Minding our Mortality

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

It seemed innocent enough. It was, after all, just a Google Maps picture. But the picture in front of me made me gasp. I don’t know what I was expecting to see or how I could have expected a different reaction; it was and always will be my family’s home and Google seems to know that. My husband and I were showing one another the different houses we had lived in growing up by Googling our old addresses on the internet. Some of our former residences looked so small – compared to our memories of them from our childhoods. But this picture of a place and not so distant time in my life caught me unaware.

There before me was our home – not just a house – but my family’s last home as a family on a sunny mid-September day (according to Google). The lawn was freshly mown. The lawnmower sat in the shade waiting to be rolled back to its storage place under our deck. The garbage bin was awaiting one more dumping of grass clippings. The flower pots lining our front walkway dazzled with their patriotic display of red, white and blue petunias – Dad’s perennial planting.  Dad’s Buick sat in the garage and the SUV sat in the driveway – looking freshly washed. And if I looked hard enough, I swear I could see Dad sitting at his desk in the front window still wearing his sunhat and sunglasses and munching on an oatmeal raisin cookie with his afternoon cup of coffee.

To anyone driving by – such as the Googlecam car – 4150 Audubon Way was just an address to map. There were signs of them but there were no people. My family did not exist to whoever was driving by. It was sort of like the last picture I took of our home, only different. The Googlecam photo was void of life before death. My photo was void of the lives that once called this place home after death.

The Googlecam photo brought me back to a time before the lives of my parents ceased and reminded me once again that they and my family as I once knew it are gone – even though pieces and memories of them remain. It reminded me that I too, will one day be gone. The house I now live in will be void of my life. Who I am will no longer be. Indeed, we can try to forget, ignore, or deny that death is in our cards from the day we are born to the moment we draw our last breath – but no one escapes a final ending.

But death doesn’t just come at the end of our physical life. We experience it all along the road of life. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our lives as individuals come to an end. When a relationship ends a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. Death makes itself known in our failures, shattered dreams, and lost opportunities. Death haunts our regrets and disappointments. A part of us dies each time we betray ourselves and live contrary to who we truly are or want to be.

And yet, with each of these deaths, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Theologian John Caputo writes in his book, Hope Against Hope, that death is not a diminishment or negation of life but is its intensification. Our mortality is what gives our life its vitality. Death focuses our attention and forces us to prioritize what matters. Death does not diminish life’s value, it gives life value.

The overtly objective glimpse into the past of my life reminded me of its fleeting. There will never be another moment like the one captured for “map-eternity” or like the now I have right now. It reminded me that this moment, this now, is priceless. And of course, this caused me to ponder – even more deeply – is there really life in my life?

Is there life in the way I am living in this moment; in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing or just being? Am I bringing life to others or taking from theirs? Am I embracing the opportunities for life in those moments of death along life’s road? And if not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently?

Fortunately, the place I spend the majority of my nows – at least five days a week – Coco Enterprises – espouses a way of living that helps me give life to my life. Joe Coco built his financial planning practice on the foundational pillars of S.P.R.I.F.  – a model of living in which we guide our clients towards achieving balance in the areas of their lives that they value while striving for the same balance in our own. Though iconic and evoking an aura of power and Wall Street wealth, The Coco Enterprises logo consisting of five Greek pillars is actually meant to represent each pillar of S.P.R.I.F. – the Spiritual, Physical, Relational, Intellectual, and Financial components of our lives.  By aiming for balance, strength, and stability in each of these areas, Coco Enterprises employees and our clients live lives that flourish and inspire instead of lives encumbered with regret.

I try to employ the SPRIF model of living in my daily life and I add two more pillars to it – vocational and avocational. If I am spending too much of my focus and energy on any one of these aspects of life over a prolonged amount of time – I know am not giving life to my life but rather, pulling life from it.

What do YOU want to do with your life? How do you want to live? Will you have life before death?

The important point of giving life to life is not how you plan to improve yourself based on standards set by others – this sort of focused living invites us to a life tainted by fear, arrogance, pride, delusion, ignorance, denial, wounds and pain; a life filled with the illusions of success and accomplishments based on an unwinnable human race. We clamor for the public and passing opinions of others. In our quest to succeed we practice our life before others; hoping to be seen, recognized, and praised.

The joy of being seen, recognized, and praised by others feels good today but by tomorrow the shine will have worn away, and you’ll have to do more to achieve that same feeling of satisfaction and success. This is not putting life in your life. This is the presence of death in our lives – taking with it our joy in living.

The point is not to become obsessed by winning at the unwinnable human race. Having life in our life does not mean working really hard to always get it right or always having the answer. Having life in our life does not mean that we will always know what to do or be able to speak the right words. Having life in our life does not mean that we have to always be strong and in control.

We should try to do the right thing, make the best choices, and accomplish everything we set out do to but we must acknowledge that at some point – death will come and our quest for perfection and success in all things will have far less meaning to us and have been far less than life-giving. Having life in our life is about savoring all that we have in the now and accepting what we don’t. It’s about flavoring your life by sharing it and opening it to the lives of others – others who are living through life’s deaths before death – as well as giving life to life.

For me, the answer for giving life to my life and the only one whose standards can ordinate my life is Jesus. As an Episcopal priest recently shared with his congregation, Jesus never said, “I came that you might be a good, better, or an improved version of yourself.”

No, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That is the freeing truth of the gospel. Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls us to a meaningful life in the now, in this time and in this place. Life is now.

What does life before death mean to you? If you are given the opportunity to see this moment of your life through another’s eyes will you see life or death?

May the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes” inspire you to have life before death.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Live and let your light so shine!

“When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best…”

Tis the season of gratitude and the Hallmark Christmas Channel with a record 34 new merry movies guaranteed to move you between this Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now don’t get me wrong –  I love a good movie and I love the occasional good cry –  but to be perfectly honest with you – I watch the Hallmark movies for the commercials. Hallmark Greeting Card commercials rank right up there with the Budweiser Clydesdale’s Super Bowl commercials on the tear-jerk scale for me.

This year you can spend “Christmas in Evergreen” or “Christmas in Graceland” or even “Christmas at the Palace” for all you royal wedding buffs. You can be “Home for Christmas”, have a “Homegrown Christmas”, “Mingle All the Way” to “Merry Matrimony”, be “Just in Time for Christmas”, find “A Family for Christmas”, make “Christmas Cookies” or a “Christmas Connection”, share “Christmas Joy”, get cozy in the “Christmas Cottage” or find “Christmas Love” just to name a few.

But the one movie that takes the cake for me is getting “Hitched for the Holidays” because … well… I AM!!! (Well technically over Thanksgiving – but the two holidays seem to merge into one another anymore anyway.)  Never, never in my life did I think I would be the subject of a Hallmark Christmas Movie, but then again, as of late,  I have lived through all the requisite movie making ingredients: calamity, tragedy, sorrow, heartbreak, new home, new puppy, getting snowbound, surprise guests, a new chapter in life,  and now a fiancé for the holidays – someone I had pretty much thought didn’t exist for me (see the plot thickening already!!) not even 9 months ago – and if you are reading this story on November 17th  I will be walking down the aisle in my holiday best just 7 short days from now!

Now it wouldn’t be a Hallmark-worthy story without a bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure and so as I sit here during one of my less frazzled pre-wedding evenings – doing what I do best – remembering times gone by while paging through old photo albums and sharing Facebook memories – it has become obvious that Thanksgiving was NOT a photographic holiday in my family!!! I found 2 – TWO! pictures of my family at Thanksgiving – all taken in the last 6 years and one in a photo album. This is probably because I can recall many Thanksgivings when calamity reigned over peace in our kitchen and our meals were not always bubbling with joy. Broken casserole dishes, dry turkey, watery green bean casserole, arguments over Christmas lights – and when we could turn them on, and who was or wasn’t coming for dinner. Oh yes, we had separate Thanksgivings and silent Thanksgivings, soup for Thanksgiving, and yes, WONDERFUL Thanksgivings.

The last Thanksgiving my whole family was together was 2012. I never dreamed that would be the last one we celebrated together but it was. Illness, inclement weather, plans elsewhere, and death came between us in the following years. The last Thanksgiving we had with my Mom we didn’t have with Mom as she stayed home in “one of her moods” while the rest of us went to a relative’s house for the feast.  No, I never claimed we were a perfect family – but we loved each other even in the mess.

The year after that would be the last Thanksgiving I would have with my Dad and last year was the first one my brother and I had without either of our parents.

Every Hallmark Movie has a moral to the story and my morality lesson goes right to our mortality and the finite essence of life. I have learned that nothing – nothing can replace relationships – nothing is more important than family – and I must do a better job of nurturing the bonds I have with the people who have found their way into my life going forward. Love everyone at your table despite any irritations they might inflict and cherish every moment you have with them. Life is fleeting.  Forgiveness is a gift that should not be given sparingly, and as Eleanor Roosevelt once said – “The giving of love is an education in itself.”

This year I will be feasting on memories and giving thanks for lives well lived and a life still worth living. I will be celebrating the joining of two families as my fiancé, John and I become one of our own. We will be busy little premarital mice putting the finishing touches on our Scandinavian wedding day while entertaining out of town family for Thanksgiving. The turkey dinner has been ordered – so no drama will ensue in the kitchen this year but we will have plenty of opportunities for epic hilarity as burlap and wheat, lefse, lingonberries, and lox get thrown around the church fellowship hall.

We will have many romantic Hallmark-worthy moments and some not so memorable or romantic ones to come in the days and years ahead but one thing I know for sure – Getting Hitched for the Holidays is going to be the best story either of us will ever tell.

Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving!

Let your light so shine!

Thoughts on Today ~ August 14, 2018

Saying goodbye.

There was no spectacular sunrise to mark this momentous morning – rather I ran under a smoke muted sky with no overwhelming sense that today would be any different from yesterday – in fact, I almost forgot this anniversary, and yet I felt a spark of something, perhaps a reminiscent twitch of anticipation for the events of this day exactly five years ago. The actual activities of August 14, 2013 were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me however, that day and the ensuing days of settling in were the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new life.

Looking back, it seems like ages ago and yet just yesterday, when I stood still in the soft morning light of an Eastern Montana sunrise and breathed a weary sigh as I surveyed the pared down contents of 42-years of life stuffed into a trailer and the back of my Santa Fe. Saying good-bye seemed surreal; the actions felt imagined, my throat constricted with a twinge of guilt, and my stomach was a flutter with nerves.

As I pulled out of Billings bound for the far northwest corner of Montana, a heavy silence enveloped me despite my planned departure soundtrack of Neil Diamond tunes keeping my tears at bay. Gone was the chaotic din that was constant in my life for the past month of job leaving, possession packing, possession discarding, panic attacks, and the social commitments that came with saying good-bye.

So, this is it! Here I am world, I thought at the time. I felt emotionally exhausted and amazingly free. I had no idea what awaited me in the year and years to come. Yes, I expected change but nothing as dramatic as the changes to the entire dynamic of my life that would unfold. Little did I know that those last moments with my family in the early dawn light would be one of the last times we were all together and filled with happiness and hope.

Had my life so far prepared me for that moment of independence? Oh, YES! All at once, I was alone, truly and wonderfully alone for the first time in my life. I at once marveled and trembled at what was transpiring. I was leaving behind a life that was full of responsibility and friends. People of all walks in my community recognized me. I was leaving a well-paying job for what I hoped would be a career that used my talents and challenged me. I was leaving my history behind. Now I was free to be me.

Naturally, I am not the same woman today that I was that mid-August morning five years ago. I realize now that I am a very independent spirit with a heart that longs to be shared. My treks into the mountains seeking ever-higher peaks and grander vistas reflected the journey I was taking personally. After years of living a regimented work-a-day life, I discovered this crazy, wonderful, selfish desire to play! I still panic with realization that time slips away quickly and I wasted a lot of it in the past doing every-day, comfortable, and safe tasks rather than challenging myself, taking a few risks, and having fun. While I refused to be fenced in as I grew into this new sense of self, I desired boundary lines I could grasp onto from time to time, seeking direction and support.

In the five years since that moment of independence was celebrated, I have come to know the joys and sorrows of self-discovery. The things I once valued in life have been tested. I have come to know the depths of grief and heart break and had to navigate the roughest waters of my life on my own. I questioned my direction, my reason for being, the quality of my character, and the choices I made. In the wake of more loss than I had ever known in my life, the light that had always filled me was put out in the storm. I walked in darkness but fought for the light. I never doubted that God had a plan and purpose for this proving period of self-examination and self-revelation.

Eventually, I found my way again – led by a light that was so much brighter than the darkness that had enshrouded me. I learned to accept the compassion of others and as my spirit healed my horizons brightened and expanded.

Today, I walk stronger and surer of who I am – a child of God, a woman of faith, and journeyer of the heart. I am pursuing my passions and callings with a confidence  acquired through the fires of life.  Learning to share my heart again is where I am now. The independence I embraced 5 years ago bears little resemblance to the freedom to be, to love, and to grow that I live everyday now. Relationships matter so much more to me than the need for boundary lines and control. Each day presents an opportunity to enrich a life and mine in doing so. Yes, I get caught up in the chaos of life – one that is more wonderfully chaotic than I could ever have imagined it being when I pulled out of the driveway on that morning five years ago – yes, I can be overwhelmed by responsibilities and challenged by my choices – but the essence and outcome of both are positive growth and deepening commitment.

I am forever thanking God for the friendships that have crossed the miles with me and sustain me, my Flathead friends, who are more like family, who gathered around me as I learned to live again after deaths of my parents, and for my brother and sister-in-law who remind me of where I am from and what I am made of.

While I have known times of great loneliness in this adventure of independence,  today, I rejoice in the wonder of love and such happiness and belonging that I pinch myself. Life is certainly an interesting roller-coaster ride of emotions! I thank God for every tear and fit of laughter as each enrich my life with colors of the heart and make me feel alive.

The melancholy moments of longing for what was and the joyous highs of the adventures that lay before me can exhaust a person at times. I gather that is why life reveals itself to me on an as needed basis, a situation that reveals my lack of patience when it comes to my personal soul searching. Nevertheless, each day I awake with renewed vigor in my quest. What a book I will have to write before it all ends (I am obviously extending the publication date by years!)

Thank you, Lord for sustaining me through this journey, for filling me with the bread of life, and giving me wonderful hope in tomorrow. I cannot wait for the next chapter to begin!

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

“Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” Psalm 143-7-12

“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”  Isaiah 40:31

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

“So, I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 8:15

Let your light so shine!

Emboldened for Life

On a beautiful, warm, sunny morning one year ago today, I bid a final earthly farewell to my father. It was the most difficult day of my life since the other most difficult day of my life bidding my mother a final goodbye on a cold, rainy, snowy blustery day just one year before. The shining sun warmed the earth, a breeze carried the scent of trees in bloom, and the song of birds drifted gently in from afar –  a wonderful reunion was at hand!

As the day of honoring my father unfolded I was embraced with love from oh so many who had loved my dad. The rites, the acts of honor, the gatherings, the pleasantries – all served a purpose –  not only for my dad but for getting me through the day. The week of chaotic preparation – the obit writing, the slide show, the service planning, the cremation, the notifying, the receiving of others, the trying to make sure everything was done just right – had come to an end.

Every one that had surrounded my brother and I for the days preceding were getting on with their lives –  there were tee times to make and lawns to be mowed, groceries to be bought, work to get back to, weekend getaways to get on with.

It was then that the silence set in – the reality of it all came crashing down. Spending that night alone, in the house that had been a home to so much life gave powerful testimony to what I had lost. The emptiness was paralyzing. Having powered through my emotions for days the weight of grief suddenly buried me. It would do so for days, weeks, and months to come.

Looking back on this year now I have a much different perspective. The emptiness that accompanied me through life is starting to be filled with the joy of living again. The sorrow that still lingers is now appreciated for what it is – a tribute to the depth of love I have for my parents – rather than suffocating my will to live.

As a child I was terrified of the thought that one day my parents would die. I comforted myself by presuming that I would have my own family to attend to when those that had attended to me passed on; that the family life that I had known would be carried on through us.

That wasn’t to be. Rather, I was intended to make this journey on my own –  a solitary quest for life after death. By the grace of God and with the strength of the Holy Spirit I endured. I am a new person now molded by the revealing experience of death and emboldened to meet the opportunities of life.

“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.” – Isaiah 40:28-31

The Race

18489813_1590917990932793_6319657206837000823_oI think there should be a course on how to get through life after death. I can go days doing just fine and then I am hit with a day like today – a day like any other day except I am thrown off course by my aching heart. So many thoughts and memories flood over me: the last moments with my Dad, his last breath, watching the last bit of light left in his heavy-lidded eyes disappear, hearing his defibrillator keep his heart beating ever so slowly even after he was gone as I lay on his chest one last time – not ever wanting to forget what it felt like to be Daddy’s little girl with his arms wrapped around me; not making that call to my Mom the night before she died – saving my tales of mountain adventure and my words of love until the next day when I “had more time” only to learn the heart wrenching lesson that time is not ours to bargain with.
I try to run faster, to lose myself in the snowy landscape with the cadence of my feet hitting this lonely earth. Knowing I will never outrun these memories and the pain that accompanies them all the while knowing deep down that I don’t want to…
The fastest race we will ever run is the race of life – our time is fleeting, the most important facets of life become mere flickers of memory as days become months become years. I find myself reaching to the depths of my soul to remember my mother’s voice and Dad’s bear hugs. I want time to slow down so the distance between our life and last moments together is not so far and yet I want time to speed up so I don’t have to wait to be with them again.
One can get caught up in “if only’s” but that is not how races are run and won. I don’t think we can ever win the race of life – I just wish I had run mine better this far, that I hadn’t wasted energy on trivial matters. I wish I had paced myself to run with those who were in it with me instead of being so focused on my time and my destination.
Perhaps God wants us to figure this life after death thing out on our own. Perhaps He knows how proficient a teacher death is. Perhaps He knows that the race of life cannot be completed without death. Perhaps this race of life is simply preparing us for death and the only victory that really matters.
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”  – Isaiah 40: 28-31

Reflecting On Life through Death and Learning to Dance Again

“This is what the Lord says—  HE who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

We will all eventually die. Learning how to live in this mortal truth has transformed me from my soul to my song.

I have known death from a young age as I watched grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and yes, dogs – die. And, for a long long time – even though my faith was strong –  I was so very afraid of death –  not so much the thought of me dying – for my faith was and is strong –  but the thought of the living on after that must follow when those we love leave us. That inescapable truth was made resoundingly clear in my life this year. Fear and love are forever intertwined – life teaches us this, death makes it real.

It is not an easy truth to grasp – even for those who have watched loved ones die. When my mother died last year, I was not with her. Her death seemed surreal to me – still does at times. One moment she was there –  as I knew she always would be – and the next – I was on the other end of a phone call no one wants to make. Her death journey during Holy Week made it even more, how shall I say it, awe-some? That our ever-loving God would call home his sweet sparrow on the first day of Spring – Palm Sunday, that we would memorialize her on Good Friday, and celebrate her new life with Jesus on Easter Sunday seemed so fitting -and yet her death and our journey through it is one I still have difficulty grasping. Perhaps because we didn’t have the chance to mourn.

I was with father when he died, just over one year later. His death remains very much alive in me – almost as much as his life continues on in I me. I was there for his last breath, I saw the light leave his eyes, and felt the life leave his body. It is a feeling that has accompanied me to bed at night, in the pews at church, but mostly when I am out walking. That my Dad would die after a hard-fought battle with cancer and the rages of sudden onset Alzheimer’s left me numb and yet completely aware of every whisper of his life. The greatest man I had ever known was gone. With his death, I was awakened to the reality of life.

It is in death when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is about learning to live through death. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our life as individuals ceases. When a relationship ends – a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. And yet, with each of these deaths we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Indeed, in this year I have experienced many deaths. It has been the most sorrow-filled time of my entire life. I have never been one who could let go of people or things –  I am loyal and committed to the end – sometimes to my detriment. Saying good-bye does not come easy for me –  and I have had to say goodbye so many times to so many people and things this year (good grief I even sobbed when I closed the door on my apartment for the last time!) but sometimes we have to say good-bye to live again.

During my journey through grief this year I stumbled upon a gem of a book: “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” by Henri Nouwen. The title strikes me tonight, this eve of a New Year and the end of year that has left my heart ravaged and my life unfamiliar, because I have found myself dancing, yes DANCING this year away!  I am dancing once again as I reflect on a year of fear and love and the new life borne of them.

As I mourned my mother and father, I made peace with who I am now –  I can be no other than the daughter and woman God created through them 46 years ago. They raised me to shine a light in this world and shine it in honor and love for them I will!  This year, I found my voice and my place. Never have I felt so fulfilled and so right then when I am sharing God’s love and the Good News through Word and Sacrament.

Committing myself to doing more than simply following in Christ’s footsteps but going to wherever He leads me, has transformed my faith from one of rigor to one of complete awe, trust, and love.

As I said goodbye to my family home of 25 years in Billings and my little nest of 4 years in Whitefish, I embarked on a journey of independence and responsibility I hadn’t yet known – proud Columbia Falls home ownership – all in one month!

As I let go of one I was holding on to because I do not fail at love –  I discovered what self-love is all about –  the door to giving and receiving more love to others.

As I struggled with despair and loneliness, I was humbled before God and found that life is far richer when shared with others and that meant letting go of my need to control and my fear of failing and not just share my life with others but give my life to others.

And most of all, I learned yet again that sometimes with great sacrifice comes great reward –  that life is more than great running times and a good night’s sleep –  that puppies are worth lost mileage and every sleepless moment. That out of the ashes of life and death comes new light, new life, and great love. The Ember of my heart.

So yes, as another year passes, as another season of life dies away – I am carried into the new year by the melodies of new life showing me how good it is to dance once again.

Thank you, dear Lord for the lessons of death and the light of new life –  there for us each and every day.

May God bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you with mercy and grace and give you peace, joy, and new life in the New Year!

Let your light so shine!

An Equation for Life

“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3: 9-11

I have spent a considerable amount of time and paper this summer, contemplating the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life. As my brother and I sorted through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children) there were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things we had collected and held on to throughout the 60 years of my parent’s life together.

I shared with you my family home decluttering tales, the sentimental moments of nostalgia that flooded the basement with tears, the moments of shock that sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories at seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain priced for the estate sale. So much emotion devoted to things and the memories made with them.

If anything good can come from the deaths of one’s parents, it is the lessons we, that are left behind, go on living with about what life really is all about.

I recently read an article by Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy, in the New York Times in which he wrote about the equation of life that most of us are currently in the process of solving.

[Life] = [Money]

We spend all this time earning money to spend on stuff that makes up our lives. We swap our lives for money. In fact, we swap about 40,000 hours of our lives over 20 years for money which we then spend on stuff.

His equation morphed into this final assessment:

[Life] = [Stuff]

After my brother’s and my experience of cleaning out the family home of stuff this summer, I could not agree more! To be honest, I think there was way more than 40,000 hours of life swapped for stuff – more like a lifetime worth life swapped for stuff.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying everyone should stop working and earning money and buying things – goodness, things make life worthwhile –  to an extent. We are humans. We need things. As a civilized and domesticated human, I want things and frankly couldn’t live without things. A roof over my head is important, as is heat, clothing, food, and yes, for me a car. I know some people can get by in life without a car – there is a whole movement among the millennials to not own a vehicle – and more power to them! I however, cannot. I like my car and the rapid way it transports me to places I need or want to go. I like to have a comfortable and welcoming home – a remnant of sorts of the home I grew up in, I suppose, where collections created a story of our lives.  A nifty pair of boots make me happy when the weather turns cool.  The quest for things keeps our economy humming. When the economy stops humming most of us start moaning and groaning – so obviously, things have an important role to play in our lives.

But I will tell you right now – I would sell you the clothes off my back and everything I have acquired in my 20+ years of working, to have a few more moments with my mom and dad.

I recently ventured “home” one last time. The house has sold and I needed to gather the few remaining things that had been stuffed into my bedroom closet and pick up a few more things that remained in storage that would now occupy my new home. This was the first time I had stepped inside that house completely void of everything since the day we bought the house 28 years ago. I was 18 years old at that time. A new chapter was opening in my family’s life. Dad had just retired and was looking forward to years of golf and staying put for a change. Mom was looking forward to being close to family again and staying put for a change. It did not dawn on me at that time that this would be the house they would die in.  Standing in that empty house, I felt like a wildfire had come through and swept everything away. Stripped bare of the contents collected, “home” felt foreign to me – as if the 28 years of life lived inside these walls hadn’t happened. The emptiness was too much. I longed to page through the books my dad’s hands once held, and to light again, the candles my mom collected because candlelight always made our hearts glow. I longed for our blue and white dinner plates that served us dinner for 35 years, I longed for the scent of my dad’s Bay Rum and Aqua Velva after shave and my mom’s Bonn Street eau de toilette.  Those things were all gone. Sold and taken away to the stories of other people’s lives or simply gone and alive only in my memories. There was no comforting ticking of the old barn clock that had hung on every wall of every home my parents owned. Just silence.

Poignantly, some of things left behind in my closet were bundles and bundles of cards  – cards from my childhood – cards from friends telling me good bye and good luck as we prepared to move away. Cards from aunts and uncles and cards from Mom and Dad. Cards from when I turned 6 and turned sweet 16. Cards in honor of my confirmation and graduation. I tried to sort through them, thinking now was as good a time as ever to lighten my collection of stuff –  but the “to toss” pile never grew. I found myself clinging to every written word on every single card as a link to my past. I knew in these stacks of cards were some of the last words written to me by Mom and Dad. All I wanted was to see their handwriting telling me they loved me and how proud they were of their little girl. I will never receive one of those cards again.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things become a part of our lives.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how little those things matter in life.

Death has changed what I value. Those hand-written cards found in my closet have far more value to me than all the clothes I could ever want to hang there. The sale price of the family home means far less to me than the life once lived within its walls. And that is what makes my heart break.

We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I do not have enough. I did not invest the time I had with them wisely.

Having worked for a financial advisor for 4 years now one would think I would have this investing thing down pat. Well, from now on I plan to. I am refocusing my investments – not in things, not in money, but in life.  I am investing more time in living life.

I’m done swapping countless hours of life for things and empty existence. A few hours for a nifty pair of boots, ok – yes. The rest I plan to invest in the times of my life. Here’s my equation:

[Time] = [Life]

Aside from paying someone to mow my lawn – money can’t buy any of that.

“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.” – Ecclesiastes 3:12-14

The Body of Christ

As I sat in church this morning, reflecting on the cross, tears stung my eyes and my throat ached. The hubbub of families back in the pews after adventure-filled summers reminded me how important the church has been in my life for as long as I can remember. From my days when I couldn’t see over the pew when Mom was the organist and Dad, as always, was in charge of everything but the preaching, to my days in confirmation when Mom and Dad guided unruly 7th and 8th graders through Luther’s Catechism with other committed parents, to my days serving alongside Dad on council and the building committee –  the church, the congregation, the Body of Christ has always been foremost in our family life, even after Mom drew away.

 

Today it hit me hard. I will never look down the pew and see my Dad dressed in his Sunday attire again. I will never see him standing attentively and with authority at the back of the church in his standard ushering uniform of a green blazer, khaki dress pants, and Snoopy tie making sure the service ran smoothly –  so often at the expense of his own time with God. I will never see him walk forward with conviction and humility to receive the Bread of Life. Dad even celebrated his 80th birthday at a church meeting! Church is different now. My perspective of the cross has changed forever.

 

Mom has been gone for an impossible 18 months, and Dad an achingly short 5 months. At times it seems like just yesterday since I last looked into their eyes. Today as I watched families, young and old, gathering together as one in Christ, the emptiness inside me was almost more than I could bear – almost. Just as Jesus promised –  “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there” – and He was. Bearing me up, and showing me that this hubbub of family was my hubbub too Those families, that Body of Christ, is my family. Church will never be as I remember it, in the hey days of my family. The church to me now, will be as Christ envisioned it to be –  my family.

 

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for raising me in the Body of Christ, for giving me a family greater than blood. I love you and miss you so much.

Let your light so shine.

A Never-Ending Love Story

60 years ago, today, my mom and dad began an adventure in holy and everlasting, tried and true, in sickness and in health, happy and hilarious – matrimony in a sweltering hot Lutheran church in Conrad, MT. It was,by all accounts, a simply beautiful wedding that led to a simply solid marriage. My mother sewed her wedding dress, the flowers came from her neighbor’s garden, the cake and punch reception was served by the women auxiliary in the church basement, their honeymoon consisted of a night in Butte at my dad’s brother’s home on their way to their new home in Dillon as Dad had to get back to work.

Theirs was a marriage of love and friendship, faith and family, strife and strength, home and happiness. Being a good mix of Danish and Norwegian – they did not openly express their love for each other very often (except for this wonderful day 60 years ago). Reserved in their romance, we rarely saw them hold hands and I need less than 3 fingers to count the times I saw them kiss with any sort of passion. But I never doubted their love for each other, or for us. They expressed their love through devotion to each other and family.

They weren’t always happy – they were real. That reality made them stronger as husband and wife and made us stronger as a family. We saw that love endured testing and overpowered anger. We saw that faith combined with love produces a commitment that goes much deeper than the heart. We never wanted for anything – even though others lived more extravagant lives and had more adventures, nicer cars, games, and clothes. Our summer vacations were road trips to visit family with maybe a drive through a National Park on the way or a road trip to our next new home. Throughout our lives, Mom and Dad instilled in us a certitude that family was more important than anything.

Now that they are gone the void in my heart is extremely deep. Despite their good example – I have yet to create a family of my own. Perhaps because the standard they set is impossible for me to match? Nevertheless, the memories of their love, their living, and their faith that persevered and carried them through hardships and happiness will stay with me forever.

Mom and Dad, I wish we were celebrating with you – your marriage and the family you brought forth. Instead, we can rejoice that God gave you the greatest gift of all – everlasting life together. Your love story is never-ending, of that, I am certain.

Of Relics and Roots

“And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.” Colossians 2:7-9

I have been doing a lot of thinking about roots lately. And while, the lengths of the roots on the weeds I have been pulling out of my garden beds are pretty impressive and have been occupying much of my time, the roots filling my thoughts while I am busy pulling those weeds go much deeper.

I am blessed to have grown up in a family whose ties were strong between parent and child as well as past and present. There are times I wish I knew as much about my future (or even tomorrow) as I know about the past “pre-Erika” times. I was not fortunate to know any of my grandparents well. My grandfathers had long passed away before I was born. My mom’s mother died when I was in second grade and I had only a yearly visit from her to form any sort of relationship.  My dad’s mother died when I was in the fifth grade but I only saw her one time – when I was in kindergarten – as she had suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly 10 years, was in a nursing home, and we lived out of state. At that time, children didn’t visit people with Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, my parents did a good job of connecting me and my brother with our heritage – both ancestral and cultural. Scandinavia was very much alive and well in our household and in our upbringing. They also ensured, that no matter where we were or what circumstances we faced, that we had a firm foundation in our faith.

We were a rather nomadic family, moving on average every 3 or 4 years with my dad’s government job. My hometown of Rock Springs, WY was only home from my birth to 8 years of age. After that home was where we made it for however long my dad’s career allowed. We saw a variety of the country and I am a better person for it, but for me, being rooted meant being rooted in relationship – not place. My parents knew that too – all said, my parents had moved 23 times in their marriage before they finally retired to Billings and made that their final home. It was there that we finally planted roots of place and established a place we called “home.” Indeed, it was the one place (except for my brother who moved there after we did) that we had all lived for the longest period of our lives. For a family who was used to the transitory lifestyle, we quickly planted roots – deep ones – and for the first time in my life I felt the certainty of place.

I relished that certainty of place for 24 years. As you might imagine, moving to the Flathead 4 years ago, leaving my family and friends behind, was a pretty bold and daunting endeavor for me. However, I can honestly say I have grown more in heart, mind, and character in the last 4 years than I did in the entire 42 leading up to my move here.  I had secured a good job before coming (thanks Joe!) so I had some form of security when I arrived, but not much else.  I worked hard to integrate myself into the community and make new friends here. My little nest of an apartment kept me safe (although not always warm) and saw me through a lot of life – more than I ever expected to live through when I arrived. Times of sadness with the deaths of my dog and both of my parents, times of heart break, and times of frustrating illness along with times of immense mountaintop triumphs and the joys that come with living life fully, discovering my sense of self, and finding “my place” in this world.

I don’t think it is a coincidence at all, that I as I closed the door to my little nest of an apartment (it was a lofty 600 sf!) one last time – a place so full of personal discovery – that I would at the same time be forever severing the physical ties to my home of 24 years back in Billings. The belongings of my family’s past were sold in an estate sale last weekend and my “home” is now where I choose to make it – right here in the Flathead – which I did with the recent purchase of my first home.

The last time I stood in my home of over 24 years I had just laid my dad to rest 2 days prior. Despite the emptiness that surrounded me then, I found consolation in the familiar accessories and necessities that had followed my family from place to place – treasures from before I was even born.  There was a sense of normalcy seeing Dad’s executive desk strewn with various medical bills and memorial preparations; his beloved Ivan Doig books, Golf magazines, and Bibles that helped occupy his time still scattered about; dusty duck decoys; family portraits; treasured artwork; shoes tossed to the side; Dad’s walker propped against the wall; the living room furniture that held us through the best and worst of times – it was in the heart of our home where all our celebrations came to an end and as that week of sorrow came to a close, served as a sentimental time capsule of comfort – a collection of our very good life lived as a family and the last days of Dad’s life at home.  The older-than-my-dad grandfather clock which had withstood the flames of a barn fire and Morck family formation still ticked away the day and our Baldwin upright beckoned me to play one more song, though time would not allow. I had glanced around making sure I hadn’t left any of my belongings from the “week of death” behind, closed the front door, and hit the road. I didn’t know that it would be the last time I would ever see our home as home. I didn’t know that time capsule of comfort would only be saved to memory by a fleeting glance as I rushed to be on my way. I presumed I would be back for at least one last visit, one more living room session of sentiment, but as fate would have it, that wasn’t to be.

Seeing the house again, this time prepped for the estate sale with the contents of our family’s past marked at fair market value, was jarring to say the least. Treasures from my childhood, treasures I hadn’t seen in years were now on display – staged for effective sale in ways they were never meant to be. Gone was our homey kitchen and table that had served up so many family suppers and arguments. Gone was the cozy living room where Dad and I had that last cherished father-daughter talk late into the night on Thanksgiving. As fast as our lives fell apart in the ensuing months of illness and death, this place had always been a haven, a sanctuary of sentiment. Now it was just a stage from which the contents of our life would be sold.

I had driven to Billings the night before the estate sale was to start and arrived around midnight. My intent to make a fast perusal of the place to garner any items I may have missed putting aside after my dad’s funeral quickly came to a halt. Thoughts of what I might need or use in my new home suddenly seemed acerbic. The items before me had lost their value to me –  as I realized what made them treasures were the people who treasured them, not the items themselves. Rather than checking off my mental list of necessities I could grab (and save a buck – owning a home is expensive) I stood there and cried as I realized and remembered all I had lost. Aside from a few heirlooms and the prized and once lost Danish plates that the estate sale professionals found in their staging, not much would be coming to my new home with me.

***

I believe God has brought me to a very purposeful chapter in my life. It is time to start anew. Until now, I always had Billings as a fall back, a safety net, the home where I was always welcome. Now it is all up to me. For so long my life has been in two places on separate sides of the state.

It is hard to put down roots when you don’t know where home is. Until now, I was ok with that. Being rooted has consequences; it means you are claiming an identity of place. For four years I have struggled to claim where that place would be. How could I when “home” was still in Billings but I was here?

At some point on this year-long journey of grief book-ended by the deaths of my mother and father, I began to sense that the soil in the Flathead was fertile soil, a good place to plant roots. It is here that I will embrace the life God has called me to and truly live life – not live it in limbo. For too long I have been on an unrelenting quest to reshape my existence but never claiming it as my own. No longer. Now, as Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said: “Now with God’s help, I shall become myself.”

Now with God’s help, I shall find home, and in faith not in relics of the past, plant new roots.

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