Day of days

1,001

Today is the one thousand-first day since Paul died, and it’s also our wedding anniversary. This day of days, of all the days, is the hardest for me. It’s harder than his birthday. It’s harder than Father’s Day. It’s harder than the day he died. It’s harder than all the missed family birthdays, celebrations, and holidays combined. Why? Because it was our day; a unique day in the story of us, the day that marked the beginning of our life together, a day when there were still so many days ahead of us.

The story of our lives together had just begun and now that book’s final chapter has been written, and it sits on a shelf in the library of memories, a treasured story to be sure, but bookended in time nonetheless.

Paul and I always considered our anniversary to be the kick-off to the Christmas season. We would choose a nice restaurant, dress up, and linger long, over a multi-course dinner. On the last anniversary that we celebrated together, we chose a fancy restaurant we had never been to before. The restaurant is a converted carriage house behind an historic mansion that is now a high-end, boutique hotel.

The restaurant, house, and connecting garden were all decked out for Christmas; a sea of reds, greens, and gold. Some of the festive colors had been smartly placed by the staff in the form of swags and garlands, ornaments, and bows, and some had been provided by nature in the form of nandina bushes, holly berries, and camellias as well as the thick, dark greens of magnolia, smilax, and ivy with pops of gold thrown in by maples, oaks, poplars, and sweetgums. By the way, the yellow-gold leaves of the sweetgum are the only redeeming grace of that awful tree with its hard sticker-balls that drop to ground and lie in wait like tiny grenades to the undersides of my bare, southern feet. Anyone who lives in the south knows that they are a menace.

We arrived a little early to our reservation so that we could walk the nearby streets and gardens and take a short tour of the lobby and sitting areas inside the mansion that were so beautifully decorated for the season. We explained to a greeter as we entered the mansion that we were celebrating our anniversary. Upon hearing this, the greeter invited us to ascend the stairs to the cupola and enjoy a view of the city.

A cupola is a small, domed room at the top of a home or building. Some cupolas are very small and intended only to allow in additional light and air. Others are large and used as a lookout either for pleasure or safety. The cupola at the top of this colonial mansion is exceedingly large with floor-to-ceiling windows and was probably intended for both sightseeing and safety as it is just blocks from the harbor and still to this day is one of the tallest buildings in the city even though it is only four stories tall.

We made our way up the spiral staircase and into the barrel-shaped cupola. It was a clear, cold night and the view was long, expansive and breathtaking. The moon was so bright it had chased the stars away. They left their home in the sky and instead took roost in the city, lighting like birds on lampposts and rooftops, and taking up residence in people’s homes and dwellings, sparkling through window panes and doorways.

One of the floor-to-ceiling windows was actually a door indicated only by the presence of a handle. I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped out onto a widow’s walk that surrounded the cupola. Yes, really. A widow’s walk.

A widow’s walk is a railed walkway around the outside of a cupola; very common among 19th century, Atlantic coast homes and so named for the women who would frequently use the walkways to search for the ships of their sea-faring beloved.

Doesn’t that give you chills? It gives me chills. It makes me feel like this blog was being written out in real life with me as one of the characters in some unknown author’s story. Because I didn’t know then, standing next to my husband, that it would be our last anniversary together and that I would be sitting here writing about it nearly three years later. It puts me in a bit of an existential quandary. Am I the dreamer? Or am I the dream?

***

This is the first year that I have not taken this day entirely to myself. In years past, I anticipated the day and intentionally planned activities that celebrated, even memorialized, our lives together and contributed both to my comfort and to the grieving and healing process.

On the first anniversary without Paul, I took the day off from work to visit the place where we met, and I took this picture; one that you may recognize if you have followed my story.

That was the day that the idea and impetus for this blog began and then became reality about a month later. The second anniversary without Paul was a Saturday. I spent the day volunteering with our dog, Beatrice, at the hospital where Paul passed away.

This year, I allowed it to just happen like any other day. It started out pretty rough. Normally, on a day like today, I would struggle to leave the safety and comfort of the house, but lately, the house no longer seems to hold the sense of safety and comfort it once did. It just feels….empty. The routines that once made me feel so secure now feel boring and numbing.

My mood was disgruntled and cross as I made the short drive to work and would you believe it? I pulled into the parking lot and as I got out of my car, I was greeted with the sound of a Mourning Dove literally mocking me with its low, somber “coooo, coo-hoo, coo, coo, cooooo”. I mean the nerve of some birds. Ugh. I was already struggling and then this bird just had to rub it in. Seriously. I had a few choice words for that bird.

I have been, no, I am, doing really well. I know that this is just a bump in the road, but today it feels like a mountain. However, it’s not sadness or grief that I am feeling. It’s deeper in a way. It has settled somewhere lower in my soul and my psyche. There’s a resignation to it that is almost equivalent with defeat except that it is a defeat that has been reconciled.

It’s nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a wistful sort of acceptance that time is linear, that there’s no going back. It is more closely related to homesickness. That seems about right.

And what does one crave most when homesick? You know it. A good home cooked meal. Am I right? So that’s just what I did. I went home from work after a quick stop at the market and made the first meal Paul and I ever made together, shrimp tetrazzini. It was 1991, about six months before we got married. We were enjoying a weekend at the beach and got in the kitchen together for the first time to make a meal. We listened to Van Morrison as we cooked and drank a dry white wine that just happened to double as one of the recipe’s ingredients.

Once home, I got in the kitchen and got busy with dinner accompanied by Van Morrison and Amazon-Alexa who not only rocked out the Van Morrison playlist but helped me keep up with the five minutes for the shrimp and mushrooms, the seven minutes for the pasta and the 30 minutes in the oven. I made the biggest mess you’ve ever seen. And, no, it didn’t taste the same. Yes, it needed salt. And, this time, the pasta was gluten free because my digestive system is nearly 30 years older and pickier. But none of that matters. It was exactly what I needed.

Here are some directions and action shots in case you want to give it a whirl. The nice thing about this recipe is that you can make it with shrimp, chicken or turkey, and even though linguine is the typical cut of pasta used for this dish, it works with whatever you choose including gluten free (brown rice and quinoa) spiral cut pasta which is what I used.

Begin with a medium-sized sweet onion, minced. Sauté the onion in two tablespoons of butter. Add about a half-pound of shrimp and a half-pound of fresh mushrooms. I added another tablespoon of butter at some point because I had a little more than a half-pound of shrimp and the mushroom slices were large. When the shrimp are pink and the mushrooms are beginning to wilt or sweat, remove to a large bowl and set aside.

The roux could not be more southern; two cups of milk (I used cream because that’s what Paul would have done), one-quarter cup flour, and one-quarter cup mayonnaise (Duke’s, of course). As the roux thickens, add one cup of sherry or a dry white wine. I had a Riesling from a local vineyard so that’s what I used. Also, I may have used more than a cup.

Return the shrimp, onions, and mushrooms to the pan, add cooked pasta (about 8oz dry), and toss gently until well combined. Place in a casserole dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 degrees (F) for about 30 minutes.

Since it was just me this time, I didn’t go all out, but typically I would add salad and a roll to complete this meal.

***

So something has happened several times lately. A new feeling. It’s happened too often to be a fluke; it’s real, it’s persistent, and I don’t like it. It’s not a feeling to which I am accustomed either to the extent that when I first felt it I wasn’t sure what it was. “This is new. What is this feeling?” I thought. “It’s not grief. It’s something else.” It took me a few times of being confronted with it before I had a name for it. Loneliness.

Oh, dear.

Now. Now. Don’t get worried about me. I am fine. I am busy in the best, most healthy ways. I am surrounded by friends and family who love me and look after me. I am not alone by any means.

And I fully realize that this is a normal part of the grief and grieving process for both myself and the people who surround a loss. At some point, the attention fades, and the phone calls, the invitations, and the texts gradually slow to a trickle as everyone including me moves forward, and the strength of the connections that have been developed during this process are tested in a way. It’s intriguing to me to see what sticks and what doesn’t as I move forward into my life that is no longer our life. From the observer perspective, it’s an interesting turn of events, the next developmental phase. I find myself saying, “Oh, this is an interesting development. What’s she going to do now?” but with the exception that the she is me.

True confessions: I love plants and nature, gardens and parks, but I don’t like to garden. I love to be outside, and I enjoy learning the names and identifying all different kinds of plants, shrubs, trees, flowers, and vegetables. But I don’t like to work in the yard; to plant, trim, prune shrubs, flowers, trees, or bushes, or to mow or rake. However, Paul and I used to spend hours upon hours in our yard and garden, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Huh. Interesting.

What I have realized is that I liked to garden…. with Paul. I enjoyed it because we were doing it together. This. This is what I miss. This is what I desire. I want to love to do something because someone I love loves and enjoys doing it. Ooooo, boy. Relationship goals. This is what it means to share your life with someone. To like what they like because they like it, to take joy in the joy of another.

I didn’t notice how much I missed all of this before I started dating again, and now that I have, well, I’ve realized how much I missed that level of relationship. I miss the small, knowing glances, the tell-all facial expressions, the secret language that we spoke.

It’s funny because before I would have said that there was absolutely nothing missing from my life, and now I feel like there is. Oh, for God’s sake, grrrrrrrr, and double-grrrrrr. Like really? I was so hoping and praying that the Lord would call me to single-ness for the rest.of.my.life. Ha! You got to love the Lord’s sense of humor, and He does have one!

***

This blog is (clearly!) my expressive outlet, my art if you will. I am equally enthralled, but not skilled, with other expressive arts. Music, theater, visual arts are just not my gift, but I love to patronize and support those who do have that gift. My smart, beautiful, talented friend and colleague, Amy Tepper, is one of those people. I purchased this lovely piece of wearable art from her several months ago. I love it because reminds me of the peace of the Holy Spirit descending from above.

Then, recently, knowing my story, she created this beautiful artwork on commission. It’s amazing in these photographs, but it is stunning in person. It tells my story on so many levels; my human story and my spiritual story. It has layers of color and dimension, and it has movement. It’s like what I see when my life flashes before my eyes. Amy captured that, and I will be forever grateful. If you would like to connect with Amy to discuss the visual expression of your own story, you can find her here.

In church last week, during the closing hymn, something happened. We were just starting into the last verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness and suddenly I heard Paul singing beside me. I heard his voice in my ear. I turned to look at him. I stopped singing and listened to him finish the verse.

Be well my friends, and stay tuned. The adventure has just begun, Malia

How’s your vision? Mine’s 2020.

Life as we knew it…is.over. I know. It’s devastating, but maybe, just maybe, there is something new and different and wonderful ahead for us.

I mean who wants to return to normal? Not me. Not if normal means rampant consumerism, hateful speech and actions, and addictive, unhealthy behaviors involving social media. Let me be clear. There are more problems with the way people use social media than with social media itself. This is true of most all devices conceived by the heart and mind of man. No manmade object, contraption or contrivance is inherently harmful or dangerous. How we use them, what we do with them, makes them so.

Folks, it’s time for us to leave normal behind. I am done with normal. I am sick of it. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s time for us to grow and mature as a people and as a country, to eat the solid food of patience and wisdom, to remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts that love fully and robustly. It’s time for us to move beyond our infancy as a nation, as a society, as a race; the human race.

If you’ve ever wondered where I land politically, economically, philosophically, or otherwise, that’s as much as you are going to get in the context of this blog.

The truth is that until we all collectively accept the death of Normal and grieve the death of Normal, we are not going to get to the good stuff. And, yes, I realize that I am communicating my truth so, as always, you have the option to continue reading…or not.

Now, what is the good stuff you say? The good stuff is what comes after; after the struggle, after the hurt, after the pain.

Don’t believe me? The reality of this is etched in the layers of the earth itself. Proof of it is written into all of creation and played out over and over again throughout history from the small, personal moments between humans to the huge swaths of sweeping movements across recorded time.

It’s in the sunshine after the storm. It’s in the small patches of flowers boldly growing in a field of long-cooled lava. It’s in the desert blooms after the rain. It’s in the tender, green shoot emerging from a tree stump. It’s the baby boom after World War II.

It’s the widow making her way in the world, no, even thriving, after the death of her beloved husband.

It’s the rise. After the fall.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something my husband said to me in the days just after his diagnosis when we were all struggling to fathom the reality of our lives without us being us. We were like sonographers sounding the ocean depths trying to measure the seemingly unmeasurable, waiting for the return echo that would signal that we were not dangling over a bottomless pit.

What my husband said came in the context of a collection of other things Paul felt like he needed to tell me regarding what to do and how to be after he was gone. The conversation was like a bundle of kindling to spark and light the way to my future. One particular remark, that has perplexed me so, came on the heels of his now famous advice for me to make some friends.

Paul said, “You can be free.”

I have really struggled with that. It has confused me and worried me. I didn’t know what he meant then, and I’m still not entirely sure I now know what he meant. At the time, I said, “Stop it”, protesting the insinuation that I was somehow the opposite of free or burdened in some way. I was also frankly a little hurt that he might think of me that way, that he might think I felt that way, or perhaps I was convicted of any inadvertent behavior that may have caused him to even think that I felt that way. It pricked my heart like being handed an exquisite rose with an equally exquisite thorn.

I have tried for quite some time to wrestle the meaning out of those words, you can be free. Maybe he just knew that I might never become fully myself unless in his absence. And, in truth, I have indeed discovered things about my self that I would not have known within the context of our relationship just as I had discovered things about myself during our relationship that I would never have learned otherwise.

My family has been my life’s work. Paul knew there were many things I had not allowed for myself because they would take away from my mission to give every last nth of myself to the people that I loved and loved me. That is, after all, agape love; sacrificial love. And I don’t regret it for a second.

But there’s more to it than that.

Caregiver is coded in my DNA, and I love that. It gives me purpose. I show love through service. But it is also a disorder that developed as the result of the death of my mother. I developed a knee-jerk, emotional coping mechanism, a child’s false logic that goes something like this, if I’m good enough, I can prevent this from happening again. If take care of the ones I love well enough, nothing will ever happen to them.

It led to a pattern of me taking too much responsibility for everyone and everything.

I vividly recall a late night, phone conversation with our son. This was many years ago now. He was in college and struggling a bit with the adjustments of living on his own. Paul and I listened as our son shared what was going on and after a quiet pause, I said almost hesitantly, “What if. What if you took care of yourself as well as Daddy and I have taken care of you?” Stunned silence from the other end. I may have heard a gulp. I don’t recall the exact response, but our son basically said he could not even wrap his head around that, couldn’t imagine what that would be like. But over time, he has learned to do just that.

So there I was back in the spring on COVID lockdown and struggling to adjust to life on my own, and I turned the question on myself. What if. What if I took care of myself as well as I have taken care of others my entire life? What if I turned all that effort and energy to me? Holy moly.

So now. Now I am loving my own self with the same kind of purpose and service. This. This is what Paul meant, what he wanted for me, to be free to grow myself in the ways I have poured effort and energy into others that I have loved and cared about for my entire life. After very nearly now 50 years, I am turning all of that effort and energy on to me.

Taking care of myself to the level that I have always taken care of others has been transformative. I have nurtured my self and grown my self, mind, body, and spirit, through exercise, reading, writing, counseling, nutrition, swimming, yoga, running, playing, plenty of sunshine, walking, rest, time for thought and prayer, time with friends and family, laughter and tears, challenge and ease, all of the good things a person needs to grow healthy and strong….and free.

I am free of (most!) of my own self-imposed limitations. Free from the constraints and expectations I’ve placed on myself. Free from a false logic, a false narrative of responsibility that held me captive. Free from the cage that is the either-or mindset, and free to embrace both-and instead because my heart is no longer the shallow well of self-reliance, where there is never enough to go around, where effort and energy must be conserved and rationed, where either-or decisions rule the day. My heart is instead the constantly renewed and refreshed deep well of faith so that I can be the fullest expression of myself and have more than enough left over to fully love others. Can you feel the ground shaking? Because I do.

I haven’t shared this next part with any of my friends or family. They may wonder why. All I know is that some things are easier to write than say. Or maybe. Maybe God has asked me to hang on to this for 37 years, 8 months, and 7 days until today because you, dearest, are the one who needs to know it.

When I laid down to go to bed on the night of the day my mother died, I went toe-to-toe with God for the first time. My relationship with God had gotten personal. He had reached his hand into my life and taken something precious from me. I felt I had at least earned the right to ask for something in return. I recognize the spiritual immaturity in this now, of course, but as a young girl, trying to make sense of the senseless, well, I was doing the best I could with my limited understanding, and God, God was as He always is, full of grace.

In the quiet of my room, in the stillness of the night, I met God as Jacob did at the ford of the Jabbok River. There were windows above my bed. It was a cold, clear night. I gripped the top of the headboard and pulled myself up to the sill to peer through the window and saw a sky full of stars. The room was flooded with moonlight, and I was flooded with a river of tears. I cried, begged, and pleaded with God as I prayed, “Lord, please take me, too. I don’t want to wake up in the morning. Just please, please let me die during the night. Please.”

I had my answer when, well, I woke up the next morning. I wasn’t exactly angry as one might imagine. I was disappointed; defeated, hurt and wounded that God had taken so much from me and would not allow me this one request as consolation. I didn’t understand yet that God had indeed allowed my request. It took years for me to realize that God had given me exactly what I asked for. I had, in fact, died and awoken to an entirely new existence. In the same way that I have had to mourn the girl I was, I have also had to mourn the loss of the woman I became in the presence of my husband, in the context of that relationship, because she also died….and awoke to an entirely new existence.

In this life, we die many deaths. Grieving is not something we do only at the end of a life. Grieving is a cyclical part of our emotional climate, our human and spiritual nature, because loss is a fundamental life experience for us all.

Nowadays, it’s like waking up every morning and strapping on a pair of wings. My flight is erratic. I sputter. I flap ridiculously. I wobble. I soar too high and crash. I crash. And when I crash, I laugh. I laugh, and I think, “Good. This is good for me”, and I am thankful for the experience; the hurt, the disappointment, the embarrassment, the knowledge, and the wisdom.

Some days all I do is flap all day long not even getting so much as my big toe off the ground, ending my day completely spent with nothing to show for it. Well, almost nothing. You see on days like that it’s not about flight at all. It’s about strength and getting stronger. All that flapping builds strength. Soaring and gliding does not build strength, flapping does. Hooray.for.flapping. And for looking ridiculous doing it. I’m ok with all of it.

I had a dream recently. I was outside. It was early morning. The sun was up, steadily climbing and warming, but it was still low in the sky, just beginning the long arc of the day. I had the sense that I had been there in that spot for a while, legs crossed, calm and peaceful, light breeze, head tilted toward the horizon, watching the sunrise, but I was oddly expecting something more. I was waiting. And then. Then, a second sun arrived on the horizon and, via time lapse as if racing to catch up with the first sun, took its place in the sky; the same size and shape, but the glow was different. This second sun was golden and fuzzy around the edges like a peach where the first sun had become white hot and the edges were quick. I could no longer look directly at it. It had risen above those protective layers of the atmosphere through which one can safely view our star without wincing.

This dream. I knew I was dreaming but actively chose to stay in the dream to see what happened next. It actually didn’t feel like a dream at all. It felt like a vision, like someone had something to show me. I wasn’t even surprised to see that second sun rising in the sky. It felt like a long awaited something had finally arrived. I smiled, closed my eyes, breathed in the glorious warmth, and felt my skin like a sponge soaking in the life bringing light. And my whole body reverberated, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh.”

I am choosing not to pull at the threads of this dream. I wouldn’t dare. Instead I will treat it with the reverence it’s due. I don’t want to know its roots, its origin, its pieces and parts. I don’t want to see the trees this time, only the forest. I just want to sit with it, enjoy it, accept it with gratitude as if a gift had just been handed to me.

Time to rise, my friends, Malia

Anndddd….she’s back!

It’s been six months to the day since my last post. And now. Now my fingers are on fire! So, get ready because I’m back, baby!

And, yes, the sassometer (Hint! Rhymes with thermometer) is at full tilt these days. You know, sassometers. They measure one’s level of good ol’, Southern gumption. If you are one of my far flung readers, you might not be familiar with that word, gumption. It means shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness, and it describes my current mood, oh, so, precisely. When I mentioned to my son that this post was about to go live and that it was ‘full of sass’, he responded, “Aren’t they all?” Indeed!

And, because once an educator, always an educator, this blog post is officially sponsored by the letter G.

G is for grateful.

I am practicing gratitude like it’s going out of style, and as far as I can tell from the world today, it seems like it actually is going out of style.

Gratitude is the cure for what ails. That may sound naïve or even a little tone deaf given some of the circumstances that people are living through right now, but….have you tried it? By all means, don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. There are a million ways to practice gratitude. Pick one, and try it. Honestly, if I didn’t start each and every day telling God what I’m thankful for, I don’t know what would become of me. Some days are harder to be grateful for than others. Some days I am really reaching, grasping, because the world is weighing so heavily upon me, but there is always something to be thankful for. Sometimes I even thank God for the pain I’m feeling. Yep.

In giving thanks, my mind and heart almost always return to Psalm 95, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and show ourselves glad in him with psalms” and Psalm 100:4, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”

G is for grieving.

Transporters (science fiction style) are real. I can be anywhere doing anything and with no obvious trigger and very little warning be beamed into another space and time.

On one of these trauma trips, I suddenly found myself in Paul’s hospital room. I openly, loudly, without regard, hesitation, or regret begged God for death to come and come quickly. Paul’s body was beyond help, beyond hope, but his spirit was not. (Nor is ours!) And then, he was gone. Less than a minute. Less than 5 minutes. 10 minutes. 20. He was still soft, warm. I smoothed his hair. Kissed his cheek. Cupped the corners of his jaw in my hands, placed my thumbs in the places where his dimples had carved out the most beautiful divots in his face. I.am.there. I can feel the warmth of his body beneath my open palms. The scruff of his beard against my lips and cheek. I breathe in trying to capture, retain the essence of him. I breathe out.

Sometimes that moment feels like so long ago. Other times it feels like I’ve just stepped out of his hospital room for the last time.

So, yes, I am still grieving.

Y’all have to understand. I am still shocked that I wake up every morning. I’m surprised every day to find that I am still here, that the sun still rises, that the world still turns. I mean, how in the hell is that even possible? It is the grief mindset. And I often wonder if it’s permanent, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it give me perspective, some level of awareness that others do not possess? Some level of awe and appreciation for each and every day? Or will I wake up one day and go, “Ohhhh, now I get it. Life goes on.”

I hope not. I love that I live in a state of awe and wonder at the miracle, the gift, that is life. I just don’t like what I had to go through in order to achieve that state of being.

G is for growing.

I am so different now. I have changed. I am physiologically not the person I was before Paul died. I am different. I think different. Every day I catch myself thinking very differently about things than I would have in the past.

I had a conversation with someone recently, a colleague, about perspective and what it takes to achieve it. What does it take to achieve next-level social and emotional self-awareness? What does it take to wake up? Does it take a tragedy? A significant loss of some kind? I don’t know. I really hope not, but I do think that it points to the purpose of struggle in our lives and, folks, we all struggle.

As the Oak, So I

A large oak stands sentry in my front yard. As the seasons have changed, I’ve noticed that the oak sheds its leaves a little differently than other trees. While other trees drop all of their leaves at once and are rendered completely bare, left to stand naked against the fall and winter sky, the oak retains its old leaves, crisp and brown, until they are literally pushed off the branches by new leaves, new growth. So, too, my new growth is taking the place of what was once useful and productive but no longer serves me and now falls away to be replaced by something new, something fresh.

I’m loving what I’m learning about life and others as I move forward. I recently cleared a pretty big hurdle as I moved from a state of equilibrium in my life to disequilibrium.  I’m getting it right sometimes, but I’m making lots of mistakes, too, as I’m forming and navigating new relationships, negotiating and balancing my needs with the needs of others, honoring where they are in their own processes. Having been in a stable relationship for so long has made some of those skills a little rusty for me so I’m working at it every day.

G is for grace.

That smile on my face? It’s all about His grace.

I often get asked “how I do it”. Where does the strength come from, the resiliency to endure, heck, even thrive in the face of such difficult losses. Sometimes I even sense a little bewilderment if not outright irritation from others. The vibe is ‘What’s she so happy about? What’s she got to smile about? Doesn’t she know we’re in the middle of pandemic?’

Then, there’s the opposite of that reaction in which people assume that because they see me smiling, it means everything is going along perfectly. Not! These are trying times. There are challenges around every corner, let downs and disappointments, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and down-right attacks filled with the arrows and spearheads of hurtful words and actions.

Then, there’s this. I spent all of July down and out with COVID. Yep.

And my work has been disrupted just like so many others. I work in education so I’m pretty sure that I can just leave that right here and let your own imagination, dear reader, do the rest about what that experience has been like. It’s no secret that schools have had a hard time meeting the needs of students, parents, and teachers. I am proud of my colleagues, my school, and my district. We are working harder than ever before and providing students and their families with the best that we have to offer, but it is terrifying and insanely difficult every day.

Half the time I only get half a night’s sleep. I’m up pacing the house while my dogs peacefully snooze the night away only occasionally lifting one eye to make sure I’m not actually going anywhere. Sometimes I cry myself back to sleep, or sometimes I stand at an open window and breathe in the stillness of the night contemplating the nature of the universe. Quiet street. Bright moon. Light breeze and leaves in flight as they are finally released from the trees’ branchy grip, punctuated by the soft *tink* of acorns hitting the roof, front walk, driveway, or street below. Insects sing their buzzy lullaby and owls shoo-shoo me back to bed, back to sleep.

I’m not the only one though who manages to face the storms of life with a tenacity of spirit. Some of our nearest and dearest have suffered stunning losses. I see their strength, their resilience, and I know where it comes from. I want you to know it, too. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord. My faith is my source of strength, my source of peace.

G is for glowing.

I’ve had lots of ups and downs these last six months. But this picture pretty much says it all about where I am right now. (Funny how no one takes and posts a picture of themselves when they are ugly-crying, ha!)

G is for the big Guy upstairs.

The OG. The original, Father God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I have been working really hard lately on achieving stillness; stillness in body, mind, and spirit. It’s not easy. My heart is often troubled, my mind is often addled, and my spirit has always had a tendency to be restless. But I am trying.

I recently came across the full, original version of the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr. You probably know the first part by heart as so many people do, but maybe like me you were unaware of the rest of it. It’s so appropriate for the times we are living in today.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

So here I am. Living life in the moment. Yesterday is done. Tomorrow is not promised. I’m making the best use of the dance floor that is my kitchen for morning and sometimes late night dance jams. I am not perfect. I am, in fact, very far from it, but I do serve a perfect God.

From Jeremiah 6:16, “This is what the Lord says:  Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

I’m standing at the crossroads. Won’t you, please, join me? Malia

Five Gold Rings

This is, after all, the fifth day of Christmas. Can’t you just hear the familiar, well loved carol echoing in your memory? That favorite refrain that everyone joined in on even if they couldn’t remember the other gifts of Christmas?

Big inhale! FIIIIVVVVVE GOLD(EN) RINGS! BOM, BOm, Bom, bom…..So, today, on this fifth day of Christmas, I give to you full disclosure.

Beware. This post might qualify for Longreads. I’m kidding, but, truly, if you haven’t discovered Longreads yet, give it a whirl. It’s an online magazine, hosted on WordPress, of long-ish essays, investigate reports, interviews and profiles from a wide variety of writers on human interest type topics.

But, seriously, you might have to take a snack break, or two, at some point during this post.

This Christmas has been like a game of Hi-Lo on The Price is Right. Desperate for anything to take the edge off the seeping, creeping grief, the highs have been the low-hanging fruit like trivial distractions and general busy-ness, and the lows, well, there’s a strange sort of safety and comfort there because the lows feel like my baseline.

I think this is what my son meant when, a few months ago, he said he was worried about me getting stuck in grief, stuck like feet that have sunk a little too far into the pluff-mud that pervades our Lowcountry landscape. The effort it takes to retrieve your foot is surprising and always more than your brain anticipates, or estimates, that it will take. So, there’s an initial jerking upward motion which gets you nowhere and then a more sustained slowwww-pull that finally begins to yield some of your leg and foot back from the netherlands. You end up losing your balance because as you pull up on your foot, the mud actually, unbelievably, pulls back with nothing less than a sucking, gulping sound like hisseellluuppp. And it’s gross, soft, wet, sticky, and somehow coarse at the same time. And it stinks, of dead fish, rotting leaves and grass, and sulfurous gasses. Yep, being stuck in grief is just like that, and yet, it is comfortable, soothing even in a primal way. I know. Weird.

***

I wonder if my posts have seemed as frenetic as I have felt during this holiday season. Actually, the recent unpleasantness started before the holidays began. Looking back, as I am wont to do, I can see that the anxiety was already building ahead of Thanksgiving. Grief was doing its dirty work before I was fully aware of it, but that is nothing new.

So, you may wonder, have I been happy? sad? lonely? Well, the truth is I have been all of that and so much more. I have laughed, smiled, cried, celebrated, and mourned. I have done the flash dance around the flashbacks and felt the burn of anger sweeping through my body. I have been irritable, frustrated and downright apoplectic. I have cried. A lot. More than I have cried in months. Grief has, once again, been a full-on, sensory experience. My body has felt twisted and wrung out like a rag as I have cried until the tears could no longer form even a single drop. I have been elated and joyful and miserable in the same breath. I have experienced waves of grief and anguish so intense that I felt nauseous, sick to my stomach, the way actual waves can make one seasick. At times, I have been withdrawn, not really feeling up to socializing. I’ve had great difficulty committing to events, but I have also enjoyed being active, taking long walks with friends in the neighborhood, playing tennis, attending a couple of drop-ins as well as turning down both casual and formal invitations, electing instead to retreat to the safety and comfort of the house.

Ugh. The house. My job allows me substantial time off during the holidays which is wonderful, but it has also been a challenge. This is the first Christmas that my son has not been staying with us, with me, while on a holiday break from school. He and his fiancé have their own place nearby, and I have spent a lot of time with them, but it’s not the same as having him under the same roof. I mean, this is all good. Every good parent, whatever that means to you, desires for their child to live independently, to forge their own life, but the house has been quiet during the holidays this year, too quiet. It’s been a lonely house. This is actually the first time I’ve ever felt this way about my home, and it’s freaking me out. I’ve noticed a little tendency in myself to try and fill up the emptiness with noise like having the TV or radio going in the background (sometimes both!), playing the piano, running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and doing other noisy chores. Therapeutic vacuuming is a thing! However, mopping and dusting make no noise at all so those chores have gone undone.

I struggled, too, to get the Christmas decorating finished. Our ornaments are actually memories that have taken shape and form and hang from the branches of the tree. They could be connected like a dot-to-dot of our lives. The oldest ornament belonged to my mother when she was child. It is nearly 70 years old. There’s also one that Paul made when he was in kindergarten. It is 55 years old. There are several that commemorate the year we married and others that celebrate our son’s first Christmas and so on. Each and every ornament is the embodiment of a memory collected through years of family life, holidays, vacations, places and homes we’ve lived, friends and family members we have loved. I hung about a fourth of the ornaments, if that, and then just quit, just gave up. I couldn’t do it. That’s not like me at all, and I was disappointed in myself.

One day I came home and found my father-in-law and my son working together on overhauling the boat motor in the garage. But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. It was hot, dirty work, and they had been at it for awhile. My son’s shirt was too heavy and was soaked in sweat and covered in grease so he had gone upstairs and grabbed one of his dad’s old t-shirts from the boxes of clothes that I had stored away; a red t-shirt that I must have seen Paul wear 1,000 times. Not quite Golden Boy status but close. (Yes, that’s a Seinfeld reference.) So, when I pulled up in the driveway and caught a glimpse my son bent over, working on the boat in that t-shirt, my heart stopped, my mouth gaped opened because I actually thought I was looking at his dad. Paul was back, working in the garage alongside his father as he had done so many times before. He was there; his shoulders, his arms, his hair. His intent gaze, concentrating on his work, his hands, his fingers. I did a double-take. I had to look twice. I blinked hard and then crumbled in the face of reality. An emotional implosion followed. I felt stunned like a small bird that had just smashed into a clear pane window; stunned out of awareness, knocked out of time, careening into another space and time, an alternate universe where Paul was still alive. That night I dreamed that Paul was indeed alive. He was standing in the yard. I was a distance away and started moving toward him. I was elated but confused. I kept saying, “Wow! This is great. I am so glad you are here, but I don’t understand how this is possible. How can you be here, standing here in the yard, while the 30lbs of ash in a box upstairs is also you?”

Oh, dear goodness, this grief is deep and complicated, and exhausting. I breathe deep and sigh heavily as I continue to try to write it out, to express it, to extricate myself from it, to exorcise it, to be dispossessed of it.

I (almost) hesitated to share all of this because it feels like wallowing. I’ve tried everything in my grief toolbox and nothing is working. I feel ridiculous that I can’t get ahold of this. Snap out of it! But grief is slippery, slick. The harder I try to get-a-grip on it, the tighter I squeeze my hand around it, the faster it slips through my fingers.

On a recent Sunday, I was at church and absolutely fell apart, had to leave early actually. I could not contain myself. That has not happened in a long time, and it completely took me by surprise. It’s almost as if my entire grief experience thus far got compressed into this one holiday season, why?

Now would be a good time to grab a snack.

Here’s why. I *think*. Last Christmas, I was focused on just that Christmas. Just the one. As if I thought there was only going to be one Christmas without Paul, and all I had to do was just get through that one. I am shocked to discover this year that there will actually be many Christmases without him. Well, duh. And I’m not naïve. I realize families and relationships can and will change along the way. Who knows? I may even share a Christmas with someone else one day, but the realization that every Christmas for the rest of my life will not include Paul, physically include him, has completely overwhelmed me.

A friend of mine, a widow for nearly 20 years and happily remarried, shared with me that every Christmas she steals away for a quiet moment to remember and mourn for her first husband. That made my heart stop. I was taken aback by the reality of it all but also comforted, and I am so very thankful when others who have walked this path are willing to share their experiences and their heart with me.

Author and speaker, Jesse Brisendine, says that ‘grief is not a life sentence’. He tries to help people flip the switch on grief from despair to healing and honoring. I agree with so much of what he writes and shares, but I also see the other side. In a way, grief is a life sentence. Grieving is the commitment we make to continue living life without the person we loved. It’s the price, but the price to value ratio is up to us and how we choose to live out that life sentence. It can be done with hope and joy, or it can be done with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s like being in a prison cell with the key to the lock hanging clearly within sight and reach on a nail on the wall. We can let ourselves out. I can let myself out. What holds me back?

Go get another snack.

What holds me back is fear. Another precious friend of mine, who is also a widow and very much on this journey with me, recently remarked that the thought that life might just be going on without those we love here is really scary. Yes, it is. It is absolutely rock hard, stone cold terrifying. It is overwhelming to me and makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Fear is the first emotion that God’s people experienced after the fall. Genesis 3:10 reads, “And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy asserts that God gave us fear to keep us safe. God gave us fear because he knew we needed it. Courage is a matter of the heart. Courage is Gold Ring #1.

I have found great comfort in that short verse from Genesis; a verse I’ve read and heard a thousand times. I guess I was always so taken with the imagery of God walking in His garden that I never noticed those two little nuggets of wisdom that follow after their being afraid. First, they were afraid because they were naked, physically naked, but they were also emotionally exposed, fearful of their flaws being revealed and the possibility that their true selves, their true nature, might be rejected. Second, what does the verse tell me happens if I hide from the Lord as Adam and Eve did? If I hide from the Lord, He will come and find me. He will find me in my lowly state and protect me. He found Adam and Eve, assessed their state, and then banished them from the garden. Why? Not for punishment as it may have seemed to them from their perspective but for their protection. Because they had eaten from the tree of good and evil and now existed in a sinful, fallen state, if they had then eaten from the tree of life, they would have remained in that sinful state for eternity. In fact, the Lord placed cherubim around the tree of life and a flaming sword waving back and forth to keep them from it, to keep them from the danger of remaining in a sinful state, which is death, forever. Thank you, Jesus!

To say our modern life is increasing our fear and anxiety is not quite correct. Surely life was more stressful during, say, the middle ages. The constant threat of crop failure literally meant the death of one’s family by starvation. My stress, even in the difficulties I have faced, pales in comparison. So, if life is just as stressful or less so(!), than it has ever been, if there’s nothing new under the sun, then why is fear and anxiety more prevalent or perhaps not more prevalent but taking a greater toll on the human heart and soul? Because we are unplugged. Yes, un-plugged. We are disconnected from our fellow man, and it is damaging us. Worse than that, we are stiff necked about it. Our eyes are covered with scales and our ears are stopped. It’s a way of hiding. It’s Adam and Eve all over again. The solution is connection. The way around it is to have the courage to share our vulnerability and own it, to open our hearts to others. Connection is Gold Ring #2.

***

The tearing of robes or clothes is a common gesture throughout the Old Testament that is symbolic of mourning, pain of loss, or great distress. I was curious about the history of this practice, but apparently its origins are unclear as it’s been going on since before written language.  Rabbi Aron Moss concludes, “But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’-that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us. So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact. From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth; that souls never die.”

And in a stroke of metaphorical genius, the Old Testament prophet, Joel, encourages, no implores, us to “…rend your heart not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and he relents from sending calamity.”

Rend means to tear or wrench violently. Render is to provide or give, and of course, the more familiar surrender meaning to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent, submit to an authority, give up or hand over, and to abandon oneself entirely. The Lord wants us to turn our hearts over to Him, to tear our hearts open wide so that God’s light can shine into all the dark places. Surrender is Gold Ring #3.

***

2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

***

As I’m rounding out the second year without Paul, I can affirm that the second year is harder. I think it might be because the first year I was just trying to survive, but that’s not enough, right? We’re meant to live. We’re called to live and live fully, and that’s the hard part about the second year. Trying to live again. In a recent sermon, my pastor described the seven-fold gift of the spirit including piety, wisdom, understanding, council, might, fear, and knowledge. My pastor asserted that being FULLy alive is God’s standard for human living. Grabbing the brass ring or taking a shot at the brass ring is a phrase that has been used since the late 19th century and refers to striving for the highest prize or living life to the fullest. Striving to live a spirit filled life is Gold Ring #4.

In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden, asserts, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Salinger’s gold ring represents a striving for maturity. I may not be a kid, but I am a child of God. May it please Him that I continue to mature in faith and good works even though I may fall off from time to time. Growth is Gold Ring #5.

Luke 1:46-49 “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

Really, what more then is there to say? I’m sure I’ll think of something, Malia

Message in a Bottle

More than a year ago, my son sent me an audio file of a phone conversation he had with his father about a week or so into his dad’s diagnosis. He sent the audio file to my phone, but I never listened to it…..until today. My phone was trying to download an update but couldn’t. The error message said I needed to review some large attachments in order to clear out some space for the new update. I was dutifully reviewing the files and deleting, and there it was. A modern day message in a (digital) bottle washed up on my emotional shore.

My husband and our son talked for about 12 minutes mainly about his diagnosis and the amount of time he had left. At the time, I was struggling to make sense of his diagnosis and our treatment options. I was desperate for anything that would give us some more time. My husband was concerned that I was not fully in touch with the situation, that I was in denial about how much time he had left. He was partially correct. I thought he might have months left to live. In actuality, he only had weeks. He knew it. I think I knew it, too, but couldn’t fully accept it. Recently, I have been feeling like I am once again at that same crossroads, the cosmic, cognitive space where the paths of acceptance and denial intersect. There is something that’s been tugging at my heart, something that I know, but I can’t seem to see my way clear to fully accepting where this grief process goes next.

My son and I were talking about this and he said, “I think we’re just scratching the surface of what you are capable of, and I don’t want you to get stuck in grief.” Uh-oh. An arrow straight to my heart. A ripple of panic through my body.

In a recent comment conversation with a fellow blogger, I admitted, “Breaking through is a good way to describe what I feel like needs to happen next, but I really question whether I have the mettle necessary. I am reminded of days on the farm when I was warned by adults not to help the baby chicks as they struggled to emerge from the shell. I felt so sorry for them. I wanted to help so badly. Just a little bit! But, no, I was told that if they were not strong enough to emerge from the shell, they would not be strong enough to survive to adulthood. Yes, indeed.”

Well, folks, leave it to my husband to tell it like it is. In my digital message in a bottle, Paul said….

“Mom’s been a trooper. She’s just…like I said…I appreciate you talking to her because she needed to…she needed to hear it, and from you, and, and realize that, yeah, it’s time, as much as all of us hate to do it, move on. It’s time to move on. She’s only going to listen to me…and you.”

Holy smokes…..that message was recorded in February 2018, given to me over a year ago, and heard for the first time by me today. Amazing. Now, I have no idea what moving on looks like, but I heard my husband loud and clear. I have done my best to love, honor, and obey him in all things. This next chapter can’t and won’t be any different.

People say that time heals all wounds. No, it doesn’t. God does. Reading His Word has taught me the truth about grief and healing, and I am standing on His promises. Paul was a gift to me, and I am grateful. My cup is full and overflowing with precious memories, and I rejoice in them. I will continue to use my experience with grief to tell others about God’s Grace in my life. I consider it a high honor to reveal His strength in my weakness and pain. God has comforted me and still has more work for me to do. I know this because He is daily equipping me for the task.

In their book Grieving with Hope, Samuel J. Hodges IV and Kathy Leonard warn that choosing to remain stuck in your ways will result in grief becoming your identity. Yikes. No, thank you.

The Bible also provides an appropriate warning in Isaiah 17:5-8, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord.  They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope and no future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land. But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green and they never stop producing fruit.’” Yes, thank you, because being a stunted shrub sounds like no fun at all.

Moving on with hope, joy, and peace in the midst of my grief, Malia

Church is so hard.

I’m a Christian. Beyond that, my spiritual life and personal relationship with Jesus Christ is far more important than any religious affiliation I have. So, why go to church? I believe, and the Bible, God’s Word, tells us that we are called into fellowship with other Christians. We are, in fact, adopted members of the family of faith. We are members of one body, and we can no more remove ourselves from the body of Christ than remove one of our own arms or legs. We go to church for support, accountability, instruction, and challenge, and quite frankly sometimes out of sheer obedience, obedience to a loving Father who knows what is best for us when we don’t know it for ourselves.

Sundays at church were such a wonderful time for me and my husband. It was our special time together. There was nothing more peaceful to me than sitting beside him in the pew, both of us so grateful for everything God had given us. We attended the same church where we were baptized, confirmed, married, and where we Christened our son, the same church where we held my husband’s funeral, and I said goodbye to Paul for the last time among our friends and family. In a way, that was a proud day for me. Twenty-seven years earlier, we had taken our marriage vows in front of some of those same family and friends. It was not always easy or pretty, but our marriage had endured “…until death do us part”. It was also my great privilege and joy to watch my husband grow and mature spiritually. God loved him, and he loved the Lord. It was amazing to watch the Lord work in Paul’s life and heart.

Easter 1990, at the church where Paul would be baptized and confirmed, and where we would be married and Christen our son.

Going to church without my husband is still pretty hard on me. No, that’s putting it too mildly. The truth is that I suffer. I weep. I cry. I have to excuse myself to a quiet, prayer room off the vestibule so that I can regain my composure. We always sat toward the back. It might be easier on me if I moved to another pew, but I am glued to that spot. I cannot leave the pew where we sat. I just can’t, even though it makes me sad. Kneeling at the communion rail makes me sad. I know that I am sharing in the Great Communion of all believers, and in that way, I am as close to Paul as I will get until that day. I know it should bring me joy, and it does, but at the same time, I also experience the deeply painful loss of his physical reality and it hurts! It physically hurts me. The songs, too, make me sad, the hymns we sung together for so many Sundays. I sit in my pew, an open wound. I kneel at the rail, an open wound. I worship as I suffer. I suffer as I worship.

So, why? Why subject myself to such pain and misery? Because I count my sadness and brokenness before God as a pure act of worship. Because, to me, worshiping fully means worship, thanksgiving, and trust in the midst of intense grief and suffering. Because I have learned that suffering is good. Useful. Important. It’s ok for me to suffer. It is an important element in the Christian walk of faith as demonstrated time and time again throughout the Bible not to mention that it’s an inescapable aspect of the human experience. Living out the Christian life is fine and good, but living out the Christian death is an act of worship and eternal hope.

I was reading Tramp for the Lord by Corrie Ten Boom recently when she reminded me of James 1: 2-3, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into difficult times. Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” I count my sadness and brokenness before God as joy. I am determined to worship in the midst of the suffering because I am grateful. God measured the length of Paul’s days before he was born, and I was blessed to have the time God provided for us to have.

“Then, he turned my sorrow into joy! He took away my clothes of mourning…” Psalm 30:11

Faithfully, Malia