Learning to Grieve

On October 10, Andrew met me at my doctor’s office for our 9-week ultrasound. We had managed to get pregnant with our first child on the first try, and we were about to hear our little one’s heartbeat for the first time. It should have been one of the happiest days of our lives.

Minutes later, the ultrasound technician shook her head. “I’m so sorry. I won’t lie to you about what I’m seeing–I can’t find a heartbeat.”

No heartbeat. No… 

Our excitement and anticipation melted away into shock. Everything we had hoped for, every moment we were looking forward to with our sweet baby, gone in the span of a few seconds. Baby would not make it. My worst nightmare had just been promoted to reality.

I stared at the crystal-clear shape of my child on the ultrasound screen–the child I still carried. I didn’t know baby’s name or gender, and in my ways, she was a total stranger to me. But baby was still mine. I’d been writing to her for months, before her life even began. I’d whispered to her when I woke up in the morning, remembering that she was there and inclined to greet her with the coming of each new day. We were connected, literally. And so I wept for her.

A few minutes later, the doctor came to our room and offered her condolences. She asked how I’d been feeling recently. “Pregnant!” I choked out. “Why do I still feel so pregnant? Why has nothing…happened?” Evidently, this was not unusual. My hormones just hadn’t dropped enough yet to induce symptoms. My body has betrayed me, I decided. How cruel to give me no indication of the death I carried inside me.

We were faced with some of the worst choices imaginable. After weighing the options and consulting with my doctor, we picked the best of the worst. I was scheduled for a D&C out-patient procedure the following morning, barely 12 hours after the miscarriage diagnosis.

The evening before the surgery, we sat on the couch at home, trying to digest the news. I couldn’t bear the weight alone–already, the burden of grief was too heavy for us. “We have to tell people,” I said to Andrew. He nodded. We sent text messages to friends and our pastor, because the thought of that many phone calls was too exhausting and depressing to manage.

Our pastor called us and prayed over us. Then he connected us with a woman in our church who has walked this road before–she called me in a matter of minutes. She talked me through what to expect the next morning, set up a meal calendar for us, and generally made herself available if I needed to scream or cry or talk. I felt seen.

When we arrived at the surgery center the next morning at 5:30 AM, haggard after a sleepless night, the waiting room was full. The other patients sat calmly, waiting to have their bodies righted. Shoulders would be fixed, knees replaced. Nobody was crying in advance of their procedure, from what I observed… nobody but me.

I wasn’t waiting to have my body righted–I was waiting for a funeral.

Both our pastor and one of our church elders met us in the waiting room. They prayed over us, talked to us. Distracted us. It was good to not be there alone, to tangibly feel our church present with us on a dark day. They joined us in the prep room, and waited with us.

As surgery neared, a woman introduced herself as the OR nurse. “My name is Janet,” she said. Then her eyes flooded with tears. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “This is just the worst.”

My doctor came to fetch me herself, along with other members of my medical team. They stacked warm blankets over me, a gesture of mercy in preparation of a freezing operating room. I lost my tentative hold on my emotions when they started to move me out of the room–I didn’t want to leave Andrew. I didn’t want to do the next part alone.

In the OR, my doctor held my hand as I fell asleep. I know she held onto me for practical reasons–she needed to know when I finally lost consciousness. But I think she also knew that I needed the reassurance. They would take care of me. They cared about me. And they cared about my baby.

In recovery, I woke up disoriented, fighting the weight of anesthesia. I don’t remember everything, but two of the earliest words out of mouth were a question for Andrew.

“Baby gone?”
He nodded. “Yes, baby is gone.”
I cried again.

— — —

That first weekend was exhausting; we got all of the hard conversations out of the way in the first two days. “Like a band-aid,” I told Andrew. “I just want to get it over with.” We Skyped my parents, and my brother. Andrew’s parents stopped by the next morning at our request. I became quite adept at saying the words out loud:

We lost a baby.
I was 9 weeks pregnant, but baby stopped growing at 7 weeks.
I had a D&C yesterday.
Yes, physically, I’m fine.

Right away, I noticed myself sugar-coating the news on behalf of the receiver, and perhaps also for myself. “We have no reason to believe we won’t have a healthy baby in the future,” I said. “We can try again right away.”

By numbing myself with hope, I taught many of our loved ones the wrong way to respond to grief. I rushed away from the pain, too uncomfortable to let myself feel the severity of the loss. Hope for a future child was a tempting reassurance; but hope doesn’t undo the hurt, and hope doesn’t honor the loss. My words started to feel empty and dishonest, so I stopped saying them after a couple of days. As I accepted the loss for what it was, the weight of my grief grew heavier. I carried it anyway.

We told more and more of our friends, and immediately started accepting meals. I learned to cherish the tears of others on our behalf. I learned to eat any food within reach, because I literally did not care what I put in my body. I learned to stop fretting about how clean my bathrooms were, or how many dishes were piled by the sink. One morning, I realized I missed a prenatal vitamin the night before, and I scoffed. What did it matter?

For the first few nights, I woke up in the early morning hours to go to the bathroom. As I became more alert in the darkness of the morning, reality came crashing down on me anew. I sobbed, and nudged Andrew.

“What is it? Did you have a bad dream?”
“No,” I said. “I just…woke up. Waking up is worse.”

My life had become less bearable than my most harrowing nightmares. And so it was that I started to dread the evening, when idleness replaced activity and to-dos and busyness. I dreaded the moment when I would lay my head down and have nothing more to do but hurt.

— — —

As awful as this loss is, I am astonished to see God’s mercy at every step. These little mercies don’t undo the loss–nothing can achieve that–but they do point me back to God’s goodness, which is desperately needed in this season.

I see God’s mercy in the love and support from our church leaders, brothers and sisters, friends and strangers. It is impossible to feel anything but loved right now.

I see God’s mercy in the flood of food showing up at our door. We may not have eaten otherwise.

I see God’s mercy in the timing of the news–rather than grieving or having painful symptoms in Italy, I was blissfully unaware of our loss for two weeks away, until we returned home safely from our trip.

I see God’s mercy in the sisterhood I’ve reluctantly joined. Every time I step into a room and share what I’m going through, I meet more and more women who have lost babies to miscarriage. We cry with each other. We understand each other, even if we are otherwise strangers. It is a mercy to not be alone.

I see God’s mercy in revealing details about our child through a prophetic dream and confirmation from the Spirit. We now feel confident that we know who we’re grieving. Because we feel like we know a few things about her, we are able to focus our grief and find ways to remember the daughter we lost.

I see God’s mercy in my marriage, in the unity that comes from sharing a heavy burden together.

I see God’s mercy in the timing of our loss–that I was able to resolve two targets in EMDR therapy prior to the miscarriage. Because of the healing that happened over the last year, I’m much better equipped to manage my emotions and bear the weight of the loss in a healthy way.

I see God’s mercy in the fact that we didn’t burn our house down as we remembered how to cook and operate space heaters and do the ‘normal life’ stuff with scattered brains and burdened hearts. We melted some plastic on the stove, but so far, that is the worst of it.

Friends, I’ve learned that God is everywhere in our horrible, bleak situation. He is crying with us, through the tears of our friends. He is providing for us, relationally and practically. He is meeting us in our grief. In His presence, I see His mercy, and His great love for us in the midst of our pain. What an unexpected, mysterious blessing.

— — —

For those of you who long to love others better as they grieve, here is my advice, for what it’s worth.

Sit in the sadness. Crying and hugging are the absolute best responses to someone else’s loss. If that’s not your style, your best words to offer are: “I’m so sorry. That is awful.” Hurt with them. Embrace the discomfort. Your sympathy honors the life lost, and affirms the terrible weight of the grief. This is where grief lives, every day. Yes, it is heavy. Yes, it can be awkward. Yes, it is a tremendous downer. But it is better to cry, hug, and say nothing than it is to say something hurtful, however unintentional.

Don’t rush into hope. In fact, don’t mention it at all. Yes, it’s tempting to look to the next baby, the next pregnancy. But those future blessings are anything but guaranteed. We could lose 5 more babies, or wrestle with infertility. The thought of trying to get pregnant again is more terrifying than soothing, especially early on.

The same can be said for our family’s eventual reunion in heaven. I’m glad I’ll see my daughter someday, truly. But I don’t get to know her for many, many years, and I will never have the future with her that I expected to have in this life. There is loss now, even if there is hope in the distance.

Most importantly, ‘encouraging us’ with the hope of a future baby suggests that this was just an ‘oops’ before we get it ‘right’. That is so, so wrong. This was a unique, independent child. This was a full loss, a full life in and of itself. The next child will not undo the fact that my family will never be united in this life.

Pick up the phone and call. Texts are fine. Emails are fine. Handwritten notes of encouragement are good. But picking up the phone and calling shows that you are truly willing to get into the weeds with us, to hear the hurt in my voice. It means you’re not hesitant to care, nor hindered by ‘politeness.’ Calls are not an imposition; I have the agency to send you to voicemail or ignore your message for days, if I so choose. 99% of the time, when someone called to check in and I was able to answer, I picked up the phone and was relieved to have someone who cared on the other side.

Ask if you can do something specific to help. I get it…many people just don’t know how to help, and that’s okay. But grief is exhausting, and all of a sudden, everything about ‘normal life’ gets impossibly hard. There is too much apathy and exhaustion to delegate effectively. “What can I do to help?” is not nearly as welcome as “Can I bring you lunch and spend a few minutes with you tomorrow?” If it’s not a helpful offer, I have the ability to politely turn you down, or suggest an alternative.

Specific ways you can offer to help:

  • Provide a meal or baked goods or literally any form of diet-friendly food, gift cards included. If you need input on specific meals or gift card locations, provide options to choose from rather than the whole world of possibilities. We’re too tired to pull options out of nowhere.
  • Gift your time. Offer to sit and listen for awhile, especially with loved ones who process externally/socially. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say. Just show up and nod and listen.
  • Call or text when you’re already at the grocery store, and offer to pick up anything needed.
  • Offer to clean, do dishes, mow the lawn, run an errand, or take care of other ‘adulting’ tasks.
  • Share encouraging songs, scripture, handwritten words of sympathy, or resources that honor the loss. Just beware of rushing too much into hope. Focus on words that honor the loss.

Keep checking in. I got a wonderful flood of support the first week after our loss–texts, phone calls, emails, handwritten notes, you name it. But for the rest of the world, life moved on while we continued to sit with our loss. Set a reminder on your calendar to check in again, and again. Make an effort to remember, when the chaos has subsided and life becomes distressingly normal. Your friends still need you, perhaps even more so than they did that first week.

Bring up the subject. The topic of my lost baby is never a forbidden topic, nor is it ever frowned upon. It doesn’t matter if it feels like a ‘downer’, or if we were laughing about something silly just a few moments ago. I long to hear people remember my child–even objectively–when the rest of the world has moved on. There is no expiration date on this sadness. I will be this child’s mother forever, and I will never stop missing her. It’s a welcome affirmation when others acknowledge her absence, too.

— — —

There have been many revelations and helpful words shared during the last few weeks. Without minimizing those other words of encouragement, I want to close by sharing a specific insight that has been precious to me in my grief.

About a week after losing our baby, I visited my counselor. She cried and listened as I told her the story. Near the end of our session, she brought up the interaction between Jesus and Lazarus.

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s the example you want to bring up right now? The one where Jesus just chooses to revive someone, rather than let him die?”

My counselor held her hands up. “Give me a minute. Yes, Jesus raised Lazarus. But Lazarus is also a picture of hope, of eternity with God through belief in Jesus. What did Jesus do, knowing that he would raise Lazarus just moments later?”

Join me in John 11, friends. Jesus said several times that He would raise Lazarus. He knew exactly what He was going to do. But when He got to where Lazarus lay, Jesus paused. Scripture tells us that He was deeply moved, and He wept.

Think about that for a moment. Even though Lazarus would get up and walk that very same day, Jesus took the time to weep over his friend’s death, to be vulnerable. To mourn with the others present who were grieving Lazarus, too.

Jesus teaches us that the promise of hope does not undo the appropriateness of grief.

Jesus knew all about hope–He literally was hope. And He wept anyway.

Perhaps you will remember Jesus the next time you encounter grief, personally or socially. Take the time to weep, and mourn together. It is right to do so. Jesus modeled it for us. And as the Bible shows us, our tears are precious in the hands of our loving Father:

You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.
-Psalm 56:8

— — —

The World Turned Upside Down

On Saturday, September 7, two little pink lines confirmed what I already knew. I was pregnant with my first tiny little baby. In a matter of moments, I became a mother.

First, it’s important to know that several of my dearest friends have kiddos. A few recently went through their first year or two as mamas, and I thought I knew what I was in for as a result. Foolishly, I believed I could anticipate the experience for myself through proximity….that I could gain wisdom through friendship osmosis.

Spoiler alert: I was dead wrong.

There is nothing quite as earth-shattering as knowing that there is a tiny little life taking up residence in your insides. Sure, I was excited to see that confirmation and know what was happening. Yes, I delighted in the news, cried tears of joy, and whispered praise and thanks to God for letting it happen so quickly for us.

But very soon after that initial wave of joy, reality set in. Good lord… what have we done? Yes, we did this on purpose. Yes, we desire and feel called to have kids. But this is the point of no return. This is the moment when I begin worrying as a mom, and from this point forward, I will never stop.

Our calendar shifted immediately. No, we can’t book special event tickets 8 months out. Goodness, how are we going to squeeze in a trip to tell my parents in person? I can’t stand to tell them over Skype, but our fall calendar is already bonkers. When do I first go to the doctor? Does Andrew need to be there the first time? He’s already working extra hours at work to make sure we can go to Italy.

WHOA. We leave for Italy in 2 weeks. I mean, I sort of knew this was possible, but now I’m actually going to be 7-8 weeks pregnant for 9-10 hour flights. What if I’m puking the entire time? Airplanes are basically flying petri dishes, and I can’t afford to get sick at this point. What if I don’t have enough energy to walk around Rome? They don’t speak as much English in Piedmont. How does one translate ‘high-mercury fish’ from English to Italian?

The ripple of life logistics is nothing compared to the overwhelming fear of complications. Too many of our friends have had miscarriages. There’s nothing I can do to prevent one. Worrying and stressing won’t help, either! So I open my hands and trust God. Every day is another day of baby getting healthier and stronger. One fewer day to worry. One day behind me. One day at a time.

My brain is consumed with baby-related thoughts, and the world says I’m not supposed to tell anybody for another 4-8 weeksI throw the world’s rules out the window, talk to Andrew, and we agree to share the news with a few, trustworthy friends. I can’t do this alone. There are only so many occasions in which someone can ask me how I’m doing, and I shrug and pretend my world isn’t flipped upside down.

Yes, we’re telling friends who are over-the-moon excited for us. They are squealing and hugging me and enraptured by the idea of the little baby on the way. They have prayed for us for a long time, and so they celebrate with us. And yet, I know this time is fraught with risk. I know I somehow have to balance my excitement and anticipation with the reality that baby is so tiny, and baby’s future is not even a little certain. When is it too early to think of names?

When is it late enough to hope?

I go to a party alone, and I swear I’ve never been asked “Do you have kids?” more times in a single evening. My hand almost instinctively rises to my belly, but I restrain it in a clenched fist at my side. “No, not yet,” I smile, shaking my head. Not yet. But in a way, yes, I do. I have a secret baby, hidden away in me. That’s not weird at all. I brought a +1 to this party that nobody is even aware of.

Pregnancy is weird.

A list grows on my desk, questions for my doctor. I have an appointment next week, but I still itch to have answers. Nobody congratulates me on the phone when I call my OB-GYN–this is just another day for them. I cling to the stability and normalcy on the other end of the line. Yes, I can continue taking my Zyrtec. Yes, I should get a flu shot. Yes, I can take Tylenol, but only Tylenol.

The noise in my head is deafening. I regularly find myself drifting to the piano or to my prayer bench, reaching out for God’s peace in the midst of this total life upheaval. I hear Him whispering reassuring truth, but it is a distant, muddled sound. It takes far longer to calm my heart and mind than I’m used to, and on some days, I just don’t have the energy or the patience. Still, I run to Him because He is the best and only lifeline I have in this time. I continue reaching for the whispers.

Throughout the evening, Andrew calls me back to the present and reminds me to stop pacing around the kitchen. I apologize, shake my head, and manage not to think about anything baby-related for about 15 seconds. With effort, I focus on what God has put in front of me in this present moment. Just today, I tell myself. Just focus on today. 

I have never been happier, nor have I ever been more terrified. Somehow, I know that this confusing, exhausting experience is just what it’s meant to be.

We are expecting. I’m carrying our child. And thus the beautiful madness begins.

To My Maybe Baby

Dearest Maybe Baby,

You may or may not be in my belly today. If you’re in there, you’re brand new…smaller than a poppy seed. All of the discomfort, fatigue, and bloating I’m feeling makes me think that yes, you might actually be in there. I certainly hope that’s the case.

I’ve dreamed about being your mom for a long, long time. I love you now, when you’re just a ‘maybe’. I love you so much that it’s hard to focus on anything else. It’s easy to get distracted, to worry, to want to fast-forward a few days so I can know for sure.

Most of the time, I can barely get my mind off of you. But I can rest knowing that God sees you, Baby. God knows whether or not you’re in my belly today, or if you’ll first take up residence in my belly months or years from now. God knows how every cell will combine, how your daddy’s DNA will merge with mine to create beautiful, miraculous you. It’s comforting to know that God sees you and knows that you’re there, even if I can’t know just yet.

Oh, but your mom hates waiting! I’m too eager to hear your heart beat. I long to know when you’ll get here, to start planning for your arrival. I ache to surprise your daddy with the news. I smile when I imagine telling your rockstar grandparents that you’re on the way, to see the light of surprise and joy on their faces. Oh, how lucky you are, little one. You are already so loved by so many, even before you are a Definitely Baby.

When I think of you, I dream of the life I want for you. Not a life without obstacles or pain — every life will know troubles like that, Baby. Nor do I see a life with a specific path or plan; I’m not God, and your path is not for me to define or control. He will give you passions, skills, gifts, and goals crafted just for you. Hopefully you won’t want to play football, though, because your daddy is absolutely not on board with that particular category of risk. He loves you too much, you see.

Instead of a perfectly controlled life for you, I envision a balanced life. I imagine teaching you to know God, to pray when you’re scared or angry. I see us folding our hands together and thanking God for sunshine, friends, and ice cream. I imagine holding you when you cry, and celebrating with you when you overcome your fears. I see us talking, making silly fart noises, and resting in a home that is always safe. I see myself apologizing when I’ve hurt your feelings, and eventually, vice versa.

I see you puking all over me when your stomach is upset, and honestly, I don’t mind. I’m ready for the stains and the laundry and the chaos, as ready as a Maybe Mom can be. That’s because I feel called to be your mom, Baby. God has been whispering to me about you for a long time, so I know Maybe will be Definitely eventually. I feel compelled to carry you, to labor through your arrival, and to nurture you in light of the goodness of God. I am ready and waiting, whenever you decide to make your grand entrance.

So, my little Maybe Baby… for now, know that you are loved. Focus on holding on tight in there, and sucking all of the nutritious goodness out of me that you can possibly get. Growing is hard work, and I understand if you beat the crap out of my insides while you get what you need. I will be with you every tiny step of the way, caring for myself and for you, praying for you. Loving you with my whole heart, forever and always.

With more love than I knew I possessed,
Maybe Mom

Learning to Wait

I’ve never been a patient person.

When I was a kid, I often overheard my mom saying, “Hannah doesn’t cue well.” She had good evidence to support such a declarative statement: jumping up and down like a bouncy ball while waiting for a roller coaster, failing to sleep a wink on Christmas Eve. In school, I took advanced courses, hungry for the next level of material, and made friends with students one and two years ahead of me. As a sophomore, I had senioritis: eager to get out of high school and into college, already ‘over’ the season I was midway through.

For my entire life, I have been filled with an abundance of anticipation, eager to get to the next great moment, the next life season. Time and time again, I have been utterly convinced that it was most certainly time for the waiting to be over.

I imagine that when God looked at my heart, He chuckled. Then he started preparing the soil of my soul for His seed of patience.

In my singleness, I struggled to wait for the right man. Before I became a Christian (after graduating college), I dated nonstop, and with admittedly dismal standards for the young men I was involved with. When one boyfriend failed to live up to my romanticized standards, I moved on to the next, often careless of the damage I left in my wake. Sure, some of the guys I dated were abusive trash bags. But many of them weren’t! I discarded them all as easily as a candy wrapper. The remorse I now feel for those men does nothing to undo or soothe the damage inflicted by my hurried, immature heart.

Over the past couple of years, God seems to have shifted into turbo-speed for His patience-yielding efforts. Like fertilizer in nutrient-deficient soil, He has heaped on opportunities to learn to wait.

I continue to wait for Andrew to process the damage done to us early in our marriage, the suffering we endured at the hands of an abusive spiritual mentor. I wait for Andrew to start talking to God again, to begin to heal.

In silence, I waited for Andrew to be ready to start our family. Heck, I gave up on hope last year and just started praying for peace. Peace and acceptance that a biological baby might not be in the cards for us.

Now, I wait for the baby I never dreamed I could hope for.

I felt more-than-ready to dive into this season. I watched dear friends go through their first pregnancies, walked with them through the early days and the physical ramifications of labor and delivery. I was prepared for what might happen to my body, and the massive change I was inviting into my life. What I was not prepared for, however, is the waiting.

I have been stunned by the waiting required to create a tiny little human. It reminds me of my high school physics class, with the ancient teacher who spoke painfully slow. Time slowed down every time I stepped through that classroom door. Trying to conceive feels a lot like that physics class, mere seconds stretching into hours and days.

Since beginning this draft post 20 minutes ago, I’ve checked my ovulation calendar four times. I’ve jumped over to Amazon to look for pregnancy tests. I’ve considered physically getting in the car and driving to Target to purchase said pregnancy tests, even though I can’t actually use them for–(insert 5th round of calendar checking here)–10 days.

10 Days.

10 DAYS?! For a maybe? For a 20%-at-best, perhaps, if I’m lucky and the stars align?

All of a sudden, the weeks and months and possibly years ahead have stretched to an eternity. I feel my heart pounding, heat rising into my face. I feel the rising panic that is often inspired by empty space in my life, by not knowing.

But this time, I’m seeing the fruit of patience growing quietly but steadily in my soul. When the loud voices of fear and control shout at me: “Go out now! Buy the pregnancy tests! Ask Google what else you can do to measure ovulation! Then go, and take the test early–”

I cut the voices off midstream. I dial my tuner to a quieter frequency, and there, the soft whisper of God cuts through the static and the noise:

Wait with me, daughter.

Be still, daughter.

I can almost see Him smiling when He says, Tell me all about it. 

And I do tell Him all about it. With the promises of His word clutched tightly in my heart, I drop to my knees and unleash my tidal wave of fears. I lay down my ‘what ifs’. I lay down my tendency to rush ahead, to forge into the next season prematurely. I lay down my desires for a baby, for a healthy baby, for a soon, please God, pregnancy.

Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I shout, because working from home (alone) has its perks. Sometimes I just sit in silence, and let His Word soothe my anxious, impatient soul:

Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all of my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, Oh Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me–it is high, I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from your presence? Or where shall I flee from your spirit? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost depths of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. Even if I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you. The night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Ps. 139)

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. (Ps. 130)

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4)

When I sit before the Lord, I’m often struck by the reality that I am well-named. I think of Hannah, pleading with the Lord for a child, weeping at His feet for years and years as she bore her deep longing to conceive (1 Samuel 1-2). I have no reason to believe that I am barren, but I have certainly waited and longed for change, as Bible-Hannah did.

I waited for a husband. I waited for the time to be right in our marriage, for the season of starting our family. And now, I wait for God to bless us with a miracle.

Like other-Hannah, I am learning to wait in prayer. To see what God has for me today, and also to bring my good and proper desires and aches to Him freely. To cry, to be transparent with my loving Father. To tap into the peace that surpasses understanding. And despite all odds, to walk away with hope. Hope, and the resilience to wait for one more day, or perhaps two…when I fall to His feet and do it all over again.

God’s Invitation in the ‘Not Knowing’

Trying to conceive is a true roller-coaster state of being.

In a span of five minutes, I can swing from excited about baby names, to horrified about what might happen to my body during labor, to absolutely enraptured by the thought of Andrew holding his first child, to completely terrified that it simply won’t happen for us. Or that we will get pregnant, and then something will go wrong, as it has for so many people in our lives.

If I’m honest, I can run that full emotional spectrum in under one minute.

The ambiguity of ‘not knowing’ is one of my greatest discomforts in life. I love to be in control — I love to plan. I thrive on a thoughtfully-filled calendar and ‘perfect’ timing. On my wedding day, I shared the followed exchange with my dear friend, my maid of honor:

Her: I keep waiting for you to freak out. But you’re not freaking out, and that’s making me want to freak out.
Me: I planned this wedding. I know that all of the boxes are checked. A few things may go wrong, but at the end of the day, I will marry my best friend and that’s all that matters.

The knowledge that I would be married to Andrew in a few hours was indeed calming, in and of itself. But honestly, the fact that I’d planned that wedding day down to the smallest detail was equally comforting. I didn’t doubt that everything would go smoothly, because I’d considered the day from every possible angle for months. My wedding day emergency bag was filled to the brim, literally. I even had a bunch of stick-on cold patch strips typically used to treat migraines, just in case it was super hot and I needed a method to cool down.

It felt good to be prepared and calm on my wedding day, but was it entirely worth it? Running through scenarios was exhausting. Obsessing about the weather was exhausting, not to mention pointless. I wonder if I could have been spared a lot of pre-wedding-day anxiety, if I’d only noticed the flaw in my logic.

As God has continued to remind me since my wedding day, any fantasy that I have of being in control is purely fictional. I have free will, but there is a great deal that lies outside of my ability to control. And holy cow, is that annoying.

At least, it’s annoying at first.

Day by day, I’m learning to appreciate and lean into God’s sovereignty. When I feel myself grasping at logistics, drowning in a sea of unnecessary pre-pregnancy Pinterest ‘advice’, or spiraling into a mental pit of ‘what if’ scenarios, I have a lifeline. God is waiting for me to simply turn to Him. To choose to see the situation in light of Him and His sovereignty, rather than make-believing that I’m god of my own little world.

When I turn to Him, I experience catharsis. I sense His love and His goodness, and I know that His plan is good. His timing and plan will very likely look different than my own, but they will also be better. Richer.

That simple, always-available reassurance is all I need to stop the mental spiral in its tracks, close the browser tab, and focus on what He has for me today.

The ambiguity of this pre-pregnancy season reminds me of singleness. I recall desiring a relationship with a godly man, which is a beautiful and worthy desire, but having no guarantee that God’s plan for my life included a spouse. That gray space is uncomfortable to sit in — for early-20s me, it was much easier to swing to the extreme of trying to control the outcome. Date a whole bunch of people, try to make the wrong guys feel right. But all of that effort only led to disappointment, and a deeper sense of loneliness. Not to mention some broken hearts, on both sides of the table.

Now, as I’ve entered another season of ‘not knowing,’ I’m more in tune with God’s voice. I hear His whispered invitation to trust Him. I find myself regularly marinating my soul in Psalm 139:

Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.

13 For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.[a]
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
    I awake, and I am still with you.

19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
    O men of blood, depart from me!

It is reassuring that God knows everything about me, including what the heck is going on in my reproductive system. He knows when I’m about to freak out, long before the anxiety spiral begins.

He knows if I will be a mother to a biological child or not. He knows what form of motherhood is best for me, and most glorifying of Him. He knows precisely when and how I’ll be a mother, and He has good reasons for that timing. His ways may not be my ways, but they are reliable and perfect.

Sure, I still check the weather 12 times a day. I will probably always check the weather at least a couple of times a day, because well, I’m me. Still, I find peace in the knowledge that my loving and generous Father will be with me along this journey, in every moment of joy, and in every shadow of disappointment or grief.

I need Him more than I need a child. And He is always there, waiting with open arms.

Today, that is enough.

When Hope is Revived

January 23, 2019 started out as an average, albeit crummier-than-usual day.

Andrew got home from the office around 4:00 PM, and he was greeted by an exhausted wife. I was tired after a long day of work, and frustrated with the politics of an office that I wasn’t accustomed to dealing with. I had aches in my heart that I couldn’t share with my husband, and I was lonely in that pain.

In short, I was not having a good day.

Andrew was empathetic, and knew just how to ease the irritation of a disappointing Wednesday: he went out and picked up some Thai takeout for dinner.

When I wandered over to the dining room table laden with styrofoam containers promising salty magic within, I noticed a yellow journal on the table. This wasn’t just any journal — I jerked to a stop at the sight of the soft cover with its embroidered arrows.

The journal was a gift from my maid of honor on our wedding day. My sweet friend had a beautiful intention for those pages, that Andrew and I continue to write love notes to one another. It was a romantic idea, but one that never gathered steam. After three and a half years, the empty notebook had grown to be a depressing and discouraging little sight, so I relocated it to a shelf in my office. There the journal had sat, untouched and unnoticed.

“What’s that?” I said, pointing.
“Oh, nothing really. I wrote you a note in there. It’s not a big deal,” Andrew said.
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? Should I read it now?”
“Nah,” he shrugged. “Let’s eat. You can read it later.”

I nudged the journal to the side to make room for crab rangoon and pad thai. We ate, doused our plates with sriracha, and shared about our days. But the journal was always there in the corner of my eye, piquing my curiosity.

When we finished eating, I couldn’t help myself.

“I feel weird not reading this,” I said. “You took the time to write it, after all. Do you mind?”
“No, that’s probably good. There’s something in there you’ll be happy to have today, I think.”
“Fair enough.”

I started reading, and broke into a grin. He had found some spare change at work, he wrote, and he knew exactly what to do with it. With his spare change, he went to the vending machine and got me a present. In writing, he told me to stop reading and have him fetch my gift for me.

I followed the instructions, and knew what Andrew had purchased well before he retrieved the bag from his backpack. Cool-Ranch Doritos are one of my favorite treats, a go-to on bad days. Andrew rarely indulges in the processed portion of the food pyramid, so this was a welcome nod to my love of junk food.

Laughing, I accepted the little blue bag with glee. “Aww, what an adorable reason to write me a love note.”
Andrew smiled. “Keep reading.”

His note left the light-hearted territory of salty snacks behind, and adopted a more serious tone. He apologized for not loving me better in a season of pain and bitterness. As a gesture of love, even though it was January and our anniversary wasn’t until September, he had an early anniversary present to give me.

My jaw dropped, and I looked up from the journal in irritated disbelief. “Are you KIDDING me? You got me a present 8 months early? C’mon, man! Give the wife a chance to keep up!”

He nodded. “I knew you’d feel that way. Just trust me, keep reading.”

After one final glare, I reluctantly resumed reading.

The fourth anniversary has many suggested gift categories, he explained. Very few lists agreed, from UK to US, from traditional to modern. So Andrew had picked just one category of his liking: linen. Linen starts out a little rough, but gets softer over the years. It is considered an heirloom, something to pass on and cherish. With proper care, it will last for generations.

Andrew handed me a white envelope.

Curious and confused, I opened it. Inside, I unfolded a piece of plain white paper. There was a picture of a crib on each side, one decked out in pink linens, and one in blue. In between, a row of linen swatches were stapled in a neat row, a rainbow of pastels.

I’m fairly certain I stopped breathing at this point.

I looked up at my husband, eyes wide, then rushed back to his note, hungry for confirmation. His sweet words offered a resolution to one of my deepest, most secret longings. I collapsed into a heap of sobs, attempting to read on with tear-muddled eyes.

For the past three weeks, our church had been sharing a season of prayer and fasting. I’d spent the bulk of the January new-year season on my face in my office, hidden away on my prayer bench. I sobbed into the carpet. I wanted to be a mom, yet knew with absolute certainty that Andrew wasn’t ready. We’d been through too much. It was too great a change to ask him to consider. So I set my ache before the Lord, and asked Him to carry it. I asked for peace, but it didn’t come. I kept praying, repeatedly asking for Him to teach me how to trust Him with this grief. God’s presence was comforting, but He was mostly silent. I did not get the reassurance I was seeking.

I think God knew what was coming on January 23.

I don’t know how long I cried, or how long I squeezed Andrew in a bone-shattering hug. He was ready to start our family. And he had given me the best anniversary gift he could possibly dream up: hope.

The EMDR Experience: Reframing the Past

Well, this is embarrassing.

My most recent blog post was titled Where I’ve Been for the Last 4 Months. That was almost 3 months ago, which is… not great. But hey, life happens! And man, did a whole lot of life happen in these last 3 months.

This blog post isn’t about the full scope of the recent insanity. But for those who are curious, I spent March-April buried in a massive project for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Side note: OTSL is an incredible local arts organization, and their festival opera season runs May 25-June 29. Check out the Young Friends events for some amazing ticket deals, and while you’re enjoying a show, please do marvel over the 160 page program book that consumed my every waking moment for 8 weeks!

In addition to the OTSL project, March and April brought a number of urgent care/ER visits, a massive kitchen renovation, and a new job offer for Andrew. Not all bad, by any means, but yikes. Enough is enough, yo!

The last week or so has ushered in a cathartic change of pace. I’ve had time to paint the kitchen, put our house back together, do laundry, breathe normally. And at long last, I have capacity to dig into a subject that’s been on the blog docket for quite some time.

The Science of EMDR

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Back in the fall, I sought out a new counselor, specifically one who was certified in EMDR. For the rookies out there, EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Prepare to have your socks knocked off, because the science behind this unique method of psychotherapy is (somewhat literally) mind-blowing.

If you’ve ever experienced any sort of trauma, you know that painful memories can fester. Like a clogged pipe or an infected wound, ripples spread, creating new problems that multiply and escalate quickly. Until that root cause is appropriately and thoroughly addressed, healing is more or less impossible.

Back in the late 1980s, Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered a relationship between eye movement and a decrease in negative emotions associated with distressing memories. Intrigued and well-aware of the potential implications, she dove into case studies to test her hypothesis. The results spoke for themselves: with a cognitive element added to eye movement stimulation, EMDR essentially cured the negative effects of traumatic experiences.

Allow me to summarize: EMDR can rewire the brain to treat PTSD and negate the debilitating effects of traumatic memories. 

Cheers to you, Dr. Shapiro!

But how, exactly, does eye movement relate to these painful memories? During EMDR therapy, the client focuses on emotionally distressing material in brief doses, while simultaneously focusing on a physical, external stimulus. In my case, I hold a small disc in each hand, attached to a control box that my therapist adjusts to create alternating ‘tapping’ sensations, sort of like a phone on vibrate mode. These alternating ‘tappers’ kick my brain into hyperdrive, improving my ability to process information, while also allowing me to forge new connections between the traumatic memory and new, adaptive information. 

Isn’t the human brain incredible?!?

The Experience of EMDR

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In casual conversation, EMDR can sound like a cryptic, intimidating, massive endeavor. And honestly, ‘intimidating’ and ‘massive’ are not inaccurate ways to describe the experience. Before you even begin the process, you acknowledge that 1) you have experienced trauma and 2) you’re going to sit in those painful memories, experience those moments with fresh eyes, and feel all the scary feelings again.

And yes, you’re doing this on purpose.

So yeah, it’s an intimidating concept! But it’s also a worthy, empowering therapy to choose for yourself. It’s an act of defiance, in a way: challenging the lies of your past, facing down the false narratives that you’ve adopted, and determinedly moving forward in the light of the truth.

I didn’t ask a ton of questions leading into my own adventure with EMDR, and I wish I’d done more research in advance. So for the sake of you, Reader, let’s talk about what it’s really like in the EMDR hot seat (from my unique, limited perspective!).

You don’t actually start EMDR therapy in your first session; there’s a bit of prep work required to get to that point. As with more standard talk therapy, your counselor will get to know you and understand your current challenges, relevant history, and goals before diving into EMDR.

To prepare, my counselor had me do a couple of assessments, one of which determined my Top 3 negative schemas: concepts that I have adopted as true over time, which shape and filter all of my thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Everyone has schemas of their own, whether they’re aware of them or not, and some are positive while others are negative.

Here are a few examples of icky, negative schemas:

I am unworthy of love.
I am a failure.
Everyone will abandon me in the end.
People are cruel and they will hurt me.
Something bad is going to happen.
It’s my fault.

So, those are fun.

After we identified my 3 negative schemas, my counselor and I explored my past to identify target memories for each schema. The target memory is an early memory (often the earliest memory) that reinforces the negative schema as true. It’s also a distressing memory, something that is already considered traumatic, perhaps, or is distressing when pondered in depth for the first time.

At this point, it’s worth nothing that I didn’t come into EMDR to process one-off trauma, such as a car accident, or being robbed at gunpoint. I imagine the set-up procedures for processing very specific memories would be somewhat different. In my case, I was processing complex, sustained trauma over time. All this to say, each situation and unique counselor’s approach will vary!

Once the target memories were identified, we picked the strongest/most distressing one, and it was time to dive into the heart of EMDR.

For the sake of specificity, we’ll use my first (completed!) target and associated schema as an example:

Target memory: A moment from my childhood when I wanted to ask for help, but didn’t feel like I could.

Negative schema: “I can’t safely express what I feel or want.”

Target cognition: “can safely express what I feel or want.”

For me, a typical EMDR session goes something like this:

  • I have an opportunity to share any new information or check in with my counselor before starting.
  • My counselor hands me the tappers. I hold one in each hand, get into a comfortable seated position, and close my eyes. My eyes are closed for the rest of the session.
  • My counselor asks me to immerse myself in the target memory, and gives me a moment to pull up the picture mentally. She might ask me to notice specifics in the room, or other sensory details.
  • To begin, my counselor generally asks a series of questions:
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, how much distress do you feel when you look at this picture?
    • On a scale of 1 to 7, how true does the following statement sound: “I can safely express what I feel or want.” (Here, she names the opposite of my negative schema, the ‘target’ cognition that I’m trying to get my brain to adopt.)
    • Where do you feel the distress in your body? For example, I often feel distress in my chest.
  • From here, my counselor asks me to focus on that sensation in my body, or a specific detail that I’ve honed in on from the target memory. “Just go with that,” she might say.
  • For a period of time, we sit in silence. My counselor turns on the tappers, so they are buzzing gently in each of my hands. I focus my mind where she has asked me to, and notice what other details or memories arise. This is all about letting my brain lead me down necessary paths–I am not consciously making these connections. My brain is doing the work, revealing related problems in my past. (Cool, right?!)
  • After a period of time that my counselor magically determines (seconds to minutes), she turns the tappers off, and asks me to describe what came up. I keep my eyes closed while I share out loud what came up in my mind. It might be an entirely new memory, a thought about the initial memory, a detail I hadn’t noticed before, an emotion, a physical sensation, or a combination of the above.
  • My counselor asks me a clarifying question, if needed, then asks me to focus on something that I’ve mentioned. Again, she turns on the tappers, and I follow my brain in silence.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat!
  • Wrapping up a session varies a bit based on what comes up in the process. But often, my counselor will have me look at myself in a particular memory and focus on that version of myself:
    • What does she need in the moment? Just notice.
    • What do you feel when you look at her?
    • Can you look at her with compassion? What do you notice?
  • To ‘box me up’ neatly and gently, my counselor may ask me to put myself in a pre-determined safe space mentally, to notice the details of a room I like being in. Alternatively, she may ask me to think about a friend or loved one who is emotionally safe, and sit in that experience of being near them.
  • My counselor tells me to open my eyes, we exchange a few closing thoughts, and we part ways until the next session.

Those are the mechanics of an EMDR session. But the true experience is much more than a list of steps. A number of other items are worth noting at this point.

It’s hard to hide/deflect. One of the reasons EMDR is so effective is that it’s significantly more difficult to run. In traditional talk therapy, you can avoid subjects left and right. You can use humor to hide what you’re really feeling or thinking. You can change the subject according to your whims. But in EMDR, the emphasis is firmly set on your memories, which means that you get right down to the crux of the matter. For rookies in EMDR who have a longer history of talk therapy, this contrast might feel quite exposing. Exposing, yes, but effective!

EMDR is utterly exhausting. The session itself is one matter — the body carries a lot of stress as it relives difficult moments, and that takes a toll. The brain is working hard to make new connections and dig deep into the memory stores. And on top of that, the subconscious work continues after the session is over! I generally go to bed early the day of a session, and try to allow time to sleep 11-12 hours that night. If I don’t get this extra sleep, I’m falling off  my chair the entire next day out of exhaustion.

For this reason, though I initially did EMDR once a week, I pulled back to every other week pretty quickly after beginning the process. It was just too exhausting for me to keep up the pace, and my counselor totally supported my decision to pull back. Every other week is a better rhythm for me. With a good amount of sleep night-of, I can operate at 85-90% normalcy the next day.

I cry a lot. EMDR requires us to experience some things for the first time, or re-experience painful moments. In my experience, crying is inevitable, my friends. I regularly experience feelings of grief, shame, sadness, disappointment, and anger. But these intense emotions are worth digging into, because…

It gets easier. That pain of sitting in unsettling memories definitely isn’t perpetual! Eventually, as EMDR does what it’s designed to do, I become desensitized to the pain of those moments. I can be more objective when I look at a memory that was, previously, distressing.

And most importantly…

It’s 150% worth it. I find it deeply cathartic and empowering to 1) identify the junk in my past, 2) appropriately and objectively distance myself from my initial response, and 3) reframe the experience with a more accurate, truth-based lens. In a surprisingly small number of sessions, I’ve noticed a dramatic change in my emotional stability. I feel much more in control of myself, and much more confident in my ability to enter into challenging conversations and topics.

Though I’m more aware of the damage done in my past, I’m significantly less chainedby it. Day by day, I experience new freedom! 

This is the gospel at work, my friends. I see EMDR as God’s merciful invitation to fully embrace the reality of Jesus’s death on the cross: we are truly dead to our past selves, and alive in Him. We are not enslaved by our own sin, the sin of others, or the brokenness of this world. We can fully embrace an identity that is rooted in the gospel, casting out all other narratives but the truth:

I’m a child of God, and love is my freedom!
I can ask anything of my Father the King.
I’m an heir, I’m adopted, and my brother is Jesus.
I’m a child of God, and my soul is at peace. 

Cheers to freedom, my friends. May your own journey of healing lead you to a place of peace! As always, questions and comments welcome below.

Where I’ve Been for the Last 4 Months

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Oh, it’s good to be back!

For those of you who follow my other blog regularly, you may have noticed some changes in historical content, as well as some major radio silence since my last post in October 2017. This is certainly an unusual lapse in content for me, and I’m thrilled to be able to resume my regular posting as of today.

Let’s rewind a bit for context.

Back in early November, I was doing life-as-usual and absolutely owning the first few days of NaNoWriMo when I got a phone call from one of my previous employers. Collaborative Strategies, Inc. (CSI) is a St. Louis-based consulting firm with an executive search practice; I supported them back in 2016 as a member of the Search Team prior to starting my career coaching business. My colleague Sarah called to request my services and support as the Search Team underwent a staffing transition.

My response was a resounding yes!

Yes, that meant setting down my epic NaNo novel progress and putting writing on the back burner. Yes, there were sacrifices involved and yes, I went a little batty for 4 months. My house got dirty, friends. The Christmas tree is still up. But it was absolutely the right decision.

As I worked with CSI, there was a mutual feeling of fit. I wasn’t the right person to fill the permanent open seat, because I love my career coaching business and am eager to continue serving my clients in that capacity. Even so, we explored what it might look like for me to continue my partnership with CSI in a different capacity, and I’m pretty stoked about the results.

As of February 2019, I serve CSI’s Search Team in a limited part-time/remote role. My primary responsibilities include:

  • Reviewing applications and making preliminary decisions
  • Sourcing qualified candidates and pitching relevant opportunities
  • Conducting preliminary phone interviews
  • Executing reference checks

All of my responsibilities are candidate-facing, meaning that I primarily work with candidates in consideration for a given search, rather than working with the client organization that is hiring the new position. Basically, I get to do the dream role that I would’ve designed myself in my wildest dreams! I love candidates, and I’m so thankful that I now have this additional channel for supporting and interacting with individuals in job transition.

So what does this mean for my career coaching clients? All good news. Check out the details on my career coaching blog.

Yes, I’m writing this blog on a different website. And yes, I’m now sending you back to the other blog for coaching-specific content. Stick with me for a minute, and this madness will all make sense!

If you’ve been reading my other blog for awhile, you may have noticed that some prior blog posts have fallen off of the archives. Don’t worry — that content isn’t gone forever! Posts have just been shuffled around a bit.

In an effort to better serve my clients and tailor my writing to the correct audiences, I’ve separated professional/career coaching content and personal content. You can continue to find helpful blog posts about job transition and career development on my business site.

For those of you looking to follow my personal blog that covers a variety of topics, especially authentic, faith-based musings, I hope you’ll enjoy this revived blog at Calling All Courageous. You can sign up for updates via WordPress. All of my historical personal content has been copied over from the other site, so nothing is lost in transition.

I appreciate your continued interest in this content, and your comments are always a tremendous blessing as I continue to share transparently about life, faith, marriage, friendships, work, travel, writing, and more. My goal on this site is to model courageous vulnerability, and to empower others–especially women–to do the same.

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So that’s the scoop! I’m so thrilled to report that the radio silence is over, and that my partnership with CSI begins a new stage in my business efforts. I’m particularly excited that I have this revived blog to really unleash the personal writing that I’ve somewhat held back on historically. Thanks for sticking with me over the last few months, and as always, don’t hesitate to drop a note in the comments section below. It’s always good to hear from you!

A Lesson from Patrick Rothfuss

For the last five weeks or so, I haven’t been able to write.

Okay, technically I’ve written a little. One day last week, I did a freewriting session to dump out all the crap in my brain. And after that, on Saturday morning, I made a list of blog posts I could write to reflect on my upcoming 30th birthday. I scribbled out a few to-do lists, shot off some emails, and did my usual writing on the client side.

Still, I haven’t really been able to write. I haven’t touched my novel draft, or my short story in-progress. I haven’t sat down and brainstormed new ideas.

But that’s not the worst part.

Five weeks isn’t an alarmingly long period of time to have trouble writing. We’ve had some things going on…family health stuff, routine disruptions. Life happens, you know? But I didn’t see it that way. Instead, I stared at myself in the mirror and came to the daily conclusion that I can’t do this. I am failing. And it’s never going to get better.

I accepted the fact that I wasn’t writing, and adopted it as a rule of life. And that conclusion left me feeling–on top of everything else I was feeling–like a complete waste of space.

Then today happened.

I hopped over to Goodreads to add a book to my “Want to Read” shelf. While I was there, a blog post from Patrick Rothfuss caught my eye.

Now, if you don’t know who Patrick Rothfuss is, you should. He has written an astonishingly beautiful fantasy series that is in-progress: The Kingkiller Chronicles. The first two books are published along with a novella (#2.5). If you haven’t read Patrick’s work, I dare you to go get the first book (The Name of the Wind) and tell me it isn’t well-written. You might not dig the genre or specifics or whatever, but it is an indisputable fact that Patrick Rothfuss knows how to write. The series is one of my favorites, and like many other readers, I eagerly await the day when he brings the trilogy to a close.

Anyway, on to the blog post. I don’t typically read Patrick’s blog (or anyone else’s really), but this one caught my eye. It’s titled “A blog, if only barely,” and in it, Patrick talks about why he hasn’t been posting much. He shares feelings of exhaustion, busy-ness, and a lack of motivation. He talks about how lonely he is, how dark his moods have been, and how discouraging it is to feel like he doesn’t have anything good to say.

I read the post with wide eyes. It was like living the lyrics to “Killing Me Softly,” minus the crippling fear of exposure.

Instead, I felt relief.

Of course it sucks that Patrick is in a bad place–I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone. But I was relieved because this amazing, inspired author whose work I respect is in a familiar place. He described something like the valley that I’ve been in this summer, and even with Patrick’s massive reader base, he’s still willing to write and put himself out there. He’s willing to talk about the dark crap, even if it feels useless to do so.

Patrick’s words were exactly the kick in the pants I needed to write this blog post.

A few days ago, I was crying in the dining room, trying to explain how I’m feeling to Andrew. I told him I hate socializing right now, because I have nothing to say. People ask “How are you?” and the only honest answer is unacceptable in 99% of social settings. They ask “How’s your writing going?” and I just want to crawl under the table and die. Outside of my dearest, inner-circle friends, I can’t respond to “How are you?” with the truth.

Even now, with this lesson from Patrick Rothfuss at heart, I wouldn’t answer the question honestly in most social settings. A dinner party is no place to dump my problems on the table, especially not with just anyone. I may be in a valley, but I still don’t want to be a party pooper.

But my blog…well, it’s mine. This is my space, and the only people who read this blog do it because they choose to. They know the content can get real, and they enter in anyway.

So on my blog, at least for today, I am choosing to tell the truth.

Things are pretty shitty. I haven’t been writing. My overall self-esteem is in the toilet, and that’s extending outside of my professional life. I drew out a literal Venn Diagram of potential mental health concerns that are contributing to my total absence of motivation, productivity, and self-esteem. I frequently stare at the computer screen, paralyzed by this false but prevailing catch-22: it doesn’t matter if I write, yet it doesn’t matter if I don’t write. I know that concept is a lie, but it paralyzes me even so.

I’m working on all of this. I’m actively seeking solutions for the mess that’s going on in my heart and mind. But I think the most important thing to say right now is that things are bad. But I choose to sit here and write about it anyway, even though it’s awkward and exposing.

This may seem to you (and me) like a small victory, but I’m still calling it a win. Thank you for reading. Thank you for all of the times you’ve told me that my writing matters, that matter. You wonderful people are helping to sustain me in this season, and I could not be more thankful.

One of the not-really-writing things that I wrote in the last week was a Facebook status on primary election day. It said, “Your voices matter.” I can’t help but grin just thinking of it! How ridiculous and mind-boggling is it that I can value everyone else’s voices, but fail to appropriately value my own?

Cheers to the catharsis of speaking truth, my friends, even when the truth is less than shiny. And an extra special shoutout to Patrick Rothfuss for modeling vulnerability when the words are dark, and yet still worth sharing. And cheers to you, Patrick. May life get a little less crappy for us both, hopefully soon.

In Defense of Sad Songs

About a year ago, I was at the theatre with Andrew and a couple of friends waiting for Cabaret to begin. I was the only one in our group who had seen the show before, and I was pumped; I adore Cabaret. Given the content and what I knew of our friends’ preferences, I warned everyone that it was a sad show, and a tad dark.

My friend turned to me, her smile evaporating into a grave expression. “Sadder than Les Mis?”

I laughed for a long time, and tried to imagine a sadness scale that peaked at a musical infused with the hope of redemption; I couldn’t begin to fathom such a perspective, but was absolutely delighted for her.

“Yes, sadder than Les Mis,” I choked out. “A lot sadder than Les Mis.”

More conversation ensued, and at some point my friend asked, “Why do you like Cabaretif it’s so sad?”

“I like a lot of sad shows, and sad songs in general.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Really? Why?”

Why indeed? It wasn’t the first time someone had raised an eyebrow over my preference for sad songs, but it was the first time someone directly asked my why. At the time, I had no idea how to answer her. I stumbled through a piece-meal explanation, and ultimately, I came up empty-handed. But the question lingered in my mind, and has buzzed around my brain ever since. This is my attempt at unearthing a thorough—albeit belated—response.

——

My friend was not completely off-base when she said Les Mis is sad.

If I have it right, I was eight or nine years old when I saw Les Miserables on stage for the first time. Our family had a deep-rooted obsession with the story, particularly on my dad’s side of the family, so taking an eight-year-old to see a production with prostitutes in it was perfectly rational. After all, we already played the soundtrack on repeat at home, and regularly wore out the VHS of the 10th Anniversary concert edition.

So I went to the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, and sat perched in my seat with my feet tucked up under me for a better view. I hardly dared to breathe lest I interrupt the story unfolding on stage. When it was over, rumor has it that I turned to my mom and asked, “Can we watch it again?” As if it was a VHS tape with a rewind function.

Even before I was old enough to understand the complicated adult themes explored in Les Miserables, I was drawn to the music, and specifically to Eponine and Fantine. Something about those women and their pain sent an arrow of truth into my tiny, innocent little heart. I felt understood, known, and heard, even though I had no idea why. Their ballads full of longing and sadness confirmed something inside me, a question buried in myself that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. All I knew is that the affirmation felt good, and thus I clung to the music of Les Mis as if it were a part of my very self.

— —

As a child of the 90s, I was caught up in the boy band fever that characterized the decade. Later on, I claimed allegiance to the Backstreet Boys, but my first boy band crush was Taylor, the middle brother of Hanson. What a devoted fan I was! I saw Hanson in concert, wore out VHS tapes that catalogued their musical journey, and listened to the CDs religiously. And you know what? I stand by that preference as a solid one. How often do pop singers write their own music AND play their own instruments?

There was something more compelling about Hanson than the cute boys and upbeat tunes. Yes, “Mmbop” was catchy as hell, but it wasn’t my favorite of Hanson’s songs. Instead, alone in my room, I played “Weird” on repeat. Looking at the lyrics now, it’s astonishing how much truth was packed into lyrics written by teenage boys:

Isn’t it hard
Standing in the rain?
You’re on the verge of going crazy and your heart’s in pain
No one can hear, but you’re screaming so loud
You feel like you’re all alone in a faceless crowd
Isn’t it strange how we all get a little bit weird sometimes?

Sitting on the side
Waiting for a sign
Hoping that my luck will change
Reaching for a hand that can understand
Someone who feels the same

When you live in a cookie-cutter world, being different is a sin
So you don’t stand out
But you don’t fit in
Weird, whoa, oh

Yes, the lyrics are drenched in teenage angst. But they also speak to the common human experience of longing to connect, to be seen and accepted as we are. That is a desire that lives in hearts of all ages, regardless of musical preference, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

At age 10, I couldn’t name that hole in my heart. But I knew Hanson’s lyrics were calling out to the empty space, and for that, they earned my undying devotion until I moved on to my next phase.

——

Music and theatre were natural outlets for me as an emotional, over-achieving adolescent. I auditioned for roles in community theatre productions as well as school shows, and I committed myself fully to every cast and role. I felt known in the theatre scene, delighted to be a part of a zany family that shared a common passion. We pretended to be someone else on stage together, and conveyed stories that ranged from absurd to frivolous to heartfelt.

One summer in high school, I attended a theatre camp at Indiana University. For a week, we had workshops in acting, movement, and musical theatre led by students and faculty at IU. We slept in the campus dorms, rehearsed in the common areas in our spare time, and gushed about our dream roles. My memories of that week are fond, brimming with energy, drama, and junk food.

Our final performance capped off the weel with a series of scenes and presentations for our friends and family. There were comedic and dramatic scenes, monologues, and musical theatre excerpts. Hell, they cast me as Elphaba in a scene from Wicked! You might expect that to have been my crowning moment, but it wasn’t. Instead, I relished the movement presentation, a choreographed routine set to “Evaporated” by Ben Folds Five. It wasn’t a dance, per se. It was more an opportunity to immerse oneself in the heart of a song, to enhance the message of the lyrics through movement and acting.

Here I stand, sad and free
I can’t cry, I can’t see
What I’ve done
Oh, God, what have I done?

Don’t you know I’m numb, man? No I can’t feel a thing at all
‘Cause it’s all smiles and business these days and I’m indifferent to the loss

And I’ve faith that there’s a soul somewhere that’s leading me around
I wonder if she knows which way is down

Here I stand, sad and free
And I can’t cry and I can’t see
What I’ve done
Oh, God, what have I done?

And I poured my heart out
I poured my heart out
It evaporated, see

Blind man on a canyon’s edge of a panoramic scene
Or maybe I’m a kite that’s flying high and random dangling a string
Or slumped over in a vacant room, head on a stranger’s knee
I’m sure back home they think I’ve lost my mind

Here I stand, sad and free
I can’t cry and I can’t see
What I’ve done
Oh, God, what have I done?

We rehearsed that movement routine over, and over, and over leading up to the final presentation, and I never tired of it. I never tired of the song, of pouring my experiences and emotions out into the world with a freaking fantastic, heart-wrenching song as the medium. I savored the moments in rehearsal or on stage with my fellow actors, relishing the unity as their emotions mingled with my own, and knowing that we were connected in our longing. It was pure magic, and if I could step into a rehearsal room with them right now and do it again, I would be able to recall every step.

— —

My junior year of high school was one of my best, but as it came to a close, I wrestled with the reality that I would be left behind. Almost all of my friends were seniors, and I was being abandoned, restrained from the growth and freedom I so desired, only to be held back in a juvenile prison, a waiting room for my future to begin. My friends were off to college in various states. My boyfriend was graduating and moving out of town with the rest of them. Half of my choir friends would be gone, and I feared all of these friends would leave without knowing the full measure of my love for them. The ache felt trapped in my chest, and I finally released it through a reliable channel: I wrote. In that case, I wrote a song.

The first draft of the song poured out of me in one sitting, like a dam bursting. I fine-tuned the details for weeks, but it was mostly finished from the moment it hit the page. The compulsion to communicate how desperately I wanted to go with them, to honor their relational impact on my life…it was too strong to resist. The emotions could not be contained by my body, so the music was born.

The song wasn’t an award-winner, but it served its purpose. I invited the seniors to my open mic performance at the end of the school year and made sure they knew it was important they attend. I sang my song, and I cried through the end of it:

I know that you must go, my friends
Your time here is running out
Soon, you’ll start on a great journey
Go the distance on an unknown route
And though I’ll thank God for each one of you every waking day
It’s so hard to say…goodbye.

Though in time you will be gone, and I will remain
Here you’ll always stay, yes you’ll always stay inside.

I remember one friend’s response in particular. Her eyes were wide as she hugged me, surprised and awed that someone felt that much for her. She was astonished by the depth of sadness I expressed, and the high value I placed on our friendship. She cried. I cried. We connected at a level that I had no other way to facilitate, and I felt a sweet catharsis in the confidence that my friends knew. They would leave, yes, but they would leave having seen me, and having known me fully, with my heart open wide for them to read.

— —

My undergraduate years were a low point in my life, a period of darkness and confusion that I hesitate to recollect. I was lost, depressed, dealing with undiagnosed anxiety, and I was a slave to my own foolish decisions. There were many times when I felt so lonely and lost that I couldn’t begin to find a way to ask for help. I couldn’t find the energy, the words, or even a general direction to crawl in.

I would wander the campus at night, find a secluded spot to sit, and cry. I didn’t know who I wanted to find me; I only knew that I desperately needed to be found. With a heavy heart, I sat on shadowy benches or at the top of a fire escape, and I waited for a nameless someone who never came. The lyrics of “Grey Street” by Dave Matthews Band were my only companion, the voice that spoke into my pain and said, Yes, I know. It wasn’t enough to make everything better, but it was better than feeling utter hopelessness and anonymity.

There’s an emptiness inside her
And she’d do anything to fill it in
And though it’s red blood bleeding from her now
It’s more like cold blue ice in her heart
She feels like kicking out all the windows
And setting fire to this life
She would change everything about her
Using colors bold and bright
But all the colors mix together
To grey
And it breaks her heart
It breaks her heart
To grey

——

My longest dating relationship pre-husband ended in my junior year of college. We’d dated for several years, spanning crucial formative years for me as a teen becoming a young adult. I had no idea who I was without that young man in my life, or how to move forward and find myself in his absence.

After we broke up, I spent the next summer working as a tour guide at my college. The Admissions office was located in a large building, down the hall from an auditorium. That auditorium sat several hundred people, but was rarely in use during the day, especially during the summer. And there was a grand piano on the stage.

On my lunch break, or even on a longer bathroom break when the day was dragging, I would creep into the shadowy auditorium. Soft light filtered in through stained glass windows along the sides of the room. I crept down the center aisle, just far enough to crane my neck out and see if the light was on in the balcony sound booth. If I saw the light on, I retreated immediately, my heart racing in fear of being caught. But more often than not, the light was off, and the auditorium was vacant and welcoming.

The grand piano on the stage called to me without ceasing. As soon as I knew I was alone, I raced down the aisle and up the steps to the stage. To this day, I still have no idea if I was breaking any rules by playing that piano. They didn’t lock the key cover, and they could have. Other pianos on campus had locks like that. The absence of a lock was the only permission I needed.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never claimed to be stealthy or subtle. The room wasn’t sound proof, and thus the music must have poured into the hallway. The light booth guy probably caught me in there on multiple occasions, and let me stay and play my song out of quiet heroism. Maybe he listened to me sing. Maybe he’d lost someone, too.

I don’t remember learning the song, the lyrics, or the chords. All I remember is sneaking into the auditorium and sending my voice out into the empty space. Daily, for an entire summer, I sang the same song without variation.

I don’t know if our fate’s already sealed
This day’s a spinning circus on a wheel
And I’m ill with the thought of your kiss
Coffee-laced, intoxicating on her lips

Shut it out
I’ve got no claim on you now
I’m not allowed
To wear your freedom down, no

Is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes and wine?

And I’ll tear myself away
If that’s what you need
Then there’s nothing left to say

But… is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes…
Reduced to ashes…
Are we just ashes…?

I never wanted to stop singing that song, even though it was painful to do so. At some point it got easier to sit down and release the words, a ritual. Eventually, much farther along than I’d care to admit, I was surprised to realize that I’d stopped sneaking into the auditorium. One day, I woke up and didn’t need the song anymore. Lyrics carried me through a summer, and then released me into the next part of my journey with well wishes and a healed heart.

——

Andrew snuck into my life like a ninja; neither one of us remembers meeting the other. We got to know one another from a distance for quite awhile, and then started dating. After a few months, I broke up with him because I wasn’t ready for him yet. A few months later, we were friends, and then we became good friends. About a year after our first round of dating, I humbled myself and told him I changed my mind. I asked him to give us another shot. By the grace of God, he said yes.

One of the defining moments in my relationship with Andrew happened that second time around in our dating journey. We were sitting on the couch in his condo, just talking. He’d asked me a question about physical intimacy, about whether or not there were any triggers from my past that he might not anticipate, any otherwise-innocent words or actions he should avoid to protect my heart. What a man I have!

In response, I laughed. “You couldn’t sink low enough, you’re too good a person. Just don’t, I don’t know…don’t lock me in a bathroom and make me do anything I don’t want to do. We should be good, then!”

I laughed again.

His face fell, and his eyes widened. “Someone did that to you?”

My brow furrowed, but I nodded.

Tears filled his eyes.

Andrew is not a crier. I can easily recall the few occasions when he has cried, but none of those moments touched my heart as this one did. He cried over a passing mention of my sexual abuse history, a detail that was minor to me and easy to dismiss. He communicated anger that someone would treat me that way, of course, but mostly he shared a profound experience of grief. His sadness mirrored mine, and nobody had ever responded that way before. I looked at him and saw someone who knew me, a kind, gentle man who understood and cared for my heart. In a way, he sang a sad song, one I thought nobody knew the lyrics for except me. He saw how much my past hurt me, and his heart said “Yes, beloved, I know.”

— —

Our first year of marriage was hijacked by some really awful external crap; everything but our marriage blew up in our faces. The biggest bomb that was dropped in our lives was a friendship that turned manipulative, and then spiritually abusive. We were submerged in that toxicity for about a year. Afterwards, we tried to pick up the pieces, but we didn’t have the energy. We were in survival mode, and it was miserable.

Because someone had used the beautiful, perfect Word of God as a weapon against me, going to church was hard. We tried going anyway. I sat in the service while people sang songs of praise, clapping their hands and dancing for joy. Particularly at that church, I did not belong. There was little if no emphasis on the broken people in the room, or opportunities for lament built into the structure of the service. It was deeply isolating, being heartbroken and wounded in a sea of smiling people. Being there wasn’t helpful. Sometimes I cried through the entire service, so we stopped attending altogether.

Outside of church, left to my own devices, I found the song I was hungering for. ”Jesus I My Cross Have Taken” became my daily plea. On a regular impulse, I would grab my guitar and choke out the hymn through tears, a groaning prayer that I knew the Spirit would complete on my behalf. It was all I could do to push through the first verses, acknowledge the promise of suffering for followers of Christ, and look ahead to the restoration and healing that I knew God would deliver some day.

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.

Let the world despise and leave me,
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
O while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me,
Show Thy face and all is bright.

Man may trouble and distress me,
’will but drive me to Thy breast.
Life with trials hard may press me;
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’is not in grief to harm me
While Thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’were not in joy to charm me,
Were that joy unmixed with Thee.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure,
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure,
With Thy favor, loss is gain
I have called Thee Abba Father,
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.

Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station,
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee,
Child of heaven, canst thou repine?

Haste thee on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer.
Heaven’’ eternal days before thee,
God’’ own hand shall guide us there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

In the midst of brokenness, confusion, anger, complex-PTSD, and spiritual doubt, I found the joy that only the Lord can give. God gifted that joy to me in a way He knew I would be able to receive, even when I was so pissed at Him that I refused to pray or even “let him in the door.” For almost a year, God let me be. He kept a respectful distance and sent a gift by mail, a sad hymn that He knew I needed. I clung to the song, and it carried me through.

— —

I like sad songs because they are honest. There is something unifying and right in collectively acknowledging our pain, our sadness, our longing and our disappointments. I defend sad songs because I am hungry for the acceptance of emotional honesty in our world, and especially in our church.

There is a poisonous trend in our culture that has influenced the culture of the church;  that trend suggests we must be happy, and anything other than happiness and plastered-on gratitude is wrong. Psychologist Susan David describes this as a cultural value of relentless positivity. Her Ted Talk titled “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” is fifteen minutes of gut-punching truth about how toxic our rigid approach to emotion truly is. We’ve characterized valid, normal emotions like sadness and grief as bad! It’s one thing for the secular culture to promote this lie, that we must be happy or we are bad. It is another thing entirely to see that lie infecting the church.

The Christian Church is a body of individuals who follow Jesus and claim Him as Savior. The Bible is the Word of God, and the compass of the church. And what does that Bible tell us? Jesus suffered. Jesus wept. Jesus blessed those who mourn. The Psalms are full of longing and heartache, danger and profound pain. I mean, there is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations, people! As in lament, “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” We are promised that as Christians, we will experience pain and suffering, that we will bear the cross of Christ in this lifetime. Why is the church not leading the way in creating space for people to lament? Why are there so few songs about fear, sadness, pain, loss, regret, anger, and doubt? Why do hurting people feel isolated and exposed when they step in the door of a church?

I mean no offense to any of my friends, or any particular churches I’ve attended. There are good steps being taken in the right direction toward emotional honesty and courageous vulnerability. But it is simply not enough, and it is still too rare for someone to answer “How are you?” with a truthful response on a Sunday morning.

As Susan David mentions in her talk, I’m not anti-happiness!  I celebrate the sunny days and laugh with my loved ones. I praise God for the innumerable blessings in my life, and the joy that cannot be taken from me. But enjoying happiness isn’t a reason to negate the valid and important moments of weeping, aching, and grieving.

Musicians and songwriters have poured their hearts out so that people like me can find consolation when nobody else knows what to say, or how to help. I defend sad songs because they honor the life-giving connection that is established when we share the heaviness of our pain with one another, through our art, our friendship, or our wordless, comforting presence. In today’s world, I will accept that gift of togetherness in the midst of pain, and I will cherish it openly, no matter how unfashionable that may be.