Loving My Mother and Facing Myself, Anew

I have come to dread the second weekend in May, for the sadness it brings, the shame I feel for the envy I harbor, and the stark truths it reveals about me and my place in this world beginning from my first exuberant breath to this moment as I write of yet another Mother’s Day – survived.

Ours was a difficult relationship, but then, the things that matter most in life are not always easy. Nonetheless, I know my mother loved me as deeply as any mother could love a headstrong daughter. While I often wished we could have a relationship like those my friends enjoyed with their moms, one filled with lunch dates, laughter, and dreams for tomorrow – I came to accept that those things were not important to my Mom. Of course, there were wonderful memories – or I wouldn’t feel so conflicted about our relationship still today. She was a wonderful Brownie leader, tender of tummy aches, and mom to the wayward kids on the block. We became best buds when it was just the two of us for a cold Virginia winter when my dad was away on an extended trip and schooling and my brother was away at college. But my best and fondest memories of my mother and me together all occurred before I was 13. And then things began to change. I was growing up and those changes meant the world would also have an influence on me. I can count on one hand the times my mother and I had a joyful, in-depth conversation about life. Those we did have quickly deteriorated into expressions of her fears for what would happen to me “if” or judgment-tinged commentaries beginning and ending with “you are so much better than that.” I knew much more about how difficult her life was than whether or not she ever believed in me.

Ironically, it was in the throes of my 7-year dance with death a.k.a. Anorexia, that she began to encourage me, to tell me that those who were “judging” me simply didn’t understand, that she was thin too and was the envy of her friends and sisters. Even as I laid in ICU with less than a 30% chance of survival if a miracle didn’t happen, she “fought” against the “system” that was “failing at every step” to save me. Defending me when psychiatrists suggested a problem, denying that there was something wrong with her daughter. When I finally hit rock bottom, faced down death, and accepted the journey to wellness outside of my mother’s realm she refused to accompany me. As I boarded the plane to travel to my saving place – Remuda Ranch – all 78 pounds of me and still in critical condition, my mother was at home refusing to see me off. I remember looking back down the ramp – and seeing my father and godfather standing together with their utmost love veiled by a dread that they might not see me again shadowing their faces. The same two men whose frustration with me often led to bursts of anger because they couldn’t understand – now stood behind me in love.

After 4 rides in an ambulance and 7 years in and out of the hospital with my final stay lasting from New Year’s Eve until Memorial Day, my mother still insisted there was nothing wrong with me. I so wanted to believe that. For once we had something we could share! But that very thing joining us would prove fatal to me if it was allowed to continue. I was gone for 4 months. During that time Mom sent me care packages of piano music for me to play on the ranch’s grand piano, new dresses as I “outgrew” the ridiculously small ones she had sewn for me because nothing in any store any where would fit my skeletal body, and she wrote me notes that reminded me of the lunch box notes she would write me when I was a child – before her depressive anxiety began to take over her life.

When I returned home from treatment, I didn’t have a cent to my name. Having worked and paid my way through college what money I did have was depleted by astronomical medical bills. Insurance companies didn’t cover treatment for mental illness back then. So, I returned to the family home to begin life anew. I had changed. I had grown. I had a new story and a new perspective of myself. My mother had not. This would be a point of contention between us for the rest of our life together.

I have been in recovery now for 26 years. I am 64 pounds heavier today than I was at my lowest point. Though it was a pivotal point in our relationship, I do not blame my mother for what I went through. Psychiatrists coaxed me to believe that it was my mother at the root of my problems but I never once placed that onus on her. My eating disorder was a manifestation of my desperate need to have some sort of control in my life and be good at something. I mastered both. According to the plethora of doctors and specialists who worked on “my case” and the numerous studies asserting Anorexia (especially as extreme as my situation was) has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, I am a walking miracle but not one without scars. My eating disorder ravaged my body. 7 years of starvation will do that. I would learn that I could never have children, that my bones would forever be susceptible to breaks, that I must always, always treat food as a medium for life and not something that could bring me pleasure or cause me distress, and that well-meaning inquisitive people would always find my weight to be an acceptable conversation topic. Exercise had always been and remains my means of escape, my coping mechanism, and my Achilles heel. Told by doctors that the fact I was a runner with a strong heart was the only reason I survived the starvation-induced cardiac arrests (plural) – I remained certain that I could never do too much of a good thing. This too has been a hard-learned lesson as I continue down the never-ending road of recovery – and one I am still learning – 26 years in!

Counselors told me I needed to set boundaries on my relationship with my mother but how do you set boundaries between yourself and the person that gave life to you? While fences make good neighbors, boundaries do not address the conflicts that created the need for them. No matter the strife between us, I always loved my Mom as much as I felt beholden to her.

Mom, newly home after a stroke.

Finally putting a physical boundary of 400+ miles between my mother and me with my move to the Flathead changed the dynamic between us. On visits home, we still engaged in rapid-fire from time to time but during our long-distance phone conversations, rather than constantly butting heads with me, my Mom seemed to relish the fact that though I was living my own life and she could live vicariously through me in her old stomping grounds. How comically ironic that I would end up where she once lived “some of her happiest days” as a young woman right here where I am now. Sadly, by that point in her health and our relationship, our conversations never ventured much past the surface.

Perhaps we both gazed at this view – 50 years apart.

As I reflect on 50 years as my mother’s daughter my heart aches for the young woman I was and for the woman she was too. To think we are solely responsible for who we are is naivete at its worst. As I struggle with my own place in life right now, I have wondered just what brought her to be who she became to be.

Since my mother’s illness and death, I have learned much about what is important in life and the lesson has been painful. Past conflicts between us remained a barrier to my heart and have raked my heart ever since. The fact that my mother and I could not realize a reconciliation of any meaningful depth fills me with deep regret. Why had I not pursued this with my Mom sooner? My hopes are such that the pain and anger we inflicted on one another disappeared into her lost memories as I am not sure she could comprehend the feelings I wanted to express. Part of me feels at peace in the simple sweet conversations that we did share. Perhaps that is God’s grace reigning over my ineptitude. I have learned that life is finite. Its seasons far too short for anger, guilt, pride, and selfishness to linger in our relationships. Storms will come and we do not know when or how they will end.

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:

“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”

Solomon was wise. Life is meaningless if we do not tend to what truly matters. All the fun, work, accolades, and treasures of life we collect along the way are meaningless. What matters are the relationships we have; that our hearts are right with God; that we resolve conflicts with those we love; that they know they matter to us; and how very much we do indeed love them.

Reconciliation with my mother was a selfish goal of mine. But how much more powerful and life-giving it would have been had I been able to make peace with my mother while she was alive. Perhaps it is best and all I can hope for that my Mom and I pursued the springtime memories of our lives as we walked through her final winter together.

I last spoke to my mother on my 45th birthday, 18 days before she passed away. It was a conversation I will never forget. Aside from the fact she was upset that I would be celebrating alone and didn’t have a special dinner date she just kept saying all she wanted was for me to be happy and would I consider coming home. I kept telling her I was happy but I had too many mountains left to climb to think about coming home – but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her. I told her I loved her so very much. Her last words to me were: I love you and I just want you to be happy.

For all these reasons, Mother’s Day haunts me. This day of celebrating the gift of life that mothers give reminds me of all that I lost and all I will never be. There are times I see my mother’s nature of sadness in me – and it strikes a paralyzing fear in me that I might be following in her steps towards darkness. But I take comfort too, in that I am my mother’s daughter just as much as I am my father’s and my father loved her to the very end. As my Daddy’s girl, I know I will be okay. God has blessed me with tools of His light and my own life experiences to fight the darkness that robbed me of my mother’s best days.

One of Mom’s favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.

It has become one of my favorites, too.

Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings.

And when I do, I will sing because I know you are happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. I’ll smile at the sight of every sparrow because I’ll know you are right here, with me.

Dreams of Happiness

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” – Soren Kierkegaard

As I put my ponderings to paper, we are, unbelievably, more than halfway through the first month of the new year. More a date on the calendar than the reality of our lives and the world, the new year heralds a time of change, transition, and closure. Perhaps more so this year than any other new year I can remember, (I have had 49 of them and I still have not perfected the art of change) there was a universally felt glee with which we kicked 2020 to the curb and slammed the door on it for good measure. Some have gone as far as to refer to the cataclysmic, destructive, really bad dream that was 2020 half-jokingly as THE Apocalypse. And did so without realizing how right they were! The original definition of apocalypse – as one of my New Testament professors, Bart Ehrman, explains: is a disclosure or revelation of great knowledge. In religious and occult concepts, an apocalypse usually discloses something very important that was hidden or provides “A vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities.”

As I sit here with a little more than two weeks of distance from the year past (and in 2020 and apparently 2021, A LOT happens in two weeks) I dare say that the events and circumstances of 2020 were indeed great revealers; not just on global, national, political, and social levels but personally as well. 2020 gave me glimpses of truth that helped me start to make sense of my own reality.  Solitary confinement does wonders for engaging in the practices of self-reflection and self-rejection if you spend too much time in that “fun” house of mirrors. But it also provided a safe environment for soul searching and soul pruning – which when you are truly honest with yourself can be a particularly challenging and painful process. 2020 revealed how necessary deep and intentional reflection is and how difficult it is to sort through those revelations, both internal and external, to discern a truthful and positive way forward.

The unhappy person is never present to themself because they always live in the past or the future. – Soren Kierkegaard, Danish poet, author, philosopher, and theologian.

I don’t know about you, but I found myself spending a lot of my time this past year longing for the time before – the time before the pandemic, before things fell apart, before I said yes, before I said no, before Mom and Dad died, before I graduated kindergarten, insert your own past tense here.  When present times are difficult the past is a much more inviting place to reside – and with each passing day, the past becomes longer and more encompassing just as the future grows dim.  In the comfort of the past, you have seen it all and you know how to make it through each day. You are, in fact, living proof of that certainty, you tell yourself. And those days of yore seem so much brighter and clearer too, don’t they? The unknown before us does not feel too inviting. There are too many ifs, too many chances to fail, too many chances to be hurt again; the days ahead are just too unsettling compared to the days of before that you know.

And yet, those happy times that kept coming back to me over and over again this past year weren’t making me happy. On the contrary, they just made the present seem more depressing and the days ahead even more obscure. Truth: You cannot remember the future. Keep trying and you will not have one.

“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.”  ~ Jeremiah 6:16

Kierkegaard said that the more a man can forget, the greater the number of metamorphoses which his life can undergo; the more he can remember, the more divine his life becomes. My 2020 reflections helped me realize that I survived life. I know that sounds obvious from a 30,000-foot perspective, but when you are in the thick of things it is sometimes easy to forget that you survived that very past you long for.

The past I long for is what brought me to the moment I am in. Yes! At some point in my life, I had dreams and I chose to pursue them.

It was my dream for what could be that brought me to the point where I am today – searching in longing for the dreams I once had – or better – daring to dream the dreams I did that set me on the journey to today. When I was dreaming, my eyes, ears, and heart were open to the world around me, discovering things I had not known before and feeling safe despite the uncertainties that come with the unknown being discovered. Where did I get that feeling of security that allowed me to even dare to dream and where did it go?

In the fierce light of now, I find myself grounded in a reality more real than the illusions of what I dreamed of – searching for the hopeful, faith-filled, purpose-driven, and truly happy person I once was. My circumstances in 2020 exposed my fear of change, fear of losing control, my inability to trust, and my low opinion of myself. The dreamer I once was has since given too much power to the voices of the world to determine if I am admired, successful, attractive, courageous, and valued enough to be loved, to be worthy, to matter – to deserve to dream. The conditional nature of the world’s approval keeps me in a constant state of doing – trying and failing and trying again only to fail again because the conditions always change – the goalposts keep moving. I will never be enough by the world’s standards –  and the keyword here is BE. I am so busy doing that I have lost my sense of being and with that, my ability to dream. I forget that from my first breath to the core of my being, I was and am someone’s beloved. I was beloved in those rose-hued days long ago and I am beloved in the messiness of right now – without any doing on my part. Not a single condition is attached to this belovedness  – the only strings attached are the apron strings of God. And with God, I am free to dream.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139: 13-14

With God I do not have to be afraid, I do not have to grasp for and hold onto the only life I know, unwilling to change. With God, I do not have to believe in the ways of the world. With God, I can dream of tomorrow.

As Father Michael Marsh, of St Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde, TX wrote recently, “Dreams come to us.  We go on searches.”

Dreams urge us to go where we have never gone before and do what we’ve never done before. We can only search for what is already familiar and known – something we have lost or the life we used to have.

2020 served as a mirror for me to see the dilemma I have put myself in – stuck in my search for the way things used to be rather than how they might be; searching for what can never be again – instead of dreaming for what God has in store for me next. A hard reflection to find myself in at the moment – but it has given me a positive goal to work towards in 2021.

I will close with two guiding principles that will guide me through the uncertain days of dreaming ahead:

“I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.”  – Martin Luther

There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” – C.S. Lewis

Perhaps you might want to do some dreaming in 2021. Dream of a life yet to be revealed and trust that it is possible. Let go. Get up and go in faith. Dream!  Dare to dream! Happier days are ahead.

Let your light so shine!

“It’s Okay Not to Know Things.”

“(B)ecause as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, Dept Of Defense news briefing, 2-12-2002

“It’s okay not to know things.”  – Sesame Street’s Grover, NPR’s Morning Edition, 5-18-2020

“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you?” – Jesus

I graduated college with a  B. A. degree in Mass Communications and Political Science. As a former student of Mass Media and requisite news junkie for most of my life, the above two statements would normally be anathema to my ears. How can anyone exist in this world without the urge to know all the answers? It is our civic responsibility to be well-informed citizens of the world, and as one who grew up with dinnertime conversations around current events and reading news magazines and multiple newspapers a day for fun, I like to think that I know more than a few things about being a citizen of the world. But I have to admit, COVID-19 has shaken my well-informed certainty. I don’t know who or what to believe. I have fallen victim to the overload of information, pontification, and supposition that seems to be invading every newscast, social media feed, and friendly conversation.

Crisis moments call for strong, well-informed decisive actions. We want to know that someone is in charge and things are being managed. The trouble is, this pandemic has thrown us into two seemingly paradoxical states of being: disorientated chaos and intentional stopping. Most of us have one foot rooted in something trying to end while our other foot is caught mid-step waiting to land in a thing not yet defined, something waiting to begin. Normally, I like to be the one in control – I like to be the one in charge – at least of my own life – but I would not for one minute want to be the one in charge of managing this crisis for our community, our state, or our nation. I will not even fancy the idea of little ol’ me could doing a better job of handling this spiky red viral ball’s calamitous invasion of our lives.

And so that leaves me feeling rather unstable – not able or willing to control what is happening on the grander scale around me and not able to pursue the things that ground me – or if I am really honest with you – distract me from feeling ungrounded during this time of uncertainty. Nor am I able to rest in the way things are going to be or be okay with not knowing things.

When this pandemic began shutting our lives down and wreaking havoc on our economy and everything we hold dear – like relationships and accomplishments and dreams, I recall feeling unmoored.  I wrote about appreciating how very precious the present moment is. Yesterday has passed us by and tomorrow is going to be very different from today – if we get the chance to see it. The present moment is all we have for certain. And in this present moment we are told it is safer to be still – to not do what we normally do.

Well, we’ve been saying that for over three months now with no real end to the great unknown in sight. How long can we go on living in the present moment not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring? How do we navigate the unknown of today and tomorrow?

First, accept that this present moment is just the place we need to be and trust that what we are doing is enough. When this pandemic began, we hoped our industriousness, busyness, and surges of creativity and compassion would protect us from the difficult reality of COVID-19. We adopted new ways of being with one another, we banded together to celebrate front-line workers and survivors, and we learned to do our work in new and different ways. Even television commercials morphed into feel-good celebrations of a new way of living that none of us were quite ready to embrace. We have done good work but now we are reaching the limits of our own resourcefulness and knowledge. We must be willing to learn new things to replace the old things that have gone away.

This virus has brought chaos to the status quo. But study after study in relation to science and business show that in chaos, the components of living systems self-organize and cause new conditions to emerge. Use the disorientation in your life to your advantage. Rather than clinging to the old ways of doing things, find refreshment in the discovery of the new ways of being emerging in our lives. Letting go of the old way of doing things is painful – but if we cling to structures, identities, and relationships formed in our past we limit, pandemic or no pandemic, who we can become. There are parts in everyone’s lives that just need to die in order for new life, new experiences to spring forth. Take a risk and lean into the opportunity before you to redefine yourself and how you are going to be in this world.

Just as we let go of some of our old ways, we have every right to grieve what we have lost. We have also lost the connection with others that defines us as human beings – the celebrations and rituals that mark our journeys through life together. While difficult, this time of separation can inspire us to make our connections deeper and be more committed to maintaining the friendships and ties that bind us together going forward.

Many of us can no longer participate in the activities that gave richness and meaning to our life. While their absence no doubt leaves a great void in our daily lives, it also frees us to reexamine our lives without the distraction of our normal busyness. We can also reflect on what else we might pursue given the opportunity until we can once again resume that which once and still gives us joy.

Humans cannot exist without meaning. We have defined ourselves for too long by what we do instead of who we are and how we live with another. With every day of not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring and what part of normal we are ever going to get back to, I am redefining how I want to be in this world – even amidst the uncertainty of it all. What I do know for certain is who I am – that never changes – a beloved child of God. A child of God who wants to be at peace and can be at peace in a time such as this because I know from where my certainty can come.

Jesus said: “Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” (John 14:1-4) “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. (John 14:6)  – The Message

Jesus’ words are part of his promise to his followers before he went to the cross and continue to empower us to live in confidence in Jesus’ abiding presence today. These words come from someone well acquainted with isolation, sorrow, confusion, and disappointment; the One who took on flesh and shared our lot and our life so that we might know that God not only cares but that we may see that he does. These promises came from the One who hung on the cross to fulfill the promises he made throughout his life.

Amid the not knowing – amid your uncertainty, unsettledness, pain, grief, fear, confusion, and frustration at how messed up things are – perhaps these words can help you find promise in tomorrow and peace for now.  The God Jesus showed us throughout his life is not unmoved by our troubles or dispassionate towards our doubts. The God Jesus brings to us is not a distant God, but rather one who is engaged in our lives and committed to bringing us through all things. This is a God who took on all our trouble in the most visceral way to remind us that this present darkness does not get the last word and that this unsettled way we are living is not the final way.

Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the road alone. It’s okay not to know things when Jesus is guiding our way. He will help us find our new way of being and give us peace in the way things are going to be.

Let your light so shine!

Living the Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart… Try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them — and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

As I sat down to pen this seasonal reflection a feeling of melancholy was working its mirthless magic on my mood. My “Instrumental Christmas” playlist on Pandora was keen on playing songs to cry to, and the grey sky that hung low on the mountain outside my window further repressed the joy that should be dancing inside me. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me from the time I was a child and still is. My immediate family had a rich heritage of Christmas tradition, involvement in the church, and musical activities, and I have carried on in the same manner as best possible. Alas, much of my family is gone now and the rest live on the other side of this great big state of ours – so trying to recreate what once was just doesn’t have the same effect on the heart. But I have digressed from the story at hand…

In that state of melancholy, I dared make things excruciatingly worse by scrolling through the daily version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, also known as Facebook. After reminding myself that I rarely post about the tragedies going on in my life either, with a heavy sigh, I noticed a message waiting for me. And the rest really is one of the greatest stories ever told – at least in this month in this chapter in the book of my life!

Say what you will about Facebook but through its wonders, I was given a glimpse into the lives of my great grandmother, Emma Wilhelmine Pedersdatter Mørck and great grandfather Frederich Vilhelm Phaff Mørck, from a woman living in North Jutland, Denmark who happened across their photos and records in a family collection she was going through. She was inquiring as to whether I might know who she was as she was not related to anyone in her family. She found me on Facebook after finding my name on our Geni family tree. It turns out this woman is a bit of a genealogy buff and has access to all sorts of records. Denmark kept very good records on its populace and they are readily accessible to the public. – and so, I spent the better part of the weekend learning all about my father’s side of the family’s livelihood in Denmark. My father’s dad, Frederik Mørck immigrated to the US from Denmark around 1910 and was one of the founders of Antelope, MT. He died when my father was just six years old so all we really know is my grandfather’s story of arrival and settlement. It turns out my family in Denmark was quite wealthy and made their mark on Danish society with ownership of large farms and manors, working as merchants, millers, and grocers, and perhaps most importantly as the founders of Carlsberg beer (on my great grandmother’s side)!  That this woman would spend so much time researching my family history is quite something, and we are not even related. She presented me with a wonderful Christmas gift – a whole new perspective on life and my place in this grand timeline we are traveling on. I couldn’t help but wonder if Emma was as ponderous as I am? What did she think of her son leaving the homeland – never to return?

This unexpected gift gave me a new perspective as I reflected on life in the waning days of my 48th journey around the sun and the closing days of a decade that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before. In the last ten years, I found my voice, I took flight and moved west, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career, I faced down a frightening illness,  death made its presence known with the passing of both my parents and dog all within two years’ time, I bought my first home, I brought a new dog ( a gift from God) into my life, I found and lost love not once but twice, I got married and had a marriage end, and I fulfilled a dream that has carried me through much of this by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now with this new perspective on my past, I could look at it all through a much broader lens.

Miraculously, I still haven’t spotted a gray hair, but I don’t feel much wiser than I did at the cusp of this life-changing span of years. If anything, I find myself not only full of questions but questioning everything! I seem to have lost the certainty with which I once approached life except for the certain discomfort in the realization that I am not God and I have far less control over what happens in my life than I once thought. The transience of life itself – the impermanence of it all – is so disconcerting that it makes me wonder aloud to God and anyone else who will listen – just what on earth am I here for, anyway?

I know I am not alone in this eternal pondering – that is after all THE question behind every man’s search for meaning. It is what inspired the great thinkers of all time – whose wisdom at least brings a sort of perpetual empathy to our daily struggle, a ray of light into our present darkness.  And I am sure it may have been the inspiration behind my grandfather’s voyage to a new land and new life over a century ago. While I don’t know if he ever found the answers he was seeking, he did find life by living into the questions.

It is easy to let questions of meaning weigh heavy on your heart when an unexpected loss or an unimagined future takes away your certainty in life. Yet time immemorial has proven that despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. But as I wrote last month, life is not diminished by darkness or death, nor is it by uncertainty or the unimagined.  It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings are signs that everything is forever being made new.

Ten years ago, I could never have imagined the path my life would follow in this journey.  I’m quite certain there are aspects of your life today that you never imagined until suddenly they were a part of your life as well. Some good. Some bad. And yet we live on. The poet John Keats wrote about the difficult work of living with negative capability which is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason.

Life is unpredictable, unknown, and impermanent, but these very characteristics intensify life, heighten its value, and bring deeper meaning to our days. In the year ahead I am going to focus on living into the uncertain and unknown. Will you join me? It goes against our human nature and won’t be easy, but we can face the unknown in hope and with the promise that through it all we have Emmanuel, God with Us. Our greatest gift – God is with us – in our uncertainty and in our hope, in our unexpected present and our unimagined future. May this assurance live in your heart this Christmas and throughout your days.

A simple prayer for your uncertain days and years:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  –The Lutheran Book of Worship

Let your light so shine!

The Beauty Behind You

The day began with so much promise. Up before sunrise with a mountaintop destination in mind, I was filled with pre-hike exuberance. The sunrise confirmed every giddy emotion brewing within me as the long drive grew closer to an end. The forecast was a partly cloudy one with clearing skies by afternoon – a perfect photography setup in my book. A few clouds add interest to the landscape and cut the garish glare of sunlight. As I made my way to the trailhead I could feel the clamber of the world falling silent. I was early enough to have the trail to myself and my heart fluttered with the familiar sense of nerves that solo adventures always bring.

Lakes, waterfalls, rock formations, and plentiful wildlife awaited me and my camera. Morning sun highlighted the mountains and the low clouds that hung on my mountain top destination gave visual interest to the peaks surrounding me. Lakes shimmered in grey, gold, and deep blue hues reflecting the changing sky. I made my way in the soft morning breeze all the while dreaming of the incredible views that awaited me some 9 miles away. Surely the clouds would lift I kept thinking.  Surely the breeze and sunshine will burn them away. But the higher I climbed no such dissipation occurred. Instead, much to my chagrin, the wind seemed to be blowing in even more clouds.

By the time I reached the saddle my summit was invisible. My giddiness was quickly evaporating into a cloud of gloom. Confound it, I stammered to myself with an ache in my throat as I weighed my options. I thought back to my first ascent of her holy heights 3 prior climbs before and the reward of 360 views. Since that epic day in which I vowed to climb every peak I could see from on high, this mountain top has captivated me. Alas, on the next two attempts I was turned away by 60 + mph winds, thunder, and smoke so thick you slice it. This time I was determined to show the mountain who was boss and yet I felt defeated once again. All that work with nothing to show for it. And then I turned and looked back.

But wait! You are not supposed to do that! Not on the mountain and not in life! Boston – my all-time favorite rock band – hit number 4 on the Billboard Top 100 with their second album’s title track “Don’t Look Back” in 1978. One of my favorite theologians and thinkers, C.S. Lewis, in his infinite wisdom wrote: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Psychologists, TED talkers, and pithy Facebook posts give similar advice for those looking to make a success of themselves. “Never look back. Always take the next step forward.” “Don’t look back; you’re not going that way.” “Keep your eyes on the prize.”  “Move on.”

Despite the oft-quoted posit of George Santayana and retro-fitted versions of it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” conventional wisdom of late urges us to let go of the past and leave it there if we want to make any positive steps forward.

Or perhaps you are more inclined to philosophies of the present –  to live in the now – to embrace the present – to meditate on the moment. Leo Tolstoy wrote: “Remember then: there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”  And the ubiquitous Oprah tells us that, “Living in the moment means letting go of the past and not waiting for the future. It means living your life consciously, aware that each moment you breathe is a gift.”

Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that while life can only be understood backwards it must be lived forwards. I have been working hard to heed such time-spanning wisdom and keep these forward-thinking ideas forefront in my mind during challenging times of late – having been told I spend too much of my brain matter reflecting on what was, contemplating on past regrets and what could have been. Despite my deep faith and trust in the Lord, it is not in my nature to put too much stock in the future. I’ve had too many of my hopes dashed by the potholes of life. Indeed, my life would be much easier to navigate if my faith was as clear and strong as my 20/20 hindsight.

We all have moments in life when our exuberant determination for that which is before us is given a cold shower. When our drive for the summit is dampened by dark clouds of self-doubt. When our confidence is shaken by one too many missteps and it seems no matter how hard we try to move forward, it is a slow journey of one step forward and five steps back. It is tempting to give-in, to stay where we are, in the comfort of what we know – in other words – get stuck – or simply retreat.

Which is where I found myself at that saddle of disappointment below the cloud enshrouded summit. Facing the unknown above me, not being able to see past my hand, I stood bereft and pondered. Would I press forward to the top despite my dampened spirit or once again turn back?

As I turned around with my eyes no longer focused on the destination in front of me, I was stunned by what I saw. The valley below me was bathed in sunlight and I saw how far I had come. I saw how far I had come!!

I was captivated! I was stirred. I was energized by my new perspective and I was oddly motivated to press on!

Up, up, up I climbed with my head quite literally in the clouds. I met a lovely ram and his darlings halfway up and then the clouds really started to get low. My eyes began to play tricks on me and I had moments of doubt when I lost the trail. I pressed on. I was not going to let the weather deny me! Not this time. I saw what I thought was a bear causing my heart to stop – only to go faint with relief when it turned out to be a really fat marmot whose girth was amplified by the fog!! A few times the sun tried to shine turning my surroundings into an ethereal misty white – giving me a glimpse of what it must be like on our way to heaven – only to turn a thick soupy gray again.

Up, up, up I went and suddenly, just like that, I was at the top. While I had arrived – you could have fooled me! The air was strangely still atop the mountain after being buffeted by gale-force winds the entire hike up. The swirling abyss surrounding me seemed to buffer sound and was oddly tempting. Indeed, the thought crossed my mind – one could easily plunge off the edge into the marshmallow world – but I had too much to live for! I had accomplished my goal – thanks to looking back.

When we are stuck in the muck of the present, unsure of how to move forward with dark clouds diminishing the promise of what lays before us, how often do we turn around and see how far we have come?

It is only when we look back on our lives that we can truly comprehend the journey we have been on and give thanks for the important lessons we have learned and the people we have met along the way.

It is those lessons and those relationships that allow us, prepare us, and propel us forward in life even as we do not know what tomorrow will bring – let alone comprehend it. Yes, our past does define us but it doesn’t have to confine you. Who you are today is the product of the experiences you couldn’t comprehend or appreciate yesterday.

If you find yourself unable to move forward in life, I encourage you to take some time to look back and appreciate the beauty behind you. Embracing how far you have come may be just what you need to head out strong for the rest of your journey.

Boston sang it best:

It’s a bright horizon (ooh, and I’m awakin’ now)

Oh, I see myself in a brand new way

The sun is shinin’ (ooh, the clouds are breakin’)

‘Cause I can’t lose now, there’s no game to play

 

I can tell there’s no more time left to criticize

I’ve seen what I could not recognize

Everything in my life was leading me on

But I can be strong, oh, yes, I can

 

I finally see the dawn arrivin’

I see beyond the road I’m drivin’

Ooh, far away and left behind, left behind

Let your light so shine!

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

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