I just returned from an incredible week at the Harvest Island Wilderness Workshop: a week with 15 others on a remote island, learning about writing from Leslie Leyland Fields (a masterful writer, as you can see here), and Philip Yancey (!!!). I’ve wanted to go from the first time I heard about it, if we could wrangle the time and money. But there was one more concern: the question of the travel, since I am pretty much the most motion sick person you’ve ever met. In one of our writing exercises, I tried to explain….
A storm is coming in, they said, so we would need to be at the float plane six hours earlier than expected. I reached behind my ear to finger the dime sized patch—scopamine for coping with my ever-queasy-belly. Float plus plane. Two words more scary to me than biological plus warfare. Or kale plus anything. Please, merciful God, let these drugs work.
“It looks to be a pretty clear day,” our pilot says. The plane roars to life, and I aim my phone at the creamy flare of water fanning up from the fins. I am eye level with the black birches, with the eagle, with the clouds. I breathe in deep. I am okay.
“See in the river bend to our left?,” says Josh, “those are bears. A mama and her two cubs, I think.” I permit myself a smile, surprised to be able to look, to see, to enjoy. Mossy green mountain tips point up at us, mirroring our fingers pointing down at golf courses, at glaciers, at mountain dandruff I am told are actually goats.
The plane lurches and my stomach scoops deep into fear. My knuckles whiten. I swallow and wait. Look at the mountains. See the fjords? Are there any bears? Where’s the barf bag? How much longer?
At first it feels like heat, a sweat slick under my jacket, a longing for fresh air. I unzip a little, willing something cooler onto my body. But this is a well-worn path into the mire of nausea, and I know the stages well. Sweat. Cough. Cough again. Wipe my clammy hands on my knees and focus on the horizon.
Two inlets later, I reach for the baggie behind the seat. There are six people on this plane, four of whom will see and smell everything that happens next. We will live together for a week, and I would love them to think something of me other than “the one who threw up”. Years later, in a crowded conference hall with nametags obscured, perhaps I will say hello, and be met with polite pause as memory is scanned for association. “I’m Bronwyn, we met in Alaska. I’m the one who got sick on the plane.”
But there is no controlling this. I will be remembered as I am, not as I’d hoped to present myself. Humbled, I tumble my pride into the baggie. Once, twice, and once more for good measure. The clamminess abates and I see the island on the horizon.
And we are flying still.
I spent some time recently talking with a friend who was a hot mess over a situation. I recognized the symptoms of hotmessery fairly quickly, having been there myself just days before: the big feelings, the confusion about what to think and what to do, the desire to make sense of the bits of the story and respond well, the feeling-stuckness in the complexity of it all. And perhaps worst of all, the sense of disorientation about why this issue, which was admittedly not a big deal, loomed at the forefront of their mind all day. “I feel bad that I can’t get over this,” my friend said, “I know that my reactions here are much bigger than the situation warrants but I just can’t figure it out.”
As we talked, a couple of things began to crystallize for me: fragments of books I’d been reading and random notes in my prayer journal came together to form something of an 3-D picture, and I finally found the words I’d been scrambling for for a couple weeks:
Feelings are our friends.
There are times when we feel swamped and confused by a swirling mass of thoughts and feelings, and in times like that, it’s helpful to remember that these feelings can be our friends. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. For much of my life I’ve thought of feelings as powerful, but unreliable bandits: things to be quashed or, at the very least, treated with deep suspicion. But the idea that feelings could be friends and allies (rather than foes) in figuring out life and truth is something relatively new to me.
Feelings make frighteningly terrible masters: it is a terrifying thing to be at the mercy of one’s emotions (friends with anxiety and depression, I hear you). Feelings also make frustratingly terrible servants: which of us was ever able to stop feeling worried simply because we told ourselves to do so? But feelings—like our bodies—sometimes can give us information and tell us the truth about a situation which our rational minds cannot (or will not) attend to.
For example, we might be walking down a dark road and tell ourselves that we’re not scared and there’s nothing at all to be scared of… but our pounding heart and clammy hands tell the truth that we are, in fact, terrified.
Or, as happened with my friend and I, we might be sitting in a coffee shop and telling a story and saying “it’s fine, it’s no big deal,” but our churning emotions and the lurking sense of anger or shame tell us that there’s more at work here than we’ve admitted.
This is what Brene Brown so compellingly invites us to do in her (incredibly helpful) book Rising Strong: to notice our feelings and get curious about them. What is this feeling we’re feeling? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it envy? And then she encourages us to get curious about those emotions themselves without rushing to judgement: what is it about this situation that is making me angry, and what does that tell me? She writes:
“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
― Brené Brown,
I have a couple friends who are reliable mirrors to me as I share stories about my life: they reflect what they’re seeing back to me, and it helps me to be curious about what’s really going on beneath my emotions. They say things like “you seem angry about that” when I’m telling a story, and then will sometimes gently ask whether I’ve done any thinking about why I might be angry about that. If, instead of just telling myself to “not be angry” about a thing, I can take the time to be curious about why I got so angry, it can give so much good information about the desires and beliefs that simmer so much deeper in my soul.
I may say, for example, that I don’t care about a promotion or a salary increase… but if I’m incredibly angry that Joe Bloggs over there got a raise, that anger might be a clue that I care more about money, or being recognized, or knowing that I’ve made a contribution (or whatever) than I recognized. My wise friend Jen calls this “sifting our desires”, and she’s right: I can do a devilishly good job of deceiving myself that I don’t care about certain things and do care about others – but my feelings (of gloating, envy, schadenfreude etc) will sometimes tell the truth despite me, and a little bit of courageous digging can reveal hurts or deep longings or idols or dreams that I hadn’t faced squarely before.
I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead this month, and fell in love once again with the tender and wise heart of John Ames, the elderly pastor whose voice tells the story. Writing of how he came to process grief and disappointment, he says this:
“I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright.”
He was a man who had befriended his feelings, even the miserable ones. Especially the miserable ones – for by consulting with them he learned to be honest with himself, just as I’m learning to be honest, too. I want to be a joyful, gracious, generous person; but then I have days when I’m grouchy and angry and irrationally mean-spirited. To dismiss those feelings and say to myself: “that was a bad day, I’ll try again with kindness tomorrow” is not a terrible route to walk; but there’s a better route still: to hold my grouchy, angry, irrationally mean-spirited feelings in my hand and look on them as allies: “well, hello there, little feelings – what has got you so upset? and how can we learn from this together?”
It’s messy, brutal, humbling work. But its truthful, and good, and the journey all the richer for the companionship of my hotmessery of feelings.
We moved into our new neighborhood a little over six months ago, and while we’ve had longer conversations with a few of our neighbors, there were a few we haven’t seen much of yet (apart from a quick Trick-or-Treat hello on October 31st). “Invite the neighbors over for dinner” is on our year-long bucket list, and we’ve only made partial headway.
When a hospice van pulled into the driveway of one of our less-known neighbors a few weeks ago, I was filled with all sorts of confused feelings. When hospice comes calling, it means a family is facing loss: it’s a time when you can be sure emotions are running high and you need your community to hold you like never before. But what if you’re the next door neighbor? And you don’t know their names? I felt so close to their grief, and yet so far away. Surely of all the times to make a new friend, this would be the most inappropriate?
I poured out my sadness for them on Facebook: lamenting that we hadn’t connected with these neighbors sooner and now feeling so helpless. Within minutes, friends chimed in with their own stories of grief and comfort as they had cared for and lost loved ones, and how a neighbor showed up and offered a hug… Or a meal… Or a card… Or a plate of cookies. “What a difference it made”, they said. “Now is not the time to hide because you don’t know them well,” they said. “Show you care, even if it feels awkward. It matters,” they said. I cried reading every one of their comments. I am sometimes just overwhelmed at the goodness and kindness and generous wisdom of my online and real life friends.
I am usually a “take a meal” kind of person, but knew this family were Jewish and was anxious about trying to prepare a meal that may not be kosher. So I opted for cookies. My daughter and I defied a school-night-bedtime, and we wrote a note offering to take trash out or walk their dog, and just generally to say we had noticed the van and we were sorry and we care and we were praying. I wrote what my Facebook friends said to write. Our neighbors weren’t in when we stopped by. We left the note with their relatives. It didn’t feel like enough. But I trusted my friends’ advice.
My neighbor texted me her heartfelt thanks a few days later, and then walked over the following week to say that her mom had passed away, and that they would be sitting shiva for a couple days, if I’d like to come visit with them. Since the little I knew about shiva came from the high drama of Jonathan Tropper’s book (turned movie) This is where I left you, I did a little more research to find out about the traditions of shiva and Jewish mourning. In short: Judaism provides a structured period of mourning of up to a year, allowing mourners to go through the various stages of grief. Families will often sit shiva for up to seven days after the funeral: a dedicated time of staying together (often sitting on the floor or low to the ground), and many will open their home to the community to come and mourn with them. Shiva.com is an excellent resource on understanding shiva, how to plan for it, what to bring, and much more.
I baked bread, and my friend who’d followed the story since my first Facebook post added a jar of homemade berry-orange jam; and on the day after the funeral I made my way over to the neighbors for our first real conversation. I spent an hour with them: hearing about the incredibly sophisticated and talented women their mother had been, admiring her art, enjoying a snack, and sharing stories and even laughs. I met their children and looked at photos and it was, quite honestly, the most genuine and lovely hour of meeting neighbors I can remember. I had showed up that first day with cookies wanting to be a blessing, but in truth I walked away so much richer than when I’d arrived.
I’ve thought about that afternoon often, and marveled at the gift of a community tradition like sitting shiva. My white, western, christian culture doesn’t have anything like it in comparison. We see and experience grief and death, but so often my experience of grief is that the mourners are so lonely and overwhelmed, and the friends around them just aren’t sure what to say or do… and so keep their distance.
This is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, though, as Sheryl Sandberg has repeatedly urged after losing her husband and walking this devastating road last year. “Just show up,” she counsels in her advice on how to speak to people who are going through a hard time.
One of the beauties of the shiva tradition is that it walks the whole community through the process. The bereaved know there are grieving rituals and time periods that honor the months-and-years-long stages of grief. The community around them know that there are appropriate and welcome ways for them to show up and show support, and the family knows they can count on that. I think it’s a beautiful and profound and deeply humane thing. I wish we had something like shiva traditions: death and mourning are something we are pretty bad at, I think.
So I share this story not because I’m holding myself up as an example of someone who knows how to do this well. I share this story as someone who is actively wanting to learn from others how to do this better. I took the advice of my friends who had walked this road and I showed up. At death’s door. With cookies. And then I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. And I’m learning from the deep, relational wisdom of the Jewish community whose curated shiva practices are comforting and profound in a way that I ache for.
I know I’ve needed that kind of comfort myself, before. I remember with crystal clarity opening up an email twenty years ago, in the week after terrible crisis, and reading these verses a friend had sent me from Job 2:
“And when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place… They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him….. and they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)
I remember sobbing in the computer lab as I read those words: tears of grief that needed compassionate space. My friend’s willingness to be near and offer that space spoke volumes.
Perhaps there is nothing quite as comforting as having people willing to just sit with us in times of great loss. It strikes me as remarkable that even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead moments later, when confronted with his dear friend Lazarus’ death and the throng of grieving friends, Jesus’ first response was to weep (John 6:35). To share in their grief before rushing to make it go away.
Just show up, says Sheryl, you don’t have to say or do anything.
Let’s show up.
I remember that crazy cocktail of emotions that swirled through my nine-week birthing class. Fourteen pairs of wide-eyed, frightened, soon-to-be parents met in a hot, crowded room. We watched terrifying birth videos, considered impossible contortions of the pelvis, and clenched ice cubes in our fists (a stand-in for pain while we practiced relaxing).
All twenty-eight of us were standing on the precipice of the biggest jump of our lives. We knew we had to go over, but not who would go first—or what would come after.
A few months later I ran into a family from birthing-class in a shopping center parking lot. Swinging car seat carriers back and forth we eagerly introduced our infants to each other and caught up on how the real birth and early days had gone.
We exchanged tales of colic and weight-gain issues. We confessed to being exhausted, a bit unhinged, and absolutely unable to find time for the basics of life that we’d taken for granted before—showering, laundry, sleeping, making a sandwich. Where was it all going? we asked ourselves. How could someone so small take over everything?!
Then one of them looked at me and chuckled. “I remember you saying you couldn’t wait for the quiet rhythm of life at home with a baby. You thought you’d have more quiet times working from home than you did working full time in the office.”
Only a few weeks in to parenthood, I couldn’t recall anything of that pre-precipice world where I might think something so preposterous.
There is a sacredness to that spot on the edge of the precipice, isn’t there? We are all-in, moving forward, no stopping us now. Yet, we have no idea what is coming. We can’t possibly. The future is unknowable; the change is massive. We’ve seen a hundred other families walk down this rite of passage and survive, yet there is no way out for us but through. We can only learn as we go. Our bodies and souls are wide open in surrender—we have no choice but to accept what may come.
And what comes is a whirlwind.
A new person, with unrelenting physical needs that can only be met by our physical bodies. Ourselves torn, inside and out, with stiches and sutures and post-partum depression. Waking every 90 minutes for days, then weeks—maybe even months. The worry of plugged ducts, infections, APGAR scores, developmental milestones. The pressures from family, from strangers, from ourselves. The joys of first smiles, soft heads, clenching fists.
We were taught, with Elijah, that God’s voice is not in the whirlwinds, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. For Elijah, who had staved off rain then brought it back, who called down fire and bested his enemies—he found himself in early retirement, with no false-prophets to confront or battles to win. His challenge was learning to hear God in the gentle wind, the still, small voice.
But me? I’ve always known how to find God in the silence, in the quiet times. The hours of journaling, singing, serving. What are we supposed to do now, in the sleepless days of constant bouncing and breastfeeding, of unwashed hair and piles of laundry? In the days when we can hardly keep it all together and our families moving forward?
Sister, I am here to tell you, God is in the whirlwind too.
During these precious days of miracles, we celebrate the gifts but grieve what we have lost. The certainty of who we are, the satisfactions of contributing to a team, the autonomy to choose where we will go and how we will spend our time. The mental clarity to study the Bible, the ability to be awake long enough to close our eyes and pray.
There is so much guilt that piles up on us, in this season, this whirlwind where everything “normal” is set aside. Shouldn’t we be better, do more, have it all together?
But God is in this whirlwind.
He made our bodies to create, to give birth, to lactate…and to heal again, eventually. He made our babies to need a loving grown-up day and night, to learn their identity through the unrelenting rhythm of constant cry and response, tiny tummies and diapers emptied and filled, and then again.
Our Creator is in this process, in this love, in this nurture. He is with us in the sleepless night-time vigils and the daytime pouring-out.
The day will come again, Mama, when you will wash your hair, put on clothes, and go out into the world independently. The season will arrive when you can pull out your journal and listen for that still, small voice in the gentle wind.
Many months ago, I received a phone call. It was just after school drop off, and I had gratefully relocated my now-cold coffee cup moments before. “We’re putting together a book proposal. It will have stories of all the seasons of faith, like a tree: being rooted, having a strong core, and living a life reaching out as branches, blossoming and bearing fruit. We’re praying it will bless many: would you consider writing something for it?”
Friends, that seed of an idea took root, grew, and today the fruit of all our labors burst forth into the world with the launch of Everbloom, a collection of stories and poems from the women of the Redbud Writers’ Guild. It is simply BEAUTIFUL, and I am both proud and humbled today to have had a small part in such a gorgeous work.
Here’s what Shauna Niequist says about it:
“Stories that help us feel seen, known, and understood. Honestly and beautifully told.”
And poet Luci Shaw:
“Gritty, funny, painful, affirming. Once I began reading these stories I couldn’t stop.”
Everbloom is available wherever books are sold (on sale this week from the publishers and on Amazon!), and I have a copy to give away to a reader! Enter below and I’ll contact the winner on Friday 4/28. But don’t just take my word for it that it’s lovely: here’s an excerpt from Whitney Simpson. Her chapter is entitled “Grief. Sit with it.”
Grief. Sit With It.
They say loss is common in a first pregnancy. The details escape me—specific words said, who knew about the loss, or how many meals were delivered. Yet the gift of the pillow and mug remain clear in my mind over a decade later. As I was cleaning out a closet recently, my gaze fell upon this gift, and I fondly remembered that dark season of hushed loss. I remembered with compassion the “wounded” me who received this perfect gift and the invitation for growth it offered.
The gift invited me to embrace rest after my first pregnancy—a pregnancy that introduced me not to motherhood, but to loss. It was a meaningful gift from a mom who had also experienced a hushed loss and understood this gray season and my feelings of quiet sadness.
While this form of loss is a common occurrence, I had never lost like this; this was different. But it was early in my pregnancy, and somehow the briefness of gestation seemed to discount my grief in the view of others.
The gift of the pillow and mug reminded me that there were people who cared for me and wanted to draw near to me after our loss—even if I did not allow it in my dark time of quiet sadness. I seemed fine on the outside, and few were allowed near enough to know the emptiness I felt within. The gift reminded me that God is near, yet I did not choose to rest or sit with God in my brokenness. While life continued on script, I busied myself and pushed through in fast-forward.
In a few short months—and still giving little time to sitting with the grief—I turned from quiet to angry. It was at my husband’s brave urging that I met with someone, months after my miscarriage.
I will never forget the day we sat together on our couch as anger spewed from my lips at him. I do not remember what my anger was connected to that day, but I do know it was unwarranted.
For you see, I could not identify how grief was binding to me and blinding me. Soon, my counselor, and later a spiritual director, helped me process those feelings and not silence or discount them. I discovered God in them, identified new skills, and began embracing the grieving cycle. It was a season of patience that allowed me to process the grief, and, ever so slowly, the anger began to fade.
This processing of the trauma was necessary before I could fill that mug with tea and receive support from that pillow, or from anyone for that matter. I began to sit with God in my grief and discovered I was not alone.
Color soon filled my gray days with the delight and joys of family, life, and ministry. Yet seasons changed as they do, and grief returned with the loss of first a job and later a parent. These losses opened unexpected spaces for anger to return. I stumbled a bit in the darkness, each experience another opportunity and invitation for sitting with God. I was no longer a stranger to the sneaky ways grief masks itself in my heart or in the hearts of others. I was invited to sit in the changing seasons.
Befriending grief has opened me to growth. It walks with me on a journey of spiritual transformation. It teaches me to value others in their times of loss. It helps me to value my feelings and thoughts. It reminds me that God can handle my anger. It invites me to trust those who love me most, even when it hurts. Grief asks that I slow down and sit awhile.
Years later, the little gold pillow and coffee mug invite me to sit with each loss . . . sit with the sadness . . . sit with the longings of my heart . . . sit. Novelist George Eliot reminds me of how vitally important it is to embrace the grief: “She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts.”
Are you living in fast-forward after loss (even months or years later)? Have you considered the invitation to slow down and sit with your grief for a season? Allow your whispers to be spoken to and heard by the God who weeps with you as you discover grief as teacher, companion, and friend. May you sit with your grief and be comforted by your God there.
So, is a Green Card really green? Well, after 12 years, 7 months, and 8 days (but who’s counting?) of being in the US, I finally know the answer. Yesterday brought the squeal-and-dance party worthy news that we are finally Permanent Residents of the US. Or, to put it in everyday language: we got our green cards.
It has been a long, long wait. And, it has been fraught with massive expenses, crazy immigration scares, deep frustrations and (no kidding) thousands of pages of paperwork along the way. We are so relieved, so grateful, so wildly happy to have these big little cards in our possession.
We have longed for this day for years. It is such a relief to no longer worry that something could go wrong and leave us suddenly separated from our kids or dizzyingly displaced because of losing a job/catching a border patrol official on the wrong day/being at the whim of an administration that suddenly changes its immigration policies.
I wish this news had come years ago, but as I reflect on today, I am grateful for some good that has come from the delays:
- today we celebrate with so many more who have prayed with us and supported us along the way. Thank you.
- having hit as many obstacles as we did along the way, I learned a massive amount more about the immigration process in the US – and along with that knowledge came a huge amount of compassion for anyone who has to navigate the system (whether through valid, open channels; or trying to untangle and resolve a situation where they are undocumented). If it was this hard for me—an educated, english speaking, Christian, legally-trained and financially-privileged person—to navigate the system… how much harder is it for others?
- As such, the long delay meant I’ve been emotionally invested in the state of immigration and the church’s involvement in it and have landed up feeling compelled to speak as an advocate for better understanding. The first semi-viral blog post I ever wrote was about immigration (I am the immigrant), and a subsequent piece (What you don’t know about immigration) republished at the Huffington Post earned me my first death threat and no small amount of hate mail. The obstacles we faced opened doors for advocacy and entering into the suffering of others, and I will never be sorry for that.
- With somewhat comic timing, our photographs and biometric data for our green card applications were done on the day before the Presidential Election last year. We stood in the queues of hopeful applicants, seeing pictures of President Obama on the wall, and wondered whose face would replace his in the coming weeks, and how that might affect us as newly minted residents of the US if our petition was successful. The weeks and months following led to drama beyond our wildest imagination in this department, and when we left to visit our family in early February, I experienced real fear about whether we might be caught up in some kind of airport-immigration-drama on our return. (We weren’t. It was fine. But that wasn’t everyone else’s experience.) All of this has made me read more, pray more, care more. I’m grateful for that.
- This experience has made me a fan of a new podcast Maeve in America – hosted by comedian Maeve Higgins, and telling the stories of immigrants in the USA. Give it a listen. It’s fabulous.
But for us, for now, the great wait is over; and we are excited about continuing to invest in the lives of those we know and love in America. We want to “seek the good of the city”, as God says to do in Jeremiah 29, and settle down, plant a garden, and seek the welfare of the community we’re in. We’re delighted to legally be able to do so; and we do so with such a deeper gratitude for what a rare privilege that is.
So, with confetti and fanfare and praise and gratitude, I’m signing off this blog post. And one more thing:
Is a green card really green?
Why yes it is.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes 🙂