Faith, Grief, Trauma, Uncategorized

A Chain of Seemingly Small Moments

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My toes uncurl slowly under the warmth of a spotlessly white duvet. Oxygen finds its way down into my churning stomach continuing onward into my clenched calves. My shoulders gradually melt, freeing my neck for the first time in hours.

It’s been a long day.

The day began well and according to plan: write, pack, eat, hug boys, issue last-minute reminders, pick up rental car, drive to St. Paul, Minnesota. The first five list items checked off, Ricky chauffeurs me to the rental car place. More snow on the road than expected or wanted. My maternal instincts clash with Ricky’s manhood as I ask him to slow down. Once alone in my car chill seeps into every crevice while snow streaks across the highway under an overcast, lonely, Winter sky.

Bundled up in layers, I feel warm though. Emotionally strong again. Yet still a bit shaky. Or perhaps just stronger than the days leading up to this trip. You see the moment I announce to anyone–my therapist, friends, family, radome readers, God–I feel better, then I am guaranteed almost one hundred percent of a set back. And boy, did I get one after writing about my suitcase dream.

Well it took three friends to convince me to not back out of going up to seminary for a week-long intensive class. Part of an entire group of extended people supporting me on this trip.  Including Ricky delaying his return to campus for a night, my niece flying in to stay with my younger son, a friend at the ready for an airport run, my tuition and books paid for by an assortment of sources, and my sons willing to triple up on their chore lists.  Yet my bed seemed so much safer. With its early morning green tea and dark chocolate and computer and flow of words from my head to the screen. More enjoyable and predictable than learning about post-modern Christian mission.

Reading a sermon by the wonderful Barbara Brown Taylor*, I heard change is difficult. The blind don’t always enjoy seeing. The lame sometimes resent walking. And in my case, the grieving may feel internal emotional collapse safer than living. I identified with the blind man of Mark 10:46-52, one of the many Jesus restored from seperation to life. Joyous in my healing as this man was. Yet fearful in my unknown future.

Clasping my healing more than clutching my fear, I drove Northwest through Iowa. Winter weather, evident across my adopted home state, not such a big deal. But also not fully comfortable either. Slower speed for sure because as the weather experts like to say the day was one of “normal winter driving conditions.”  Which out here means blowing snow, patches of ice, packed snow on the road, and often only one open lane. After a few hours of highway driving I was grateful to finally reach the interstate with its state troopers and salt trucks and rest areas.

winter-landscape-2571788_1920The interstate’s pavement almost immediately caused me to maintain my slower speed. It’s wet surface cautioning us travelers like an electronic billboard. Pre-treatment, salt, and sand no longer evident. Washed away by wind, tires, and vehicle spray.

The touch of the tires to pavement felt odd as my car wiggled in a wind bent on mopping the prairie clean. Forcing me to right the tires again and again and again. Before I could slow down even more the treads lost their grip. The car skidded this way and that. My hands tightened on the wheel fighting reality for control. Finally I gave into the pull of the ice. The other lane of parallel traffic not a safe option. My car headed for the shoulder. Landing me a half-mile south of exit 197 on northbound I-35. Facing the large, interstate green sign announcing the upcoming exit to Mason City, Iowa. Into a deep ditch. Next to acres of dormant farm fields. Into a foot of snow, the top layer blowing hard and steady. Below zero, wind chill factor weather surrounding me. Tires spinning with the whine of a leashed and whimpering dog. Too jammed into the snow to rock the car. Stuck now. Gasping for air. Tears freezing on my cheeks.

A black pick-up truck pulled over almost immediately just ahead of me. Sat there, idling. Hazards flashing. Finally backing up just above me on the shoulder. A man got out. Oh crap, I thought, Friend? Possibly not.

He approached the car. My window came done, the startling cold jolting me out of my shock. Tear-filled words spewed out of my mouth uncontrollably. Stuff like, I can’t die. I’m the only parent now. My husband died seventeen months ago. I have a child still at home. I’m going to be a pastor if I ever get to seminary. My words covering my other truths: I’m scared. I’m overwhelmed. I want to hide. Run home. 

Unruffled, my stranger nodded reminding me of Tony’s calm in the face of my many messes. His clear thinking when mine muddled with fear or fatigue. His voice at the other end of the wireless waves. There for me.

Terry from a small town nearby tells me he’s calling a tow and the trooper.  Taking charge because obviously I am not in a good space.  Needing help, reassurance, and hope, he steps into my glaring vacancy. I allow it.

He trudges back up the ditch to his truck. I call the car rental company. Give up because the wait is forever. Call my friend, already at seminary, who tells me to call 911. Reminding me I don’t know this guy. So I do. Talk to Nancy who thinks my car has been called in but will check and call me back. She does, reporting Frank’s Towing is on its way. By this time I’m cold, tired, hungry, and lonely. So I plod, sinking deep into the snow with every step, up the shoulder to Terry’s car and get in. “What towing company did you call?”

“Frank’s,” he replies.

“Yah, that’s what 911 said,” I say.

Then we “shoot the breeze” as people do in these parts. We look like we could be related but he doesn’t know his ancestry. He’s Baptist. An NIV Bible sits on his dashboard. Four kids. A wife who teaches special ed. Does something in finance. “I get the Gospel reason why you are sitting here,” I eventually say, “But don’t you have a job or someplace to be?” He’s off today he tells me since its MLK day.

The trooper shows up. Checks on us. Leaves. Frank’s arrives and does their stuff. Terry oversees the work telling me there’s no need for me to be out in the cold. He then follows me to Frank’s shop in Hanlontown, Iowa. Right on Iowa 9 a few minutes from the interstate. Snow blowing steady through the surrounding frozen fields and over the road like swirling stars.

The car isn’t running well. Bumped along the entire five-minute drive. Frank, who I find out isn’t Frank, thinks the snow needs to be cleaned off from underneath the chassis. I wander into the waiting area seeking warmth. The resident dog kisses me. The owner’s wife says, “You’re not pissed as hell! You’re just all smiles.”

I am smiling at this point. I am not hurt. My immediate needs are outsourced to others. Responsibility resting elsewhere while I recuperate for the rest of my journey.

The wind roars hard outside. Winter light wanes a bit. Inside the shop however life bubbles creating a coziness of sorts. Complete now with a snoozing dog. Terry and Frank’s wife share where they live in this neck of the woods by who used to live on their property. Relationships defined by people but also by land out here. Terry of course seems to know the former owners of every acre. The northern Iowa rural parlance batting about the place wraps me in memories of my own kin now mostly gone.

Three mechanics scrape off a lot of snow from underneath my car. They figure out the all-wheel drive is not engaged which explains a lot. Scares me further in an after-the-event way. “After-nerves” I used to call these feelings in my previous performing life. Then they continue to fuss with the car filling it up with windshield wiper fluid, explaining my all-wheel drive system to me, offering to back the car out, and then sending me on my way. Meanwhile the rental car company assures me over the phone they will pay for the tow. Eventually they decide to not charge me for the car.

iceland-2184824_1920The twenty-eight mile drive from Frank’s to the gas station right off the interstate at Albert Lea, Minnesota is dicey. Dusk further inhibits visibility as the wind blows harder sending more and more snow across the lanes and cars into the ditch. The truck drivers loading up on snacks at the gas station say its bad and will only get worse with night fall. Men and women, years on the road showing in their wrinkled skin and missing teeth, share their hard truth which I accept. If I were you, Ma’am, I’d find a hotel room for the night. 

The hotel down the way has a room. The manager says, “You’ve been here before. I remember you.” As if January retreats in Albert Lea, Minnesota are now part of my year. One year ago, still a complete mess from Tony’s death, I holed up here while facing similar weather. Alone and afraid.

I unload slowly. The cold, wind, and my haphazard packing make the process difficult. Eventually I settle in. Eat, finally eliminating some of my shaking. Call the boys carefully avoiding the truth of my day. Crawl into bed. Write because it’s the only thing I know how to do when things get really bad.

And today was bad. Could have been worse. If I hide in denial, my body reminds me of this truth as it contracts. Balling my insides up. Squeezing my stomach up through my esophagus landing in my throat once again.

Yet the emotions bubbling up through my heart into strings of words embrace not fear and tragedy, but goodness. For a few hours in this divisive world we now all inhabit, it did not matter who we voted for or which version of the Bible we read or even if we all believe in God or what level of education we obtained or where we are heading and why. What mattered was a bunch of people willingly helped me, a stranger in their midst. A vulnerable, sobbing, scared, middle-aged widow woman shaking with adrenalin again. Wondering why the hell she ever thought going to Minnesota in January was a good idea. Or attend seminary. Or do anything outside of her seemingly safe, small box of life. Let alone provocatively become a pastor!

I cry into my pillow for a good two hours before sleep finds me. Wordless emotions flow out finding a warm nest in my rented bedding. Sleep, when it comes, is fitful and intermittent. I wake every few hours to the rumble of diesel engines left to run in neutral through the freezing night. Their drumbeat piercing the air keeping company with my heart.

In the morning, we the stranded stand at the lobby windows wondering what to do. I wait. Watch. Wonder. Pray. But eventually, I get back in the car. Drive like a granny, slow and shaky. My chest clenching, welling up for a grand and explosive anxiety attack. I tell the universe all I really need right now are dry roads, safety, and my frozen finger tips to warm up.

My requests granted, I arrive at seminary safe and somewhat sound. Finish out my week as planned. Even have some time with my widowed, pastor Aunt whose presence alone reminds me I can complete what I begin here. On Saturday, after driving on wonderfully dry roads, Ricky picks me up at the rental car place and once home sweeps out the garage of the accumulated winter grit. Paul tells me of all the chores he did and all the project ideas he’s had in my absence. And at some point, I realize how many people in small and large actions it took for me to be gone six days. Creating a chain of seemingly small moments, one not holding me in place, tethering me to my past and to my fears. But an emotional chain forming a kind of human train. Connecting me to our home yet sending me forward and out into the world.

“Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well...”

Mark 10: 46-52 (NRSV) 

 

*Taylor, Barbara Brown. “The Courage to See” in Mixed Blessings. 

Photos courtesy of Pixabay.

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Faith, Grief, Uncategorized

A Dream Full of Grace

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The other day my therapist shared something with me. In her opinion, I am most likely done with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. EMDR is a therapeutic intervention method used to realign the brain after a traumatic event. The method stops the reeking of emotional havoc occurring as the brain continually tries to make sense of what happened. Sense out of the senseless in other words. Which is what Tony’s death was. So my brain has been on overdrive for months.

My therapist’s professional observations mirrored my current experience. I feel good, even great some days. Free much of the time from the waves of emotional and physical pain, memory lapses, what-ifs of guilt, creeping agitation of anxiety attacks, and intrusive flashback scenes. Replaced most days by the everyday tasks of life accompanied by droplets of tears here and there.

At home that evening however, a funkiness settled on my heart. Maybe I was tired at the end of my seemingly endless day. Maybe I was fighting off a cold. Maybe the encroaching holidays infected my mostly healing wounds. Maybe my therapist was wrong.

Standing in the middle of our once shared bathroom, I talked to Tony about it. Talking out loud to my no-longer-living-in-any-human-way husband. Not for the first time either. In an act bereaved people do, not just me…or so I’m told in hushed whispers by those who know loss. Quietly, because it sounds kind of kooky.

But here’s another truth for me anyway. There’s always this moment when talking to Tony that I somehow begin talking to God at the same time.  Which gets really confusing to explain to others so mostly I don’t. But I was talking to Tony or God or both wondering if it might be okay for me to feel healed enough. Not fully well. Not ever the same. But perhaps slowly moving ahead with my life. Leaving this intense and all-encompassing time of trauma and grief. Entering now into a phase of healing grief, the kind with some sort of future. And what did he or God or they think about the possibility?

When I told this part of the story to my therapist the following week she asked, “well, what did Tony say?”

I think I giggled. No judgement on her part. Just curiosity and acceptance of my humanness complete with quirks.  So I told her. “Nothing…at first.”

But the next morning after talking to Tony or God or both in the bathroom, I had a dream. You know, one of those early morning dreams we all have at dawn. After we wake up, assess the time, and go back to sleep for a few coveted minutes. Between our first false start and the real beginning of our day.

In my dream we were coming back from a trip. Just us without the boys. From someplace overseas because it was time to go through customs. Only I couldn’t find my luggage. We only had Tony’s green, Samsonite bag. The one my mother gave him for Christmas or a birthday years ago but somehow I used more than he.

Tony said, in the dream, he would go find my bag. So, I got in line holding onto his bag. Well rolling it really since it’s one of those. Standing, grasping the handle of his bag. Waiting both for Tony to come back and for the line to move forward. But not too quickly, the line I mean, because Tony still needed to return.

But Tony didn’t come back.

And he didn’t come back.

And he didn’t come back.

I craned my neck looking for him not wanting to leave our place in the long, snaking line. Still there was no sign of him in the busy airport. He just seemed to disappear. Evaporate. Slip away. Like the day he died.

People swirled around me in the line. Holding Tony’s bag now somehow in my arms. Clutching it with angst. With disbelief. Using the arms I was so denied of the minutes before he slipped away. My arms rendered futile in the violent rushing of water out-of-control. My arms aching for months with the pain of being refused the only action they wanted so very much to do that day. Reach out. Touch. Grasp. Bring him back to safety. Hold him. Hold on. Cling.

Now in my dream becoming really angry. Because I didn’t want this baggage. The contents felt emotional and familiar and heavy and isolating. I didn’t want to be here among strangers in this strange place wondering what to do next.

I woke up. Passing slowly from dream to day. To a new morning. To reality. Bewildered. Puzzled. Confused.

Of course, I thought about the dream all day. How could I not? Through homework and work and parenting and running our household the dream stayed by me. Poking at me for meaning. Remembering at some point I recently searched through a few boxes stored in the basement from Tony’s office. Looking for something I couldn’t find. Once again triggered by what closing his business had been like for me. A surreal experience. Full of every emotion possible. Emotions experienced daily in the course of a mere few hours as I sifted through every detail of his work trying to understand what needed to be done.

So that’s what the dream meant to me. A remembrance of being left alone. Carrying the baggage of Tony’s work when least capable of doing so. Or so I thought…

Until I began having visions of what the dream could really mean. These came to me in a billow of sensations and images. The first vision was that inside the suitcase was not pain and burdens. No! Inside the suitcase were gifts Tony left us. Not tangible gifts like a souvenir t-shirt or coffee mug or all the jewelry he showered on me over the years. But love and lots of it. And all the little and big things Tony taught me about our emotional lives and about trauma recovery. And the assurance that he believed in my resilience in the face of his tragic death. And his ongoing support for my writing and in my call to ministry and in my ability to mother our children. I tenderly held this vision to my heart, keeping it close as I went about the rest of my day.

Later, as the day quieted, another vision formed in my mind’s eye. And in my heart as well for this vision took my breath away! The end of the dream, the one I woke before seeing, was simply this: Tony walks out of the airport onto the sidewalk and into a bright and sunny day. He walks alone rolling my suitcase, taking it with him wherever he is going now without me. Without us. Without the boys.

And I realize wherever Tony is going in my dream, he’s taking my stuff with him. Not my clothes and shoes and toothbrush. Not my half-read novel or my new dress or my favorite shoes. But my stuff. You know, that mental-health-clinical-slang term meaning the products of our emotional wounds. The lacerations living in our limbic systems dictating our lives like autocrats. That stuff. Rolling away behind a man I spent two decades loving. Its earthly weight following him willingly while releasing me from my fears, shame, and insecurities. Freeing me from this unwanted cargo for the rest of my earthly life.

Leaving me behind, yes. Painfully yes. Ever-so-painfully-yes. The world twisting around me as I journey on alone. Not knowing how to transition at this point from being a traumatized, grieving widow to a healing one. Often unsure of myself. Seeking Tony’s permission only to alleviate my guilt for feeling good. Yearning for his take on things so that I don’t have to claim liability for my past, current, or future mistakes. Offloading the resilient power, he of all people, knew I would not lose.

My shoulders eased as the vision faded. A bit of the load from all these many months lifted. Space, once taken up by pain in my stomach and in my heart and in my mind, opened. I breathed fully into my reclaimed body and into my evolving thoughts. Understanding fully that there are still gifts and dreams waiting to be remembered, unpacked, and incorporated lovingly into my life now from this symbolic suitcase of Tony’s I currently clutch.

And…I have something else as well. Actually need something else before I wholly realize the contents of Tony’s suitcase. I have this one, amazing, life-restoring act of wild and disruptive grace. Scaffolding me forward with gifts and dreams in hand. Moving me on. Propelling me into a living light without my stuff. Wow!

So I guess I have my answer.

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay. 

Advent, Faith, Stories

Postcard Angel

 

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Lit Advent Candles

 

In December, a postcard arrived in the mail. It was an everyday postcard. Nothing marked it as special or holiday like. Except the message.“Happy Advent,” it read.

I smiled remembering a moment with a friend. The Sunday school classroom we shared emptied of active and noisy four-year-olds. In the new quiet I spoke of my love for the season of Advent.  The getting ready for hope found in a mere babe born to the have-nots of their time. Finding comfort in the liturgical color blue, so like the winter Midwestern sky at dawn and dusk. Enjoying the daily lighting of a growing line of flickering candles helping me mark the busy days turned to weeks leading up to Christmas. Singing hymns full of ancient tones which never fail to resonate with my own earthly and human longings.

This Advent however, I was not hopeful. Our children were unhappy at school, Tony’s work and commute were stressful, and many family members needed our help. I was worn out, feeling stuck, and just waiting for the frantic holiday season to end. Hope was not on my holiday menu.

The postcard’s arrival however gently nudged me into this quiet season so often lost in the chaos of December. It’s simple message stirred in me something I was having trouble grasping in my overwhelmed state of heart and mind. With the help of my dear friend now living far away, I remembered the calm, reflective, emotional state I longed for. Hope in the unexpected form of a postcard fed me. And I was transformed into a lowly shepherd keeping watch over my family flock with the words of the angels rising in my ears, “Do not be afraid.”

As we moved through December into January,  the winter snow continued reflecting an Advent blue at dawn and dusk in January’s sky. The light reminded me of the slow and steady movement it takes to make good and lasting change in our lives. Advent hope came with me in a way it had not in previous years. Hope did not follow the traditional liturgical calendar. But it came in a predictable sequence of waiting, wondering, and realizing nonetheless. Living in our own Advent, Tony and I reexamined our life together finally accepting the necessary uprooting needed to be closer to Tony’s work and for new schools for our children.

January gave way to February. The blue evening sky appeared out my window later and later each evening. The darkness yielded to the increasing light of an awakening world. I was calm once again. My heart embracing our own small portion of this universe. My face turning toward the future full of unknowns yet also brimming with hope. My voice humming as I packed for our journey. My song gathering strength note by note before spreading out into embodied praise: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.”

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Dawn

 

A version of this piece was originally published by The Lutheran Digest in December of 2012.  Photos are courtesy of Pixabay. 

Faith, Grief, Thanksgiving, Trauma recovery

Invitation Home

 

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You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;

The mountains and hills will burst into song before you,

And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

-Isaiah 55: 12 (NIV)


Isaiah 55 contains an invitation home.  The prophet speaks for God to a dispersed people in exile longing for their homeland, way of life, loved ones, peace, and God. God’s invitation for a redemptive journey from forced exile includes a celebration so great that all of nature waits to erupt in praise and thanksgiving.

My sons and I live in an exile of sorts. It’s called trauma. Its name is grief. Sudden loss catapulted us into a heart-ripping wilderness, a vast and unfamiliar terrain. We found ourselves transported into this emotional and physiological desert, far from our previous internal identities and the externally tangible home we once knew.

Day by day I accept God’s invitation out of this exile for myself and for my sons. We travel home together along a path toward healing, joy, and peace. Our map however, like any human trauma course, shows a lengthy journey with many forced stops along the way. Yet countless people pray for us, feed us, teach us how to survive panic attacks, and heal our minds’ need to flash back to the first moments of our banishment. These many loving acts are like shouts along the race route of our marathon. Cheers for each milestone we conquer. Songs of support when we want to give up. Sounds which lead us, through others’ innate human joy and accumulated peace, back to our own. All raised up for us by a multitude of modern prophets repeating God’s invitation whether they themselves believe in God or not.

This Thanksgiving I give quiet thanks for all our figurative mountains, hills, and trees. They have surrounded us in our unasked for expedition these last fifteen months.  We call our varied and beautiful landscape not mountain, hill, or tree but family, friend, pastor, therapist, teacher, classmate, school, doctor, stranger, faith community, colleague, and neighbor. Their collective energy to me now is as glorious a view as the sight of any majestic mountain bursting into song.

 

*Photo courtesy of http://www.pixabay.com