Don’t stay busy. It’s a trap.

First, a story.

The Willow’s True Nature: A Tale of Caution and Hope

There is a wise king with a large kingdom and many servants. One day, one of his servants left the castle early in the morning to do the daily business of the kingdom. She had a very long to-do list! There were provisions to buy, documents to deliver and collect, and people to talk to. The king’s castle was perched high above the kingdom, and on the walk down the road from the castle, the servant was able to look out across the countryside and towns below. It was truly a lovely day. She walked past the reservoir, through the willow woods, and into town where there were shops and houses both great and small. There were people of all kinds, too; young and old, rich and poor, skilled and professional, at work and at play, happy and sad.

She was busy all day going here and there around the town, and the servant managed to accomplish all of her errands. She was satisfied that she had checked everything off of her to-do list. Her basket was full of supplies of every sort; bread, fruits and veggies, meats and cheeses, important documents, books, articles of clothing, medicines, and dry goods. She was filled with a sense of pride as she began the walk back to the castle and felt the king would be pleased.

It had been a comfortably warm, sunny day, but now in the distance, rain clouds were gathering. The servant decided she should hurry back to the safety of the castle before the rain arrived. She picked up the pace as she passed through the willow woods. No one knew how old the willow woods were only that the king himself had planted the trees many, many years ago. In those days, willow trees were different than they are today. They were the tallest of all the trees, very plain, and straight as an arrow reaching straight up to heaven. The light, silvery leaves were sparse and upturned, pointing to the sky. They offered very little shade or shelter for people or animals. The bark was smooth, dull, and unremarkable. Furthermore, they were of no particular use as the branches were stiff and straight, brittle, and easily snapped by the slightest breeze.

The clouds were growing thicker and darker as the servant neared the reservoir. She hurried on. There was a terrible clap of thunder. She was afraid and started to run as the rain began to pour, great torrential sheets of rain. Now, crossing the dam that held the reservoir of water in place, she could see that the water was rising. What was worse was that there appeared to be a leak in the earthen dam. She could see a small but insistent stream of water spurting forth from the dirt works. Panic stricken and without thinking she impulsively plugged the leak with her finger. She felt very clever in that moment because her quick thinking had stopped the leak and avoided a potential disaster.

Almost as quickly as she celebrated her heroic intervention, she began to see its folly. “What do I do now?” she thought. The situation was not sustainable. She couldn’t stand there forever stopping up the leak, but any attempt to get help would mean removing her finger which would surely result in the water gushing forth with even greater force than before. She was, in fact, trapped. Like the lightning flashing in the sky around her, in one terrible, heart stopping flash of understanding, she realized that she was actually the cause of her entrapment, trapped by her own decision made in haste and an overgrown, out-of-control sense of self-reliance. To make matters worse, the dirt around her finger was becoming soggy and water began to flow once again. Now, she was stuck trying to do anything and everything to plug the ever widening hole. She tried desperately to use what she had in her basket to fill the now gaping breach with food, jars of medicine, clothing, documents, books. She tried it all, but it was no use. The hole would not be filled and everything she had accomplished, everything from her to-do list, was ruined. The water in the reservoir was rising ever higher. The pressure behind the dam was building.

“If only I had run on to the castle when I first saw the leak,” she thought to herself. “I could have called out to the king and his other servants for help.” There was nothing she could do to stop what was going to happen next. She had failed, and everyone in the town below was in danger because of her.

Then, what she feared would happen, happened. The dam burst forth and a great deluge of water like a stampede of horses raced toward the town below. She turned away to avoid the sight of it. She felt the full weight of her guilt and began to cry huge, sorrowful tears that fell into the flowing water. Suddenly, she heard a sound, a great gasping, gulping sound coming from the direction of the willow woods. She looked, and she could see the trees’ roots stretched taut against the surface of the ground, and they were growing! The roots were growing bigger and rounder as they filled with the rushing water spilling from the reservoir. The trees themselves were changing, too. They became heavy with water, their trunks split and scarred. Their branches began to elongate and droop. Their lofty tops bowed low. The leaves turned from silvery white to a brilliant, sea green, and all the while the torrent of running water was slowing from a deluge to barely a brook. The town was saved! From that day forward, those trees have been known as weeping willows for their true nature, their true purpose, had been revealed as well as their true beauty. They now bend gracefully with strength and do not easily break. They have flexibility that not even a howling wind can degrade. They create a protective shelter beneath their branches as they arc and sigh downward. When it rains, they soak up excess water in the ground, and raindrops trace their way down the drooping branches and fall like the weeping servant’s tears on the ground below.

In her heart, she wondered if the king in his wisdom knew the role that the willow trees would play in saving the town when he planted them all those many, many years ago. She decided she would ask him. Then, she thought, “If the king knew the willow’s true purpose, maybe he knows mine.” She decided she would talk to him about that, too, and seek his counsel first in all things. The End

Proverbs 137:1-2 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

More about the Busy Trap

I can’t even count how many people offered the sage advice to stay busy as a way to manage grief. We have to be really careful about this though. Staying busy can quickly move from a seemingly sound strategy to a crutch then to a trap and perhaps even to a prison. And it’s such an easy trap to fall into because its delicious bait is pride and disproportionate self-reliance. Staying busy is like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. It’s just not going to work. It doesn’t stop the grieving process. It only delays it and ultimately makes the healing process more difficult and complex.

The problem is that grief builds up behind the emotional dam that is created by staying busy. A mind packed full with grief doesn’t always make good decisions. Analytical thinking and problem solving skills are diminished. Over-scheduling can lead to or increase anxiety. All the while, the pressure on the dam is growing, and it soon springs a leak prompting more and more busy-ness to shore up the dam. Staying busy is not sustainable. It becomes a vicious cycle. When the dam finally breaks, and it will, the leak becomes a flood and does more damage than the leak ever could have. The ensuing deluge of grief can threaten us and those we love.

So, what do we do? I try to strive for a balanced day. Just like eating a balanced diet promotes good physical health, we should strive to choose a menu of daily activities that promote good mental and spiritual health. I try to choose meaningful, purposeful activities that help me process my grief, not busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. Examples of meaningful, purposeful activities include exercise, time with supportive friends and family, volunteering or work that helps others, quiet time for mindfulness activities, and time for doing absolutely nothing. I say I try because I am not always successful. I recently had a dream where I was frantically driving all over town from place to place except every time I arrived at a destination I found out that I was not where I was supposed to be and had to race off to another location. I was panting with exhaustion and frustration, anxiety and fear. Smack! Hello, Holy 2 x 4! If the merry-go-round has become the misery-go-round, then get off. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shutting it all down and giving yourself time to feel and be. In fact, it is essential! Furthermore, I have found that I don’t like to hurry or be in a rush. This could be a function of my age, but I think it’s more related to time and the way I experience it now. I’ve written about the time change in previous posts. It’s something I noticed almost immediately after Paul died. I strive to be very present. I want to cherish and savor each moment even the moments that are mundane.

Some questions for reflection… How full is your reservoir of grief? Is it leaking? Are you trapped by your own choices and efforts to manage it? Is the pressure building? Who will be harmed when the dam breaks?

God has a plan for our lives. He knows more than our imaginations are capable of conceiving. We may not always know what to do with all of our grief and sadness, but God does. He has a plan for that, too. We need only to trust it to him.

Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Trusting, Malia

Sweet Somethings in My Ear

Paul was famous for leaving us notes; peeking out at me from the bottom of my sock drawer, a note by my phone to remind me of an early morning meeting. I would often get to work and find that Paul had tucked a note in my bag. When I travelled, there was always a note hidden in my suitcase.

Paul was always in my corner. He knew just what to say and just when to say it. This week, I was cleaning out my work-space in preparation for moving to my new position, and I found these, amazing and poignantly relevant to my current situation:

It wasn’t just notes. About a year before Paul died, I awoke one night because I heard something, someone talking. It was Paul. He was close to me, right up next to me, his head on my pillow, his chin nuzzled into my neck, and he was saying something. Once I realized that he was the one who was talking, still half asleep and with my eyes still closed, I mumbled, “What are you doing? Who are you talking to?” He replied that he was talking to me. A little more awake, blinking my eyes trying to focus, I turned to see Paul propped up on his arm looking at me and smiling. Brow furrowed, I argued, “But I was asleep. Why are you talking to me while I’m sleeping?” His response was this, “I am filling your mind and heart with all the things you need to hear. I am telling you all the good things you need to know about yourself.” Many nights after that I would wake to the sound of Paul’s voice in my ear. “You are so beautiful. You are strong. You are smart. You are kind. You take care of your family. You love us so well.” And the list goes on and on. Paul was my very own, live action affirmations-while-you-sleep tape.

The summer before Paul died we did very little. We hardly even left the house. He had no energy at all. He just wasn’t feeling well the majority of the time. He had very little appetite and wasn’t sleeping well. He stopped doing things he liked to do like cooking and fishing. We were seeing his doctors regularly, almost weekly(!), and there had definitely been some changes in blood work. For one thing, he was diagnosed with diabetes and started some medication to help with that, but there was nothing whatsoever that indicated he had cancer. I also distinctly remember a talk he had in the yard one day with his dad. I wasn’t privy to the entire conversation, but I remember his dad walking away shaking his head and saying, “Nah, you’ll be fine. It’ll just take some time to get your new medications right and start eating a little differently.” “What was all that about?” I asked. “Awww, nothing,” Paul said, “It’s just hard for my dad to accept that I’m not feeling well, and with my health problems, well, I may not always be around like he assumes.” I told Paul that I realized that he had been feeling poorly lately, especially with the diabetes diagnosis and trying to get medications adjusted, but that he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I was scheduled to go to California on a work trip for about three days in that following December, just months before Paul died, and he literally refused to allow me to go. I was shocked. Never in all our time together had he ever put his foot down and told me he wouldn’t allow me to do something. I pushed the issue, complained that I couldn’t understand why he felt so strongly about me not going. It was an awkward situation because I had already committed myself to the trip, but in the end, I had to let my supervisors know that I couldn’t go after all. His behavior was so out of character for him that I was more perplexed than angry. There was just no way he would deny me unless it was extraordinarily important to him so I acquiesced and let the matter go.

A month after he died I came across a forgotten letter saved on the computer. I hadn’t read it before. The letter had never been sent and was addressed to an old friend of the family who we had not seen in a couple of years, but the content was broad. It could have been written to anyone, all of us.

“I truly believe God’s grace, prayer, and a positive attitude have been the deciding factors…I just wish he would have given us more time together but it isn’t for me to question to God’s motives, only to be thankful for them and I am THANKFUL.” (his emphasis)

It’s interesting to note that while Paul was a prolific note writer, I had never known him to write letters like this one. It was lengthy, two typed pages. He began the letter by explaining that he chose to write instead of call because he thought it would be easier than talking on the phone. Our friend had significant hearing problems and great difficulty understanding what people were saying especially on the phone. Think about that. If not for that, we might not have this precious letter.

Looking back on it now, in total, it seems like he was preparing us for life without him, right? And it begs the question…did he know? Paul was perceptive, intuitive, in all the ways I am not. In a lot of ways, his perception was extra sensory. Yes, I know what I am suggesting here, but he knew things before, saw ahead, realized. That first week in the hospital he would say he had days to live or weeks to live to the indignant disbelief and hearty protest of me and our son and contrary to what his doctors were indicating as well, but he already knew.

One day we were sitting with Paul in the hospital room. He had been alert and lucid that day. He had lots of visitors and family in and out all day long. I was talking to someone else, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, I can’t remember, but suddenly Paul had my attention. He was waving at something out the window. We were on the 8th floor. I caught our son’s eye who was now also looking at this dad. “Who are you waving at, Daddy?” Paul had the biggest smile on his face. He pointed and continued waving, “Doris and Marshall! They’re right there. See them!” Doris and Marshall were his beloved aunt and uncle and people of deep faith. They passed away a year apart from each other over 10 years ago.

Again from Paul….

February 18th 2018 “Woke this morning to the question, ‘How are you feeling?’ being asked by a nurse. I gave her a typical answer given by a typically healthy person…I’m alive and it beats the alternative or I’m on the right side of dirt. I’ll never say that again. Tears. Vicki & Tom came to visit. Argued w/M about when I was going to die, I’ve always got to have my side! I’d argue about dying sooner just to win!”

As the days went on, he was short tempered with those closest to him, putting distance between us. Apparently, that makes the final parting easier. At the time, I was confused and perplexed by it, but now I understand. He was testing us to see if we were ready to let him go. He was restless most of the time, often delirious, and when he did rest, it was fitful. He would move, mutter, and talk in his sleep. He would sometimes even smile and laugh and carry on conversations. Occasionally, we would recognize what he was saying or what he was laughing about as a memory of an event from long ago. His life was flashing before his eyes. He was reliving moments from our life together. There were also astonishing bursts of energy and seemingly super human strength. I understand that now, too. They are all hallmarks of the dying process, by-products of what was happening to his body, his mind, and his spirit.

At this point, you may be thinking how terrible for her or I feel so bad for her having to go through all of that or something similar. You might even be thinking what some people actually say out loud. That it’s better for someone to die suddenly. That it’s somehow easier on all involved. I have experienced loss both ways. I was present during the dying and death of my husband. My mother, on the other hand, died suddenly in a car accident. There’s nothing good, easier, or advantageous about any of it. And, yes, you can argue it both ways. You can say that in one circumstance a loved one didn’t have to suffer or in another circumstance that the dying and the loved ones had a chance to say goodbye. The truth is that death and dying are a natural part of the life process and either way the resulting grief is difficult, life changing, and an opportunity to learn and grow and should be seized as such in whatever form that looks like for you.

Father’s Day is upon us, again, our second without Paul. He was a good daddy. He loved our son and understood him in ways I never will because they shared the bond of maleness. My mind and heart are full of distinct moments when I’ve thought and felt that our son needed his dad and that I was a poor substitute. Our son has his own precious collection of notes from Dad. They are equally poignant and relevant, and I’m thankful that Paul is able to continue to offer guidance to his son in that way. I am thankful for the sweet somethings that Paul left behind.

Our Heavenly Father, too, left notes for us in the form of His word, the Bible. Much of the Bible is a collection of letters left behind by Holy Spirit-filled men who were inspired by God. It’s God’s love letter to His children. The Bible is our notes from Dad. It’s every bit as poignant and relevant to us in the world today and provides guidance to His loved ones. If you are missing the father in your life this holiday, as we are, remember that we always have a father in God.

A child of God, the father to us all, Malia

The Locust Years

It was 1989. I had just turned 18, and he was 30. He called me his date with fate. How very true. Family and friends thought the age difference was too much, but it wasn’t. Someone we met maybe two years or so before Paul died recently described us as glowing when we were together. It’s true. We glowed. We also laughed. A lot. Our home was filled with laughter. Paul had a tremendous sense of humor. He was known for his humor and his dimples. He had the most amazing dimples. He was handsome and charming.

I could go on and on. Really. I could. So, am I glorifying Paul through my writing? I’m not even really sure what that means, but another grieving blogger addressed the dissonance between the living person and the memorialized persona in a post about her daughter, and it got me to thinking. Am I remembering only the best aspects of our relationship, only the good times, not being realistic about the challenges and difficulties we faced? Who does that serve? Am I painting him only in the best light? Is it a case of rose-colored glasses? Yes, it is, if rose is the color of love. I loved Paul. There’s really no other explanation. I have to go to another language (eros, pragma, agape) in order to amplify the word we use in the English language because l-o-v-e is not enough.

Paul was interested in many things; music, art, nature, science, engineering, how things worked. He was curious about the world, an intellectual, but he never managed to truly find his place in the world. He did, however, find his place with me, within our relationship and marriage. We both did. We were each other’s shelter from the storm. I fully realize that other people didn’t experience Paul the way I did though. He was sometimes lost in translation. He wasn’t always easy to love. He could, quite frankly, be a pain in the ass at times. Even within our own families, with his parents, with our son, and among our friends, Paul’s remarks and reactions to situations were sometimes misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. At times, I found myself translating Paul to other people because I understood him in ways that other people did not. He didn’t always communicate well, himself or his feelings, to others. He didn’t typically allow others to deeply know him. He was often emotionally defensive.

It is not a case of me remembering only the good times, the best parts of our life together, because I do remember everything, the good and the bad, the ease and the challenge, the joy and the suffering. I do possess a full-view perspective. Moving forward, I am reflecting on the experience of my marriage to Paul in its entirety and using it to inform current and future relationships with those I love. I am talking to God about what He wanted to teach me through my relationship with my husband, and I am grateful for ALL of it. Even the bad memories are good, valuable, useful, and cherished. So, you see, it’s not a case of rose-colored glasses. What it is a case of, is love.

Not too long after Paul died, I ran into a friend I had not seen in a very long time. She said she was sorry about Paul passing away, about everything I had been through, and then said this, “It’s just not what you signed up for, is it?” I felt like I had been struck by lightning. A burning hot rumble of thunder reverberated in my ears. I paused and then flatly said, “Actually, it’s exactly what I signed up for. When we took our vows, I said I would be there in sickness and in health and until death do us part. It wasn’t always easy, but we kept our promise. I’m proud of us.” To be totally honest, for all my bravado in that moment, I never really felt like I had a choice when it came to loving Paul. We loved each other and that was that, through thick and thin, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was never perfect, but most of the time, it was really, really, good. Except when it wasn’t. That’s marriage.

We are all broken and flawed, and Paul was no exception. He struggled with addiction. Let me be plain here. Paul suffered from alcoholism. I don’t like to say that Paul was an alcoholic. You may think that is just semantics, but it’s not. One is a disease from which one suffers and for which they can attain treatment. The other is a statement of identity. Alcoholism is not who Paul was. There was a time when I was confused about that. My confusion actually made it more difficult for me to help him fight the addiction because when I was confused about who he was, I mistakenly thought that meant that I was fighting Paul, and in some cases, I was, which was not healthy or therapeutic for either of us. When I learned how to separate him from the disease, I was finally able to hate it and still love him. It was a breakthrough for us that ultimately led to his long period of sobriety and our recovery.

Joel 2:25-32 “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”

Yes, we had significant challenges and times during our marriage that were very difficult. We had locust years, but they were redeemed by God as promised. I recently had a conversation with a long-time, family friend whose son has grappled with addiction for the better part of 20 years. She told me that sharing our family’s story about our struggle with addiction was part of the beginning of her own family’s road to recovery. She told me it was because we had been so open in sharing our struggle that they were able to make some progress. When I heard that, my heart sang. Paul would have been so pleased to know that. It’s a good example of what I mean when I write about the correlation between being thankful for suffering and achieving true healing, redemption, and restoration. My friend had begun the conversation by saying, “I don’t know if I ever told you…” and admitted that she didn’t talk about it much. You know, almost everyone I talk with who has dealt with addiction says something very similar. You see, addiction, and, yes, I am intentionally referring to it in the third person, wants to be a secret. It wants to be a private matter because that is where it can do the most damage, where it can use shame like a vice-grip to continue holding its prisoner captive. The worst thing that can happen to addiction is to blow it up, as they say. In that way, it loses so much of its power. Every person you tell breaks another link in the chains. We didn’t truly begin to recover, to live transformed lives, until we blew up the circle of accountability, started being open and sharing our struggle, owning our addiction story, and treating the whole family through counseling and fellowship with other families who were also battling addiction. For us, addiction was not just the third person grammatically speaking. It was also the third person in our marriage. I am so thankful I learned how to love my husband but hate and wage war against addiction. I learned to stop patterns of behavior that supported the addiction not him. Addiction was not Paul’s identity. Addiction, in the third person, can be hated, fought, and defeated, day in and day out, and each day of sobriety can be counted as a fresh victory.

Years ago, when we were in the thick of the battle, this passage from Ephesians 6:13-18 gave me strength for each day. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”

This post is for all the men and women, children, and families who have been touched by addiction, for those in recovery and for those who are still battling, and there are so many. Addiction doesn’t care who you are, where you live, what family you come from, how smart you are, how much money you have, or where you work. In fact, it will use all of that to take the advantage if it can. If you are battling addiction in any form, take courage, friends, and fight. You are worth it. Your loved one is worth it. Start by firmly grabbing hold of that addiction and dragging it out into the light where everyone can see it and call by name. I know that is terrifying, but addiction is using that fear to terrorize you. Stop giving it the ammunition it needs to continue its horrific work.

Finally, I will leave you all with this. This hasn’t been an easy post in so many ways. The current revision count is 25. The highest ever for me. I have wrestled with it the way Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok. As I was sitting at the kitchen table struggling with it, out-of-the-blue I received a text of pure encouragement, love, and positive energy from someone I hadn’t seen or heard from in over a year, someone so special to both Paul and myself and who truly knew Paul as I did. Word-for-word she said, “…you rise to meet tasks with grace. Even when you feel like you can’t, you do.” Stunned, I replied that I was working on a post that I knew was important, but it was taking all the strength and courage I could muster, and that I was pretty sure she had just channeled Paul so that he could tell me I was doing the right thing. Her reply was that people needed to know that it’s hard, but it can change with God’s help. She said the cycle of destruction can end, and even in the darkest days, God sends light. And, she gave me a new name.

All my love, Melly