Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sucker Punches & Resuscitations

Drafter's Note:
A couple of assurances:
1: It was a surprise to see how long it's been since my last post--I've been writing a lot! But it's been of a less public nature--no big stuff, just processing. (And, for the record, I wrote this two weeks ago...!)
2: I haven't spent the three months since my last post stewing on fatherlessness. Promise.

Four people--two adults holding two toddlers--stand in front of a huge mirror and count themselves, call themselves by name and identity. The names of two little boys, "and Mommy Karen and Daddy Matt." The boys smile, but there is something else in their eyes, and it will take its time in leaving.

I spent two weeks of this month in Canada getting to know my new nephews. They are towhead blonds and they squawk and scream and make silly blubbering noises and crash trucks and trains and hammers into every surface from book to floor to flesh and I am head over heels. I love feeling out each one's personality, finding how they overlap and distinguish themselves even at two and three years old. And even in our play, it breaks me to see them working out their already broken history as they test their new parents, claw for attention, need to be assured of sameness and stability. I want to wipe this away from them like maple syrup from their faces, but I know it doesn't work that way.

I know even as I watch my brother embrace and be this new thing, a father--alternately joking and tickling, teaching, gently disciplining--that this initial brokenness may stay with them, not unhealed but not erased. I know because even as I went to write about it, I found myself breaking apart. It has been nearly three decades and countless prayers and journal entries and blog posts since my father left us and that ache still opens every once in a while.

Pulled from sleep with that ache, I stood in the kitchen making coffee and thinking about early brokenness, about how it is the ultimate sucker punch: the one who is supposed to have your back, to never fail, to always be waiting for you is suddenly not there. At times, I still haven't caught my breath. I wonder if these beautiful boys will know the same.

Even as I started to write this, I had to spend a few minutes having a full-waterworks ugly cry--for me, for the boys, for getting broken before you know what whole is. I cried and I looked through the ceiling to the God Who Hears and I had no words but He listens anyway and it's there that I find the response to that sucker punch: the God who fashioned supernovae and the gnats that circled the cantaloupe in the kitchen this morning has every right and reason to be above, away, outside... and instead He is right here. He doesn't pat me on the head or remind me how often we've talked this one through. He just is. He just stays. He just heals and restores and remakes and breathes new life into us--the ultimate resuscitation--and fifteen years after I started bringing each angle of this hurt to Him, I am still pulling that new breath into my once-crushed lungs. He remains, and that is a truth stronger than stories.*

I watch my brother and my sister-in-law act this truth out to their boys, reflecting the love and restoration of God. I see it as they count themselves in the mirror, as they hold and hug. I hear them speak slowly and carefully: our books, our toys. Our house. Our forever family. Even in discipline, in time-outs and temper tantrums, love and stability and permanence are woven in amidst it with "I'm still here" and "I love you." They echo the love God has lavished on them, the healing He has worked on their wounds.

"God in His holy dwelling is a father to the fatherless... 
God provides homes for those who are deserted." 
Psalm 68:5, 6 (Holman translation)

"a truth stronger than stories" is maybe my favorite line from a poem I wrote about the loss of my father, saying that he "was gone, and that is a truth stronger than stories." (You can read it here.) That remains true--but there are other, better, eclipsing truths.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Maybe I'll Be Sorry When You're Gone

If you said goodbye to me tonight,
there would still be music left to write...

"This song always makes me think of when my father died," I say casually, and my friend snaps her face toward mine as we sit at the traffic light. "I know," I cut in before she can say the necessary "...This song?"

I know it's a love song. It's whimsical and weird and meant to be accompanied by snapping fingers. I'd be hard-pressed to find something further from funereal. But his death remains one of the oddest events in my life--too many emotions and nowhere to put them but in the past--and there's a certain justice in associating it with such an unexpected song. 

It was one of the first times I ever knew my thought patterns and my words to travel two different routes, because multiple times that day I went to say, "I found out my father died," and in my head all the words were calm and sad and slow, but as they left my mouth they were hijacked by a jumble of hiccuping sobs so the listener heard something like, "I found out my father dAAAGGHHhhhyyyykkkk--" before the place that makes the words yelled at my hands to stop my mouth.

But as the hours and days went by, those routes began to merge. I could say it with only choking up but no tears, or tears but no choke. I learned to insert "estranged," a word I'd never used, as that guided the listener in their response. I spent hours talking through the mess with my brother, my mother, my closest friends, forcing words through emotions like raw garlic in a press.

A couple weeks passed, and the summer trip to my uncle's place on the Cape suddenly seemed heavier, important. I tried to ready myself, to consider my words and looks so I could be truthful but not hurtful, allowing for all of our emotion jumbles to jumble in one house.

But there were no words about him. That first dinner began with a quiet toast, "considering recent events." The words seemed distant--a prepared statement--but you could feel the pain nearly choking them away in delivery. That same sort of traffic jam of words and emotions I'd been feeling, just in a different head. And that was it. A couple days later, some stifled tears, but my hesitant hand was shrugged away. And then nothing at all. We talked about everything else but him, which is the way our family has always handled something. Of the emotions I felt, I realized surprise wasn't one of them. 

That last night I was there, we went out to dinner, talking and laughing--a medicinal, necessary kind of pretend. And later we were driving home in the dark woods of the Cape, four windows open and four faces looking out at nothing in particular. And gradually the quiet voices on the radio were joined by one, two, four more. Not singing together--no harmonies or shared looks--but not singing alone. Singing louder, voices pressing further out our respective windows, accompanied by Billy Joel and tears or laughter, it was honestly hard to tell.

Maybe this won't last very long.
      - - -
I don't care what consequence it brings--I've been made a fool for lesser things.
      - - -
Maybe I'll be sorry when you're gone.

About a year before he died, my father and I and a dozen other relatives from that side of the family were vacationing together near Rockland, drinking and reading and playing croquet and cards. And at one of my peak moments of frustration, when all The Unsaid Stuff was piled up to my ears, my father stopped me in the stairway and apologized. And for a second I thought we were going to have a Dr. Phil-style breakthrough, but he was only assuring me that if he'd seemed frustrated, it wasn't at me but my grandmother, who was driving him crazy "because she just leaves so much unsaid." Wired with a different personality, I might have said, "How fascinating--sit down for a second. I feel the same way about you." But I assured him (honestly--more honestly than I intended, in fact) that I hadn't felt anything from him at all.

When I think of that night on the Cape, I hope someone was walking their dog along the road that night, and as our car rolled by the song grew and peaked and faded, like a strange incarnation of yuletide carolers. I hope there was surprise, and then a quiet laugh. I hope that somehow four mournings equaled one small joy out there in the dark. 

Or maybe the joy I'm thinking of is mine. Because recalling this seven-years-gone story to my friend, I remember the jumble and the tears, but not as fully and clearly as the laughing through those tears, as stumbling over lyrics that we mostly sort of knew, as letting words find their own way through the mess.

And it's more than I hoped for.

Monday, March 21, 2016

An Unreliable Witness

Drafter’s Note: This is not an Over My Head postthis isn't about things that are happening to me. This is about the things I can control—my response, reactions, attitude, self—and how I let the world break a little more when I don’t.

There have been some constant frustrations in my life lately that are out of my control. They are fixable, but I am not in a place to fix them, and so my frustration stews and ferments. It turns into something else, even worse than the initial frustration. It’s some kind of magic, but not a useful one.

Frustration isn't new—all of us have those everyday things in our way that we [think we] could dismantle in five minutes were we in charge, but instead they sit. Being. Irritating. And like any other irritant—allergies, bug bites, Donald Trump—the most desirable way to deal with it (avoidance, scratching, one solid slap in the face) doesn't actually fix the problem. Doesn't even address the problem, but just knee-jerk reacts to it. Which is, in fact, just another layer of problem—a smear of mud instead of a Band-Aid. Hardly magic, now that I’m writing it out. Which fits, as my most commonly-used verb these days isn’t “witch” but “wench,” an approved-for-all-audiences substitute for bitch, as in “bitch and moan.” And I list that out because at the end of the day, that’s all it is: moaning. When you get hurt, you make a noise—you cry, you moan—but then you get to work fixing, healing. Moaning is the natural, and maybe even necessary, reaction. But it’s not the fix.

How do I know? Because in the quiet, when I come home, when I don’t have an audience to wench to, those wenchy thoughts start rolling over me:
  Wow, you talk a lot.
  Why did you say that?
  How did that fix anything?
  What is wrong with you?
Because those wenchy reactions I had caused reactions of their own, and like too many waves in an enclosed space, they echo back at me at odd angles and only then do I see the full reflection: That instead of being a peacemaker, a reconciler, a counselor, I choose—a choice, not foisted upon me—to be this whiny, negative, simpering thing.

How quick I am to justify here—so many explanations that start with, “No,” like I’m answering an accuser. I want to list and recount all the offenses against me, but those are the things I cannot help, that are outside my authority. My reactions, how I live, is not. The outside factors that affect me and those around me, we all deal with. But why do I weigh down myself and those around me with all of my mess, too?

Here's why this matters, and why it matters now. Why I’m writing this.

Because this week, I remember and celebrate the strange and beautiful story of Holy Week: of a God-man who could have moved heaven and earth and instead took my punishment, my mess, on Himself so that I could live free of it. Not because I was something special, but because He is. As usual, the math makes no sense to me but I know it works out with no remainder because I've experienced it, I know it to be true. I'm not a victim, as my wenching might claim, but a witness.

No, I didn’t stand in crowds shouting first "Save now!" and then "Crucify!" I'm a witness because that very crucifying of muck and mess that I had, that very saving me and replacing mess with where-did-this-come-from joy and hope—that happened to me, and continues to happen to me.

It happened when I contemplated suicide in my late teens, and again when I struggled with identity and image in my early twenties; it happened when I lost a dad I never remember having and when I sat in an ER and heard "tumor;" it happens every little time I hand over something useless and dark—jealousy, selfishness, deceit, unkindness—and take up something better, from Something other than me. I could be a witness of this, a storyteller of my own personal proved truth.

But my testimony recently cannot be relied on to testify to who Christ is, and what He has done. I have been as bedraggled and messy and negative as anyone else lately, and not even for big justifiable reasons like brain tumors. It's been the little stuff, the daily stuff, the everybody-deals-with-this stuff. And I've proven an unreliable witness because my present day-to-day life doesn't back up my story, my testimony, of who I am in Christ.

We overuse “turning over a new leaf” and the like. And I don’t say that I’ll be perfect at this tomorrow because I won’t be. But I want to be better. I want to be the one people come to with their frustrations and hurts (and joys and jokes), not the one who piles on more. I want to be a witness—authentic and reliable—for hope and optimism and camaraderie. And when they wonder where that hope comes from, I want to testify boldly to Who gets me through my life. And what better time to commit, again, daily, to that than Holy Week?

I was driven to write this. As one of our pastors read yesterday, the Holy Spirit prompted Philip to do something, and he ran to do it (Acts 8:29-30). So while other posts simmer for weeks and months in my head and on my phone, this has gone from prompting to posting in hours. I trust that means there’s a reason for it—and hopefully, prayerfully, not just for me. When the Spirit prompts and the only potential loss is pride, you don’t wait, you don’t even walk. You run.

So this is where the witness confesses.

I’m sorry that I put my pride and self ahead of better things like compassion and peacemaking.
I’m sorry for being another negative voice in the crowd instead of a counter, an alternative.
I’m sorry for not listening, for waiting (or, more often, not waiting) for my turn to speak.
I’m sorry for valuing surface things over truth, popularity over balanced peace.
I’m sorry if this is the first time you’ve heard/read me say Jesus’s name.
I’m sorry if you’ve seen nothing to distinguish how I live from the rest of the chaos.
All of that is on me, not Him.

My shortcomings and failures are mine. Please don’t hold them against others who share my faith—and most importantly, don’t think that my messy, hypocritical self accurately reflects what Jesus is, and what He does. It’s only an indication of how indomitable He is, that He hasn’t given up on me yet. Let me be a witness that He is doing massive things, in me and in the world; that even my present mess can testify to what He’s already done in me, and points to the work He has in mind.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
    it was our sorrows that weighed him down…
He was pierced for our rebellion,
    crushed for our sins.
Isaiah 53:4-5

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Three Lovers, in Brief

"The sight of the huge world put mad ideas into me, as if I could wander away, wander forever, see strange and beautiful things, one after the other to the world's end."
- C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

I can't say what it is about being up here that I love, that puts me at a different ease than anything else. I'm no child, I don't look for fairies or angels. And though it's no spiritual heaven, I wonder if that trips at the reason: that up here I am heavenward, not so much up as away, apart. As a hundred intimates and I plow through perfect white cloud in a little humming machine, the worries and unrelenting questions fall earthward, corralled in the geometries of midwest farmland, diverted into the hollers of the Blues and Smokies, disoriented in the plains and deserts of the West. And I am left with nothing between me and the words that seem to have been waiting for me up here with the clouds.

“While I, haunted by a magic tune,
should know to come in out of the moon.”
Paul Frances Lowe, my grandfather

The moon is a strange fascination, in part for the duration of my love for it. To lie in my dark room and feel its cool brightness even through closed eyes, finding none of the spooky and suspect notions of ancestors... Though these days, I can’t miss that those ancestors believed gazing at the moon caused seizures. Lunatic, indeed. But it’s more than beauty; it’s the wonder and reminder of light in darkness, of the power of reflection, of watchfulness, of fullness, of just being. The moon does nothing special; it just passes something along. And it’s always been a comfort to me, the surest way to slide into sleep and peace.

"For whatever we lose, like a you or a me, 
it is always ourselves we find at the sea."
- e. e. cummings, [maggie and millie and molly and may]

This has circled my heart and clutched at my memory for the dozen years since my fingers first pressed to the verse. Crashing surf or gentle lapping, smooth sand or rocky outcroppings, from land or vessel--the sea brings me home to the girl who wandered beaches instead of streets, who spoke with friends and imagined lovers, who sang into the wind and wondered how far it could carry before the notes dissolved. The sea and I are different every time we meet, but there is a heartbeat in me that finds a syncopated natural rhythm with the waves. Regardless of coast or temperature, the sea steeps me in history, and in the unchanging weight of the everlasting.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Over My Head: Pretty

I was caught by this idea last fall, in the early days of treatment. I took photos to supplement the inevitable blog post--my phone helpfully documents that they were taken November 7. And while the drive to write about this has continued rummaging around in my head, digging through old boxes and making a mess, here we are months later. What big-name writer said that so much of writing happens before pen touches the page? Truth--but equally good for euphemistically disguising procrastination, fear of what's in those rummaged boxes.

I grew up on fairy tales, but very early--too early--in my childhood, I was gripped with a certainty that while I could play at it, I wasn't the main character because I wasn't beautiful. I don't have any crushing early memory that brought this on. No scabs to pick at here. I don't remember being upset by it--I wasn't upset that I didn't speak Spanish, either--it was a fact, to be known but not worth dwelling on.

By middle and high school, I had found my way to what I thought was a healthy place of understanding that real beauty was on the inside, that looks weren't everything, and the rest of the mantras. I learned to love the songs that made something of how the woman looked to just that one particular man who loved her. That was the key: to find that one boy who would see through all the layers of worldly unprettiness and see the charming girl underneath. A favorite movie musical of mine was West Side Story. "I feel pretty," Maria sings--lyrics that fit so well into the mythos: Why did she feel pretty? "For I'm loved by a pretty, wonderful boy."

I kept growing up, and came to a better adult place of seeing beauty, and seeing myself. I didn't stumble on some great truth; but over time, through little lessons here and there, small places of healing and shaking off the indoctrinations of the '90s, finding a happy place of self-image. I was beautiful in my way of being beautiful, like everyone else. I had made choices in high school and college--defiant, reactive choices--and now I began to unmake them. I had stopped wearing pinks and purples, had never been comfortable in skirts or makeup. As I grew I bought bright colors and high-heeled shoes, got over my fear of blinding myself with mascara. And I kept growing.

When I was diagnosed last year, sometime in the first couple days, someone said the word "chemo," and in quick succession I heard in my head its pair: "bald." I steeled myself--I remember choosing that word--purposefully, carefully steeling myself. I would be the strong woman, who did not need her hair to define her, who would not be shaken. But some of those middle school shadows jostled in forgotten boxes. I prayed and leaned into the poetry of scripture and songs, cried quietly with only God to hear, growled at myself for being so fragile, so predictably weak. "So you'll look like a dude," I told my mirror image one night. "You'll deal with it. There are worse things." And there are. But that was somehow not a helpful answer.

I stood in a grocery store line as a friend whispered if I'd noticed hair loss. I combed my hand through my hair confidently and we gaped helpless at the dozens, maybe hundreds of strands piled between my fingers. The world went silent for a second. This was happening now. The steeling began in earnest, and the next day we made a game of it--what better defense than humor. Hailee chopped at my hair with kitchen scissors, did my makeup at the kitchen island; Julie snapped pictures, first the informal process and later an autumnal photo shoot outside. We laughed, and made it something more than loss.

I came home. I kept the bathroom light off. I was sure I would come around, it would be okay. There are worse things, there are worse things. And the initial few glanced reflections were more surprise than anything--your hair is dead, so being bald doesn't feel any different--you need your other senses to know it's true. I had so steeled myself, had erected so many defensive walls that it took a few days. First, to realize I didn't need them--to realize it didn't hurt to see my reflection. And then, to see something else.

In passing the mirror--and, increasingly, stopping at the mirror, studying the picture in front of me--I found that I didn't need to fight for balance and self-image. I didn't have to argue or placate. I didn't have to tell myself that I was still beautiful around the eyes or mouth. Because being beautiful wasn't even in question. I would hear Maria's voice singing her song in my head: for the first time in memory, I felt pretty. I'd find myself catching half a glimpse  of myself and giggling. I acted like a teenager who preens and gazes at their changing features. And all that makeup I had piled up to smear on, to convince the world that I was still female, became a way to celebrate, not to hide. I was joyful instead of ashamed, and what was behind the face was being healed, not breaking further.

"Yet God has made everything beautiful in its own time," Solomon wrote a few thousand years ago (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Like so much else that's easily simplified or misunderstood out of context, I digested that verse in high school to be followed by, "...Your time just isn't now. He'll make you beautiful... later. Stop asking." It was a little comforting--but mostly not. Now a new voice speaking those words was what came to me in my giggling and blushing. What I planned and prepared for? Yeah, the absolute mind-blowing opposite of that.

Is this the big headliner story of this process? Maybe not. I still have a brain tumor. I still have to take fairly serious drugs to tame it. Blood tests and MRIs and consults pepper my calendar for rest of this year and beyond. So who cares if I feel pretty?

I guess... me.

Less Maria's dancing, I suppose. More that the God of the universe, who created all things to move and work and evolve in every way, who will handle warmongers and peacemakers with perfect justice, cares enough to meet me in the middle of such a little, should-be-below-His-radar thing. "Those who look to the Lord for help will be radiant with joy," Solomon's father David wrote. "No shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened" (Psalm 34:5-6).

I keep this photo on my phone so that I stumble on it occasionally. Because the newness, the noticeableness of feeling pretty has become the new normal, and sometimes I need to see how much it struck me at the time. Not being pretty itself, but joy, the surprise, the gratitude of knowing my silly little need was heard and met and held and answered. Because Maria was right: I feel pretty because I'm loved.

"See that pretty face in that mirror there? Who could that attractive girl be?
Such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile, such a pretty meeeee."
- Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story

"In my distress I prayed to the Lord,
and the Lord answered me and set me free."
- Psalm 118:5

Sunday, February 7, 2016

And Now for Something Completely Different...

I've spent so many words on the larger things lately--faith, sickness, healing--and from some inner curve of myself, I feel the need to balance it out with something smaller: the human interest piece after the stories of bombings and rescues, if you will. This memory has caught my attention a couple times in the past few weeks, like that particle in the water as it circles in the sink. Such a little thing, how does it keep snagging my attention and not just go down the drain?

I still can’t pinpoint what it was about him but, to borrow Josh Lyman's word*, he ensorcelled me; this half a lifetime later, it's the only word that holds up. I could say I loved him--"It might have grown to that," cries a younger me--but it didn’t, so it wasn’t. He spun me, but didn't toy with or trap me. We each meant the best in our different ways, and how much he knew--that what was friendly love was also something else--I couldn't say and certainly never told him. He was real and kind and present with me in a way I'd only guessed at from the stories, and I fastened myself to it, even as I felt his passage through and out of my life.

Here in the present tense, I hang up in the sky today, seatbelt fastened low and tight across my hips, and I let myself spin with the water as the moment snags me again. And as I'm snagged, I realize how little I actually remember: I can see him clearly, can sound out the feeling of being with him, but when it comes to actual memories, anything more than a snapshot, I only have the one. More fitting than strange, really--like most sorceries, the power fades with time.

Our collection of artsy-geeky friends are piled around the theater front doors and the sun is high and bright. It must have been the spring for how we are basking, eking out all the sun and green and warmth we can. In the instant just before, he has said something--not cruel, just gentle teasing--and I have turned away in feigned hurt. (This is a move I have seen in the stories, and it always plays out well for the girl.) There is a beat where I regret sliding away from him, chalking another tally for life falling short of the story--and then a hand has curved and tightened around my side and his head is on my shoulder and his voice floats just under my chin. "Aw, no," he says with my name. "You know I love you."

His hand holds and does not slide to curves north or south. The pose is held two, maybe three seconds before he pulls away to look in my face and see that no real hurt hides there, and the film roll flaps abruptly and I don't remember what follows.

It is such a tiny thing, but I held it so many times in my hands that I now, as I sit here in the clouds, it speaks to me in very simple truths:

That there are many loves in the world, and English faults at having only the one word for all of them.** I was cherished and loved and even held in that moment, and it was all meant fully, nothing withheld. Thorough friendship, solid and smooth. It isn't worth less because I wanted it in a different color.

That even for this woman who loves them, words are not enough. He followed the script to perfection, even to gesture and tone, but they didn’t serve. He was another's then, and has long since gone to be others' since, but never mine.

That memories can lie. It was in fact cold, gray November, or I had pizza sauce dropped on my shirt, or others in the circle rolled their eyes and murmured to each other--it's virtually certain. The photoshop of nostalgia, the softening and refocusing of self-preservation and pride, shines the memory the way fingertips polish a stone. I’ve just been reading C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: "By remembering it too often, I have blurred the memory itself."

But lastly, that in between the lies, memory holds purpose. There was truth and reliability in that moment that I didn’t see for a long time. Though we left each other's lives and are now different people--strangers, in fact--that afternoon ended up serving as a litmus test for me for years. Not a line of unattainable perfection like those other stories, but a way to see counterfeit more clearly and leave it more quickly, no matter the mood, the loneliness.

I guess I lied, too: I have one other memory of him. Two years later, I am visiting friends and without warning he is suddenly there, nearly as close as in that spring-November moment. And I see him and smile and hug and there is nothing remaining in me but the platonic, the love he had held me with once upon a time. I had been so far from him that I hadn't felt the release until it was long-done, without bitterness or ache.

No fairy tale, that. Not what I wished for as I waited at prom tables and backstage opening nights. But he gave more than he thought, and more than I knew at the time. Some lessons are fought and earned in tears and passion; others are slower and quieter in appearing, the stone turned over and over in the hand. 

*English nerd and librarian to the core, I had to look up the episode for the real credit--and of course, that was written by Aaron Sorkin, the man himself. (The West Wing, Season 3, Episode 11.) 

**without fail, this thought makes me think of Anthony Abbott’s "Carrot-Colored Words" (scroll to the second poem). Oddly, I found out this week that my father had similar feelings, choosing the made-up word "verg" instead of using one so unclear, worn out, and misused.