persist

I am of the opinion that life is going to be painful.

(EDIT: Upon the first re-read, I see that as a ridiculously stupid statement. Of course life is painful. It is nonsense to say that is my ‘opinion’. It is a fact. In spite of the stupidity of the statement, I’m leaving it there and telling you this: What I meant to say was that I am ‘of the mindset’ that life is going to be painful. Which is similar to having an opinion, but different…somehow…. Anyway, let’s get on with what I was attempting to convey here; something about my somewhat fatalistic approach to life…)

I tell myself not to be surprised when challenges come or when ‘bad things’ happen, because life is hard. Things fall apart. People are easily broken, and mostly messy.

That’s not to say that I walk around all doom and gloom; I don’t. I’m generally happy and optimistic and I believe the best about darn nearly everything and everybody. I am often full of joy and mostly content.

But life is life. We are born shrieking, out of pain, and although our trajectory be ragged at times, we are pretty much headed inevitably towards death. So it goes.

I try to keep my expectations realistic. Everybody suffers. I look around and see the pain that friends have endured and understand that there is no comparison, no escape, and no sense in pushing it all away. I consider the hurt I have felt in my own life; I remember. I know that strangers all over the world are suffering in ways I cannot even imagine. The best we can do, mostly, is be present in that reality; to offer aid when we can, and to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.


I finished watching ‘The OA’ tonight; a Netflix series that I found quite compelling, very odd, and strangely beautiful. My viewing stretched out over a couple of months, as I ended up contemplating the story carefully in between episodes. I didn’t think about it a lot, but I thought about it some, and I did some reading about the back story and the creators. The dramatic premise (mad scientist, kidnapped laboratory subjects for his experiments, etc.) was a little much at times, but the exploration of life beyond this one – the ‘afterlife’ – was an interesting bit of imagination.  The character development is fascinating and the tale itself is fantastical…and it had me thinking, maybe…just maybe? 

It’s fiction; it’s entertainment. But the best creative work does more than occupy an hour or two; artistic endeavors that leave me mulling life and death and people and relationships and eternity – well, that’s the stuff that’s worth my time. ‘The OA’ didn’t change my theology or alter my beliefs about Life and Death, but it certainly made me think about all of the above – along with the power of our imagination and what’s behind – or in front of – a good story.


I also finished a Wallace Stegner book this week; Crossing to Safety drug me back into the 1940’s and thrust me into the life of two couples and their life-long relationship with one another. Those four people became real to me over the course of this novel, in a way that has tucked them into my memory like some long-lost cousins. It’s uncanny, the power of words to make you believe and understand and care about people who are actually fiction. But they live in my head now, in my heart, in my understanding of humanity.

I am thinking about pain and life and death in the context of these two fictional bits of art and entertainment because it happens to be where I sit on this Friday night. My heart is content, with positive input from all directions: Work, spiritual life, future plans, learning, children, husband, family, friends. There is the sweet sense that all, in this particular moment, is well; that sense is deeply satisfying. And yet I know that this sweet spot will not last. This is not the end-all, be-all for life. This is not what I am striving for.

And that’s the thought that strikes me tonight, brought on by the gift of one daughter’s art and inspiration and the heartfelt words of another. I am soaking in the gentle peace of this moment, this Sabbath evening with my son and his friend slipping into sleep on one side of the house, my beloved husband – my person, as I kept telling him last night – snoring gently on the other. The encouraging words of a friend are in my ear from a late afternoon phone call – words that are leading me into a new field of study and a step of faith-filled risk. In this moment, all is well; and all will be well. I say that, all the while confident that there will be pain and loss and darker days around the corner, but I believe life is meant to be looked upon with expectation and hope, fueled by grace and mercy that is not of our making.

Hence, all will be well.

This is a deeply rooted part of my faith, and I have yet to see which comes first – the chicken or the egg? The faith that mercy is true and good and will appear as needed? Or the mercy that exists as sure and solid as granite, giving birth to faith?

Whichever is primary, they are the bones of my life. And it is in that spirit – as much as it is in the strength of my stance as a strong woman, born of a strong woman, grandmothered by a strong woman, mother of three strong women – that I persist.

Life is hard. Nobody owes you anything. You are loved anyway – deeply, madly, surely. Persist.

Life will be painful, and pain-filled. You will mourn. Your heart will ache. Persist.

You will be shushed and silenced; you will meet resistance. Your joints will stiffen and you will be filled with fear. Persist.

You will live; you will die.

Nevertheless, persist.

For all the moments in between, all the bits and pieces of mercy and grace that will come to you in the open hands and outstretched arms of your brothers and sisters (and yours sons and daughters), persist. For all who will speak healing into your brokenness and comfort to your grief – persist.

And see that all is well, and all will be well.

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You can purchase a copy of this beautiful print from Moon River Print Co; that’s my daughter. 

This Should Not Be Happening

 

Two people I loved died last week. Both lived in Texas, in or around the Dallas / Fort Worth metroplex, where I went to high school and where my parents lived for over 20 years.

Both deaths were sudden and unexpected. The news came to me, in both cases, via a text message. In both cases, I whispered No. No. No no no no no no no….. I choked and tears flowed.

We push against the news of death, as if our desire to make it not-be-true might actually carry some weight. What else is there to say, but to shout No! To cry out a denial, to protest that This should not be happening?

My nephew by marriage – my kids’ cousin, just a few months older than my son Daniel – passed from this life to the next, the second chapter in a horrific story of loss. His older brother lost his life in a car accident a little over two years ago, and Brendon’s heart never mended. He lost his way, and his efforts to numb the pain led to an ending that broke all our hearts all over again. His twenty-one years were far too short. If you are the praying sort, you might remember his strong mama and his tender-hearted daddy, whose legs have little strength to stand after losing their boys. This should not be happening.

My friend and mentor, Jeff – a ‘door holder’ in my life who received an entire blog post in his honor – fell last weekend, for reasons unknown, and the subsequent injury took his life. Here was almost 70 years of family and love and music and business and travel and pride and joy; but the loss was still shocking and painful. This should not be happening. 

I traveled to Texas to attend both funerals. My head was spinning. There to honor the lives and the families of those who had died, I also encountered other sorts of loss along the way that were personal and deeply felt. I came to understand, as I drove the 90 miles back and forth from Tolar to Grand Prairie, from Dallas to Granbury, just how disjointed and disconnected my life had been. There seemed to be few points of connection between the girl who went to high school smack dab in the middle of the metroplex and the one who moved to a small town to teach K-12 music. While in Grand Prairie, I talked with folks who’d been settled in the area for most of the past 40 years. They stayed home, they stayed connected. While in Tolar at Brendon’s funeral, I talked with men and women who were students there when I was teaching; now grown, with grown children of their own, they were still tied to the community and the town. They stayed home, they stayed connected.

I looked at my own life and realized that there was precious little staying home anywhere. These past 12 years that I have lived in Powhatan consist of my longest tenure anywhere in my life, other than my first 13 years in Pennsylvania (and I’ll pass that record soon). I’ve traded communities and friendships every few years; I’ve planted weak, shallow roots that have often grown quickly faded blooms and then been left to die, abandoned in search of better soil.

I’ve had very little roots, it seems. And yet there is this: I have had a sense of place and I’ve invested in people wherever I have gone; and so going back to Texas brought a certain sense of grounding to my soul in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It was, I think, a recognition of what it meant to come ‘home’ to a place that only bore that title for a limited time, with limited results. And whether or not the streets were familiar, even if I was struck by how much had changed, it was easy to find a few things to cling to, and to take away great gifts of remembrance. Mostly in the people.

There is a family, joined by grief, imperfect and dysfunctional. Mine is not the only divorce that has happened, but most of us gather; we come back, to do what we can to honor loss, to be present. We were family at one time; that counts for something. My kids share the same blood; there is connection there. We sing the songs of sorrow, we listen to the proclamation of hope in eternity, we embrace one another, we follow the ritual. We look and see a bit of our history in each other, glimpsing the passage of time in a more dramatic fashion than that which comes in day-t0-day living. We agree that this should not be happening, and we grieve. The grief washes over us all in waves, and we ride it, unsteady, together.

There is friendship – memories of school days, long ago. There is the history of friendship, mentorship; teaching and learning and a communal passion for music that soars and sings of secrets and mysteries beyond this life. Shared reminders: ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right’; challenges to ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ The snarky comments about the soprano section. Music, sung fresh, new, in real time – carrying the weight of a lifetime; nostalgia, notes and rhythms taught and internalized by 17-year-olds who had little idea what a lifetime meant.

The Lord bless you and keep you…the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace…

I sat through two funerals last week. In one, I played and sang music; in the other, I absorbed music. In both cases, I was fully engaged.

I wore the same black dress to each service. I was the same person, looking at a history of the different person I have been over the half-century of life I have lived. The disparate, disjointed bits and pieces came together in an odd fashion.

I went to two funerals last week. In being present to honor and respect the lives lived – even if, deep within the fault lines of my soul I continued to whisper this should not have happened – I found a small, slight glimmer of truth about my own life. I was present for myself; for my own history, the different places I have been, the different lives I have tried on like costumes in a photo booth. I inhabited all those places and found them filled with grace, for the girl I was, and for the woman I have become.

I found myself thinking this thought as I hovered over my journal this morning, pen in hand:

Out of death comes life.

I am not sure what I mean by that, exactly. But is there any other hope we might hold within our loss? Is there anything else we might strive to catch hold of, as our eyes turn towards the heavens?

 

 

Simple Gospel

I have played piano, essentially, all my life. Lessons began in second grade and I just kept playing. My university degree is in music, and my professional career has revolved around education and performance and music-related ministry.

I teach privately, which is immensely rewarding.

And I love to hear the people sing.

If you know my current vocation and the way in which we do large church gatherings, you might find that hard to believe. Although my focus has been on the pastoral side of ministry over the past several years, I’m still deeply committed to our musical expression each week; and that expression is contemporary, for sure. Our  musical expression is pretty much rock and roll church, and what you usually can’t hear is the people singing.  Modern evangelical, contemporary-Christian leaning in style and music; it suits our model; it reflects our mission, and we try to choose music for our gatherings that has integrity in every way: Missional, theological, spiritual, musical.

But it’s loud. At first glance it might seem performance-oriented – it is not designed to maximize the experience of hearing a crowd of people sing – at least not like in a traditional church setting or a choral venue. Again, it’s a missional thing; over a longer conversation (or in a different blog post), I could unpack our choices. For now, I’ll just acknowledge that what I’m about to share personally doesn’t seem to line up with where I hang my hat vocationally; I admit to some discrepancy.

Where my heart beats loudest in a musical gathering is in those places where there is little amplification, where instrumentation is sparse, and where what matters most is the people, singing. We occasionally have opportunities to stand around the piano and sing; sometimes before Wednesday night small groups, while Christmas caroling, in staff meetings. In those situations, somebody always makes a comment like, Oh, you don’t want to hear ME sing!! or Y’all will cover your ears if I start singing! and I am always quick to say, Oh, no you don’t – don’t say that. EVERYBODY can sing! Everybody can make a joyful noise! 

And I really believe that.

And it’s truly what I love to hear most in music.

My cousin’s daughter recently performed with a Middle School Honor Choir in Nebraska; Facebook videos showed snippets of focused, tuned, passionate, expressive and accurate musical interpretation. It was a beautiful thing, all those kids singing together. I loved it.

When the Cubs were in the World Series, every game held an extra bonus – everybody singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game with gusto and passion and a lack of inhibition. I didn’t watch the games, but I sought out the seventh inning singing segment of each game. I loved it.

Our Christmas Eve service ended with an a cappella version of Silent Night that still stirs my heart, buried in my aural memory. Five hundred of us, singing together.

Beautiful.

That’s the kind of singing that moves me. And that’s the kind of singing we don’t always hear at our church, it seems. Truth be told, we’ve created that environment. We have incredibly talented and gifted musicians facilitating – or “leading” – worship every week. It seems as thought we elevate the talented and set the bar fairly high and expect everybody else to just watch. It’s true that we recognize musical gifts, and we give space for them to be utilized. But maybe we haven’t done a good job reminding everybody else that we all can sing. And we all should sing.

I’m thinking these thoughts because tomorrow, the snow is forcing us to have one combined service, rather than seven spread out over four campuses. I wasn’t scheduled toi-will-rejoice-in-the-simple-gospel-i-will-rejoice-in-you-lord play, but now I’m joining in with the band and I’ve been looking at a new song we have on tap for tomorrow. I ran through the chords and was reminded that it’s an incredibly simple song; the same four chords, in the same order, throughout the entire piece.

And the words are far from complicated; in fact, the song is titled Simple Gospel, and everything about the song is just that. Simple. Some might find it boring.

Which is, of course, the point; the simplicity, the lack of complication (not to be boring!)

I ran through the chords and sang a bit this evening and I found myself coming back to just one thought, time and time again. There’s only one thing I want when we introduce this song tomorrow; in fact, I think there is something representative here about what I want in general, as I contemplate all these changes in our culture, in my job, in our church, in our families.

I want to hear the people sing.

I hope that this song imprints itself quickly upon hearts and minds tomorrow morning – like it did with me the first time I heard it – and that the words fit easily into our mouths and that we find it easy to proclaim.

I want to hear the people sing.

I want to know you, Lord, like I know a friend
I want to know you, Lord

So I’m laying down all my religion
I’m laying down – I want to know you, Lord

I use to think that I could box you in
But I’m laying down – I want to know you, Lord

Lord, I’ve been told to be ashamed
Lord, I’ve been told I don’t measure up
Lord, I’ve been told I’m not good enough
But you’re here with me

I reach out and you find me in the dust
You say no amount of untruths can separate us

I will rejoice in the simple gospel – I will rejoice in you, Lord

Gifts

It’s a new year, and I kicked off piano lessons with my Tuesday evening students today. I asked them how their holidays went; I got the usual responses (“Great!”). My follow-up question was, Did you give any great gifts this year?

I like that question, even more than the What did Santa bring you? or What did you get? It comes from my kids, I think, and from our own experiences year after year.

Discovering this unique joy at Christmastime has been one of the most fulfilling, worthwhile surprises of my experience as a parent. Because my kids are many (five, with two spouses and one significant other), and because most of them are young and on tight budgets (i.e. BROKE), holiday gift exchanges often require a great deal of creativity. And because my kids are all creative in some way, they come up with some exceptional gifts for one another.

And for me.

The current life stage of every one of my kids is unique. Lots of limbo, changes, and transitions; the two oldest will move to new cities this coming year. The third is in the process of shaping a new life on the west coast. My eldest son is reexamining everything in a search for what direction he might head in the near future; my youngest is preparing to finish high school in another 18 months and contemplating higher education. And even as they look forward to the future, we all arrived at the Christmas holiday with a few bumps and bruises. It’s been a hard year in many ways.

But Christmas arrived, and the gifts were piled underneath the tree as everyone came home. On the 25th, after multiple cups of coffee and the arrival of The Grandparents, the gift exchange began.

We have a process, and we always follow it: The youngest goes first, giving out gifts one by one; those gifts are then opened, one by one (except for special circumstances), in order from youngest to oldest. So David hands out his gifts first, and then his siblings open them in birth order – one at a time. Daniel is next, and so on. The entire family operates this way; if you’re a guest here at Christmastime, we ask your age so that you fit into the order properly.

This year was extraordinary, and at the risk of sounding boastful, I’m going to highlight the gifts that I received from my children, because each of them moved me in a unique way that I’ll long remember. However, in case I don’t – remember, that is – here are pictures and stories.


David went first, as usual. When he got to Sydni in the opening order, he gave instructions: Syd and Mom open together. So we did, and a thin cardboard cover parted to reveal a map of the United States, dissected, with each state marked with delicate watercolor. Two states were identified; Syd was given the East Coast, with Virginia alone named among the states My gift was the West Coast, with California highlighted.

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This is a boy who somehow senses what it’s like to have half of your mother-heart on the other side of a vast prairie and majestic mountains. He knows, he sees, and he told us so. It cost him time and effort and all the care in the world, and it meant more than I can say.

This is also a boy who sketched – free-hand – a portrait of his grandfather’s favorite artist for his gift.

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I think he’s incredibly talented. (That’s also a shot of the back of Syd’s calendar for Moon River Print Co.)

Daniel handed out his gifts and went through the normal sibling order. He also gave Tony a toilet seat (a super high-quality one!), but that’s another story… When it came time for my gift, he sat beside me and handed me a piece of paper. I opened it to read rhyming verse; here’s an excerpt:

I want you to know how much you mean to me

And how you’ve shown me Grace Every Day

No present to put in your hands, there’s no words I could say

Sometimes I don’t know who I should try to be

But with you by my side to make sure my day was alright

I’ll make it through everything, Mom – don’t worry, I’ll be just fine

You’ve done so much for me

Yeah, it’s meant so much to me

I finished reading, silently, and I looked up at him sitting beside me. He had a goofy grin on his face and I had tears in my eyes. He was holding out his forearm, which was wrapped tightly in tissue paper. Unwrap this, Mom. So I did, and I found the words that have been the heartbeat of my collection of words and stories and moments as I’ve tried to make sense of this life in the past eleven years; the words that have come to define how I hope to live each moment. grace every day, in my handwriting, tattooed on his arm.

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That’s a forever thing, and I am not sure what I think about tattoos, but I am sure of how my son spoke to me with this gift, and I was profoundly moved. I still am; my heart cannot quite hold all the love and hope I feel for him as he works through this season of his life – but I can say that he must know for sure that I am for him, and that is a great and sacred thing.

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Sydni had mentioned that she was breaking with tradition and doing something new this year, and so as she handed out cards to every family member, I knew she was excited – and a little nervous. We all opened simultaneously, and each of us found a unique quote, done in her tasteful, exquisite style – a beautiful font, gorgeous names on the packing. We opened and oohed and aaahhed, and then she explained. I took all the money I would have spent on gifts for everyone and made a donation to Save the Children. Your gifts combine together to completely fund a medical clinic. We were all collectively so proud of her – and so touched by her generosity. It was different; and incredibly beautiful.

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Shannon had asked if I ever wanted an actual book of photos from her wedding some months ago, and so I wasn’t completely surprised by what I found when I opened her gift. However, I was completely taken aback when I actually took the time to thumb through the pages. So much had happened that day, and I had never been able to sort through the thousands of pictures. Even two years later, the gift of remembering the joy and excitement of our first backyard wedding was an absolutely perfect gift.

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Sarah is known for always spending way too much money on incredibly awesome and expensive gifts for everyone; but this year, she dialed everything back a notch, and for that alone, I was so excited and thrilled and happy. Seeing your kids grow up and learn restraint – well, there’s not a better gift than that. She gave me a box of very cool pampering, self-care things, and within each little sample was evidence that she sees me and she knows me, and that she cares. My girls know I’m not much in the make up and facial department; they share with me and care for me and it is an expression of love.

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There were other gifts given and received, and I’m grateful for each of them. But I looked at the bounty in my corner after the chaos ended and realized the way my children demonstrate the width and depth of the blessings of God through their generosity. My kids have become men and women who value others; and they know how to express that value in a way that matters. I couldn’t be more grateful, more honored, more in awe of grace.

And I can’t wait til next year.

Something’s Coming

We are staying inside tonight as 2016 ends; no New Year’s revelry for us, unless you count Tony’s exquisite repair of my beaded wooden prayer bracelet. That was a rockin’ good time.

Seriously. Do you know how awesome it is to be married to a man who can fix anything?

It’s awesome.

It seems necessary to recognize this turn of the page this evening; more so than in year’s past, I feel an obligation to acknowledge what was and look toward what is to come. It’s the chaos and tumult of the year, of course; it’s all that was lost, and all that has changed.

But it’s also the anticipation of something new, something unseen. In West Side Story, the arc of the entire plot line is set early on with “Something’s Coming”, a almost-perfect bit of dramatic songwriting. I know this song by heart, for two distinct reasons. One is Barbra Streisand’s 1985 Broadway album, which fueled my post-college passion for something to bridge the bizarre triangulation between Pat Metheny, Little Feat and Barry Manilow (among others). My taste ran eclectic and varied.broadwayyears

Anyway, Barbra sang the crap out of this song, and I belted it (the entire album in fact) every chance I got.

And I knew “Something’s Coming” well because while I lived in the Dominican Republic, we staged a performance of West Side Story in the Altos de Chavon Amphitheater – a show cribbed together with all the resources we could muster in that third-world country. I played the entire orchestral score on piano; we threw together a script gleaned from repeated viewings of the VHS tape of the show; costumes were homemade and spectacular. The kids were amazing – utterly amazing.

It was a wild, risky undertaking; at 24, I believed in this crazy idea and I threw all my energy into making it happen.

And it did.

/ / / /

Two things tug at my thoughts this evening; one comes as I turn my head, straining to see the girl I was at 24. Try as I might, I can’t quite connect…but I know what she did. I know how she lived. With what I know now about all that was to come, I’m amazed and impressed by her gall, her willingness to believe that anything could happen.

It did.

And as I squint my eyes to try to catch a glimpse of that girl, I see – right in front of me – my four eldest offspring, all circling that same age, all taking risks and living large and dreaming big. From a maternal perspective, I’m mostly cautious: Don’t go too far! Be careful! Take your time! Move slowly!

But secretly, I hope they run. I hope they try, and fail, and succeed, and struggle, and weep, and celebrate. I may never say that to their face – the maternal instinct looms large and leans, always, towards protection – but I hope deep inside of them they hear that call -and that they respond.

Could be – who knows? / There’s something due any day / I will know right away / soon as it shows

The second thing tugging – twisting, churning, yearning – is what might be coming for this second half of my own life. What risks lie ahead? Am I willing to embrace them? How much of that wild-eyed, faith-filled 24-year old is still within me – the one who believed anything could happen? How loudly does safety ring in the melodies I hear these days?

Could it be? Yes it could – something’s coming, something good / If I can wait…

I have a scripture for the New Year. I have this song. I am mulling this ‘choose a word’ business; having chosen one fairly definitively, I now hear another syllable on the raspy sounds of each breath I take, and I think I know what I have to do about that…

The air is humming….and something great is coming…

Come on, Twenty Seventeen. Let’s do this.

Ask Where The Good Way Is And Walk In It

I will tell you straight up that I don’t have a thing for shoes. But then I consider how my husband would react to that statement, and I remember that I have three times as many shoes as he does. img_3165

Everything is a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

Shoes are utilitarian items, certainly. So when I tell you that I am not materialistic and that I don’t have a thing for shoes, what I mean is that I don’t fit the stereotype of women who spend thousands of dollars on high-heeled Manolo Blahniks (I even had to google that brand, because I HAVE NO IDEA). I do have more shoes than my husband, but what happens between me and shoes is more about dashed expectations and a search for identity.

Maybe I do have a thing for shoes. It’s just different.

I purchase shoes two or three times a year, and when I do, I’m always looking for something far beyond appearance. Lately, qualifications for purchases are about support for my arches and comfort. The floor of my closet is littered with disappointment.

All that to say this: I’m not the kind of woman who falls in love with high-heeled, glamorous shoes and spends lots of money filling my closet with aforementioned fancy shoes. I have tennis shoes and flats and boots and only one or two pairs with anything that resembles a heel.

You may wonder where I’m going with this; let me make an effort to unpack something that happened earlier this week, a moment that has caused The Great Shoe Contemplation of 2016. 

We were off celebrating our anniversary, my beloved husband and I. We did dinner and a night out, an overnight in the place where we married and spent our first night together. We headed northwest, in our annual pilgrimage to Ohio to ring in the new year with his side of the family.

And this year, we took our time, stopping to shop along the way, filling our bags with Christmas gifts we had waited to purchase until we were on our way to the recipients. We were at an outlet in Hagerstown when we saw a Clarks shoe store.

I love Clarks, I said. I have a pair. They’re comfortable. And your mom loves Clarks.

As we opened the door, I thought to myself This is ridiculous; I don’t need shoes. Because truly, I don’t; I’d purchased two pair in October and Tony bought me a pair of Adidas for my birthday in May. I don’t need more shoes.

But we ventured inside anyway. And then it happened.

(Cue dramatic music, the kind you hear when the boy sees the girl for the first time and knows that his destiny has arrived, that he will love her forever, that his future is sealed…)

img_3168 I saw these shoes, and that music played somewhere deep in my soul, and I recognized my destiny.

And I can’t believe I wrote those words about a pair of shoes, but I’m being honest. It’s ridiculous, but it’s the truth.

Something about the asymmetrical stitching and the worn leather and the thick laces and the downright, almost-ugly appeal of these simple shoes spoke to me. I picked them up and felt some long-ago stirring of the me that was 12 years old, coming of age in rural Pennsylvania, resonating with Carole King and Godspell and the 100 acres of wooded wonderland behind our house. These shoes looked like someone I’d lost, someone trailing far behind this life I lead at 53, juggling kids and career and family and obligations and health and the ever-present desire to matter.

I can’t tell you more than that; I don’t know. It’s simultaneously the dumbest thing ever and the power of a symbol, an icon, a well-crafted, utilitarian tool. It’s an invitation – almost a demand – to move back into the comfort of my skin, away from invisible pressure to shop at Loft and buy a well-made fitted blazer with some sensible heels. To slip again into flannel shirts and 501s, to put away the flat iron and stop trying on personas that I think might match my calling.

I’m at this interesting turning point, a slowing of sorts; a recalibration. Something is changing in me – I feel it, grinding surely and steadily. (And I’m wearing flannel shirts a good bit these days.) The fear and exhaustion is ebbing away and so my motion is settled; I am expectant, open. Not fearful or fear-filled. So perhaps this leather called to me so strongly because I’m leaning back into what I dreamed and dared in my adolescent soul.

I don’t know for sure; I only know that if I walked away from that store without those shoes, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. Again – that sounds like the dumbest thing ever; but it’s the truth. So I stood, looking at those shoes and tallying up the amount of money we’d spent in the past 48 hours, considering the gifts I’d just received at Christmas and the fact that I didn’t need another pair of shoes.

I picked up the right shoe; I slipped out of my boot and wriggled my foot into the clutch of the leather, wondering if this would be a size 7 that would be too small.

It was not too small; it fit, perfectly. I slipped out of the other boot and had both shoes on in no time flat, and a smile slid across my face. My adolescent self was affirmed as I looked at my feet and saw something that felt right.

I scooted down three aisles and found my husband.

Look, I said, Look at these shoes.

I was beaming and so he knew enough to look back at me without judgement. You like those? he said.

Yes. Yes. I know…you might think they are ugly. But I don’t know; there’s something about them…

He smiled. Okay. You want to get them? 

My face fell and I said, I don’t need another pair of shoes.

Well, how much are they? 

Like, $70 or something. Too much.

The next thing I knew, he said, There’s a sale – buy one, get one half off…and I like these… He held up a pair of shoes that I wasn’t really sure he liked because they looked like nothing he’d ever bought before, but he said, You have to get those, because if you don’t, I’ll have to pay full price for these.

He waved his shoes around, and that’s what love looks like, I thought – not for the first time – and so we took our boxes to the counter and told the guy we were celebrating our anniversary with shoes and he said, You’re a great couple and I asked for any deals he might have and he said Sorry, only the BOGO, but that’s a great shoe you’ve chosen there, and you ought to see the ones I put on hold for myself in the back, and the the next thing we know he’s scooted back to the store room to show us a pair of orange Wallabees and we ooo and ahhh over those and he rings us up and says, I gave you a discount, and we paid less for two pair of shoes than the cost of one pair because he was feeling generous or the universe wanted me to have those shoes.

Or something.

My eyes filled with tears right there at the register.

And now I have these leather simple brown shoes, and I’ve worn them every day since. I got dressed this morning and said, Baby – you know what? I GET TO WEAR MY SHOES AGAIN TODAY!!!

And I am filled with joy, inexplicable joy, and I really don’t get it. Shouldn’t I have some shame, being so filled with happiness because of a pair of shoes? Isn’t that materialistic and ridiculous and markedly unspiritual?

Perhaps.

But I am being gentle with myself, and recognizing that there are layers and layers underneath all emotions, and my primal, instinctual reaction to a pair of shoes is probably – strike that, definitely – about more than I realize at the moment. So I am simply going to go with it.

I’m going to relax and lean into these words from the prophet Jeremiah that are guiding me into the coming year.

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Something good is going on here; I feel it.

And I really like my shoes.

Advent: Courage

We have a  wild streak in our family.

That is a nice way to put it; the truth is, a strain of mental illness has wrapped itself around my family for several generations. Depression, mania; maybe some schizophrenia. The more I learn about mental illness, the more I realize just how close so many of us are to the ragged edge of what we regard as ‘normal’. My daughter is living with a bipolar diagnosis; I’ve told some of her story here (and here; she blogs about her own journey here.) We continue to learn about depression and mania, and she continues to live with fierce courage.

But it’s not just my family.

I am no longer surprised by how many folks I talk to every week who are living with mental illness in themselves, or negotiating a relationship with a loved one who is unwell. Parents shaken to their core by a new diagnosis. Friends at a loss to help. All facing each challenge with courage.

I have friends who have seen the disease do its worst and end the life of someone they loved. Courage in its rawest, most primal incarnation somehow provides breath in their lungs and blood through their veins as they get through each day, each night, another day, another night…

It is a vicious, powerful entity; this thing we call mental illness, this chemical manipulation of the brain that distorts reality and changes the essence of who we are. We say we ‘battle’ and ‘struggle’ and ‘fight’, all the while entangled in the very definition of our self, our husband, our daughter. Our son. How do you ‘do battle’ with brain chemistry gone awry when all you see is the face of someone you love? How do you fight against yourself?

It is no easy task. And of all the things I know and can strive to fix or make better, living with mental illness involves a lot of gritting your teeth, crying, calling for help, talking through it all just to process, crying some more, apologizing, wondering what you should have done differently, and then crying again. And repeat.

Ultimately, you make peace with what life has dealt you, and you take a deep breath and summon up courage that you never suspected you’d need, let alone thought you might possess.

And you live.

NAMI does good work. bpHope offers excellent resources. I am thinking hard about what we can do in our own community to facilitate conversation, to offer opportunities for folks to perhaps just sit in a circle and acknowledge that this is the truth of our life, and this is hard, and to simply be present.

It’s not much, and it doesn’t really fix anything. But sometimes that’s all you can do; you show up, and you live.

My daughter is an artist, and she has designed a calendar this year. It is a tribute to those whose days are often as dark as their nights. It is dedicated to her friend who could not find rescue as he fought this disease.

It is for all of us who need to be reminded of the light.

Visit Moon River Print Co to see the pages of this year’s calendar and to order. Sydni will donate 20% of all profit to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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