recall what it was that pulled me out of those places of despair, those “dark nights of the soul”.  Was it something someone said?  Something timely I read?  A song on the radio at just the right moment?

One of my favorite verses in times of darkness is Habakkuk 3:17-18 – “Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls- Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

While I certainly see the faithfulness of God in my own life and am truly grateful, my sadness comes when I see those around me struggle, paddling desperately against an undercurrent of fear and longing.  It is like seeing the beauty of that quilt and yet being pained by its uncomfortable weight.

I see friends who cannot overcome the curse of addiction, returning to the “quick fix” rather than pursuing the daily reprieve which comes from following a spiritual program of recovery; I see family members searching for satisfaction in so many things, trusting in “chariots and horses” (Ps. 20:7) rather than in who they are in God’s eyes; I understand the challenge some of them have fully embracing the truth that ”weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning”.  I think my sadness comes from my inability to convince them, based solely on my own experience, that there is truly nothing which can separate them from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).

I have another blanket that one of my sons got for me. It is soft and warm, providing just the right warmth and comfort on chilly mornings as I sit and spend time in the Word.  I know I have a choice today as to which blanket I crawl under. And so this morning, as the sun starts coming up on a new day, I will try to turn my thoughts from the “wormwood and the gall”, as the prophet Jeremiah did, and have hope in the promise that “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, ‘therefore I hope in Him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24).

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[1] “Alcoholics Anonymous”, p.152

ON GOING HOME…

ON GOING HOME

(and the kindness of strangers)

 

 

There’s a Miranda Lambert song that brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. (Part of the reason may be that my daughter sang this song at a Country Music open mic event, and I loved hearing her sing it.  A dream of mine is that my children will record something together some day.  But I digress…)

The song is “The House That Built Me”, and it’s a touching song about returning to the home of one’s childhood to try and regain a sense of self.  Some of the lyrics are “I thought if I could touch this place or feel it, this brokenness inside me might start healing.  Out here it’s like I’m someone else; I thought that maybe I could find myself….”  Who hasn’t had that feeling of being so far from where we started that we think maybe we’ve lost our way?  And there seems to be a deep longing in everyone to discover their roots, to know who they are and what made them that way.  Look at the success of companies like Ancestry.com or 23andme, where you can pay a fee and find out all about your “family of origin”.

What is it that drives this desire?  I think I might understand that need in the case of someone who’s adopted, who may not know what their heritage is.  They don’t have the benefit of family photos or possibly a grandparent to fill them in on the traditions and traits that may have been passed down. I work with children who have been placed in foster care, who have been removed from their birth families for one reason or another.  A large part of what I do with them is to create a “life book”- a book that traces their journey, with a goal of honoring their past even though they may not be able to return to that family.  It gives these children a sense of belonging to look at pictures or recall traditions and hopefully allays some of the fears and insecurities of an unknown future.  This is an intentional process, well thought-out by “experts” who have spent years working with children in these situations.

But what about those of us who can look at a family photo album and clearly see where we got our nose or our eyes?  What about those of us who grew up with a large extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins who regularly gathered for Sunday dinners and shared stories?  What is it that makes us want to go “home” again?

 

I recently took a ride to the community where my childhood home was located.  Not the home I lived in from birth, but one which was a large part of my growing up years.  The community is now gated, and no one is granted access without the permission of a property owner and the issuance of a temporary gate card.  I explained to the woman in the office that I had lived here 50 years ago, when the community was just being built; that my father was one of those original builders (as if that would gain me special access).  As I was making my plea, one of the current residents overheard me, and offered me access by way of a visitor’s pass.  Perhaps she was just being kind, or maybe she, too, understood that need we all share to go back home.

As I drove through that community I found that I didn’t need to make use of the map they provided at the office; it was as if I had just been there, and I easily recognized street names which took me directly to our old house.  As I approached the house, which sat at the top of a hill I remember as much higher, my first reaction was sadness at how it had aged.  My pre-teen recollections of this house were ones of grandeur-with two fireplaces, a sauna, a jalousied deck that wrapped around two sides of the house.  The deck was still there but was certainly showing its age.  I toyed with the idea of pulling a Miranda Lambert and walking up to the house and knocking on the door, asking only for a peek inside.  But common sense got the better of me.  Besides, what if I saw inside and was terribly disappointed at what had happened to the house, this home that my father built?  Weren’t the memories forged in that home by me and my siblings more valuable than its current physical condition?  I remember lining up for a daily dose of cod liver oil during the harsh Pennsylvania winters; enduring early morning swim lessons on the beach during the summer, mainly because the lifeguards were cute; and my brother still bears a scar on his thumb from going through a door on that once-impressive porch.

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As I contemplate the reasons this desire to “find myself” continues to surface, I think about my children.  Will it matter that they don’t have one special childhood “home” to visit; one where they can see the marks I put on the wall as they grew or wander in the yard where they played?  I think of my daughter Sarah, only 4 ½ when her birth father died, and of my older son, Daniel, who wasn’t even born yet- do they struggle with that constant desire to find where they started from, to heal a brokenness inside?

And what about me?  Where does this longing come from, this desire to go back, as if returning would somehow ground me, let me start over?  I have been at this “wandering” long enough to realize, when I stop over-thinking and return to what I believe is true, that “home” is not a physical place, a house or a town that made me who I am.  One of the Dictionary.com definitions of home is “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered”. As corny as it sounds, home really is “where the heart is”.

I think, for me, when I start to look to go back where I started and maybe get a “do over”, it’s because I’ve lost sight of where I’m headed, of my real purpose for being here.  When I am resting in the promises of scripture, such as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14), I don’t question my physical struggles or limitations.  When I can get assurance from promises such as is found in Psalm 107:9, that “He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness”, I don’t need to look to things or places to make me feel worthwhile or whole.

I am grateful to the kindness of that stranger who allowed me a trip down memory lane, a glimpse into my childhood memories, if only because it put into perspective what “home” is really all about.  I hope that my children will always feel they have a home to come back to, no matter where it may be physically. I have tried to provide that security in a sometimes tumultuous world.   But more importantly I pray, for my children and for myself and for any other “wanderers” out there, that “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”.

“That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.” (Eph 2:19-22, The Message)

NO PHOTO ZONE

9E62D247-EB48-4BC4-A76F-0B94F54618BDI hate having my picture taken. That thing about the camera adding 10 lbs has always distressed me, although at times I’ve used it as an excuse for why I look so terrible in photos. This past year there have been no photos of me whatsoever, other than a few selfies I’ve taken to chronicle what I have sometimes called my most difficult year. But really, it’s been a year made more difficult by pride and self-centeredness. Isn’t that often the case?

The absence of photos has been by choice. Embarrassment really. Which is pride.
A year ago today I was recovering from surgery to remove a tumor. A lump I never would have found because of where it was located. Miraculously found on a mammogram. A lump that turned out to be breast cancer. The recovery was much more painful than I expected. But the worst pain only lasted a few days. In the months that followed there was chemo- only 4 rounds, but strong enough that hair loss was pretty much guaranteed. I said it wasn’t that important in the overall scheme of things; got a short haircut to “prepare”. I had no idea how much of my identity was tied up in my hair. So cliché, but in a lot of ways my hair became a way of identifying me. And there were a lot of people who didn’t recognize me once I lost my hair and began wearing hats. (I have to say there were times when I welcomed that anonymity as my treatment went on and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone).

That was followed by 7 weeks of radiation. I bemoaned the fact that I had to travel almost 30 miles each way, 5 days a week, taking up most of my summer. Again I experienced unexpected pain, some of which still lingers. And I’m sure my rants of self-pity did little to instill sympathy in those closest to me.

Then came the weight gain. At first I rationalized that I should eat while I could; it was good that I didn’t have nausea or lose my appetite, right? Then it was that awful fatigue that kept me from exercising. And now there’s the excuse of the medication. True, one of the side effects is weight gain, but that doesn’t give me carte blanche to consume endless amounts of cookies or stop for that daily package of Zingers at the Dollar Store.
My struggle with weight and how it affected my self-worth has been a lifelong one. Food has always been my go-to for comfort (except when alcohol was) and this past year has been no exception.
So now, after surviving surgery, chemo and radiation; after follow-up mammograms showing no evidence of cancer; even after my hair started coming back, the self-loathing begins. What? Where is the gratitude that should accompany enduring a year like that? Where is the recognition of how much more fortunate I am than so many others? Try as I might, I can’t seem to muster up the proper, spiritually mature response that makes others comment how strong my faith is.
Instead, I look in the mirror and see an overweight, weary woman who looks older than her years, hating the gray curls poking out from under my hat. I cringe when I struggle to get out of my chair or walk up the stairs, knowing the extra weight is adding to my lack of mobility. And thus the “no photo” policy.

Instead of being grateful for the friends or family who reached out and offered help during this past year, I choose to focus on the ones who weren’t there without considering their reasons or extending the grace I have repeatedly been shown. I have isolated myself physically and emotionally from everyone, and then complain that I’m lonely.
The worst part is that I didn’t even realize how miserable I was. I really thought I was handling things well, showing a brave face, saying and doing all the right things. But in the last few weeks I have been confronted with the ugly truth that my attitude has contributed greatly to this being my “worst year ever”.
I am ashamed when the widowed husband of a friend who lost her battle to cancer this past year makes an encouraging comment on a Facebook post. My “no photo” policy seems arrogant when I see the posts of a Facebook friend facing her second battle with cancer in as many years- smiling, unashamed by her hair, encouraging others.

There are a few writers I used to love reading. Their stories about faith in difficult times gave me encouragement, grounded me, even inspired me to write. But lately I’ve avoided reading anything intended as encouraging, dismissing those essays as rhetoric, as tired platitudes. I guess I got comfortable in the muck and mire, clinging to my martyr status as a way of not acknowledging my part in my misery. But an email made its way into my inbox. It was a weekly devotion from Sheila Walsh, one of those writers I used to love to read. A few months ago I was looking forward to her new book “ In the Middle of the Mess”. But then I decided I didn’t need to read one more book about overcoming depression and anxiety by trusting God. Oh, that beautiful arrogance! After all, I’ve spent over 30 years trusting and believing, and still managed to end up riddled by fear and anxiety. And because of the fact that through most of those years I have experienced peace in spite of circumstances, I concluded that the failure must surely be mine, not God’s. Then I read this: “Grace doesn’t come with a sell-by date…it’s possible to be healed and to fall again and again and again.”
I think I believed that, somewhere in the recesses of my chemo-wearied mind. I know without a doubt that I am not the person I was before I turned my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand Him. I have fallen many times since then but have always gotten up, never without the help of that inexplicable grace. Sometimes those lapses into selfishness and pride have lasted longer than others. This last tumble into the pit of darkness was a little messier and longer than others. But I am choosing to trust that “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ”. A day at a time.
So why share this ugly side of myself which many of you wouldn’t have noticed? Why tarnish that heroic image that I’ve tried to create of this stoic woman who has endured a lifetime of challenges? Truth be told, there are plenty who have endured much worse, with much more grace. But Sheila Walsh said something else-“We are all broken, all a little lost in this strange land. We need to see one another’s scars, to see where the light shines through”.
So here I am, scars and all, crawling up out of the pit, grateful for the ones who have patiently waited for me to return to the light. Maybe I’ll even post a photo now and then.240404BA-1611-449A-9845-B27069800DFC