Why I Save Stuff

Moving from a house to an apartment, albeit a large apartment, made me realize just how much stuff I have.The place for my stuff (thank you, George Carlin) is in boxes and Sterilite containers. Some of it had appeared in the last two or three years. Most of it has not seen the light of day in a long time. I’m talking decades.

However, in a quest to condense and pare down the number of boxes, I began sorting through everything. One box contained elementary and junior high school yearbooks, the recorder I played in fourth grade, relics from my confirmation at St. Mary Magdalene, congratulatory cards bearing the signatures and Xs and Os of my long-departed grandparents, a blue box with two crystal rosaries, and many more things. Most papers went out. Objects tended to stay. Like a necklace with a small gold heart that I’ve had since I was 11.

Another box seemed to be the receptacle of my life from high school to college and maybe my early 20s. More yearbooks, copies of scripts from plays I was in, birthday and graduation cards, my high school boyfriend’s bow tie from prom (mauve was all the rage in 1986), and of course, diploma, mortar board, and tassel. It’s an odd collection of things, but the same feelings bubble up again. Relief. Sadness. A mild sense of loss. Anticipation of what’s next.

Packed in boxes with no rhyme or reason are my journals. I wrote daily for hours at a time for several years. I finally stacked them in chronological order and put them all in one place. I hope that IF my kids ever read them (hopefully long after I’m gone) they will remember that I was human before I was their mom.

I took a few minutes to flip through the journals. The first one dated from 1995 into 1996. I started it after I lost my friend Eric to non-Hodgkins lymphoma…which was just a few days after I’d gotten married. He was an artist, a photographer, a smart and creative man who liked artichokes on his pizza.I was a pall bearer.

In the same journal, I read entries about becoming a mother. 24-hours of labor to deliver an 11 pound, 7 ounce daughter. Eight weeks to recover. I wrote about the first time she reached for me as if she wanted me to pick her up, but instead she cupped my face in her hands, like I would do to her. And then there was the time she toddled over to me and opened my arms so she could flop onto my torso and I could give her a hug. She is a senior in high school this year.

Flipping through at least 5 other journals, I noticed recurring themes. My weight. Money. Loneliness. Creative impasses. I was constantly trying to find ways to drop ten, twenty, or thirty pounds. I kept setting writing goals and never achieving them. I kept trying to find ways to make more money or to save better. There was a lot of “if/then” thinking. If I drop 15 pounds, then I will be happy. If I just follow my measurements instead of the scale, then it won’t mess with my head so much. If I can finish this draft of the novel I’m working on, I can start pitching it to publishers next year. I could be published by the time I’m 40. I need to get my daughter ballet lessons to be a good mother.

I also found the journal entry that I can say is probably the exact day I realized my marriage was past the point of repair. It was about three years before it actually ended.

Overlapping and intertwining with that was the realization that God was not far away. That with all of my screwed-up-ness, He still wanted me in His Army of the Unqualified. I knew He was calling me. And I was scared. I spent a lot of time in denial. Running in the opposite direction. I kept thinking about things and people I’d have to give up, changes I’d have to make to be a “good soldier”. Sacrifices.

In another box was a paper bag. Inside the bag were notes and letters sent to me while I was serving on the team for the Women’s Emmaus Walk #76. I served in the midst of the calling and the disintegration, trying to take myself out of the spiritual equation and remind myself that I was there to shepherd the pilgrims. It wasn’t for me, it was for them. I pulled out one of the notes from my table leader Misty. She acknowledged our table’s unique circumstances and challenges, but encouraged me to keep praying and keep listening.

Then she wrote, “God has put it on my heart to share one word with you: courage.”

I took the note out of the bag and put it on my dresser where I can see it, along with a Letter from God read to the team at the beginning of the walk. We are identified by the word or phrase that we felt best described our relationship with God.

“One is stubborn, but her uncompromising and headstrong nature is how she stands and lives for Me in this fallen world.”

Change is constant. There are more forms of brokenness in this world than we realize. I am broken. And repaired. I am tired. And uplifted. I am defeated. And hopeful. I am afraid. And courageous.

I’ve shredded the papers that were pointless. Eliminated the stuff that was superfluous. Before I repackaged the memories and put them back in the boxes, I surveyed everything laid out on the bed, the floor, and every available surface and I realized something.

I have changed and I will keep changing. I survived the things I thought would crush me. I remember and laugh again at the moments that made me laugh. I miss the ones who are gone.This is the Me I can’t begin to explain to my daughters in just a few sentences.

I have lived.

Advertisements

Living Ecclesiastes

Yesterday we said “happy trails” to our senior pastor of eight years and to his family as they moved on Alley in Spainto their next congregation. This isn’t unusual in the United Methodist Church, and it’s part of the gig when you are called to be an ordained pastor. Itinerancy is part of the package. This does not, however, make it any easier on any of the parties involved. There’s still a sense of loss, uncertainty, and a bit of chaos as the transition takes place. But we were all determined to make his final Sunday with us emblematic of the previous eight years.

Sunday also happened to be Scripture by Heart Sunday, when the Biblical storytelling team presents scripture from heart and from the spirit versus reading it directly from The Book. As I practiced, prayed, and worked with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and 14-15, I recognized my life echoing in the verses. In praying the verses, telling them aloud to an empty room, they stung…pressing on places in my heart I’d rather not think about. But like any medicine, it hurts when first applied to the wound, but after a few minutes there is relief.

Relief in the form of tears.

I’ve cried just about daily for the last few months. I felt myself at a crossroads but surrounded by fog on all sides. All the tears I banished for several years leaked out a little at a time. I’d allow myself time to shed just enough to keep the dam from bursting all together, and then I’d say “suck it up” and move on. But as I walked with Ecclesiastes, around and around ten well-known verses, I reached a watershed.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”

Everything is finite. Change is a given. We just hope that the “good stuff” has a good long season, and that the “bad stuff” is fleeting. Everything has its time…sometimes it’s to give us strength through respite, to extract us from a toxic environment, or to provide us with the right people and situations to help us thrive and fulfill God’s plan for us. Some seasons are painful and confusing, but serve a purpose, even though we are too busy cursing the situation and struggling to find a way through it.

“A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted…”

At first, I think of literal, physical birth and death, planting and harvesting. But I also see it as the birth and death of love, relationships, notions, ideas, and a definition of average or normal. The “normal” I’d been trying to live – perfectionism, self-critical, trying to do it all and do it brilliantly – caught up with me. The seeds of expectation I’d planted for myself grew into thorny vines of depression and anxiety. In the death of the old ways and the old me, I’m praying for a lighter path and a brighter direction.

“A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Don’t worry – no blood will be shed in the remaking of this life. Though I will admit to wanting to slap the taste out of someone’s mouth a couple of times. I have to kill the weeds. It’s like The Devil’s Snare in the Harry Potter movies. “If you struggle, it will only kill you faster,” Hermione said. But the weed hates sunlight. I am actively working to rid myself of toxic ideas and relationships, and allowing myself time to heal. I’m learning to say “no”. Breaking down old habits and rebuilding new ones is a tedious, draining process.

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

A friend of more than 20 years recently said to me, “As long as I’ve known you, no matter what life has flung at you, you have remained strong, resilient, and positive. You are still that person.” In the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of change, including the end of a marriage and the departure of friends and mentors at a time when I craved stability. There is nothing I could have done to prevent these things, but pretending it doesn’t hurt only keeps the wounds open. Weeping and mourning I’ve got a handle on. Grief and I are old frenemies. But I am inherently someone who laughs and dances. I know that’s the real me. She’s in here somewhere.

“A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”

Farmers clear away stones from the field before planting, or maybe you check the lawn for stones before mowing. They are obstacles. What are your obstacles to living an authentic life – the one God planned for you from the beginning? Wrong thinking? Depleting lifestyle? Fear? I think sometimes He places obstacles there for our own strengthening and growth in wisdom. We have to learn to recognize the obstacles and move them. There may be ideas and people you want to embrace…proceed with caution.

“A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away…”

Did you ever lose something and spend hours trying to find it again, and hours more fretting about where it could be? Maybe it’s meant to stay lost. Maybe you don’t really need it. Did you ever cling to something out of nostalgia, obsession, or desperation? Maybe throwing it away is the first of several leaps of faith. We all need to declutter sometimes.

“A time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…”

Do you repair it, or do you shred it completely and start over? The physical act of tearing something can be liberating – old love letters, photos, a journal. Carefully disassembling something, however, gives you the chance to reassemble it into something new, like taking apart an old dress and using the fabric for quilts and pillows. I struggle with silence. One of my great “faults” is keeping silent, often because I don’t want to rock the boat. I’d rather suck it up and keep the peace. Peace comes at a price, though. Anxiety, frustration, anger, depression. On the flip side, keeping silent also allows you to hear things that others may not.

“A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace…”

I hate the way I feel. I hate being at war with the way I feel. I hate myself for having all of these unsavory feelings because this is NOT who I am. This is the first time I have experienced this level of anger. I hope it’s the last. It’s time for peace and it’s time for love. That peace comes from forgiveness. I’ve been trying for a year to forgive “seventy times seventy times”…but I think the forgiveness is going the wrong way. Maybe it needs to go inward instead of outward. “Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself and free up that space in your head and your heart and your soul. That’s valuable real estate.” I know that I want to be in love with my life again…not just functioning, but living and loving every day.

“I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.”

Those are verses 14 and 15 from Ecclesiastes 3. If we back up a bit to verse 11, it reads, “He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Yep. That’s a tough one. We are aware of the passage of time and we want to know what’s ahead but we can’t see it, and it’s not our job to know. I think/worry about who I’m going to be in another year or five years or ten years…what kind of parent will I be, what does forgiveness feel like, if I change will I still be me? I just read somewhere recently that dwelling in the past poisons the present and keeps us from our promised futures.

Present becomes past in the blink of an eye. The future arrives just as quickly. “God seeks out what has gone by?” Why would God seek out the past?

It’s interesting to look at the different translations of that last verse. The English Standard Version (ESV) says “God seeks what has been driven away”. TheĀ  New International Version (NIV): “God will call the past to account”. The New Living Translation (NLT): “…because God makes the same things happen over and over again.” The Common English Bible (CEB): “And God looks after what is driven away.”

This wrestling match, this storm, this dark night of the soul – whatever you want to call it – is messy, ugly, painful, frustrating, exhausting, and so many other things. I know there is a brighter side. God grant me patience for the journey.

One More Step Away…

Hanukkah

Hanukkah (Photo credit: Itzike)

As one of my colleagues and I sat looking at photos of our children at the company Christmas party, the national news feed notified us that a gunman opened fire in a Connecticut elementary school, killing 20 children. Most of them younger than ours.

The sheer horror of the event turned my stomach. In my mind’s eye, I saw the interiors of my daughters’ schools, their teachers racing to put safety protocols into action, and children hiding in corners and under desks. They’d had breakfast that morning, gotten on the bus, learned a little math and punctuation, maybe took gym class, and then someone started shooting.

That’s when despair and disbelief fell on me. Darkness had weight and substance. Something clawed at my faith, trying to extract it. An echo of anger and loss said, “A just God doesn’t let stuff like this happen” and “It’s Christmastime. It’s Hanukkah. Seasons of light and hope. There is no hope here.”

In the last couple of weeks, several people I love have experienced struggles and losses – financial burdens, ill children, deaths of parents, cancer battles, uncertainty. I’ve walked many of those paths myself before and might again. I could feel their pain and fear. And I wanted to take it away or fix it. I couldn’t, and I also knew on some level it was happening for a reason. In some cases, I could see new directions evolving in their lives or priorities realigning, even if they couldn’t yet see it themselves. It wasn’t my place to say anything though.

I thought about a mom like me, somewhere in Newtown, drowning in pain, shock, and disbelief. There isn’t anything I can do for her. Saying “there’s a reason for everything” in a circumstance like that feels lame and insensitive.

It feels like we’re “leaving Eden” – our individual sacred places, places of safety and beauty – are getting further away, whether we walk away from them, or are driven out.

We have a choice.

If we look at life as a battle between good and evil, with evil taking every opportunity to disengage us from what is right and good, from our faith and human compassion, then looking at Newtown, Connecticut, it feels like evil is winning. If we start stacking up the injustices, inequality, and pure evil from around the world, evil is wearing a smug expression. “You haven’t the courage to beat me.”

“Leaving Eden” by Brandon Heath has been speaking to me on a new level. Some of it is about the fear of change, and the sorrow that goes with it (“feels like I’m further away with every step I take, but I can’t go back”). Life used to be one way, now it’s another way, and I don’t know if I like it.

But as Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Wipe the smug expression from evil’s face. For every sorrowful event that challenges your faith, steals your hope, and threatens to swallow you in darkness…light a candle of hope. Light two. Light 28 candles. For every injustice, respond with two acts of kindness. Wave to a stranger and see if he waves back. As my friend Julia posted on her Facebook page, “Speak truth, even if your voice wavers.” Refuse to let despair win.

We cannot undo the tragedy in Newtown. And pointing fingers isn’t going to do a damn bit of good – it hasn’t to this point, so why continue? We cannot “fix” the tragedies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t combat the darkness with light and build a new Eden.

“Leaving Eden” by Brandon Heath