Wednesday, November 6, 2019

This Little Light of Mine

Every year for many years, my mom has organized a county-wide Christian women's retreat in East Tennessee. When I've been able to attend, I've participated in various ways; I've photographed and sung and taught breakout sessions, and this past year I was a main speaker. The theme was fear. I went into the situation feeling like I had some thoughts to contribute.

Generally, I feel tired after speaking; in recent years, I've noticed I feel tired even after teaching, but the fatigue that set in after this event may have been unprecedented. I was motivated to drive home that evening (and was rewarded, later, for making that decision) but needed to stop several times on the three-hour trip just to stay awake. I felt exhausted and heavy, awkward and almost bruised, like I'd fallen or run into a wall.

As time passed, every time I thought about my part in the event, I felt...icky. I'm generally confident in my words, so my discomfort was unusual. I was sure I'd said the wrong things in the wrong way with the wrong spirit. I suspected I'd been controversial, possibly offensive. I tried not to agonize or even mull over the situation, but for months, it was in the back of my mind, bothering me.

Then I allowed someone's words to wound me. I don't know this person but had known for years that I disagreed with some of his theology, so I have no idea why I internalized what he said...unless because I was already so busy second-guessing myself.

Two months after the retreat, my mom came to visit. She happened to have with her the recording of the event, and I asked to listen to my part. I can't express how much I dreaded hearing myself but had been so unusually miserable that I felt sure I'd said something for which I needed to repent. I just wanted to identify it and move forward. I cringed as my mom pressed play.

Listening to myself was an interesting exercise because I heard nothing to regret. Of course there was room for improvement (There always is!), but I didn't hear anything like what I'd expected. Instead, I heard myself trying to find points of agreement and connection, taking special care not to disparage others. I heard myself sharing active pain and struggle, also some hard-won wisdom. I was especially interested in the points at which I'd gone off script because it seemed possible to me that someone really needed to hear the things I hadn't planned to say. What a relief! How much energy, I wonder, had I wasted by allowing my mind to play tricks on me?

I have always blogged to write myself down for my children, and if that's all I accomplish with this post, I will be satisfied. But this is what I want to share, today, and it's nothing new:

Let your light shine.

If you're in Christ, allow the Spirit within you to be your guide. Allow God to open your mouth and give you words. You will know when it's time to speak and what to say. No one can better advise or inform you than God within you. You will know if your message is true, and if it is, don't second-guess it.

Your pain is not off limits; in fact, your pain is your power. It just takes practice to know how to use it! If you practice enough, your pain will light your way into spaces you never imagined. You'll look around, and no one else will be there to do the work that needs done. There will be no competition; no one else will even want to do it. You may not want to do it, yourself, but you will know it to be your work, and you will be equipped to complete it.

Those who are wise in Christ know: in the Kingdom, we are short-handed. (The harvest is great, but the laborers are few.) There simply aren't enough willing hands. There is far more to do than what is being accomplished. Be inspired: you are desperately needed! Stay in the Spirit, and get to work.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Waiting by the Berry Bush

This blog will be nine years old in less than two weeks, but it has been well over a year since I've written anything new in this space. Cade asked me about my writing, recently, and I think maybe that's what I needed: for him to ask. I think I've relied on his interest in my writing more than I'd realized; I think, as fellow creatives, we've nudged one another forward for a long time, and when we didn't (or couldn't), we both struggled creatively. I did, at least.

But what I told Cade when he asked about my writing is also true: that for awhile, his plot line was the most engrossing one in the story of my life, and I didn't feel free to write it; patient enough to somehow disguise it; and certainly not inauthentic enough to avoid it in my writing. I still don't.

Imagine the two of us, though, in the very back of our new yard where, at dusk, the bunnies slip from a blackberry bush to taunt Lucy the Beagle. Lucy is a hunter's reject, but maybe she's been healed in our home, as I witnessed her chasing a rabbit just two days ago. At any rate, imagine it: Lucy has darted around Cade's feet and out the door, and almost five years into our relationship with the dog, we all know her bright heart; we know she can smell her way home, that she will return if she can. But we don't know most of our neighbors (or their dogs), and there's no area code on Lucy's collar; we know no one who might find her could guess it. Meanwhile, cars zip by on Old 109.

Cade is especially close to Clementine, and Lucy is Clementine's dog. Clementine is struggling with the move more than the rest of us put together, and she's in the house sobbing at the thought of losing her one. last. friend. At the back of the yard, I recognize Cade's discomfort, although most of you wouldn't; he's quiet, as always. He could be a rabbit, himself, for the way he holds himself alert and listens for the bay of the dog, looks intently into the brush for the white tip of her tail even as I have settled down in the grass, to wait.

"Do you think I should go in after her?" he asks.

"No," I say gently, "it's not a good idea. There are sure to be snakes in there."

"Don't you care about Lucy?" he snaps, uncharacteristically. "You don't even seem upset."

"I care," I say. "I'm praying. Are you praying?"

"Yes," he says quietly, "I am."

Much later, after the dog is safely home, after Clementine has stopped crying and gone off to sleep along with her younger siblings (and Lucy, exhausted by her great bunny chase), Cade and I sit quietly among our books. "You know how, earlier, I didn't get as upset as you'd expected?" I ask him.

He looks up and nods. His great, grey eyes search my face.

"That's what parenting you has taught me," I say. "It's taught me not to get upset until I know there's something to get upset about. Papaw tried to tell me, but I had to learn it for myself. Parenting you has taught me not to make things worse by getting upset. It's taught me not to waste my energy. It's taught me that--when you're out of my hands--I need to wait and pray for you to come safely home, that maybe you will, that maybe everything will be okay."

Cade nods again, slowly, and holds my gaze long enough for me to know he knows. Then he turns his eyes back toward his book. The chemistry between us is right; it is what it was for 17.5 years and what it wasn't for two years, and in a nutshell, what I really want to share is how I understand more, now, about beauty from ashes than I ever did, before. About David's Ziklag. There were moments in which I honestly didn't know if we would survive, and you want to believe I'm being melodramatic, but even if you've been close, you haven't seen through my eyes. It has only been by God's hand that we have made our way, here, to this good place; it is a mighty hand.

I can breathe, again. Maybe even write.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Thoughts on Breaking

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. Ernest HemingwayA Farewell to Arms, 1929

Here we are, halfway through the year. My oldest child graduated from high school, last month. Many people have asked how I'm doing in light of that, and I've explained: his graduation felt a bit anticlimactic, as he'd moved out at the beginning of the year. He left the nest a solid nine months earlier than I had expected, and the whole situation not only caught me off guard but also devastated me. I grieved like I never had before.

The fact is: I had been struggling with depression and anxiety for years but had stubbornly refused medication. I had worked with therapists, read/studied on my own, and consumed mass quantities of krill oil in an effort to maintain control of my emotions, but the situation with my son pushed me over the edge. I couldn't stop crying. For the first time, I didn't want to be in my own company. I simply didn't want to be with myself.

At the beginning of March, I asked my doctor for medication. He warned me that it might take awhile to work, but from the outset, it did what I needed it to do. I stopped crying. I had no high emotion of any kind: what a profound relief!

I understand, now, that high emotion was the force behind my creativity, and my creative pursuits have taken a huge hit. I've written very little. I've taken photos but have edited very few of them. I haven't read much, either, although I committed last fall to reading through the Bible in 2018, and I've kept up with that goal.

I've been very motivated to move. I'm working out regularly and have lost about twenty-five pounds. I've also made a good deal of progress in my home in terms of purging, organizing, and cleaning. It's been very interesting that so many of the things I wanted to do before are things I don't want to do, now, and vice versa. Overall, I am much happier, now. I don't know what the future holds, but I don't miss my leaking eyes or racing heart. I don't miss fear. I don't miss rage.

I look at this as God's working all things to my good. Last fall, before I had experienced crisis, I was considering how many books I'd read in 2017 and felt suddenly convicted that I'd never read through the Bible. I don't believe that conviction was random but, instead, God's seeing ahead and providing for my year.

I could tell you a million stories like this. The word I chose for the year was "star." I didn't know why unless it was because of something my friend Rachel Britz had said. A couple weeks ago, I was biking upstairs in the gym, thinking and wondering about my word, and the gym's logo caught my eye: a giant star. I just smiled and kept pedaling.

"Differentiation" was my word for a year or two, and maybe I've finally learned it. I've learned that I can't control other people. Anyone I know could turn against or abandon me at any time. No matter what happens, I will be stuck with myself and inside of my body until I'm not. Finally, I understand the importance of being okay with that.

So many men have tried to break me, and in the end, no one could do it like the one I bore, as--this is almost funny--I had not expected him to behave outside of the manner in which he had always behaved, the manner in which I had raised him. I'm not angry with him, as God has always used my son to grow and change me. There's no one I love more; grief has always been the flip side of love; and mostly, I'm just thankful that we're both still here, that we're okay.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Safe Place

My brain tends to see big pictures over details. My brain can, does, and will see details and how they work together, but only with concentrated effort that absolutely zaps my energy. It's difficult to explain to those whose brains work differently, but here's an example of how my brain works (and doesn't).

My daughters' Girl Scout leader provided me with a list of items to pack for a camping trip. I love it when planner-type people provide me with lists because--while I don't make them, ever--I understand that following them will help me organize and prepare. One of the items on the list was a rocket stove. Another item was a pot. I packed both items and crossed them off the list. It never dawned on me that my pot should be an appropriate size for the little rocket stove. I grabbed a big pot because I have a big family. (My big family is my big picture.) Goofs like this make me appear lacking in common sense (or worse), but I get by with a little help from my friends; details just aren't my thing.

Anyway. My youngest first cousin had asked me to take her senior casuals, and I was in route to her when the passenger-side window in my van shattered and fell out. I tried to reschedule for this past Saturday, but she had prom, so I asked about Sunday (yesterday). She reminded me about its being Mother's Day but said they were okay with it if I were, and I was. My mom's out-of-state (and on vacation, besides); my mother-in-law and grandmas are in heaven; and I figured I would be able to go to church with my kids before heading north.

The trip up was supposed to take less than four hours but took 5.5 with traffic/accidents/construction. I was concerned about our losing light, and a storm was rolling in; in fact, it was supposed to start raining thirty minutes after my arrival. I reminded myself that I work best under pressure, which is true and the great up-side to having a brain like mine: a brain so accustomed to things being amiss with details that it is able to stay focused on the big picture and just get the job done.

I took photos of my cousin around the creek, in front of what used to be our grandma's house, and all around the barn. As we were finishing up, my cousin said she wanted to get a few photos at the end of the road, so we drove and parked there. That's when I felt God say something to me like: "Look, Brandee! For Mother's Day, I brought you to your safe place!"

And it was true; in fact, my mom, friends, and I had been on retreat together in April, and we were led through a visualization exercise in which we were supposed to go to our safe place. I felt caught off guard and pinged around like a white ball in my mind: where am I? where am I? until I found myself on the road in front of the house where my grandma used to live. Yesterday, on Mother's Day, I was there for real with my aunt (my second mother) and cousin.

Some day I will tell you about the rest of the visualization exercise, but for now I will just say: my grandparents were (and are) central to my walk with Christ, and rain didn't fall on their old property, yesterday, for the entire hour we took photos.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

To Cade, on Your 18th Birthday

Dear Cade,

Walt Whitman wrote in an 1855-56 journal entry: "Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself. Understand that you cannot keep out of your writing the indication of the evil or shallowness you entertain in yourself. [What you love, think, grudge, doubt, etc....] will appear by what you leave unsaid more than by what you say. There is no trick or cunning, no art or recipe, by which you can have in your writing what you do not possess in yourself." I have carried this quote with me since before I carried you, and I have waited to write certain things (about my story, not yours) because I want the heat to be gone. I will not write certain things in anger, and I will not try to write them around anger because it's impossible.

What I really want to tell you about the Whitman quote, though, is I think the word "children" could almost be substituted for the word "writing." It's not a perfect analogy; still, in reading Genesis, we have an airplane's view of some of the earliest people, and sad to say, they run together a bit. They're all the same. Each generation seems to make the same mistakes as the generation before.

The seventeenth year of your life will go down in history as the year in which I learned: you didn't fall far from anybody's tree, either. I guess it had seemed for about 17.5 years that you miraculously embodied all of your dad's and my positive qualities and none of the especially negative ones. But the negative qualities are there, too. You are--for the most part, for good or ill--your dad and me thrown into a bag and shaken.

Here's the bad news: you are imperfect. Sinful, even.

Here's the good news: you know your dad and me. We, your parents, have been 100% present, so you know our weaknesses, mistakes, sins. Surely you can do a bit better than we have done. Surely you can do a bit better than you have done.

Here's more good news: if you read Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings," you'll see that ease and perfection don't make for a particularly gripping story. Also, Enoch. "[He] walked with God: and he was not; for God took him" (Genesis 5:24). There's not much more to Enoch's story. Admittedly, he fathered Methuselah and a bunch of other kids; otherwise, what a snooze. There's not much of a plot when there's no trouble.

And here's the best news of all: Jesus.

I love you. I haven't fallen far from anyone's tree, myself. I am like your nana: I love my children without condition. There is nothing you can do or say to make me stop loving you. Also, I am like your papaw: I have my convictions. I will neither support your terrible decisions nor play pretty with anyone who does or means you harm. I have pressed further into my own character over these painful months. Don't you remember Liz Rosenburg's Monster Mama? We read it over and over when you were a little boy; we knew it by heart. "I am your mother, even if I am a monster."

I have been your "fast-moving freight train" for eighteen years. I am weary. I recognize that it's past time for boundaries: that you must learn to take care of yourself. I pray you'll be fearless like Patrick Edward; "use your powers for good, never for evil"; "remember that strength is for the wise, not the reckless"; and be proud and defensive, always, of your mother.

Happy manhood. I love you. What have I said. What haven't I


You know where to find me.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

What 2017 Can Keep, For Real

Our nativity set is nothing nice. I bought most of it years ago: in Plant City, if I recall correctly, on a trip to visit my friend Erin. I picked up several other characters, this year, at a yard sale. Most of the pieces look old as the hills, but Joseph and an angel in garish pink are made of plastic or rubber or some such, so how old can they possibly be? Also, given that Joseph is made of a nonbreakable material, how did he come to lose a hand?

One of the wise men is a gentleman of color, and another looks Asian, and I'm thankful for that little bit of diversity in our nativity set but am well aware that the other characters need not be quite so white-looking. The third wise man is a dead ringer for Santa Claus: if Santa ever wore purple, that is. (I guess we all know the wise men didn't actually visit Jesus while he was a baby?) Then there's this one guy who just sits there like Buddha. He has neither gift nor staff, so I'm not sure what his deal is. He looks like a listener and reminds me, therefore, of Mary of Bethany; I like him.

There are lots of animals. The three sheep spent the holiday season in the loft, this year. One of them has some patchy fuzz on its ceramic back. A cow and donkey have chipped ears. My kids play with our nativity set, which goes to the fact that it's nothing nice, also to the fact that it means something to me.

It doesn't mean something to me because it's nice (it's not) or historically accurate (it's not) but because my kids have played with it: because they have placed Baby Jesus in the center and marched all the other pieces to Him over and over, not to mention other random characters; one year, there was an elephant, a tin man, and a police officer.

But what I really want to tell you about our nativity set is that--this year, when we decorated for Christmas on December 4th--Baby Jesus was missing. This immediately took me back to a Christmas in Dallas when I was married to Cade's dad and before I had children. I don't remember anything about that nativity set, which would've been different than the current one. I do remember telling my dad over the phone that Baby Jesus was missing, and I remember his saying something like: "Well, if you think about it, Baby Jesus shouldn't be in there before Christmas morning, anyway," which is such a quintessential Carl Shafer response (and made me feel so much better in the moment) that it stuck with me.

Anyway, Baby Jesus's cardboard cradle was empty, this year, and the funny thing is that my sister-cousin Andrea was here while we were decorating, and she said: "Brandee Renee, you're not going to believe this, but I have a Baby Jesus--only a Baby Jesus--at my place, and He looks like He goes with your set, and you can have Him; do you think He was yours at one point?" (We kicked this around and determined that her Baby Jesus was never mine, but she eventually sent Him anyway, and she was right: He fit in perfectly.)

Then, over the next few days, my whole world pretty much exploded. I'm sure that sounds melodramatic, and maybe it is, but I was absolutely cast into the sort of crisis that had me thanking God for every terrible thing that had ever happened to me because I truly believed that--if this were the first terrible thing--I wouldn't be surviving it. I would drive for an hour, listing aloud old horrors through which God had sustained me in the past. It was one of very few things that made me feel better.

Our Christmas plans were in many ways jacked (the perfect adjective for several reasons). Jim and I did what we needed to do for the little kids, and things would've been worse were it not for Christmas Eve service at church and the dear friends who took it upon themselves to distract us two nights in a row; still, I was hanging on by a thread. I cancelled our big annual trip to Tennessee and surprisingly had nary a feeling about it, which (trust me) was not me.

The other thing I should mention is that we experienced a sudden infestation of mice in our log cabin. I kid you not: while we were in the middle of a true, family crisis, Jim trapped seven mice in our house. Seven. One morning, Jim videoed a mouse playing with a marker underneath the sink. ("What was that about?" my friend Christy asked. "Arts and crafts time for mice?") I'd never in my life seen anything like it, but the even crazier thing is that--while I would've told you before that moment that I was musophobic--I didn't have a feeling about the mice at all. I just...truly...couldn't care about anything other than the bigger crisis. I thought the mouse in the video was kind of cute. I wondered if Jim had killed the Christmas mouse; I felt a little guilty about it. (I should mention that Jim found and filled a hole in our pantry, so we think the problem has been solved.)

If you're still here, this is what I want to tell you. This is what I laid down over these holidays, and this is what 2017 can keep. 1) I laid down my fear of mice. 2) I laid down my expectations of Christmas traditions. All my life, I'd been caught up in how Christmas should be, and now I finally get it: none of that matters.

To put a fine point on it, I finally understand that the purpose of Christmas isn't a family gathering. It. just. isn't.

My kids are going to grow up, and I'm not going to be that mother or grandmother who insists that certain things happen at certain times. My parents have been good role models in this.

What's important about Christmas is that Jesus came...and why He came. (I guess we all know He didn't actually come on December 25th?) If we find ourselves wrecked on December 25th, well, that's why He came. He came because we're poor and brokenhearted and blind and bruised...and lost. He came because we need Him, and our need of Him is always great, but I saw it more than ever, this Christmas, because I was terrified, and all my hope--every little bit of my hope--was in Him.

We found our Baby Jesus after Christmas; He was in one of the girls' dresser drawers. I texted Andrea to tell her she could have her Baby Jesus back; she said she doesn't want Him without all the others, so best that we consider Him a little sibling or something. That's silly, but it doesn't matter. So many things don't.

He can't not come, Jesus, because He already has. And that's what's important about Christmas: that it's already happened...that it can't be undone...that, in Jesus, we always win in the end.

Friday, December 29, 2017

What Happens When You Get Lost

My Oldest. Almost eighteen.

Years ago, I attended the memorial service of a man who had changed my life and the lives of many others. He had been a sage: someone to whom individuals in crisis had turned for words of wisdom and encouragement. He had been among the most powerful representatives of Jesus I had ever known, and the day of his memorial service, I was devastated, knowing the future would hold many occasions in which I would miss his counsel and his love.

I considered that same day, however, the possibility that members of his family hadn't experienced him in the way I had. Some of them seemed puzzled--surprised, even--by anecdotes and testimonials shared about him. I surmised that they hadn't been able to forget and/or entirely forgive the younger, foolhardy version of this man about whom I'd heard but whom I'd never encountered...and by whom I'd never been wounded.

As years passed, I came to understand that my parents are that man. They, too, have active relationships with Jesus and are being sanctified, i.e., they are learning, growing, and becoming more Christlike all the time. Despite the fact that I live states away, sometimes I witness their ministering to others in a way that feels puzzling and surprising (among other adjectives). This is not to imply that they were bad people or parents years ago, but like everyone else, they had their share of shortcomings, and--over the years of our being physically separated--they have changed. 

It can be challenging to try to see people for who they are (who they have become) as opposed to who they once were. This is especially true, I think, when there are unresolved issues or when there is hidden/lingering emotional pain.

On some level, I've known for awhile that I'm no different or better than my friend or my parents. I've shared Stafford's "What Happens When You Get Lost" with literature students and talked about the poem specifically in the context of parenting. Even older parents are relatively young, I've posited; by the time they start to figure things out, their children are grown and either repeating the parents' mistakes or overcorrecting from them. This is why it's so hard to break negative, behavioral patterns in families. Stafford says: "Some things cannot be redeemed in a hurry," and: "Mistakes have consequences that do not just disappear," and: "If evil could be canceled easily it would not be very evil." I believed Stafford from the moment I first read his poem, but

I've come to believe him on a different level over the past few weeks. I can't really write about it, yet (or ever), but I've truly had the most terrifying experience of my life. The insides of my bones hurt. The insides of my eyeballs hurt, and I don't mean the pupils; I mean the cores of my eyeballs: a new sensation. I've been on my knees in a hospital; I've been on my knees in the altar of my church; I've had panic attacks in a hallway, my bathtub, a parking lot, my minivan, a restaurant. I've had a panic attack in front of medical and legal professionals.

And I've taken a good, hard look at the years I've spent in the figurative mountains, ill-equipped, trying to survive and making a tremendous mess of so many things. It's been so painful to look at this situation as a consequence, in part, of my sins and shortcomings.

I called my dad at the outset of this crisis. I only called him because my mom didn't pick up, as he had been a miserable failure in crises of this nature all my life. But there he was, my dad, on the other end of the line. We were both in so much pain. I was crying hysterically, and he was coughing incessantly, which is what he does when he's upset or anxious. It was terrible but also beautiful: I expected him to run for the hills, and he didn't. He absolutely did not. He chose, instead, to sit in the tension and be the dad I needed.

So? Jesus. And may He redeem, even if not in a hurry.

May He see us. May He watch us. May He know our names even and especially if we don't deserve it. Amen.