Cut me some slack

woman alone

(Written one night while wrestling with the anger that finds its way into the process of grief, either on its own or provoked by something someone said. Shared in an effort to help others better understand the grieving soul.)

Cut me some slack.

Don’t take it personally if I turn down your invitation to dinner or if I don’t seem enthused by your offer to spend the day together. Forgive me if I don’t return your phone call for a few days — okay, weeks.

I’m not breaking up with you.

I’m suffering with grief.

No, I’m not curled up in the fetal position, wiping away tears with the same tissue that I just used to blow my nose … or maybe I am.  I’m not wallowing in self-pity either, at least not every day.

I’m just learning to live with loss, and that takes time.

So, excuse me from my usual interest in your life. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. In fact, I think of you often. I’ve just had to narrow my world considerably, increase my margins, choose more carefully how and with whom I spend my time.

Those who are compelled to rescue others, please don’t go all co-dependent on me. Sure, I may be a little depressed from time to time, but no more than the average person visited by grief.

If it helps to understand, I am in full introvert mode. It drains me more than ever to be interacting with people. I require more solitude these days, so don’t expect too much from me.

Give me your patience. Be okay with the space between us.

Those of you prone to worry and drama, resist the urge to let your imagination run wild picturing me on a ledge looking down. After all, I live in a one-story home!

I’ll call for help if I need it. I promise.

I haven’t lost my faith, either. I still have hope. So don’t waste your time preaching to me about focusing on my many blessings or how grateful I should be that Paul is in heaven with Jesus. You mean well, I know, but it doesn’t sit well with me. Not now.

The truth is, you can’t shorten my time of grief. I won’t let you. This is a very personal walk that I must make on my own, in my own way and time.

If you want to help, cut me some slack and have faith that this, too, shall pass.

I’ll come around at some point.

Trust me. I will.

I am a literary worm!

book stack

I am not brilliant; not a genius.

I’ve not read all the classics of literature; not even close.

I couldn’t quote one sentence, let alone a lengthy passage from any of the ones I have read. 

How can I possibly think I could be a successful writer?

I am a literary worm!

Those were my thoughts as I walked away from one of the workshops I attended last month at the Writing for Your Life Conference in Holland, Michigan.

I spent the next hour talking myself off the ledge.

Don’t get me wrong. This was an excellent conference for spiritual writers.

writers conference attendees

From the intimately sized Advanced Writers Retreat held on Monday at Western Theological Seminary to the larger conference at Hope College with a dozen or so presenters on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was equal parts empowering and challenging.

At the advanced retreat, Sarah Arthur helped me to nail down my mission and vision as a writer and gave me tools to help with setting goals toward that end. Brian Allain talked to us about of the importance of building an online platform and gave me ideas for promoting my work.

To hear keynote speakers Barbara Brown Taylor and Rachel Held Evans at the main conference was worth the entrance fee alone.

In different ways, they both spoke about the importance of knowing who we are — and who we are not — and then, following the Spirit’s lead, writing truthfully from that perspective. I resonated with Taylor’s description of her writing as being her “primary spiritual practice,” and “a sacred art — work that is aimed at giving life and more freedom” to her readers, and I liked Held’s perspective that spiritual writing is an “inherently incarnational work,” the process of putting ‘flesh on the truth.'”

Then there were the workshops led by experienced editors and writers who offered practical tools to make me a better writer and underscored that keeping one’s “butt in chair” is the only way to get the work done.

You tend to fly high after these writers’ meccas. You can’t wait to get alone with your computer and start page one of your next, or first, book.

But it seems there’s always the one workshop that makes you doubt your potential for finding an audience. You wonder why you ever thought you were qualified to sit among the few, the chosen, the published.

It was the second from the last workshop that did it for me. My choice, I know, to fall to the floor and slither out of the classroom like a worm trying to find its way back into familiar dirt, but it’s not easy to keep the critical demons at bay when you’ve just sat under the tutelage of a brilliant writer and spell-binding teacher.

His name -dropping of literary classics and essays he knew well made my own reading list seem pathetically shallow, and his ability to quote long passages of said classics while I struggled to remember what he’d said just a few minutes before, pulled me down like quicksand into a sense of inadequacy.

“If you were legit, JoAnn, you’d know who the hell Mary Karr is and why she is a must-read author,” I wrote in my journal.” You’d be able to nod in agreement about the wisdom of John Sullivan and be familiar with the work of all the great poets he named.”

As I continued to journal, I knew my near-fatal thinking was the result of comparing my average self to the presenter’s extraordinary mind. And more than that, I was forgetting that at the heart of spiritual writing is a dependence on the One who compels us to offer our take on the sacred texts and invites us to capture holy moments as we see them so that others can see them, too.

One of the hardest things about writing — besides keeping my butt in the chair — is being okay with my voice, telling my truth as honestly as I can, just like the workshop presenter did for his audience.

I may not be as well-read as a literature professor or have the memory of a genius, but I am an accomplished writer who, by God’s grace, has persisted in my craft. My pilgrimage as a writer will not look like yours, and that’s okay, because it is a God-paved road to self-discovery that each of us must make on our own.

______

How about you, friends? What comparisons derail you from being the unique human God made you to be? How do you pull yourself out of the muck of self-doubt? I’d love to know.

Remembering Paul on his birthday

A photo by frank mckenna. unsplash.com/photos/OD9EOzfSOh0

Paul would have turned 70 today.

I’d like to think we would have thrown him a party with family and friends, showering him with gifts and messages of love.

Instead, I write through the reality that he isn’t numbering his years anymore. He is on the other side, in the presence of God, where time isn’t marked and his often-troubled spirit is finally free. No more pain, sorrow or tears.

——-

Last year on his birthday, he was about six months into his battle against the cancer that, after more than two years of hibernation, had awakened famished and hell-bent on taking over more of his body. Uncontrolled pain in his side was a constant companion, interrupting his sleep night after night. The chemotherapy was taking its toll, zapping his strength and, sometimes, his will to fight.

My journal entry for that day reads: “Paul’s 69th birthday. I am praying for five more years. I figure I can ask for an extension after the first five. He is praying for 11 years. May God meet us in the middle.”

Our celebrations began the night before his birthday. We’d shared a meal with his son’s family and, though his physical energy was spent after they left, he noted how happy it made him to have them with us.

He awoke that morning to find messages written by our daughters on post-it notes left in the places they knew he would go. On the bathroom mirror: “Happy Birthday, Dad.” On the coffee pot: “Thanks for making coffee every morning.” On his Kindle: “Thanks for teaching us to read.” On the chair that he sat in most of the day: “Thanks for always being there for us.” In all, ten messages of gratitude that visibly moved him, but I was the one who cried.

I cried writing in his birthday card. I cried when he read the girls’ birthday card out loud.

I cried as I wrote a Facebook post for him: “Happy Birthday to the love of my life, the man who makes me laugh, gives me hope, cares for my soul, enriches my faith, reminds me I’m loved, listens to my heart, and offers the grace of Christ when I need it most …”

“I cry just thinking about losing him,” I wrote in my journal.

I wanted to be confident that God would answer our prayers for more years, but doubts would seep through the cracks in my faith. After all, God didn’t answer our urgent request for healing for our dear friend, Steve. And, I certainly wasn’t alone in facing the loss of my husband; every day, it seemed, I became aware of others who were walking the very same path that we were.

“Who am I to think I should be spared this grief,” I wrote that day. “God has blessed us beyond belief all these years together. It almost feels greedy to want more.”

But I did want more, and so did he.

———

In April last year, he wrote: “Death is part of the life cycle. We become so entrenched in this temporal life that we forget about the life to come. I think it’s because we don’t see ourselves as spiritual beings in a physical body. Though our bodies fail, the spirit within us goes on. We are not annihilated. We will continue “living” either in the direct presence of God or without him. Death, therefore, is a door to our second chapter of life. I do not fear that door because I know – am convinced – Jesus is waiting for me on the other side of that door.”

He knew where and to whom he was going, but he didn’t want to make that transition anytime soon. He clung to the feeling that God still had “work” for him to do in Jesus’ name. He was resolute that this latest rematch with cancer would end in healing, a testimony to the greatness and power of God.

Still, on those days when he struggled to catch his breath and the weakness and fatigue prohibited him from getting around, his written prayers turned to desperate pleas for God to save him.

Just before his birthday last year, he wrote: “What good can come from having cancer? What good can come from the troubles in life we all have?

He looked for answers in what had become an important passage of scripture for him: Mark 4:35-41. The story goes that while Jesus and his disciples are in a boat crossing over the lake, a furious storm stirs up violent waves that crash over and into the boat, threatening the disciples’ lives.

Believe it or not, Jesus remains sleeping in the stern. The disciples wake him and ask why he isn’t concerned that they might drown. After calming the storm, he says to them, “Why are you afraid? Where is your faith?”

Paul wrote, “I have faced many storms in my 69 years, but nothing compares with the storm of cancer. My faith says, ‘Go to Jesus in the storm.’ I am not sure how to measure faith, but I know my faith is stronger than it has ever been. I am more confident in God’s love for me and his desire for my best. I am convinced that every storm I’ve been through has had the purpose of drawing me closer to God, becoming more dependent on him.”

I don’t know how one measures faith either, but I had the privilege of watching it grow in him during our life together. As he continued to seek God through the scriptures and prayer, I watched him surrender more and more of his life to God. There was a visible difference in the way he related to the people and events in his life, a confidence that only God could have formed. Despite the back and forth from belief to doubt and back again, I could see his heart and mind were guarded by “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7).

_________

Last year on his birthday we spent the morning as we loved to do – sitting together in our pajamas on the back porch, coffee cups in hand, talking about whatever came to mind as we read scripture and journaled.

We gave him gifts – new pants to accommodate his ever-shrinking body, books to bolster his faith, notebooks and pens to record his days. He’d been awake since two that morning, so our plans to celebrate that night never happened.

Today, though he is not here next to me as I write this, I can hear his strong voice through his written words. He doesn’t feel so far away. Ironically, on the day that I would be bringing him gifts, he has given me this gift of remembering.

———

It has been a little more than five months since he passed through the thin veil that separates heaven and earth. It hasn’t been easy, and in some ways, the storm of grief rages even stronger the longer he is gone.

All I know to do is to follow in his footsteps and “go to Jesus in the storm.” With just three words – “Quiet! Be still.” – Jesus not only calmed the storm; he got the disciples to dry ground on the other side. I trust that, in time, he will do the same for me.

May the same peace that gave Paul the courage to press on, fill me and all those who loved him. And may we have the faith to believe that we will see him again in second chapter of our lives.

Grief is a pain in the soul

empty bed

Grief is a peculiar thing. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it, creeping into your consciousness through images and hidden memories come to life.

You see his picture on your phone – the same picture you see every time you open it – but this time, it surprises you to see him again. A dream awakens you in the early morning hours with a start because it was so real. You’re sure he’s back.

You look at his side of the bed to find the pillows and blankets in the same position as when you finally fell asleep last night and the night before. Still, you imagine him there, sleepy eyes opening to see you, his hand reaching over to touch you, to calm your fears.

Grief jerks you into reality.

Like a little girl awakened from a bad dream, you slip out of bed, eyes straining to adjust to the harsh light of day. You look for something familiar to propel you past the shadows looming across the floor. You put on his robe, savor his scent left at the collar, and feel his hands pulling the belt tight across your waist.

Grief is lurking just beyond the thin layer of healing that you thought was beginning to cover up the hole in your heart.

You try to shake it off. You tell yourself not to pout, not to dwell on the heavy fog settling in. As if grief is a nasty habit you can conquer with positive thinking.

Well-meaning people say, “But you know he’s in heaven, with Jesus, and one day you’ll be together again.”

The words intended to bring hope drive the sword of grief even deeper into your soul. You’re not interested in tomorrow, in a promised future. You want to see him today. You want just one more day to look into those eyes that saw through you and still loved you.

Grief gets under your skin, irritating the protective layer of faith that makes sense of suffering and sorrow. It makes you scratch yourself ‘til you bleed tears that sting like salt on an open wound. Who can you call? What will relieve the burning sense of aloneness?

You cry out for him. You ask God to give him back. You wait.

Grief knows when you’ve had enough. It knows when to stop to let you catch your breath.

And then, like a spring rain bouncing hard off dry ground, pooling in the crevices and then vanishing beneath the surface, your tears fill up the barren spaces of your heart and preserve even the smallest root of faith. You are nourished from above, love poured down. The will to keep believing is restored. A new hope has blossomed and you are empowered to go it alone one more day.

Grief goes as quietly as it comes. It leaves you exhausted, but somehow refreshed. You know it isn’t through with you, but it doesn’t scare you as much anymore.

Signed, sealed and delivered

writing-letter

I have always looked forward to getting the mail each day. (Is it any wonder I married a mail man?) Rarely is there anything more than bills or marketing offers addressed to “current resident.” But every now and then there is an envelope with my name hand-written on it, and I can hardly wait to open it to see what’s inside.

This was especially true after Paul died. I received dozens of cards from friends wanting to express their condolences. Every one of them evoked my emotions. Some made me cry because of the verse or the personal words they wrote. Others inspired me to stay strong through this difficult time. And still others overwhelmed me because they were from people I didn’t even know telling me how much my husband had meant to them.

I keep four of those cards in the pocket of my journal so that I can read them when I need a dose of comfort. Old friends from Arizona wrote that it was Paul’s “deep, passionate love for us” that fueled his battle to remain on this earth as long as possible, and that “the impact of Paul’s love inside each of you keeps the essence of who he is alive and active.” I take such consolation in those thoughts.

Just last week I got a card from Marlene, saying she was available for a meet-up for some coffee and a listening ear, or a good movie. A few weeks before, Judi wrote to say she was praying for us, knowing that it would be difficult to “celebrate love without thinking of Paul.” Nancy and Cindy sent similar messages of remembrance and hope and offered their generous support.

What’s especially moving about these cards is that they’re from women I haven’t been in regular contact with. Women from the church Paul and I used to attend who took the time to let me know the girls and I are on their minds, in their prayers, not forgotten.

Such a simple, yet profound, gesture of love delivered right to my door.

Knowing how much these cards mean to me, I’ve had to ask myself why I don’t send cards to people more often. I think about sending a get-well card to the sick or a sympathy card to the grieving, but that’s where my intentions end. What gives? I still have the birthday card I intended to send to my friend in February sitting on my desk. I texted her instead!

To cut me some slack, it seems fair to place some of the blame on the digital age. It’s so much easier – and faster – to send an email, shoot off a text, connect on social media, make a phone call or FaceTime. Much easier than selecting a card, writing the message without the benefit of spell check and the backspace bar, finding a current address, buying a stamp and getting it to the post office.

And there’s the rub. Mailing a card takes extra time, a good deal of effort, and a few bucks – not to mention some faith in the postal service to deliver it to its destination. Maybe these cards carry so much meaning for me because I know the effort that went into sending them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got hundreds of texts and emails saved on my computer and phone sent to me by family and friends who mean the world to me.

I just think there is something very special about holding a card or letter in my hand that was touched by and written with the sender’s own hand. From their hand to mine, it is human contact on paper that I can feel in new ways every time I open my journal and read their caring words over and over again.

I got one of those handwritten keepers today from my four-year-old granddaughter. She passed out a single sheet of note paper to some of our Easter dinner guests on which she’d “written” a message in hash marks and scribbles. She told us we should keep the note in our pockets so we could look at it whenever we wanted to. Yep, a girl after my own heart.

__________________________

So how about you? Do you like getting personal cards or letters in the mail? Do you save them to re-read in the future? Why or why not? Or are you just as happy to get an email or text? Do you send handwritten messages to your friends and family? How often? What supplies do you keep on hand that help you follow through on your good intentions?

I’ve got an idea. I’d love to send you a hand-written card to cheer and inspire you. Just send me an email at writejoann@gmail.com with your address and a brief explanation of why you’d like to receive one, and I’ll send you a card in the weeks ahead.

Speaking of mailboxes, if you don’t want to miss a word I say, sign-up to follow me via email so that each post is delivered straight to your inbox.

Thanks for reading, friends. You just made my day!

How ancient words gave me hope for the journey

desert sun

A few months ago I heard a preacher on the radio say something like, “God is willing to break you to remake you.”

As scary as that sounds, the words gave me courage. In fact, they were in sync with the on-going conversation I’d been having with God.

A few days before, while reading Deuteronomy 8:1-6, I was struck by verse 2. It says, “Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, to find out whether or not you would obey his commands.”

Call me crazy, but that passage was a welcome dose of hope for my weary soul.

With cancer as the unwelcome guest in my husband’s lungs, the last few years have felt like a very long journey through barren stretches of scorched desert land. Like bare feet on hot sand, my tender heart has pranced awkwardly between faith and doubt, joy and grief. Some days I can’t stop crying over the way my life is changing, the way the pain of God’s hand on me hurts like hell. Other days, I just keep wandering on, hoping that our prayers for healing will lead us back to the lush green landscape we once enjoyed.

This shot of encouragement was delivered to me after what had been a stretch of gloomy days that left me panting for some relief: A kind word spoken by a fellow sojourner that goes down into your soul like cool water on a dry tongue. A story shared that fills you up with faith like grilled steak and corn on the cob at a summer barbecue.

In this passage, Moses was urging his people — as their time of testing in the desert was about to end — not to forget it was God who sustained them on their long journey. For me, his words helped me to refocus on what I already knew: That God is at the center of every moment, every situation in my life. Nothing touches me that hasn’t been consecrated by God, motivated by his abiding love for me. He stops at nothing to fulfill his promise to complete his redeeming work in me.

Though I feel battered and bruised from being knocked off my feet in this storm, I know I am not alone. Like the silver lining in a foreboding cloud, God is with me. I dare say He is the storm, stirring into being a new faith that is able to stand up against even the darkest of days.

If being broken as I am comes with the promise of being remade for my good and God’s glory, then I can bear another day in the hot sun.

—————————

How about you? How is your character being tested these days? Where do you go for encouragement? I’d love to hear your story.

My friendship with Mildred Behn

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Mildred Behn

My friend, Mildred, died on August 20 at the age of 102. I’ve written about her before here, albeit clandestinely. I was asked to speak at her memorial service last Friday to offer a reflection on my relationship with her. Here’s what I wrote:

I know that many of you could stand up here and talk about the ways Mildred touched your life. She had the amazing ability to make every person she knew feel as though they were special to her, a favorite among the many people she graciously invited into her world. It is for that reason, I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to share my thoughts on the remarkable friendship I shared with Mildred Behn.

Mildred at bible study

Mildred created the lesson plans for a women’s bible study she led for many years around her kitchen table until just weeks before she died.

I met her for the first time at a meeting we both attended here at the church with our mutual friend, Steve Nickles. Afterward she came up to me and boldly said, “We should be friends. Let’s get together some time.” I agreed, but getting together didn’t happen for another year or so. It was Steve who brought us together again via a small group study during Advent.

I will never forget one of the first times we got together outside that group. She wanted to introduce me to Brownies, one of her favorite lunch spots. She was still driving at the time and insisted on picking me up. I got into her turquoise sedan, and as she sped off with a lurch down the street, I wondered why I hadn’t been more concerned about letting a woman in her 90s drive me anywhere!

She must have felt my anxiety, because after zipping across Telegraph and using a parking lot as a turnaround, she recused herself from any liability should anything horrendous happen while she was driving. I laughed away most of my fear, offered up a silent prayer and made a mental note that I would do the driving in the future.

Mildred was a voracious reader and spoke more than a dozen languages.

Mildred was a voracious reader and spoke numerous languages.

Our attraction for one another was fueled by our mutual love for writing. We shared journal entries, published articles and favorite books. We inspired one another to write more and she was always encouraging me to submit my work for publication. We were both regular writers for Monday Morning Meditations. She lavished our writing team with kudos for our offerings, but, truth be told, she was the best of the bunch. Her work was exceptional, her content often downright brilliant.

She said writing was “all the world to her.” From the day she learned to print, she began to write her own stories. It was only recently that I got to read some of them published during her time at Andrews Boarding School. Each one revealed her genius at being able to craft clever characters and compelling dialogue that captured not just your mind, but your heart.

I asked her once what she thought her life would have been had she pursued the writer’s life as a young woman. Her response was witty, but true.

“Yes, if I had not married, I’d have written and written and sent my stuff out, and today I’d be living alone without a kinfolk in the world, surrounded by my out-of-print books,” she said. “I have no regrets; a book won’t call you ‘Angel Mother’ and manage to get you to Bob Evans when the snow is 8 ft. deep [referring to her son, Ted].”

Our mutual love for words and one another was nurtured through email. We called each other keyboard pals, rather than pen pals. At last check, I had more than 1300 messages between us. Back and forth, back and forth, we shared the everyday happenings in our lives.

Mildred at computer

Mildred was glad that she learned to use email and Facebook in her 90s, allowing her to connect with people near and far.

I looked so forward to her name coming up in my inbox, and she, mine. Her subject lines and salutations were always witty and provocative. She addressed me with a myriad of pet names: Flower of the Field, Carpet-weevil, Rosebud, Bambina, Little Hedgehog, and the one that stuck ‘til the day she died, Trinket. She liked the name January for herself, and so I referred to her by that name when I wasn’t calling her Mom, Mumsy or Millie.

Her messages often made me laugh out loud, challenged me to think differently on matters, and always reminded me I was loved. She found the everyday happenings of my life fascinating, and I felt honored to hear the amazing stories of her childhood and growing up years. She said she wasn’t one to give advice, but she gave it to me – gently, gracefully – when I needed to hear it, always with my best interest at heart.

Her messages could be manipulative, too, with not-so-subtle reminders that I hadn’t visited in a while and warnings that her death was imminent! Needless to say, that worked well in getting me over there.

Always, her messages were infused with love and laughter and left me wondering how I got so lucky to be her friend. One day I will sift through all those emails to share with others her wise thoughts – and wise cracks.

When I think of my Mildred, I think of a woman of strength, courage and great faith, someone who had weathered many a difficult storm and yet chose a positive outlook on life. She was a woman before her time and yet one who made peace with the time in which she lived. Until her last days, she walked with an urgency and purpose and her mind was sharper than the youngest among us.

Mildred & me

Sitting on the swing in her backyard was one of Mildred’s favorite pastimes.

She could have been known far and wide for her writing, and yet her influence extends to so many through small, but powerful, acts of kindness and love. She was a fireball of truth and love that captured my heart for life. She was my friend, mentor, pastor, mother, sister, keyboard pal, and so much more.

As I sat next to her on her dying bed, I stroked her hand and told her how much I loved her, how much she had meant to me and how happy I was to have been her friend. She said,” I know, dear, I know how much you have loved me, and, oh, how I have loved you.”

The years I had with her weren’t enough and yet they are full of memories that I will never forget.