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KonMari-ing Trauma

Thank you for the wrecking, the undoing, tears and rips And the way that you committed to your most savage whims Thanks so much for craving the unmarked skin on me And leaving me with scars to keep and throb in memory Thank you for the lessons in betrayal of myself And teaching me to grovel, beg, forget to ask for help I appreciate your tolerance as I clung to remnants of my worth Your patience til the shame was set and you knew it would endure Thank you for the questions I never thought to ask And the gentle way you coated them with answers made of wax Thank you for the panic and the doubt that settled in Without them I may have never found the place where I begin Thanks for being strong—as strong as you could be And for all the weakness you exploited well in me And now that I have thanked you, I release you to the Source And I will sit here thankful while she settles the score.

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On Time and Presence

“If you’re still listening, if this still means anything, please, help me to be present.” I sat on my bed, suitcase flayed open beside me as a familiar harbinger. We’d just seen the scan that showed a new and inoperable growth. Mom’s brain cancer was spreading. The clock ticked loud and cruel. I wanted to squeeze time like a lemon to get all the juice out. I wanted to stretch it into eternity like taffy, keep rolling it and rolling it to make more because she was running out and I had barely found my stride. And here I was, stumbling, racing toward the edge of a cliff after the woman I could not imagine life without. I was about to spend weeks? months? trying and failing to be a mom, daughter, and caretaker while grieving losses I couldn’t name and anticipating one I couldn’t conceive. I felt small and decidedly not ready. A mild panic sat next to me: that I’d already squandered too much time fretting over appointments and pills and possible cures in an attempt to make it all less awful when maybe I could have just enjoyed what was there to enjoy with her instead. Help. My husband drove me and our three small kids a thousand miles south. Again. I prayed my plea and watched all the familiar landmarks out the window, noting through my knotted nerves and random tears that the next time I’d see that tree or this hill, I wouldn’t have a mom on the earth anymore. The familiar sights became strange in anticipation. Presence does not come easily. I have preferred to worry myself out of this moment, thanks. Why soak in now when there are so. many. possible other nows and previous nows just begging to be examined and reexamined and planned around and shamed for. Nobody prepared me for the overwhelm and boredom, drama and banality that would come with my mother’s terminal illness. I worried that she didn’t understand how bad it was, that she wasn’t taking it seriously enough. And I also worried that the seriousness might swallow her up, that she might succumb to despair. Which, looking back, were probably projections, but at the time I wanted to take charge and get things done when there was nothing—really—to do. I’d favored concern and logistics and rationale about data when I could have deferred to her unreasonable hope and joy. I chose my to-do list over just being with her. I worried over the same disease and death that she, the diseased and dying, wasn’t worried about. I wasted time which was now running out. What had I done? Help. Really, this was nothing new. My mom always saw the silver linings where I saw the clouds. Sometimes I was scared she would get hurt and sometimes she did, but she was fine. I’m the one who worried about it. She showed off her broken leg. I wouldn’t say I’m a pessimist—her positive outlook was the soil I grew in, after all. Even when I’m sure the worst is happening, I’m also sure it’ll be okay at some point. Maybe not always for me, but in some sense that matters, I’m sure. It’s annoying even to me. My bright side is never far from the shade. But my mother lived fully in the sun, tanning oil ready. She was present. My mom should be here. I should be able to call her and send her photos. She should be at the birthday parties and holding the new babies. She should be comforting my friends who have shit moms and need her to mother them, too. I was 29 when she died and I know that means I got some time with her, but it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t done here. I feel stronger, the sting dulls, but it never becomes okay to me. And I’ve given up expecting anyone to understand the wound it left. “Parents die before their kids…” but not this before. “At least…” is still least. It’s rare that anyone gets along well enough with their mother to empathize, much more rare they consider themselves actual friends with her. I don’t know why that is, but it makes it so that people aren’t sure what it means when you say your mom died. Unless they do. It seems like most of the people I know whose mothers were also their closest friends have had to grieve them. I don’t know why that is, either. I get gifts now. I have perspective. I know what it’s like when the worst-case-scenario actually does happen. I know that it is infinitely more awful than it was in your head, and that worrying about it before doesn’t fix it. I know that time is not something we can bargain for, that its eternal and finite all at once and demands respect, presence, a little trembling. I know that love is a hard rock bottom. You will smack flat against it when the floor and foundation both give and you can stomp your hardest, but it won’t budge. I know that some people are committed to being terrible and you don’t have to be the one to save them with your compassion. I know that loss doesn’t have to be tragic, but when it is, the world goes dark for a bit. I know that the light comes back. And they do not make it worth it, but I will take them. Because presence may not be what comes easiest to me, but she taught me well and it comes deep. I got there after the long drive down. And those final months with her were hard. There was enough to do to get lost in. But not long after I arrived I sat on the couch with her and she grabbed my hand and held it between us. And all the things I could have said didn’t matter. I was there, fully, and she was, too. And we are still stretching out the taffy of that moment.

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Open Handed Hope

No alarm told me to creep downstairs while everyone slept and beat the Easter morning candy rush. But my dog was on my mind and I needed to get eyes on him. If he’d died, I thought, I would want to get him outside before the kids came down. I’d want to wait until after they had their morning fun before I told them. I’d want a minute to cry with him before sharing the grief with my children. I rehearsed it, just in case (which I do a lot, but the cases rarely unfold according to my script). He’d been sick the night before. The kind of sick I’ve seen before. I’d tried to get him up for a bath and he wouldn’t stand so I pleaded with him, tears forming, to get up. and come here. Please, Ollie. Please. I don’t need to waste words now telling you what he means to me and what a loss it will be when he’s gone—or name that the cruelty of loving a dog is how sure you are that you’ll outlive them. I just need to tell you that when I found him downstairs and saw his tail flop at the sound of my voice, it felt like Easter morning. Because I know well enough that pain doesn’t wait for a kind moment. It comes with the candy and the celebration. It comes regardless of the plans you laid the night before, however carefully and sweetly, whatever hope or happiness guided them. I know there are twins of moments for all of us—Before & After—that we’ll never shake. They will tag along with us and bark or whine when you pass that hospital on the freeway or hear that song or when the dog looks at you like he doesn’t want to walk anymore. The worst things come when they damn well please, and there are too many pleas for pardon for God to answer them all—even Jesus chucked his up to no avail. The ones that do bend things only confuse the rest of us and make us wonder what hidden sin is keeping God from wanting to bend things in our favor. There’s this famous experiment where you pray to a milk jug and see how often it answers you. Apparently, just making your request known—even to a milk jug—makes a difference. It is probably the case that when you name things which you want to have happen and then they do, you feel involved and you give credit wherever you think you should so it’ll happen again. The universe. God. A milk jug. And if the focus is merely on evading pain, prayer is a depressing thing. It doesn’t seem like God cares much more about you than a milk jug does. Which I suppose could give you hope and affect toward milk jugs, but for me, makes me wonder what’s the point. The Bible says “ask” so I do and then my heart is broken twice. When we got Mom’s terminal diagnosis, I didn’t spend much time asking for a miracle. I got to work accepting it. Sometimes I let myself hope—I just read words from myself about how I had a sense she would live and they felt foreign to me—and I asked God to heal her, to keep her here, to make the tumor disappear. I did. But most of me abstained from too much hope. Stay sober. Get through. I let my mother keep her optimism, her trust, I let her carry the banner for hope and I cheered her on. But inside I was biding time. I was rational. I saw the statistics. And if I’m honest, some part of me wonders what could have been different if I had let myself assume it more. Is that what God needed? One more believer? Or would it have made no difference in the outcome, but may have given her and I more common footing, more shared experience, more time together not on a calendar, but in union with eternal things? Anyway, I asked God to heal my dog. And I think he’s going to be okay, this time was just rehearsal. I don’t know if it would have been any different if I hadn’t asked. I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t, and partly because if it did, I’m inclined to wonder as I do so often, “then why not her?” I’m not really mad anymore and I am finding generous space in the mystery of hope deferred. As if God’s hope is, too, and that is a lovely, terrible thought. Like when you realize as a child that your parents don’t always get things their way either. There is also a sense (and I say this hesitant to “wrap it up too neatly,” as my friend Darin expresses frequently) in which we did get what we prayed for. Despite my best logic, I know she is okay now. Free and healthy and full of joy. Because if the worst moments come when they want to, the best ones do, too. And I swear to you I’m sharing them with her even now. And I’ll share them with Ollie now, grateful for his life while I hold all these moments with open hands. Update: Oliver passed away about a month after this post was mostly written and, maybe surprisingly, I do not feel even the slightest bit betrayed by hope—or God. 🙂

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The Skeptic and the Mystic

I guess it’s how I came here: carrying the questions of my ancestors and the mystic trust, too. Which of them were lawyers? Which of them shamans? Because I can escape neither. My earliest memories are of totalizing faith. Utter confidence in God’s existence, God’s love, God’s particular devotion, God’s humor, God’s sadness. I did not separate the world into what is God’s and what is not, it was all God’s. He made it. He loved it. He was never far from any of it. Now that I know me a little more, it seems inevitable that I would wring this faith through inquiry. Sometimes I wonder what took me so long. But at 14, hormones swirling through my bloodstream like paint that always ends up making brown, I finally heard the slithering voice loud and clear where perhaps it had once been a whisper: “Did God really say?” Well. Did he? My skeptic cleared her throat. What made me think God was so in love with me that he laughed at all my jokes and wanted the seat next to me in the car? Why was I so special? How could I be sure that God was happy with my petty, confrontational, cowardly attempts at being human? I could yell at my own mother and cry to get off the rollercoaster. What a mess. With this introspection, teachings about a God whose anger led his love made sense. I’d be angry, too, if I had to put up with me. I’d cycle through lots of emotions. Annoyance. Apathy. Disgust. Frustration. Sometimes pity. Probably. But mostly out of obligation. Because I promised I’d save this species after all, even if this one barely seemed worth it anymore. The more faithful I tried to be, to curry favor, to apologize to my creator, the less faith I could hold onto. I became more afraid, more ashamed, and less able to sense God with me in the car or otherwise. Why would God want to be with me at all? Even after leaving the place that taught me most about this Angry God, I struggled to feel safe which meant I struggled to believe I was loved. My new faith was—as any good lawyer would insist—in God’s contract. He is just. He won’t lie. He said he’d save me if I did x so he will. He has to. That’s what I had been taught real love was: commitment. God keeps promises so he’ll keep you, wretched worm that you are. I held God to his contract with my fists tight against his throat. Come on, you said it. Saved, but un-beloved. What an eternity that will be. I tried my best to be okay with it for many years. Messages about God’s eager kindness and delightful love met my inner skeptic whose voice had become a looping refrain and I started to believe that it was me. That God felt that way about other people—maybe even most people, maybe even every other person—but not about me. So I could affirm it in others, enthusiastically, genuinely, with passion and prose that comes from something you really know deep down. But not in myself. Every time I tried, my skeptic reminded me to sit down, this message probably isn’t for you. But I come from shamans, too. I dug myself further into a theology that made room for everyone but me and hoped that I could sneak in through the back door, but it was a pit. No doors. And my own words of affirmation etched on the walls were an insult. Until my mystic read them—she looks for her birthright everywhere. She started quiet, too. Hey, look there, didn’t God say that?  Her voice felt familiar. Like a memory and a relative. In the pit where the skeptic argued her case, the mystic stood up, too and shrugged. I had to be taught that I was unlovable, but to believe I was loved just meant remembering. We don’t have to know why or how, she said, but we know. And there are annoyingly few rebuttals for a knowing. All of them are rather bleak. So up against the wall with the Good Words on them, my skeptic had to throw her hands up and say, “fine.” Turns out that’s the judgement, the free will, the burden of the knowledge of good and evil. A choice between stories—what did God say? If the fear came through my head, the hope came through my gut. They meet, then, in my heart where both skepticism and mysticism are my friends. I am proud of my skeptic for asking the questions I might otherwise be too afraid to ask. I’m grateful to her for driving me into the darkness because I always find the light is there, too and I wouldn’t know it if I didn’t go. And I am in awe of my mystic for her steadfast confidence. I’m grateful to her for being bold in her trust and keeping me pinned to the truth of my belonging. When the two of them go into a cave together I just know we’re going to find diamonds. So now I trust and I question and I know I’m being faithful. Faith—my faith anyway—isn’t an antidote to fear, it’s a wrestling, a dance. It’s arguments in pits and an invitation to sabbatical. It is timid and bold, a freedom and submission, a choice and very much not one. For lots of different reasons and in lots of different ways, I wonder What did God say anyway? and my skeptic and my mystic look at each other and smile.

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Love Notes

“Maybe Jesus knew you’d read the word ‘beagle’ today!” I say to her after sounding it out and our remembering that those two matching beagles just walked by the house this morning so she got to hear this strange word. “Or maybe the owner just wanted to walk his dogs…” she says, empirically, with all the rational exposition 300 years of Enlightenment Thinking can produce in its youngest prodigies. I laugh and nod, “Both things can be true, you know.” Because the question I am convinced is built into the factory settings, is Are you there and do you care? That is, is there a “you” to care at all and if there is… do you? My mother thanked the Lord for sunsets. She attributed good parking spots and choice seats at the movies to Jesus. Bonus fries at the bottom of the bag in the McDonald’s drive thru or a few extra bucks for gas in the glove box got a sincere, enthusiastic, “Thanks, God!” I can still hear it in her voice. Sometimes she laughed at the absurdity and sometimes she just took the gift, however trite or banal. Nothing just so happened. Coincidence was a love note. Before I learned to roll my eyes I learned that the creator of the universe cares about bonus fries.   When she was sick she trusted God to heal her, to make the tumor shrink, to make her well. When scans came back showing no new growth she gave God credit. But then one ordinary day in January, when scans like these were almost boring, but an excuse to hang out, we gathered up on FaceTime and talked about what we planned to do with our hair later while we waited for the doctor whose smile we’d memorized. Only that day she walked in somber. Sunsets and parking spots then did not seem to me like great evidence of a caring divinity, but of cruelty disguised as kindness. I will give you good seats in the theater in which to drool over Gerard Butler, but abandon you at brain cancer. Ooookay. Thanks, God? But that’s not how she saw it. I don’t know what she would say about it because I never asked her. I didn’t need to and she didn’t owe me an explanation anyway. I am long for explanations that do me no good whatsoever. Instead I bore witness. To her faith which had very little to do at all with what she got or what God fixed or what worked out for her or didn’t. And that was not just true then, when the stakes were life and death.   Once when I was a scared barely-adult-child of divorcing parents, begging the universe to make sense again, I confronted her. Why are you getting a divorce, I asked, when you know God hates divorce? “Because God wants me to be happy, too.” I thought it was ridiculous. God wants you to stick with your commitments. But years later I had the same fleeting hope that maybe God did not want me to be miserable, when the letters of the law spaced apart to make room for the spirit of the God who is love and does, actually, want all of us to be at peace, have joy, find rest… be happy. Which is fine and good for things you have even some amount of say in—whether or not to get a divorce, have a baby, go to college, buy a house. You can weigh those options and line your choices up against your highest values. But when things are entirely out of your control—when your spouse doesn’t love you anymore or you are diagnosed infertile or the school you planned to attend doesn’t want you or the bank won’t approve the loan or you think you have a sinus infection only to find out it’s brain cancer and your prognosis is grim… Does God want you happy then? She was scared, angry, sad, disappointed. She said “why” into the air of Gramma’s “garden room” where we laid in the guest bed together and her question joined 30 years of dust into the old green carpet. We vacuumed it up, no answer. In between appointments and regimented medications she caught naps and woke up with reports. God put his hands on her head, she said. They were so warm. The Holy Spirit had wings and they wrapped around her like a hug, she said. She felt safe. Jesus met her on a paddle board, she said. He joined her on a choppy ocean and told her to enjoy the float. She spoke to Jesus at her bedside and not about the things I would have asked if Jesus Christ was sitting next to me. “What did he look like?” I asked, eagerly. “You know… like Jesus. Middle eastern, I guess, dark hair…” she shrugged. It reminded me of the accounts in the New Testament where people around Jesus ask him what it will be like after we die or what this or that law really meant and he says something like, “Don’t worry about it.” I picture him shrugging, too. With dark hair, I guess.   Because my mother’s relationship with the divine was just that: relational. She felt all the things any human feels when life seems stacked against them, but beneath it all she had trust in the Goodness of this place, trust in God’s love for her, trust in a bigger picture she did not need to see. Trust not borrowed, but earned, from a life of knowing God, loving God, listening for God—not to get it right (she was never nearly as disturbed by her mistakes as I was), but because it was like breathing. She loved God because God loved her. Her trust was foundational, cyclical, not entirely explainable. Jesus walked around talking about, pointing out, a world of abundance in the midst of scarcity. While people experienced oppression, he told them they could be free. While people were hungry, he said there was enough food. While people suffered disease, he promised healing was available. While people died from all these things, he offered the hope of life. And it seemed then—it seems now—somewhat foolish to believe him, to accept his version of reality. We look around today at a time when so many things are so much better than they used to be and it still seems so dramatically less than whole. Babies are starved by government officials with power in their hearts, men and women forced into camps by the end of a gun, refugees flee to closed borders, children taught to strap bombs onto themselves, to hate what they don’t know. And that’s just out there. The tragedies that fall into our personal lives count, too: strained relationships, cancer, financial trouble, mental health battles, etc. etc. It is not hard to lose sight of anything beautiful in a world full of so much ugly. Still, my mom believed his story. I am learning now that I can choose to focus on the abundance without lying about the scarcity. All of the awfulness is true. So is all the good. God help us, humanity can keep pushing for Better and the tragedies of my own life don’t have to be justified, but they can be mined for gold. Under all of this chaos, all this pain and not-as-it-should-be are promises of hope, the big universal Source showing up on a paddle board or in a teddy bear ballon or under a fig tree. Under all of the unrest: rest. Peace, which comes from trusting the Light because you’ve seen it show up in dark places before even if it has never been this dark. Love that whispers in those moments to lean in, come close, choose hope. So that yes, some person walked his dogs today and that is why we saw the beagles. And also, this is the first time that word has been presented to you, child, and you just happened to see that type of dog today. So lean in: yes. God cares about your reading lesson and those dogs and that man and the mom who looks for too many connections for her own good sometimes, but is learning once again to take the love notes.

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Beam Hallelujah

The beams reach high—to you As if you are not here, in the pew But you don’t mind it You come how we’re able Hallelujah The cross up there reminds me of the ones you put all over Torture as a decoration, hallelujah Like the one you pained for me at that pottery shop When I got myself baptized And Grandma Betty thought it was a waste You were my sanctuary—are? Do I still get to say that? While I learn to stand on the legs you knit for me in your womb? Which sort of makes them yours, I guess And I like that thought, hallelujah And I hope to make you proud with how I use them These walls say different things to me than they would to you —or do? You say “thanks God” Like the All Powerful Creator has your number memorized And I—with this brain you stitched—wonder if that makes any sense I’ll walk into the dark so you don’t have to, hallelujah And the beams stretch tall like the trees Who know already that you’re in the roots And who is God to me anymore without you? Hallelujah.

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