Finding peace in the whirlwind

Blindsided again by Facebook “memories”.  I’ve really been making an effort the last few months to make good use of my days, to not waste them.  I’ve tried to be disciplined about starting my day with a dedicated quiet time, reading and journaling.  I’ve tried to end my day without the phone or television, reflecting on what’s gone well and what needs improvement, both in my thoughts and actions.  These are spiritual practices I’ve honed and refined over the years, borrowing from my recovery community, mentors, and even the Jesuits and their timeless use of the “Examen”, explained as an attitude, a “time set aside for thankful reflection on where God is in your everyday life”. (Ingatianspirituality.com).

And yet, I wake up most mornings just as exhausted as when I went to bed, anxious about the day, fearful.  My FitBit shows me a sleep score which is usually in the fair-good range, but I don’t feel rested.  Some days I fight the urge to stay in my pajamas and watch the latest binge-worthy find on BritBox while devouring an entire package of cookies or a pint of ice cream.  That may be an acceptable use of a day once in a while, but I keep trying to figure out why these feelings are becoming more and more frequent in spite of my efforts to overcome them.

And then I open up Facebook, and I’m greeted by “4 years ago on this day…”.  I look at the photos attached to that post in disbelief.  Not that the memories are bad or disturbing; in fact, they’re delightful- a trip to Wyoming, returning Jacob to school after Christmas break; a ride outside of Laramie to find a bakery in the middle of nowhere and, of course, a little coffee shop; a classic old Chevy pickup for sale out in a field.  But it’s the timing of that post- 4 years ago- and the realization of all that’s happened since-that really brings me up short, knocks the wind out of me.  No wonder I’m so exhausted and weary all the time!  

Almost 2 years ago (April 2020) I wrote a blog post about Facebook memories and how depressing they can be, especially in the midst of a pandemic that lingered much longer than expected, making us long for those things and people we once took for granted.  Now, almost 2 years later, still impacted to a degree by living life amid a pandemic, those Facebook memories have stirred different yet equally as troubling emotions.

Like waves that relentlessly batter me while I try to get my footing, the past several years have barely allowed time to breath, never mind rest.  

January 2018 – One year removed from a cancer diagnosis; 6 months out from chemo and radiation.

May 2019 – youngest son graduates from college; daughter diagnosed with breast cancer.

December 2019 – daughter’s cancer surgery; oh, and then a pandemic.

September 2020- husband starts new job resulting from closing of company (because of the ongoing pandemic).

October 2020- start of “retirement” (resulting from being forced to move)

November 2020- moved to new city.

December 2020- Christmas in an apartment, while “zooming” with family.

March 2021 – first of two knee replacement surgeries; sale of home.

May 2021- purchase of a new home, and the “work” begins.

July 2021- second knee replacement surgery, move to new home.

September 2021- older son gets married- in Tennessee.

To most people, this might look like a chronicle of a very normal life- illness, moving, weddings, graduations.  But when I list it out as if it were those memories on social media I really do have to step back a bit.  I don’t want to sound like I’m whining; I’m not looking for canonization or martyrdom here.  But people, really, it’s a LOT!  And in 4 years time.  Seriously?

For someone who has spent the better part of 4 decades trying to live “one day at a time”, who has taken to heart the teaching that says “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12), attempting to take each day as a separate unit full of its own unique usefulness is very much like trying to stand upright in the wake of those oncoming waves.  And expecting to do it without getting wet is really foolish.

I’m not saying I plan on abandoning the “one day at a time” mantra that I have lived by for 36+ years.  But I do need to remember that the lessons in those days are often cumulative.  I can look back on the past 4 years, or the past 10 or 20 for that matter, and acknowledge the challenges and the hard days; I can be grateful that I have come through somewhat worse for wear, a little drenched at times, but still standing; I can cherish days like that day in Wyoming or the other pleasant memories that Facebook might throw at me on any given day; and I can cautiously look ahead with hope at making new memories, not projecting the worse case scenario, which is really what living a day at a time is all about.

I am only responsible for my thoughts and my actions today.  I don’t need to let the weight of the past 4 years, or even the past week, to weigh me down and make me weary.  I can allow myself a few of those days spent in my pajamas in front of the tv as long as I am also seeking to learn from the other days in that string of years that might not be as pleasant.  

Psalm 90 also says “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.  You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it faces and withers… The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away… Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v. 4-6, 10, 14).  

I’m not sure if all this rambling makes sense or brings any comfort,  I mean, who wants to have their life compared to grass that withers or is swept away.  But I’m choosing, just for today, to number my days, not by Facebook memories or by allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the entirety of it all, but by rejoicing in each new day, seeking to be renewed in spite of what may have happened yesterday or by the prospect of withering by evening. I am grateful that God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Photo by P Ahlstrand

I’M NOT STRONG, JUST STUBBORN

“You’re so strong!”  “You’re the strongest woman I know!”  “You’re so resilient”.  These are comments I often hear from friends and family, particularly after making it through a difficult time in my life.  Cancer. Loss of a loved one.  Surgery.  And as is often the case when I pass through a significant milestone in my existence (e.g., a “big” birthday, another year of sobriety), my sometimes over-active mind starts to reflect on the rapidly changing backdrop of those events.  I wonder how I managed to navigate all that’s happened in just the past 5 years.  Some would say it’s a result of my strength; I think I’m just stubborn.

Five years ago I celebrated what I considered a significant birthday.  My daughter arranged a beautiful party, and I was surrounded by a room full of women who knew me best and had walked with me through different phases of my 60 years.  I’m pretty sure I dropped some hints about wanting a party, even though I usually don’t like being the center of attention.  But the venue and the guests were all her doing, and I was incredibly moved by the outpouring of love and validation I received.  Little did I know that just a month or so later I would receive a cancer diagnosis that would define the next year of my life, and as such would bring more of those affirmations of my alleged “strength”.  

But as I sit here 5 years later and “reflect” (ruminate really), I don’t think strength had anything to do with it.  Most days I feel like a puddle of self-pity, stuck in a swirl of uncertainty while trying to keep up the façade I’ve managed to somehow create of being a strong, resilient woman.

It seems that these past 5 years were full of challenges which would overwhelm even the strongest of women: not only my cancer diagnosis, but my daughter’s (which was far more serious than mine); a pandemic that resulted in my husband’s company closing, forcing not one but 2 moves in less than a year; the sale of a home; the involuntary loss of a job;  two knee surgeries; and even happy events like the wedding of a son, joyful yet not without its own measure of stress.  And yet, here I am.

Most of these events didn’t occur in a vacuum.  They all have underlying impacts which may not be apparent on the surface.  30 years ago, while participating in a bereavement group, those “secondary losses” were pointed out as a significant part of grieving.  I believe the events of the past five years carry with them the same ancillary impacts: mortality; loss of purpose which comes from not working; loneliness resulting from leaving the familiar circle of friends and family, at least geographically; the necessity of acknowledging physical limitations.

I was raised to think that perseverance and self-reliance were the cornerstones of success.  Everything was a matter of “will power”, from my eating habits to my grades in school, and even my need for sleep (being tired was just a “state of mind”, according to JM; it was mind over matter).  That whole concept was flipped on its head when I got sober and learned that “self will run riot” was the cause of most of my problems.  Self-reliance went out the window, and I had to learn a whole new vocabulary.  Strength in weakness; dependence not defiance; reliance on others and on a power greater than myself.  Much to my surprise, and in spite of my cynicism, it worked.  I was able to face situations that I never imagined I could and come through the other side; not necessarily unscathed, but not destroyed or devastated.  And to many, that looked like strength.

I haven’t written much this past year, other than a post about not being able to write, and part of that is not feeling as if I had much to share; no words of wisdom to impart.  But perhaps it’s even more important to write during times like this.  To show that sometimes personal strength isn’t necessary to survive, just a prideful stubbornness to hang on and defy illness, controversy, pandemics, and the many other events which I have no control over.  Acknowledging that lack of control is often the starting point for healing a dark night of the soul.  

There’s a song by Lauren Daigle which she released earlier this year called “Hold On to Me”.  Part of the lyrics are: “Hold on to me when it’s too dark to see you, when I am sure I have reached the end.  Hold on to me when I forget I need you.  When I let go, hold me again.”  Perhaps I need to look at the events of the past several years and be reminded that even when I forget I don’t have to be strong and self-sufficient and I try to tough it out to show how strong I am, when I forget to ask for help because I think it’s a sign of weakness, there is something or someone holding me.  Some call it a Higher Power or Spirit of the Universe.  I call it God.  And that’s where the real strength is.  My stubbornness and pride are just the tools that tide me over until I remember that there is no shame in surrender, in holding on.

LANGUISHING OR JUST LAZY (SOME THOUGHTS ON WRITER’S BLOCK)

LANGUISHING OR JUST LAZY

(SOME THOUGHTS ON WRITER’S BLOCK)

I have a file filled with papers my parents saved over the years, mostly of my academic “achievements”, report cards, newspaper clippings and the like.  Among those papers is a fifth grade report card which contains the following handwritten comment: “Pamela is an excellent student who needs to put forth more effort.  She is inclined to be lazy.”  So there it is.  The label that attached itself to me at 10 years old and has been there ever since.  Sometimes it’s been the source of my self-deprecation; but more often than not it’s become a convenient excuse for when I fall into what I may call a funk, a slump, or more seriously a “dark night of the soul”.

Of course, I’m not implying that Mrs. MacNaughton is the source of self-doubt into my sixth decade of life.  A life which has been, for the most part, marked with a large amount of productivity and even success.  But the label of “lazy” often nags at me like the tag in the neck of a shirt when I try to determine the reason for my inability to write in the last 6 months or so.  And not only writing, but pretty much the lack of doing anything that one might consider productive.

As I spent time contemplating this recently (which really means I was overthinking, overanalyzing, and obsessing about it) I read a devotional by Lysa Terkeurst about “languishing”. (Seeing Beautiful Again, p. 133).  The subject matter which she wrote about was about being in a time of uncertainty during a difficult period in her life.  But the word itself caught my attention, as did the bible verse she cited: Psalm 6:2-3-

“Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.  My soul also is greatly troubled.  But you, O Lord – how long?” (ESV)

This started me down an etymological rabbit hole on the word itself.  And I was surprised to find that not only is it a word that so aptly describes my current state of laziness, it has become recognized as a condition in the mental health field, falling somewhere between depression and flourishing.  Corey Keyes, a sociologist from Emery University, defined languishing as “not depression or sadness, but rather the ‘absence of feeling good about your life’” (from an interview on WBUR on May 4, 2021, and posted by Robin Young and Serena McMahon- “Living, but not flourishing: The Pandemic-Fueled feeling known as ‘Languishing’”)

Languishing is also the lack of meaning, purpose or belonging in life, which leads to emptiness, lack of emotion and stagnation (Adam Grant, New York Times April 21, 2021).  The dictionary definition is “to become feeble, weak or enervated; to be or live in a state of depression or decreasing vitality; to become dispirited”. 

There’s a word from the French which has a similar meaning – ennui.  It’s a more poetic word for “boredom”; but not just ordinary boredom.  More the type of boredom which results from living a life of ease. Poet Charles Lloyd described ennui as “a soul-destroying fiend” which visits with its “pale unrest the chambers of the human breast where too much happiness has fixed its home” (Stanzas to Ennui, 1823).  While I would hardly describe life (mine or that of others) in the past year as a life of ease or too much happiness, my current mood can certainly be described as dispirited, listless, soul-destroying.

So what does any of this have to do with my alleged “writer’s block”.  Maybe nothing.  I often use the rationale that my writing is not that interesting to others anyway, so why bother; or that it’s just a self-serving form of catharsis, sometimes called “word vomit”, a way to just purge my feelings and move on.  Maybe the idea of languishing is just a fancier word for laziness, a trendy excuse that I can fall back on times when I feel completely unmotivated to write and share my feelings, even though they are abundant and swirling in tornado-like fashion in my mind. 

I do know that I felt a tiny bit of justification when I read that, according to Keyes, about 12% of the population currently suffers from languishing, yet another phenomenon resulting from a year-long pandemic.  I can add a long list of events in my personal life which can further justify my feelings of being overwhelmed and thus immobilized -moving, knee surgery, selling and buying a house, not working.  Things which aren’t necessarily “bad” or negative, but certainly emotional.

Whatever the reason for the current funk I find myself in, I do know I don’t want to stay here.  I chose a word at the start of the year to be my focus, an idea suggested by an on-line community I follow.  The idea was to find a verse or comment at least weekly which spoke to that word and use it as encouragement.  My word for this year was “hope”.  I have, as with all the other disciplines in my life, failed miserably making it a weekly exercise to pray and meditate and write on that word.  Truthfully, it’s been months since I’ve even pretended to do that.  But in the last week or so I’ve had glimpses of what it might look like.  Silly as it may seem, finding a word which so perfectly describes my mood has given me hope.  Being part of an on-line community of women I don’t even know but who are similarly struggling has motivated me a bit. (Thanks Suzie Eller for telling me “write that blog post sister!”)  Being able to visit with family has helped the feeling of isolation I have had, although I still sometimes feel like a “stranger in a strange land”. 

Meditation has long been a practice I have used to start my day, to try and begin my day in a positive frame of mind.  My struggles in the past 6 months have resulted partly from the former “routine” of my days being disrupted and distorted to the point where there is no longer a recognizable routine.  Instead of the anticipation of the day’s tasks being the source of anxiety, the quiet of nighttime and the anticipation of insomnia have taken its place.  Recently I have tried to end my day by turning off the television and finding something to meditate on before going to bed in an attempt to ward off those sleep-robbing thoughts.  There are nights that it works, that I am able to repeat a verse or a phrase until I fall asleep.  And that gives me hope.

The psalm that I cited at the beginning of this goes on to say “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” Ps 6:6.  I am grateful that I have not reached that depth of despair.  I don’t know if I am to the point of saying and believing “The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer” (Ps. 6:9).  But I am starting to hope, to have some focus in the midst of the fog, hope that I am moving from languishing to flourishing.  Perhaps flourishing is too optimistic; but I’m no longer choosing to have laziness as a label that keeps me hopeless.  And I am moving toward believing, once again, that “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.  You will increase my greatness and comfort me again” (Ps. 71:20-21)

CONFESSIONS OF AN OLD HIPPIE

My kids used to think I was cool when I said I was a hippie.  Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I lived through the Civil Rights movement and experienced racial integration of schools, the Vietnam war, Woodstock (although I was too young to attend), and so much of the social unrest that gave rise to the “hippie” movement.  In high school, I played a lot of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan on the guitar (although listening to Joan Baez albums was frowned upon in my house).  I wore peasant tops or dresses, huarache sandals, and even wore baby’s breath in my hair at my first wedding instead of the traditional gown and veil. I grabbed onto the “peace and love” mantra and rebelled against my “too strict” moralistic upbringing, claiming it suffocated my desire to be a free spirit.

            Truth be told, I was terrified to really be a “free spirit”.  I didn’t have enough self-confidence to be outspoken about my beliefs on social issues.  I was also too afraid to experiment with much of the drug culture that was such a part of the hippie lifestyle.  I loved the idea of hippiedom and what it stood for; but looking back now, some 40 years and a somewhat harsh lifetime later, I think a lot of it was about the clothes.

            I still struggle with having the confidence to speak out.  I’ve spent so many years wanting to “fit in”, worrying about people liking me, even wanting my kids to think I was “cool”, that I never showed my true self to anyone.  And now, at 64 years old, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’m still on a journey of discovery, still trying to figure out who I am.

            Which is a lot different than who I want to be. 

            I have always held to the habit of journaling, at least since my early 20’s.  (Before that, I just wrote tortured poetry and envisioned myself as the next version of Sylvia Plath, sans suicide).  When I go back and read those earlier journals (yes, I still have them) they sound like the rantings of a drunken madwoman, self-absorbed to the max, which is mostly what they were.  There’s no redeeming literary quality, no great insight into the human existence, no real focus.   Just whining, really.

            In my later years, my journaling has taken a somewhat different path.  My journals over the past 30 some odd years are more of a sorting out of spiritual beliefs. I left behind the vague spirituality of hippiedom and mother earth and had moved into the world of self-sufficiency and intellectual knowledge.  When that path also failed me, I finally surrendered to the idea of a higher power, the concept of which has evolved over time, as reflected in the boxes of journals now stacked up randomly in a storage unit in New Jersey.

            A few of those journals escaped being boxed up, and I came across one recently from around 10 years ago.  What struck me when I read through it was that my life circumstances were similar (preparing to move), and my writing reflected a lot of the same discouragement and disillusionment, both with life in general and with myself as a “spiritually mature Christian”.  Somewhat of a disappointment, actually, that I continue to fall short of my self-imagined growth.

            I know that word “Christian” doesn’t have positive connotations, especially recently.  It certainly isn’t considered “cool”, and is even considered hypocritical and vile by some.  I’m hesitant to even identify myself by that term in the current climate, and prefer to think of myself as a Jesus follower: someone who relies on the grace of a loving God to get her through the ups and downs of daily life.  A woman who does “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counts others more significant than herself” (Phil. 2:3); who does “all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (2:15-16).  But here’s the thing- that’s the person I WANT to be.  As I read through the years of ramblings collected in these journals, as I read through what I wrote just last week, I sill find myself a far cry from the person I want to be.  But I do know who I am not.

            I am no longer an unhinged self-centered woman driven solely by emotions and a misguided sense of entitlement.  The peace and love I seek today is no longer just a cultural incantation hoping to bring about social change; it’s a “peace that passes understanding” and a love that “casts out fear” and “surpasses knowledge”.

            I still like the clothes.  But I wear them today because they’re comfortable, not because they make a statement.  My kids may not think I’m “cool”, but they know without a doubt that I love them in spite of my numerous missteps as a parent.  And I may not be the woman I want to be, but I am content to be open to learn and willing to acknowledge those areas that still need some tweaking. 

            And just as a footnote, this is in no way an attempt to elicit accolades or encouragement, or to have anyone tell me I’m cool.  In fact, those types of comments make me uncomfortable.  I write and share only as an extension of my self-contained journaling, and to perhaps encourage others that we never really arrive at some worldly or spiritual perception of success, and that’s okay.  We just walk a day at a time, sometimes haltingly, sometimes even stumbling, but getting up to do it again the next day.  Hoping those days, however many I’m given, make a little bit of difference.

Peace out-

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

IMG_20190726_171608252

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)

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I 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

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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