How’s your vision? Mine’s 2020.

Life as we knew it…is.over. I know. It’s devastating, but maybe, just maybe, there is something new and different and wonderful ahead for us.

I mean who wants to return to normal? Not me. Not if normal means rampant consumerism, hateful speech and actions, and addictive, unhealthy behaviors involving social media. Let me be clear. There are more problems with the way people use social media than with social media itself. This is true of most all devices conceived by the heart and mind of man. No manmade object, contraption or contrivance is inherently harmful or dangerous. How we use them, what we do with them, makes them so.

Folks, it’s time for us to leave normal behind. I am done with normal. I am sick of it. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s time for us to grow and mature as a people and as a country, to eat the solid food of patience and wisdom, to remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts that love fully and robustly. It’s time for us to move beyond our infancy as a nation, as a society, as a race; the human race.

If you’ve ever wondered where I land politically, economically, philosophically, or otherwise, that’s as much as you are going to get in the context of this blog.

The truth is that until we all collectively accept the death of Normal and grieve the death of Normal, we are not going to get to the good stuff. And, yes, I realize that I am communicating my truth so, as always, you have the option to continue reading…or not.

Now, what is the good stuff you say? The good stuff is what comes after; after the struggle, after the hurt, after the pain.

Don’t believe me? The reality of this is etched in the layers of the earth itself. Proof of it is written into all of creation and played out over and over again throughout history from the small, personal moments between humans to the huge swaths of sweeping movements across recorded time.

It’s in the sunshine after the storm. It’s in the small patches of flowers boldly growing in a field of long-cooled lava. It’s in the desert blooms after the rain. It’s in the tender, green shoot emerging from a tree stump. It’s the baby boom after World War II.

It’s the widow making her way in the world, no, even thriving, after the death of her beloved husband.

It’s the rise. After the fall.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something my husband said to me in the days just after his diagnosis when we were all struggling to fathom the reality of our lives without us being us. We were like sonographers sounding the ocean depths trying to measure the seemingly unmeasurable, waiting for the return echo that would signal that we were not dangling over a bottomless pit.

What my husband said came in the context of a collection of other things Paul felt like he needed to tell me regarding what to do and how to be after he was gone. The conversation was like a bundle of kindling to spark and light the way to my future. One particular remark, that has perplexed me so, came on the heels of his now famous advice for me to make some friends.

Paul said, “You can be free.”

I have really struggled with that. It has confused me and worried me. I didn’t know what he meant then, and I’m still not entirely sure I now know what he meant. At the time, I said, “Stop it”, protesting the insinuation that I was somehow the opposite of free or burdened in some way. I was also frankly a little hurt that he might think of me that way, that he might think I felt that way, or perhaps I was convicted of any inadvertent behavior that may have caused him to even think that I felt that way. It pricked my heart like being handed an exquisite rose with an equally exquisite thorn.

I have tried for quite some time to wrestle the meaning out of those words, you can be free. Maybe he just knew that I might never become fully myself unless in his absence. And, in truth, I have indeed discovered things about my self that I would not have known within the context of our relationship just as I had discovered things about myself during our relationship that I would never have learned otherwise.

My family has been my life’s work. Paul knew there were many things I had not allowed for myself because they would take away from my mission to give every last nth of myself to the people that I loved and loved me. That is, after all, agape love; sacrificial love. And I don’t regret it for a second.

But there’s more to it than that.

Caregiver is coded in my DNA, and I love that. It gives me purpose. I show love through service. But it is also a disorder that developed as the result of the death of my mother. I developed a knee-jerk, emotional coping mechanism, a child’s false logic that goes something like this, if I’m good enough, I can prevent this from happening again. If take care of the ones I love well enough, nothing will ever happen to them.

It led to a pattern of me taking too much responsibility for everyone and everything.

I vividly recall a late night, phone conversation with our son. This was many years ago now. He was in college and struggling a bit with the adjustments of living on his own. Paul and I listened as our son shared what was going on and after a quiet pause, I said almost hesitantly, “What if. What if you took care of yourself as well as Daddy and I have taken care of you?” Stunned silence from the other end. I may have heard a gulp. I don’t recall the exact response, but our son basically said he could not even wrap his head around that, couldn’t imagine what that would be like. But over time, he has learned to do just that.

So there I was back in the spring on COVID lockdown and struggling to adjust to life on my own, and I turned the question on myself. What if. What if I took care of myself as well as I have taken care of others my entire life? What if I turned all that effort and energy to me? Holy moly.

So now. Now I am loving my own self with the same kind of purpose and service. This. This is what Paul meant, what he wanted for me, to be free to grow myself in the ways I have poured effort and energy into others that I have loved and cared about for my entire life. After very nearly now 50 years, I am turning all of that effort and energy on to me.

Taking care of myself to the level that I have always taken care of others has been transformative. I have nurtured my self and grown my self, mind, body, and spirit, through exercise, reading, writing, counseling, nutrition, swimming, yoga, running, playing, plenty of sunshine, walking, rest, time for thought and prayer, time with friends and family, laughter and tears, challenge and ease, all of the good things a person needs to grow healthy and strong….and free.

I am free of (most!) of my own self-imposed limitations. Free from the constraints and expectations I’ve placed on myself. Free from a false logic, a false narrative of responsibility that held me captive. Free from the cage that is the either-or mindset, and free to embrace both-and instead because my heart is no longer the shallow well of self-reliance, where there is never enough to go around, where effort and energy must be conserved and rationed, where either-or decisions rule the day. My heart is instead the constantly renewed and refreshed deep well of faith so that I can be the fullest expression of myself and have more than enough left over to fully love others. Can you feel the ground shaking? Because I do.

I haven’t shared this next part with any of my friends or family. They may wonder why. All I know is that some things are easier to write than say. Or maybe. Maybe God has asked me to hang on to this for 37 years, 8 months, and 7 days until today because you, dearest, are the one who needs to know it.

When I laid down to go to bed on the night of the day my mother died, I went toe-to-toe with God for the first time. My relationship with God had gotten personal. He had reached his hand into my life and taken something precious from me. I felt I had at least earned the right to ask for something in return. I recognize the spiritual immaturity in this now, of course, but as a young girl, trying to make sense of the senseless, well, I was doing the best I could with my limited understanding, and God, God was as He always is, full of grace.

In the quiet of my room, in the stillness of the night, I met God as Jacob did at the ford of the Jabbok River. There were windows above my bed. It was a cold, clear night. I gripped the top of the headboard and pulled myself up to the sill to peer through the window and saw a sky full of stars. The room was flooded with moonlight, and I was flooded with a river of tears. I cried, begged, and pleaded with God as I prayed, “Lord, please take me, too. I don’t want to wake up in the morning. Just please, please let me die during the night. Please.”

I had my answer when, well, I woke up the next morning. I wasn’t exactly angry as one might imagine. I was disappointed; defeated, hurt and wounded that God had taken so much from me and would not allow me this one request as consolation. I didn’t understand yet that God had indeed allowed my request. It took years for me to realize that God had given me exactly what I asked for. I had, in fact, died and awoken to an entirely new existence. In the same way that I have had to mourn the girl I was, I have also had to mourn the loss of the woman I became in the presence of my husband, in the context of that relationship, because she also died….and awoke to an entirely new existence.

In this life, we die many deaths. Grieving is not something we do only at the end of a life. Grieving is a cyclical part of our emotional climate, our human and spiritual nature, because loss is a fundamental life experience for us all.

Nowadays, it’s like waking up every morning and strapping on a pair of wings. My flight is erratic. I sputter. I flap ridiculously. I wobble. I soar too high and crash. I crash. And when I crash, I laugh. I laugh, and I think, “Good. This is good for me”, and I am thankful for the experience; the hurt, the disappointment, the embarrassment, the knowledge, and the wisdom.

Some days all I do is flap all day long not even getting so much as my big toe off the ground, ending my day completely spent with nothing to show for it. Well, almost nothing. You see on days like that it’s not about flight at all. It’s about strength and getting stronger. All that flapping builds strength. Soaring and gliding does not build strength, flapping does. Hooray.for.flapping. And for looking ridiculous doing it. I’m ok with all of it.

I had a dream recently. I was outside. It was early morning. The sun was up, steadily climbing and warming, but it was still low in the sky, just beginning the long arc of the day. I had the sense that I had been there in that spot for a while, legs crossed, calm and peaceful, light breeze, head tilted toward the horizon, watching the sunrise, but I was oddly expecting something more. I was waiting. And then. Then, a second sun arrived on the horizon and, via time lapse as if racing to catch up with the first sun, took its place in the sky; the same size and shape, but the glow was different. This second sun was golden and fuzzy around the edges like a peach where the first sun had become white hot and the edges were quick. I could no longer look directly at it. It had risen above those protective layers of the atmosphere through which one can safely view our star without wincing.

This dream. I knew I was dreaming but actively chose to stay in the dream to see what happened next. It actually didn’t feel like a dream at all. It felt like a vision, like someone had something to show me. I wasn’t even surprised to see that second sun rising in the sky. It felt like a long awaited something had finally arrived. I smiled, closed my eyes, breathed in the glorious warmth, and felt my skin like a sponge soaking in the life bringing light. And my whole body reverberated, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh.”

I am choosing not to pull at the threads of this dream. I wouldn’t dare. Instead I will treat it with the reverence it’s due. I don’t want to know its roots, its origin, its pieces and parts. I don’t want to see the trees this time, only the forest. I just want to sit with it, enjoy it, accept it with gratitude as if a gift had just been handed to me.

Time to rise, my friends, Malia

The Widow’s Might

We’ll start with a little Widow 101. Did you know that the proper way to address a widow is with the salutation, Mrs.? Yeah, I didn’t know that either. At work, it’s not a problem because I’m addressed with an academic title, but in everyday life, I noticed right away that people struggled with what to call me or how to address mail to me. I will admit that Ms. can be like a dagger in my heart. Maybe that’s why we still use Mrs. It softens the blow and offers protection perhaps in that among strangers I can pass as married if I so choose.

Then, there’s the struggle with how to refer to my husband. This is one that you know. He’s my late husband, but that has always seemed weird to me because I have no idea what he’s late to. I’m sure it’s some leftover, centuries old phrasing about the dead, but I stumble over my words, and my heart, every time I hear myself say it. That’s if I can even manage to say it.

Next, there’s my in-laws to consider. I mean they are not my former in-laws, or are they? All I know is that they belong to me now. I adore them, and they are such an important part of my life. I love them. They are my forever family.

And now a final did-you-know. According to the U.S. government, as of January 1, 2020, I was no longer a widow. My official status is single. It feels like I was demoted. It’s just so strange to see that on paper. Single. Uggghhhhh.

***

The Bible has a lot to say about widows. In fact, the word, widow, is used over 100 times! The context is mostly warnings about being mean to widows, mistreating them, or taking advantage of them financially or otherwise. Psalm 68 identifies God as the protector of widows. I love that. It makes me think of God as my bodyguard, my heavy. I’ve got some powerful back-up so don’t mess with me! Ha!

Here are just a few of my favorite widow stories from the Bible.

I love the story of Tabitha in the book of Acts. Tabitha was a widow who devoted her life to good works and charity. She was beloved in her community. So, when she got sick and died, people were really upset. They had already washed her body and placed her in an upper room when they heard that Peter was in a nearby city. They also heard Peter was healing the sick and performing miracles. So, they sent two men to urge Peter to come help them with Tabitha. Well, he did. In a big way. Alone in the upper room with Tabitha’s body, Peter knelt, prayed, and told her to arise. She did! She opened her eyes, sat up, took Peter’s hand, and then she rose and was presented, reintroduced as it were, to her friends and community. This story speaks to me on so many levels, but mainly it reminds me that God can and does restore that which has died. He’s working that out in my life daily, restoring me to life, a new life.

And then there’s this story from Luke that is instructive and comes with a promise, and God’s promises are gold! This story is about a widow and a judge. The judge was not such a nice guy. He was not God-fearing and had no respect for his fellow man. But there was a widow who continually came to the judge demanding justice against her adversary. You might even say she hounded him about it. The story says she was persistent and bothered the judge. This story could have been lifted from today’s headlines and become a meme on social media. Familiar with the phrase “and, yet, she persisted”? It gets even better. For all of her persistence, she was rewarded. The judge essentially gave up and gave in, granting her request so that she would stop pestering him. This story encourages me to persist, to take my petitions to God, to even bother him with my needs and concerns. The promise is that He will provide what is just in my requests.

Finally, there’s perhaps the best known story about widows, The Widow’s Offering, or in more historical language, The Widow’s Mite. A mite is a small, copper coin, and as the story goes, Jesus saw a poor widow place two mites in an offering box alongside the rich and wealthy who were also placing their offering in the box. Jesus’ commentary was not about the rich and wealthy and their generosity. His comments were about the widow. She had contributed out of her poverty while the others gave out of their abundance. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not comparing myself to the widow necessarily. I am not impoverished in any way. I am very thankful that I have everything I need and more; a warm, safe house to live in, food to eat, a good job, transportation, good medical care, a loving family, supportive friends. What strikes me about this story is the challenge that it issues to me. It challenges me to consider what I have to offer from within the poverty of the loss I have experienced. It challenges me to ask the questions…what is my (figurative) mite? What is my contribution, my offering, within the work God has given me to do? I think this blog is part of the answer to that question. The writing is, perhaps despite appearances, really difficult. Exposing my internal life is rough on me, and it takes all that I have, emotionally, down to my last mite might.

***

I am certainly not the first person to blog about my grief experience and/or widowhood. The topic of grief and grieving is a niche in the blogging community.

Almost every grief blogger that I follow has a post that addresses the things people say. Most of the time such posts include a laundry list of some of the most absurd.

When people say weird things, I wish I could respond with some pithy, couched remark; something that conveys how I really feel though disguised as polite and appropriate, but I am way too direct for that so I typically say nothing at all and instead start to chew on it like a dog with a bone.

So, here it is. My official, grief blogger’s laundry list of the weird things that people say.

[Disclaimer:  If you have said any of these things to a grieving person as I have, it is likely that no one, especially me, holds any bad feelings about it. I have heard myself say many of these things in an attempt to console a grieving person, to comfort both them and me. It’s simply that now I see it from a different perspective, from the other side. You may have been the recipient of these words as well, and maybe it didn’t sit well with you but you weren’t sure quite why. We often dismiss rote or pat social conventions and polite conversation out of hand, but there is meaning there whether we process it consciously or not. These are just some observations and perhaps some suggestions for alternative responses as we move forward in a more aware state of being.]

  • “I am sorry that you lost your husband.” Paul is not lost. I know exactly where he is. Instead of “I’m so sorry for your loss”, try “I’m so sorry you’re going through this”.
  • Any comment that starts with “at least” as in “At least you got to say goodbye” or “At least you had 30 years together”. I’ve gotten to the point that when people say “at least”, I don’t even hear what comes next. I can’t hear what they are saying over the reverberating echo of “AT LEAST, AT LEASt, AT LEAst, AT LEast, AT Least, AT least, At least, at least, attttt leeeasssstttt….”. Let’s talk about the most instead! The most fun, even the most annoying, the most wonderful, the most frustrating, too, the most memorable, the most disappointing and the most joyful. Our life together was full of all of those things. Let’s remember the most.
  • “It could’ve been a lot worse.” I have yet to figure this one out.
  • I really love to talk about my husband. I love to share memories, and I am able, through lots of hard work and growth, to do it joyfully! However, some people are upset by it, emotional even. They start in with the “I’m so sorry”-ies, and then I end up comforting them. Really!? Come on.
  • Then, there are folks who beat me to the punch on social media on the anniversary of Paul’s death, or his birthday. I know. I know. I know! He belonged to them, too. I know. It’s just hard to be taken off guard, confronted with it before I’m ready. And, yes, I know there are others, many others, who loved and miss him, too. It’s not all about me. I’m just sharing how it makes me feel. That’s all.
  • “This is just not what you signed up for” and the even stranger, companion comment, “You don’t deserve this”. Ummm, is there someone who does? And, by the way, I’m pretty sure that “until death do us part” is exactly what I signed up for. Like I actually signed papers to that affect. Here’s the proof.

When you try to comfort someone who is grieving, when you try to console them, I know it comes from a good place, a place where you want to take away their pain and make it all better, to fix it, to make them and you (or maybe just you?) more comfortable. I understand all of that. I also understand that when we sometimes struggle with what to say, we actually say something that is exactly the opposite of what we intended. It’s ok. Really.

My recommendation is to share a good memory, or any memory really, of the person or a positive impact they had on your life. Because in that moment, in that sharing, the person is alive again for both of you. It’s ok if it makes one or both of you wistful or tearful. There’s healing in the hurt.

***

Consolation is a funny word to describe the uncomfortable, or even awkward, position where we find ourselves obligated to receive with politeness and graciousness something that we don’t really even want. We all know what consolation means; the comfort someone receives after a loss or someone or something that provides comfort to someone who has suffered. But I am also thinking of it as a sports reference. I play a lot competitive tennis and have found myself in a consolation round way too often. A consolation round, or consolation prize, is all well and good, but the bottom line is that the whole reason for it is because you lost. My response in these cases is generally, “Gee, thanks.” And might even be accompanied by a private, eye-rolling episode with an ugh thrown in for good measure. I mean I appreciate it, but there is always, always, a sting or bite to it. No one, I mean no one, wants to be in the position of needing consolation. I don’t want to be consoled. No thanks.

I wish, for all of us, that we were never in a position to need consolation, but it is the very heart and nature of this world, of this life, that we are born needing consolation, and we have it. In the presence of the Holy Spirit; the ultimate consolation gift. In fact, in the Biblical translations, the same root word for consolation is used in both Corinthians and the book of John to describe the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, teaches and guides us, provides peace, and equips us to do God’s work here on Earth. That’s good news because, in all truth, I rarely feel up to the task.

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 speaks to me, to us, right now, today. We are suffering today to cope with loss, with hurt, with COVID, with hate, with anger, and so much more, but God is the God of all comfort. And there’s more! He comforts us SO THAT we may patiently endure and be able to comfort others. Boom-yow! There’s purpose!

I love, too, the Comfortable Words from Matthew in the Book of Common Prayer. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Be well, be comforted, be refreshed, Malia

Anndddd….she’s back!

It’s been six months to the day since my last post. And now. Now my fingers are on fire! So, get ready because I’m back, baby!

And, yes, the sassometer (Hint! Rhymes with thermometer) is at full tilt these days. You know, sassometers. They measure one’s level of good ol’, Southern gumption. If you are one of my far flung readers, you might not be familiar with that word, gumption. It means shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness, and it describes my current mood, oh, so, precisely. When I mentioned to my son that this post was about to go live and that it was ‘full of sass’, he responded, “Aren’t they all?” Indeed!

And, because once an educator, always an educator, this blog post is officially sponsored by the letter G.

G is for grateful.

I am practicing gratitude like it’s going out of style, and as far as I can tell from the world today, it seems like it actually is going out of style.

Gratitude is the cure for what ails. That may sound naïve or even a little tone deaf given some of the circumstances that people are living through right now, but….have you tried it? By all means, don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. There are a million ways to practice gratitude. Pick one, and try it. Honestly, if I didn’t start each and every day telling God what I’m thankful for, I don’t know what would become of me. Some days are harder to be grateful for than others. Some days I am really reaching, grasping, because the world is weighing so heavily upon me, but there is always something to be thankful for. Sometimes I even thank God for the pain I’m feeling. Yep.

In giving thanks, my mind and heart almost always return to Psalm 95, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and show ourselves glad in him with psalms” and Psalm 100:4, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”

G is for grieving.

Transporters (science fiction style) are real. I can be anywhere doing anything and with no obvious trigger and very little warning be beamed into another space and time.

On one of these trauma trips, I suddenly found myself in Paul’s hospital room. I openly, loudly, without regard, hesitation, or regret begged God for death to come and come quickly. Paul’s body was beyond help, beyond hope, but his spirit was not. (Nor is ours!) And then, he was gone. Less than a minute. Less than 5 minutes. 10 minutes. 20. He was still soft, warm. I smoothed his hair. Kissed his cheek. Cupped the corners of his jaw in my hands, placed my thumbs in the places where his dimples had carved out the most beautiful divots in his face. I.am.there. I can feel the warmth of his body beneath my open palms. The scruff of his beard against my lips and cheek. I breathe in trying to capture, retain the essence of him. I breathe out.

Sometimes that moment feels like so long ago. Other times it feels like I’ve just stepped out of his hospital room for the last time.

So, yes, I am still grieving.

Y’all have to understand. I am still shocked that I wake up every morning. I’m surprised every day to find that I am still here, that the sun still rises, that the world still turns. I mean, how in the hell is that even possible? It is the grief mindset. And I often wonder if it’s permanent, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it give me perspective, some level of awareness that others do not possess? Some level of awe and appreciation for each and every day? Or will I wake up one day and go, “Ohhhh, now I get it. Life goes on.”

I hope not. I love that I live in a state of awe and wonder at the miracle, the gift, that is life. I just don’t like what I had to go through in order to achieve that state of being.

G is for growing.

I am so different now. I have changed. I am physiologically not the person I was before Paul died. I am different. I think different. Every day I catch myself thinking very differently about things than I would have in the past.

I had a conversation with someone recently, a colleague, about perspective and what it takes to achieve it. What does it take to achieve next-level social and emotional self-awareness? What does it take to wake up? Does it take a tragedy? A significant loss of some kind? I don’t know. I really hope not, but I do think that it points to the purpose of struggle in our lives and, folks, we all struggle.

As the Oak, So I

A large oak stands sentry in my front yard. As the seasons have changed, I’ve noticed that the oak sheds its leaves a little differently than other trees. While other trees drop all of their leaves at once and are rendered completely bare, left to stand naked against the fall and winter sky, the oak retains its old leaves, crisp and brown, until they are literally pushed off the branches by new leaves, new growth. So, too, my new growth is taking the place of what was once useful and productive but no longer serves me and now falls away to be replaced by something new, something fresh.

I’m loving what I’m learning about life and others as I move forward. I recently cleared a pretty big hurdle as I moved from a state of equilibrium in my life to disequilibrium.  I’m getting it right sometimes, but I’m making lots of mistakes, too, as I’m forming and navigating new relationships, negotiating and balancing my needs with the needs of others, honoring where they are in their own processes. Having been in a stable relationship for so long has made some of those skills a little rusty for me so I’m working at it every day.

G is for grace.

That smile on my face? It’s all about His grace.

I often get asked “how I do it”. Where does the strength come from, the resiliency to endure, heck, even thrive in the face of such difficult losses. Sometimes I even sense a little bewilderment if not outright irritation from others. The vibe is ‘What’s she so happy about? What’s she got to smile about? Doesn’t she know we’re in the middle of pandemic?’

Then, there’s the opposite of that reaction in which people assume that because they see me smiling, it means everything is going along perfectly. Not! These are trying times. There are challenges around every corner, let downs and disappointments, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and down-right attacks filled with the arrows and spearheads of hurtful words and actions.

Then, there’s this. I spent all of July down and out with COVID. Yep.

And my work has been disrupted just like so many others. I work in education so I’m pretty sure that I can just leave that right here and let your own imagination, dear reader, do the rest about what that experience has been like. It’s no secret that schools have had a hard time meeting the needs of students, parents, and teachers. I am proud of my colleagues, my school, and my district. We are working harder than ever before and providing students and their families with the best that we have to offer, but it is terrifying and insanely difficult every day.

Half the time I only get half a night’s sleep. I’m up pacing the house while my dogs peacefully snooze the night away only occasionally lifting one eye to make sure I’m not actually going anywhere. Sometimes I cry myself back to sleep, or sometimes I stand at an open window and breathe in the stillness of the night contemplating the nature of the universe. Quiet street. Bright moon. Light breeze and leaves in flight as they are finally released from the trees’ branchy grip, punctuated by the soft *tink* of acorns hitting the roof, front walk, driveway, or street below. Insects sing their buzzy lullaby and owls shoo-shoo me back to bed, back to sleep.

I’m not the only one though who manages to face the storms of life with a tenacity of spirit. Some of our nearest and dearest have suffered stunning losses. I see their strength, their resilience, and I know where it comes from. I want you to know it, too. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord. My faith is my source of strength, my source of peace.

G is for glowing.

I’ve had lots of ups and downs these last six months. But this picture pretty much says it all about where I am right now. (Funny how no one takes and posts a picture of themselves when they are ugly-crying, ha!)

G is for the big Guy upstairs.

The OG. The original, Father God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I have been working really hard lately on achieving stillness; stillness in body, mind, and spirit. It’s not easy. My heart is often troubled, my mind is often addled, and my spirit has always had a tendency to be restless. But I am trying.

I recently came across the full, original version of the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr. You probably know the first part by heart as so many people do, but maybe like me you were unaware of the rest of it. It’s so appropriate for the times we are living in today.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

So here I am. Living life in the moment. Yesterday is done. Tomorrow is not promised. I’m making the best use of the dance floor that is my kitchen for morning and sometimes late night dance jams. I am not perfect. I am, in fact, very far from it, but I do serve a perfect God.

From Jeremiah 6:16, “This is what the Lord says:  Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

I’m standing at the crossroads. Won’t you, please, join me? Malia

Five Gold Rings

This is, after all, the fifth day of Christmas. Can’t you just hear the familiar, well loved carol echoing in your memory? That favorite refrain that everyone joined in on even if they couldn’t remember the other gifts of Christmas?

Big inhale! FIIIIVVVVVE GOLD(EN) RINGS! BOM, BOm, Bom, bom…..So, today, on this fifth day of Christmas, I give to you full disclosure.

Beware. This post might qualify for Longreads. I’m kidding, but, truly, if you haven’t discovered Longreads yet, give it a whirl. It’s an online magazine, hosted on WordPress, of long-ish essays, investigate reports, interviews and profiles from a wide variety of writers on human interest type topics.

But, seriously, you might have to take a snack break, or two, at some point during this post.

This Christmas has been like a game of Hi-Lo on The Price is Right. Desperate for anything to take the edge off the seeping, creeping grief, the highs have been the low-hanging fruit like trivial distractions and general busy-ness, and the lows, well, there’s a strange sort of safety and comfort there because the lows feel like my baseline.

I think this is what my son meant when, a few months ago, he said he was worried about me getting stuck in grief, stuck like feet that have sunk a little too far into the pluff-mud that pervades our Lowcountry landscape. The effort it takes to retrieve your foot is surprising and always more than your brain anticipates, or estimates, that it will take. So, there’s an initial jerking upward motion which gets you nowhere and then a more sustained slowwww-pull that finally begins to yield some of your leg and foot back from the netherlands. You end up losing your balance because as you pull up on your foot, the mud actually, unbelievably, pulls back with nothing less than a sucking, gulping sound like hisseellluuppp. And it’s gross, soft, wet, sticky, and somehow coarse at the same time. And it stinks, of dead fish, rotting leaves and grass, and sulfurous gasses. Yep, being stuck in grief is just like that, and yet, it is comfortable, soothing even in a primal way. I know. Weird.

***

I wonder if my posts have seemed as frenetic as I have felt during this holiday season. Actually, the recent unpleasantness started before the holidays began. Looking back, as I am wont to do, I can see that the anxiety was already building ahead of Thanksgiving. Grief was doing its dirty work before I was fully aware of it, but that is nothing new.

So, you may wonder, have I been happy? sad? lonely? Well, the truth is I have been all of that and so much more. I have laughed, smiled, cried, celebrated, and mourned. I have done the flash dance around the flashbacks and felt the burn of anger sweeping through my body. I have been irritable, frustrated and downright apoplectic. I have cried. A lot. More than I have cried in months. Grief has, once again, been a full-on, sensory experience. My body has felt twisted and wrung out like a rag as I have cried until the tears could no longer form even a single drop. I have been elated and joyful and miserable in the same breath. I have experienced waves of grief and anguish so intense that I felt nauseous, sick to my stomach, the way actual waves can make one seasick. At times, I have been withdrawn, not really feeling up to socializing. I’ve had great difficulty committing to events, but I have also enjoyed being active, taking long walks with friends in the neighborhood, playing tennis, attending a couple of drop-ins as well as turning down both casual and formal invitations, electing instead to retreat to the safety and comfort of the house.

Ugh. The house. My job allows me substantial time off during the holidays which is wonderful, but it has also been a challenge. This is the first Christmas that my son has not been staying with us, with me, while on a holiday break from school. He and his fiancé have their own place nearby, and I have spent a lot of time with them, but it’s not the same as having him under the same roof. I mean, this is all good. Every good parent, whatever that means to you, desires for their child to live independently, to forge their own life, but the house has been quiet during the holidays this year, too quiet. It’s been a lonely house. This is actually the first time I’ve ever felt this way about my home, and it’s freaking me out. I’ve noticed a little tendency in myself to try and fill up the emptiness with noise like having the TV or radio going in the background (sometimes both!), playing the piano, running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and doing other noisy chores. Therapeutic vacuuming is a thing! However, mopping and dusting make no noise at all so those chores have gone undone.

I struggled, too, to get the Christmas decorating finished. Our ornaments are actually memories that have taken shape and form and hang from the branches of the tree. They could be connected like a dot-to-dot of our lives. The oldest ornament belonged to my mother when she was child. It is nearly 70 years old. There’s also one that Paul made when he was in kindergarten. It is 55 years old. There are several that commemorate the year we married and others that celebrate our son’s first Christmas and so on. Each and every ornament is the embodiment of a memory collected through years of family life, holidays, vacations, places and homes we’ve lived, friends and family members we have loved. I hung about a fourth of the ornaments, if that, and then just quit, just gave up. I couldn’t do it. That’s not like me at all, and I was disappointed in myself.

One day I came home and found my father-in-law and my son working together on overhauling the boat motor in the garage. But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. It was hot, dirty work, and they had been at it for awhile. My son’s shirt was too heavy and was soaked in sweat and covered in grease so he had gone upstairs and grabbed one of his dad’s old t-shirts from the boxes of clothes that I had stored away; a red t-shirt that I must have seen Paul wear 1,000 times. Not quite Golden Boy status but close. (Yes, that’s a Seinfeld reference.) So, when I pulled up in the driveway and caught a glimpse my son bent over, working on the boat in that t-shirt, my heart stopped, my mouth gaped opened because I actually thought I was looking at his dad. Paul was back, working in the garage alongside his father as he had done so many times before. He was there; his shoulders, his arms, his hair. His intent gaze, concentrating on his work, his hands, his fingers. I did a double-take. I had to look twice. I blinked hard and then crumbled in the face of reality. An emotional implosion followed. I felt stunned like a small bird that had just smashed into a clear pane window; stunned out of awareness, knocked out of time, careening into another space and time, an alternate universe where Paul was still alive. That night I dreamed that Paul was indeed alive. He was standing in the yard. I was a distance away and started moving toward him. I was elated but confused. I kept saying, “Wow! This is great. I am so glad you are here, but I don’t understand how this is possible. How can you be here, standing here in the yard, while the 30lbs of ash in a box upstairs is also you?”

Oh, dear goodness, this grief is deep and complicated, and exhausting. I breathe deep and sigh heavily as I continue to try to write it out, to express it, to extricate myself from it, to exorcise it, to be dispossessed of it.

I (almost) hesitated to share all of this because it feels like wallowing. I’ve tried everything in my grief toolbox and nothing is working. I feel ridiculous that I can’t get ahold of this. Snap out of it! But grief is slippery, slick. The harder I try to get-a-grip on it, the tighter I squeeze my hand around it, the faster it slips through my fingers.

On a recent Sunday, I was at church and absolutely fell apart, had to leave early actually. I could not contain myself. That has not happened in a long time, and it completely took me by surprise. It’s almost as if my entire grief experience thus far got compressed into this one holiday season, why?

Now would be a good time to grab a snack.

Here’s why. I *think*. Last Christmas, I was focused on just that Christmas. Just the one. As if I thought there was only going to be one Christmas without Paul, and all I had to do was just get through that one. I am shocked to discover this year that there will actually be many Christmases without him. Well, duh. And I’m not naïve. I realize families and relationships can and will change along the way. Who knows? I may even share a Christmas with someone else one day, but the realization that every Christmas for the rest of my life will not include Paul, physically include him, has completely overwhelmed me.

A friend of mine, a widow for nearly 20 years and happily remarried, shared with me that every Christmas she steals away for a quiet moment to remember and mourn for her first husband. That made my heart stop. I was taken aback by the reality of it all but also comforted, and I am so very thankful when others who have walked this path are willing to share their experiences and their heart with me.

Author and speaker, Jesse Brisendine, says that ‘grief is not a life sentence’. He tries to help people flip the switch on grief from despair to healing and honoring. I agree with so much of what he writes and shares, but I also see the other side. In a way, grief is a life sentence. Grieving is the commitment we make to continue living life without the person we loved. It’s the price, but the price to value ratio is up to us and how we choose to live out that life sentence. It can be done with hope and joy, or it can be done with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s like being in a prison cell with the key to the lock hanging clearly within sight and reach on a nail on the wall. We can let ourselves out. I can let myself out. What holds me back?

Go get another snack.

What holds me back is fear. Another precious friend of mine, who is also a widow and very much on this journey with me, recently remarked that the thought that life might just be going on without those we love here is really scary. Yes, it is. It is absolutely rock hard, stone cold terrifying. It is overwhelming to me and makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Fear is the first emotion that God’s people experienced after the fall. Genesis 3:10 reads, “And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy asserts that God gave us fear to keep us safe. God gave us fear because he knew we needed it. Courage is a matter of the heart. Courage is Gold Ring #1.

I have found great comfort in that short verse from Genesis; a verse I’ve read and heard a thousand times. I guess I was always so taken with the imagery of God walking in His garden that I never noticed those two little nuggets of wisdom that follow after their being afraid. First, they were afraid because they were naked, physically naked, but they were also emotionally exposed, fearful of their flaws being revealed and the possibility that their true selves, their true nature, might be rejected. Second, what does the verse tell me happens if I hide from the Lord as Adam and Eve did? If I hide from the Lord, He will come and find me. He will find me in my lowly state and protect me. He found Adam and Eve, assessed their state, and then banished them from the garden. Why? Not for punishment as it may have seemed to them from their perspective but for their protection. Because they had eaten from the tree of good and evil and now existed in a sinful, fallen state, if they had then eaten from the tree of life, they would have remained in that sinful state for eternity. In fact, the Lord placed cherubim around the tree of life and a flaming sword waving back and forth to keep them from it, to keep them from the danger of remaining in a sinful state, which is death, forever. Thank you, Jesus!

To say our modern life is increasing our fear and anxiety is not quite correct. Surely life was more stressful during, say, the middle ages. The constant threat of crop failure literally meant the death of one’s family by starvation. My stress, even in the difficulties I have faced, pales in comparison. So, if life is just as stressful or less so(!), than it has ever been, if there’s nothing new under the sun, then why is fear and anxiety more prevalent or perhaps not more prevalent but taking a greater toll on the human heart and soul? Because we are unplugged. Yes, un-plugged. We are disconnected from our fellow man, and it is damaging us. Worse than that, we are stiff necked about it. Our eyes are covered with scales and our ears are stopped. It’s a way of hiding. It’s Adam and Eve all over again. The solution is connection. The way around it is to have the courage to share our vulnerability and own it, to open our hearts to others. Connection is Gold Ring #2.

***

The tearing of robes or clothes is a common gesture throughout the Old Testament that is symbolic of mourning, pain of loss, or great distress. I was curious about the history of this practice, but apparently its origins are unclear as it’s been going on since before written language.  Rabbi Aron Moss concludes, “But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’-that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us. So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact. From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth; that souls never die.”

And in a stroke of metaphorical genius, the Old Testament prophet, Joel, encourages, no implores, us to “…rend your heart not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and he relents from sending calamity.”

Rend means to tear or wrench violently. Render is to provide or give, and of course, the more familiar surrender meaning to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent, submit to an authority, give up or hand over, and to abandon oneself entirely. The Lord wants us to turn our hearts over to Him, to tear our hearts open wide so that God’s light can shine into all the dark places. Surrender is Gold Ring #3.

***

2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

***

As I’m rounding out the second year without Paul, I can affirm that the second year is harder. I think it might be because the first year I was just trying to survive, but that’s not enough, right? We’re meant to live. We’re called to live and live fully, and that’s the hard part about the second year. Trying to live again. In a recent sermon, my pastor described the seven-fold gift of the spirit including piety, wisdom, understanding, council, might, fear, and knowledge. My pastor asserted that being FULLy alive is God’s standard for human living. Grabbing the brass ring or taking a shot at the brass ring is a phrase that has been used since the late 19th century and refers to striving for the highest prize or living life to the fullest. Striving to live a spirit filled life is Gold Ring #4.

In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden, asserts, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Salinger’s gold ring represents a striving for maturity. I may not be a kid, but I am a child of God. May it please Him that I continue to mature in faith and good works even though I may fall off from time to time. Growth is Gold Ring #5.

Luke 1:46-49 “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

Really, what more then is there to say? I’m sure I’ll think of something, Malia

The Camino – Day Three

Sarria to Portomarin, 16 miles

A brief recap. I left home on Thursday, flew to New York, missed my connection, slept in the airport Thursday night. I spent Friday morning in New York, determined to make lemonade out of the basket of lemons I had been handed. If the Museum of Modern Art is not on your bucket list, it should be. I saw so many works of art that I had only seen in books, but this was the star of the show. I’m not ashamed to admit that when I came around the corner and saw this beauty, I let out an audible gasp(!).

I left New York in the late afternoon and arrived in Madrid at about midnight EST. I, maybe, had four hours of fitful sleep in flight. It was about 6 AM in Spain when I boarded another flight and arrived in Santiago at almost 9 AM. I took a private transfer to make the 2 hour trip from Santiago to Sarria, and then, I started walking.

This was definitely not how I planned it. I intended to have a travel day and a good night’s sleep before the first walking day, but God’s plans are greater! Let me add this. Sometimes God’s plan hurts, hurts physically, hurts mentally, but grows us spiritually. Remember the Holy 2×4 I mentioned in the previous post? Compared to the other walkers that day, I got a late start so finishing the first 22.2 km in daylight was a concern. In a way, the first walking day was a race, not what this pilgrimage was intended to be at all, but God was already working to slow me down. I am so stubborn, though, that He had to work at it nearly the whole day (insert emoji of woman slapping her forehead). I finally stopped for a moment after the first 6 miles. I was already in pain, feet and knees, and a blister was forming on my heel. I could feel it, but I refused to take my shoes off. If I saw it, that would mean it was real, and I couldn’t let my mind accept that. I still had too far to go. After a short lunch break with only a few local cows to keep me company, I continued on.

Somewhere around the 11th mile, things were getting rough both physically and mentally. I begin to cry a little, to think of Paul and all the adventures we enjoyed together, all the things I had seen and experienced on this journey so far that I wanted to share with him but couldn’t. I was getting pretty low in spirit. I asked the Lord for help. Within minutes, he sent a helper, a lovely gentleman named Jesus. Yes, Jesus. We greeted each other, and he was about to continue on by me when I stumbled over a rock. I lost my footing and nearly fell but recovered. Jesus was by my side from that moment on, and we were soon joined by his friend, Ada. Both had traveled to the Camino from the Dominican Republic. We shared the last 5 miles and blessed each other in many ways. We listened to each other’s stories about why we walk. Ada’s story, like mine, includes illness (cancer) and loss. Jesus’ story is about his desire to inspire healthy living through nutrition and sustainable land-use throughout the Dominican Republic. Read more about his effort here. I just don’t know if I would have finished this leg without these beautiful helpers that God sent just when He knew I needed them. Maybe, hopefully, they needed me, too.

Here are some other takeaways from today.

The Camino is very well marked with signs and guideposts everywhere, but you have to look. So, too, God, fills our lives with signs and guideposts, but we have to look for them. First, look for them by reading the guidebook He’s provided, the Bible. God’s Word points the way. Some signs may be obvious, but others may be hard to see. You might even miss them if you’re not looking for them. That’s why we have to constantly seek God for His guidance through his Word and through prayer.

Reward, or something that we value, is often preceded by difficulty. The greater the difficulty the greater the value. Not 30 minutes into walking, after 48 hours of travel, little sleep, and still wearing the same clothes I wore to work on Thursday, I thought, “This was worth it.”

Sometimes you pass people. Sometimes they pass you. It’s OK. They catch up to you later when you have to stop, and you catch up to them later, too. It’s OK.

When you reach a high point, don’t forget to look back. The vista is spectacular. You can learn more about your experiences by looking back at the broader view rather than letting your mind and heart perceive it as a series of hurdles, or challenges, you passed through.

When the road is smooth, it’s appropriate to pick up the pace, but when things are tough, slow down. When you slow down, paradoxically, you might meet goals that you haven’t met before. Sometimes you have to slow down to achieve.

This journey we’re all on is not easy. You might even be injured or wounded along the way. That’s part of the process. Accept it.

And, finally, don’t be an ass. I’ll leave that one right there.

Until the next update, Malia