What Place or People Made You Who You Are?

“What place or people made you who you are?

What place or people gave you your fundamental values and shaped the way you see the world?

A number of years ago when I was worried about one of my children, a wise friend said to me “Every chance you can, remind them who they are.” I remember my silence as I thought about what she had said. It was so simple, but so profoundly helpful.

Remind them who they are. Remind them that they belong to a bigger story. Remind them that they are beloved. Remind them of laughter, of fights, of homes and houses, of moments. Remind them.

I’m thinking about that on this Friday morning. Fall is slowly arriving in our area, evident in the chilly air that greets me each morning. Soon we will see the reds and golds that make this area famous for its leaf peeping. apple picking, and cider donuts washed down with hot apple cider.

I’m in a place of needing to remember what shaped me, remember the stories passed down to me, remember the faith of my father and mother, remember who I am, remember that his mercy indeed echoes down through the generations.

Questions of belonging and identity come throughout life in many shapes and forms. When we are younger, they cause more crisis, more angst. When we’re older, it’s more like a subtle despair and deep longing. We silently chastise ourselves for what we feel is the immaturity of our struggle. We try and push it off on other things like our jobs, our friendships, our churches. But a look in the mirror reveals a more difficult truth. And when, as my friend Liz Rice says, our “umbilical cord(s) of identity”* stretch out to cities, countries, and people who are far away or no longer exist, the result can be a profound sense of loss.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to pause, give thanks and move on to the next right thing. Focusing on the losses has the defeating effect of creating more loss. The older we get, the more unbecoming it is to wallow in self pity or despair. Besides, there are walks to be taken, coffee to be savored, sweet rolls to be made, and pedicures to be had. Wallowing won’t give me any of those beautiful gifts.

And so today I pause and I think about those people and places that have shaped me, that have helped me shape my values, my loves, my longings, and the way I see the world.

*Liz Rice in Rituals of Separation

A Quote, A Book, A Thought or Two

A Quote:

“But let me tell you something about the love of God, even as we muddle through life on this earth. He is never constrained by our decisions. In fact, perfect decisions, if such a thing were possible, might lull us into thinking that we had sufficient wisdom. Imperfect decisions on the other hand, which is to say human decisions, allow for the possibility of grace, this thing that always reminds of how freely, how extravagantly God loves.”

Jen Pollock Michel – Monday Newsletter*

This quote arrived in my inbox under the heading “Grace for imperfect decisions.” It was a Monday morning gift, and I hope as you read this it will be the same for you. I have sometimes had paralysis around decision making. What if it’s the wrong decision? What will I learn later that I don’t know now, perhaps wishing to have made a different choice, a different decision? What has helped me has been my conversations with others around decision making. I’ve had dozens of conversations around the idea that many decisions in life are not about right or wrong, about morality or someone getting hurt. Rather, they are about taking what we know at the time and moving forward in the next right thing. This quote reminds me that grace covers all of the imperfect deciding moments.

A Book:

One of the gifts that I have been given this past year is a project connected with a recovery community in Southeast Massachusetts. The work has included starting a community advisory board for an organization that does wholistic and comprehensive work with those who struggle with addiction. The project was to create a cookbook that would connect cooking with the recovery journey. Like recovery itself, collectively creating the cookbook was a slow process. But the result is a beautiful book called One Cup at a Time: Recipes for Recovery that contains stories and recipes from all over the world.

I wrote this in the book:

One Cup at a Time: Recipes for Recovery is a community project that focuses on food, community, and recovery. Through these recipes and stories, we want to take you on a journey – a journey that is not a single story, but a collection of lives and experiences, of food and family, of resilience and recovery. Through stories we will explore the courage it takes to move into recovery; through food we will savor the tastes and traditions that honor each person’s journey.

Cooking is not about one ingredient or one recipe. It’s about a series of steps: a cup of this, a teaspoon of that, stir this, and mix that. It takes time, thought, and care. Just as in cooking, recovery does not have only one recipe for success. Instead, recovery is about taking one step at a time….

We invite you to the project. Read. Taste. Savor. And through it, become someone who can walk alongside those in recovery.

I’m not telling you recovery is going to be easy. I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.

Anonymous

What an honor it has been to do this work! In truth, there were times when I couldn’t imagine that the project would come together. Isn’t that true of so many things? In the middle we can’t imagine what the end will look like. We can’t imagine healing when physical or emotional pain is so strong. We can’t imagine a resolution to a conflict when we feel anger every time we think about the person. We can’t imagine joy when sorrow is so overwhelming. We can’t imagine redemption when all around us is decay. And yet – the cookbook, arguably a human project that will not change the world, is complete – a finished product that is beautiful and useful. And though it won’t change the world, the impact on those who contributed is unquantifiable.

The book is for sale on Amazon and all proceeds go to the recovery community. It is expensive, but it is full color and gorgeous. You won’t be disappointed if you purchase this for yourself or a friend.

A Thought or Two: What I’m dreaming, deciding, watching, and reading….

I had a dream the other night that it rained and rained and rained and rained. Then it rained some more. We are in a drought here in Massachusetts, the grass all around as brown as the desert. The dream wasn’t just about the weather – it was also about my heart. I’m in a drought and longing for the refreshment of rain on my soul. Amazingly, yesterday it rained all day! It gives me hope that the rain for my soul is a heartbeat away.

Speaking of grace for imperfect decisions, I made the decision to leave my 9-5 job and go into consulting full time. It is a good decision, but not without its risks. One of the reasons that I did this is that I want more time to write. I have some writing projects that have I have been unable to get to because of a full-time job.

I’ve watched two excellent movies that I want to recommend. The first – 13 Lives – is about the true story of the Thai soccer boys and their coach trapped in a cave in the Chiang Rai region of Thailand in 2018. I had to stop the film several times while I watched it as the intensity does not let up. What I appreciate about that intensity is that the creators help you feel a fraction of the tension the parents, boys, divers, and all involved felt. It is a profoundly moving film. The courage, the teamwork, the thinking way outside of the box, the faith it took – there are no words left to describe this film. If that sounds too intense – and I don’t exaggerate this – then watch The Bookshop, the story of a widow who opens a bookstore on a coastal town in England. It is a lovely story with an ending that I wouldn’t choose.

I’ve just finished Apeirogon – an exceptional story of the friendship between a Palestinian and an Israeli, based on both of them losing a daughter to the conflict and struggling to find and seek peace despite the pain. “It struck him early on that people were afraid of the enemy because they were terrified that their lives might get diluted, that they might lose themselves in the tangle of knowing each other.” p 124

And that’s a wrap. I appreciate you. I appreciate that you read my words when there are so many millions of others to read. I will never have a large space in our wide world, but I love my small space and want to steward it well.

I’ll end with words from the late Frederick Buechner, a writer that I have quoted before, with the encouragement to all of us that good words last. These words are for us – the nomads, the travelers, the ones who sit a spell, and then travel forward.

You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.

Frederick Buechner

*I subscribe to Jen Pollock Michel’s newsletter and appreciate her thoughtful reflections and wisdom. If you don’t know Jen’s writing, then I’m delighted to introduce you to her. Her book, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home is a book for nomads and travelers – people like you and me. She has several other books as well, but this one in particular resonates with me.

Post Traumatic Growth through Re-Storying

In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Boston is immersed in a heat wave. We lazily walk around in the evenings, speaking “weather” to neighbors. The conversations go like this “Wow! It’s hot!” “It sure is!” “Keeping cool?” “Trying to.” Then we limply smile and amble off. Of course, to my Kurdish, Pakistani, and Egyptian friends, 95F (35 C) is not hot. 120F or 49C is hot. And yes, there is much truth to that. But, let us wallow in our heat wave. I, for one, love it. All I can think is how much better it is to be hot than to be cold.

It was fascinating to see the response to my post on TCKs and Post Traumatic Growth. There were emails, texts, and messages that showed much interest in hearing more. One of the biggest things that came out of conversations that I had with people is the importance of story or narrative in post traumatic growth.

As a reminder, Post Traumatic Growth, or PTG is about “positive psychological changes experienced as the result of the struggle with major life crises or traumatic events.” So what does trauma do? It shakes our world, it confuses our lives, and it challenges our worldview. When we face trauma, the story we have been living is massively impacted. Our stories change. Our trajectory changes. Life takes on a narrative of before and after – before the earthquake, after the earthquake. Before the Twin Towers fell; after the Twin Towers fell. Before a death; after a death. These are, to use the earthquake analogy, tectonic plate-shifting events. When the losses have been so great, how do we not live within them? How do we move into new growth?

We learn to “re-story.” As humans we are wired for narratives. Most of us are more likely to remember the story than the chart, the illustration than the data. Whether we are the story teller or the audience, we make meaning out of stories. And when trauma has altered our stories, we fare best when we can find meaning within it. This doesn’t mean that we wish the tragedy and trauma hadn’t happened. I would give anything to have not experienced some of the stories I’ve lived through. But I don’t have that choice. The trauma happened. Now it’s about what I do with it.

Into these narratives of loss and trauma comes the idea of re-storying them by incorporating the loss into the new story. This is not about sugar coating the past; rather it is about self-reflection and coming to terms with how we have grown and things we have learned through pain. Research shows that when someone reflects on painful memories and experiences with the goal of making meaning out of them, they gain wisdom. This wisdom translates into making better decisions, more effective problem solving, and the ability to give better advice. This making of wisdom and gaining perspective is Post Traumatic Growth.

Joan Didion emphasizes this:

We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.

Joan Didion

Practically speaking, how do we do this? There are many articles and books that speak to this, but a June article by Arthur Brooks in The Atlantic called “Making the Baggage of Your Past Easier to Carry” gives some easy practical tips. The first is to keep a data base of postitive memories, the second is to practice gratitude, and the third one is this:

In your journal, reserve a section for painful experiences, writing them down right afterward. Leave two lines below each entry. After one month, return to the journal and write in the first blank line what you learned from that bad experience in the intervening period. After six months, fill in the second line with the positives that ultimately came from it. You will be amazed at how this exercise changes your perspective on your past.

I don’t know what your re-storying looks like. What I do know is that it isn’t about finding answers, because in truth, there are few if any. It is about finding meaning within the trauma, and that makes all the difference.

[Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash]

New Beginnings and the Seduction of Safety

I resigned from my job yesterday.

Yes – we are in the middle of a recession. Yes – it was on paper a good job. Yes – I need to pay bills.

And I also know that it was a good decision. As soon as I sent the letter, a backpack of burdens fell off my back. I didn’t know how heavy it was until it fell off.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, the poet John O’Donohue speaks to new beginnings in a fresh way, a way that I have never considered:

"In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground...." 

I first read the poem over a month ago and the words on playing with the “seduction of safety and the gray promises that sameness whispered…” began going through my mind on repeat. This was me. I knew I had outgrown this organization a long time ago, but I’m a sticker if nothing else. I never quit, even when perhaps I should.

So I stuck, and I gossiped and I whined and – well you get the picture. It has not been pretty nor has it been healthy. Writing and submitting my letter of resignation is an act of faith and an acknowledgement that leaving this position is an important step forward.

When I first began writing publicly, I relayed a poignant story that Sheila Walsh told of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in this retelling of the story and a child’s simple comment. The times that I would go farther except my backpack is too heavy – the things I carry too weighty. 

I love the story and I love the visual picture.

My resignation is my way of shedding the load that is keeping me back, an active way of saying “I can go farther without this heavy backpack.” With it, I step into a new place and I accept what comes.

There will be growing pains, of course. There will be times of fear and some self accusation. But right now, there is so much delight, there is peace, and there is so much grace.

Here’s to entering the “grace of new beginnings.”

You can read the entire poem here.

When You’re in the Middle of the Story – and You Want to Know the End

Several years ago I was in the middle of a riveting book. Every time I had a spare moment I would pick up the book and continue reading. My husband was traveling and so after I got my five children settled for the night, I got into my own bed and continued reading. The night got later and later as the book took on more and more suspense. I suddenly looked at the clock and it was three o’clock in the morning. I was stunned, but also faced with a dilemma: Do I go to bed? Do I keep on reading? Or….and this will stun many of you….do I skip forward and read the end?

Knowing that I may disappoint you, I will not tell you what I did. The bigger point is that sometimes we’re in the middle of the story, and we desperately want to know the end. Will the protagonist’s longing be fulfilled? Will the boy find the girl? Will the child be rescued? Will the villain be caught? This is what makes The Princess Bride such a delighful and longstanding movie favorite. Princess Buttercup, Wesley, the Villain, the Giant, Inigo Montoya….it’s all there and it is deeply satisfying because we get to see the end. Wesley’s words to Princess Buttercup “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” stay with us even after watching countless other movies.

The stories each of us live, sometimes caught up with the story of another, are a bit more complicated. We don’t always know the ending. We pray for healing only to watch someone die of cancer. We pray for peace only to see war after war after war. We pray for courage only to see ourselves cower in the moments that we most want to be brave. We pray for understanding only to be crushed by the weight of misunderstanding. We pray that we will have faith to believe in something bigger than ourselves only to doubt everytime life gets difficult. We pray for unity in churches and families only to watch as chasms grow in both. We long for a good ending, but in the dark of night we wonder “How will it all end?”

This week it is Palm Sunday in my faith tradition. Palm Sunday was an amazing story. It is the hero riding into Jerusalem. Right there in the middle of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” is a story of hope and joy. Things will change! Here he comes! We’ve watched what he can do and he will make everything right.

But a few days later, the unbelievable happened and all hopes were gone in a moment. A moment of denial, a moment of a mother’s tears, a moment of fear. They thought that this was the end of the story.

But it wasn’t. It was the middle of the story and it felt like the end.

We are much like that. It’s easy to feel despair, to sit in the middle of the story thinking it is the end. Because in this Christian faith, a faith that I describe as my oxygen, the Story is not yet over. It is ultimately a love story that continues to call us into believing the impossible, to hope in the unseen, and to live in the light of a bigger reality. It calls us follow that great cloud of witnesses that went before, It whispers in the night, and shouts in the daylight that there is more and that it matters.

As for faith and the middle of the story? I so often want to skip to the end, to forget the pages inbetween. To get resolution and redemption without all the pain that goes along with it. Here is the truth: Sometimes I believe, sometimes I doubt, always I pray “Help my unbelief.” Sometimes I love God and people, sometimes I do not; always I pray “Teach me to love more and judge less.” Sometimes I believe the story is not yet over, other times I believe that it has ended, that what I see is all there is; always I pray:

Help me to remember that the story is not over, that the story I see with limited vision continually points to a bigger story with an absolutely astonishing ending.

And since ultimately this Christian story is a love story, perhaps I too would do well to remember the words of Wesley in The Princess Bride “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

Lemon & Honey; Mystery & Grace

It’s Sunday afternoon – the time when I feel all the things. The time when I simultaneously cry tears of sorrow and yet still feel hope for the world; the time when liturgy – fresh in my mind from the morning – clothes me in a bubble of God’s love.

Though fog covered our area this morning, it has long since burned away replaced by afternoon sunshine pouring through our living room windows. My friend Brit recently introduced me to a song that I have on repeat. “Give us a vision of your love Lord, Let us fall in love with you again.” Bathed in sunlight and lyrics I can hardly imagine the tears that I cried just yesterday when I did not have a vision for anything other than despair. The truth is that in the comfort of my now it is easy for me to have a vision of God’s love. It’s tomorrow, Monday morning, when I will struggle.

We are two weeks into Lent, the rhythm of the season ordering our days and evenings. We rid ourselves of all things dairy and meat, taking up the physical Lenten fast. That is often the easier part of Lent. The more difficult part is the self examination and willingness to repent and learn.

I often feel like I have to hype myself up before Lent begins. I need to be in a place of strength and single purpose, ready to take on extra services, prayers, readings, fasting, and more. A couple of weeks ago when I sent my godmother a note that alluded to this, she responded “I think our desire to enter Lent with us being somehow in control is maybe not the way God wants us to start off.” Her words gave me hope. Isn’t the whole point that we are not in control? That we aren’t, God is, and we need to allow him control?

My love of comfort is ever before me. I love tea, sunlight, good coffee, books, comfortable pillows and chairs, bouquets of flowers, candlelight, large cinnamon rolls….the list goes on and on. These are all good gifts from a creative God who loves beauty and invites us into all things lovely. Still, I am well aware of when my love of comfort pushes against all things difficult.

Beyond the physical are, of course, those things that are far harder to talk about. The heart pieces that keep me up at night, and waking early. The deep pain over relationships that are fractured, the prayers for wisdom to do the right thing, the nervous feelings that take over and distract me.

Yet, Lent is for all these and more. It is the bitter and the sweet, the lemon and the honey. It is correction and love, repentance and forgiveness. It is tears of the heart and joy of the soul. It is muted colors and longer days. It is death and it is life. It is convicting and it is restoring. It is mystery and it is grace.

May you rest in mystery and grace this season, and may there be room in you heart for both lemon and honey.

Reminders of Death, Reminders of Life

It’s a late February morning as I type this. I am back in cold Boston after a respite in warm and sunny Southern California followed by warm, humid, and sunny Central Florida.

It is never easy coming back to the cold. I describe myself as solar powered, someone who functions best when sun is ever present and palm trees are in the background. Whether you have ever been to Boston or not, I think you all know that this is not my current reality. February in Boston is best described as cold, grey, and lifeless. There are no promising shoots viewable in the ground. It takes faith to believe that February will ever be over and that spring always comes.

Besides being cold, February will always be a month where I pause to remember my brother’s death. It was two years ago this year. Two years since a dreaded phone call and the grief that followed. Two years where we could have used his hard earned life wisdom. Two years ago I walked through the door of the permanent loss that death brings and am slowly learning to embrace an existence where longing is a breath away, and I accept sadness as a permanent fixture of the gladness. Yet, within this is a mystery, because it brings me closer to the One who understands death, pain, and sickness like no other. I don’t understand this mystery, and I never will. But I lean in. 

As I lean into the cold and grey reminders of death, I find reminders of life. These are like dewdrops of surprise after a dry spell and I find I must write them down. I am grateful for long walks in warm weather; for an extended family wedding where a new couple began life together, the sacrament of marriage once more publicly declared before family and friends; for foliage that takes your breath away; for a fresh mango sliced with lime juice and tajine; for a walk through a wildlife preservation, jumping and wary every time someone mentioned an alligator. Yes – and even for a return where today is 50 degrees and my home is filled with sunshine.

I recently heard a phrase in a song that continues to go through my mind. “So always remember to never forget'” and while it has nothing to do with February, the words are gold.

Reminders of death, reminders of life – May I always remember to never forget and may my February days be reminders of the mystery of both.

How about you? How is your February?