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Olympic sadness.


Y’all. 

I have, my life long, loved the Olympics. 

Loved.

I am the furthest thing from an athlete you could ever imagine, but I will watch the Olympics if it is the first qualifying round of underwater basket-weaving, and root for an athlete from a country I’ve never heard of as if that athlete were my own flesh-and-blood and said basket-weaving my heart’s true passion.

I love the Olympics so much that I recognized Tim Daggett from the floor of the gymnastics arena this year before his name even popped up. He competed in 1984, people. I was 9 years old. I can’t even tell you for sure the whole line-up for the Louisville City Football Club, and I LOVE those guys. But Tim? I got him.

Last night,  I came to the realization that I just might be done for 2021 and Tokyo. Rewatching a season of Criminal Minds sounded better for me. And my soul.

This breaks my heart. Because man there are some great stories out there. Suni Lee absolutely killing it under awful circumstances for her team. The swimmer from Syria who is not only an Olympian, but who once swam a whole boatload of fellow refugees to safety. For three hours. Three. Hours. The Filipino woman who just won her country their first gold. Their FIRST, y’all. And they’ve been competing since 1924! And the gymnast from Uzbekistan. She’s my age (READ: 40-something). Been competing since I was in middle school. And this year, she just missed qualifying for competition, after years of titles. She’s a damn hero in her country. As she should be. 

For so many of these countries, for so many of these athletes, there is everything at stake. 

Everything. 

And here in the United States, we act like we have any clue what any of them go through. What any of them sacrifice. From the comfort of our basements and the anonymity of our smart phones, we cast judgment on everything from attire to form to haircuts to race times. We act like they owe us something. “Shut up and dance for us,” we might as well be saying to them, while we keep putting quarters in the jukebox and swigging our beers. 

Social media brought me to tears today. Flat-out cruelty. Commentary I couldn’t repeat if I tried. I just don’t have that kind of hate and arrogance in me. Armchair quarterbacks of every ilk, convinced they know what any given athlete “should” do in any given moment. 

It’s such BS. I’m so embarrassed at how we raise people up on our flimsy, fairy tale, perfection-demanding pedestals in this country only to celebrate with a sick and evil glee when they falter or make a poor choice. 

I sure as hell don’t want my legacy to be my worst moments. Do you?

So. Three things I’m thinking about tonight, with my sad and jaded Olympic heart:

  1. It is an honor to represent your country in the Olympics. A tremendous one. And, it seems to me, such an honor lends itself to some humility. And I’m not sure I’ve seen anything more humble than Simone Biles encouraging her team to go congratulate the Russian gold medalists. Whatever you think of her decisions, whatever you think her reasons really were (and none of us will ever know the whole story), that was pure class. And very “Olympic.” I was grateful to basketball phenom Sue Bird, too–often critical of her country, but more than willing to allow that the Olympics are different. You’re there to represent your country. That’s the whole point–and there’s pride in that, and a sense of oneness that can be honored. Even if we aren’t all on the same page these days about what it means to be a proud American. It’s like my Curly Girl says, “I can love my country a lot and still wish things were better for all of us.”
  1. A kind and wise Baptist pastor once said to me, “Julie. Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” “Should” probably ought to be reserved for, “A cup of sugar should do the trick,” or “The dogs should be fine until I get home,” or “The rain this weekend should cool things off.” So maybe let’s keep it for those things. And stop with the “shoulding” on other people. Truth is, everyone’s lived experience is their own–and if you have not lived it, you do not know it, or know what you would do in any given situation. 
  1. One of my greatest weaknesses (and deepest wounds) is placing all my worth in what I can do. Or not do. I spent the vast majority of the first 40 years of my life focused on how I could serve other people with specific acts or tasks, especially how I could please them by doing those things well–to perfection, even. I’m a good writer. But I am far more than that. I am a good speaker. But I am far more than that. I am a cancer patient. But I am far more than that. And I am a mother. But I am far more than that. My worth as a human being is not dependent upon how well I perform in any of my roles, or how well I use any of my natural gifts. I’m worthy because I am me. And I am God’s. And that means my life matters over and against anything I do or say in my life. So does yours. And these athletes? Man. They are amazing. Skilled beyond what can seem mortal. But they are so much more. Not a single one of them is only their sport. Not by a long shot.

We are not well, y’all. We’ve been shaken to the very core of our existence these last few years. In our families. In our communities. In our country. We are not well. And our collective anger, anxiety and grief makes itself known in all sorts of ways. We’re like feral cats backed into a corner — terrified and unsure and willing to strike out at anyone else in our own pain. 

Even an Olympic athlete. 

Because damn it feels good to revel in someone else’ s pain… instead of dealing with our own.

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Five things from “The One Where They All Got Back Together.”

Look. If you know, you know. If you watched it, you watched it. So, without a lot of explanation and extra, here’s what I got from the long-anticipated, so-completely-perfect Friends Reunion Show (and all of them are exactly why I will go to my grave loving the stories, as we were told them, of Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe)…

First, and foremost, laughter really is the best medicine. I was a Friends fan from the very first episode in 1994, and for all ten seasons, I watched. Every week. After it ended in 2004, I caught reruns when I could, but then…hallelujah sang the angels!...Netflix was born, and in 2014, the entire ten seasons of Friends dropped for streaming. I had just gotten divorced. I was living in an apartment in a new part of town, having had to sell my house. I could not afford a dog yet, and so had given up one I loved. I couldn’t afford cable, either, for that matter, but I could afford a $10 a month Netflix subscription. And in the middle of that very dark, very lonely, very sad winter, I watched all ten seasons, in order, from the very first episode to the very last. I laughed, hard, into the darkness of my life, and remembered what it was to feel joy.

The reunion show interviewed people from all over the world who were Friends fans, and they would talk about what it meant to them in times of sadness, or loneliness. And I thought, “Well dang. It wasn’t just me!”

When James Corden asked the reunited cast, “Who has the best laugh?” and, without a beat, they all pointed to Lisa Kudrow, her face lit up, and she shook her head, grinning. It was clear that she took such joy in being a source of laughter–that kind of joy, it’s sacred.

And it is lifesaving.

Second, beneath all the laughter existed a whole lot of pain. Matt Perry’s Chandler flat out names it in one episode, “I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable….” But even more than that, in each character’s story was embedded pain: Phoebe’s homelessness and her mom’s suicide; Ross’s divorce from Carole, not what he wanted at all, and devastating; Monica’s constant battle with her formerly obese self and her deep and constantly thwarted desire to be a mom; Chandler’s childhood trauma from divorce and his father’s gender identity struggles; Joey’s and Rachel’s own parents divorcing as part of the series, and both of them having to come to terms with their parents’ broken marriages as adults.

They are all, in turn, neurotic and grieving and insecure and traumatized and scared.

Aren’t we all? Real joy cannot exist without real pain, and somehow I think the creators of this show knew that, they understood that real, true comedy helps us deal with the things that threaten to tear us apart.

Third, Phoebe really mattered, and in some ways, was maybe the great heroine of it all. When Lady Gaga (after that epic Smelly Cat duet!!) thanked her for making it okay to be different, and Lisa Kudrow’s eyes just welled up and she said, “And thank you for carrying that on….” Shew. Y’all.

The different kids, they have such a hard time, still and always, and if a formerly homeless, orphan, completely-marches-to-the-beat-of-her-own drum Phoebe can find a way forward in life…well…there you go.

There’s enough Rachels (and I say that as a Rachel Green-loving fan). We need more Phoebes speaking their truth, and doing so with such wicked (and yet caring) snark and also such gentle love.

Fourth, one of the ugly truths about the United States is that we love love love to tear another person down. Especially if that person has been elevated, and especially if we can do it from the cowardly anonymity of our keyboards.

It broke my heart to see online comments regarding how the cast has aged. Accusations of botched Botox or ugly remarks about extra weight or, worst of all, comments regarding Matthew Perry’s health. Good lord people. Are we really that miserable that we have to attack people who dedicated ten years to simply making us laugh?!?

I’ve long held that women should to age how they want to age. If hair color or facial peels or false eyelashes or Whatever. She. Wants is part of that, so be it.

And are we really so low that we can make fun of someone who has bravely and openly discussed his battle with substance abuse and addiction? With the full and very vocal support of his coworkers in his recovery?

Just stop it already. It is, as my daughter would say, with derisive tone, “Basic.”

Fifth, the astronomical success of Friends is proof positive of something that I believe is crucial to our existence, and why I will continue to insist that without relationship, we cannnot thrive: we are created with an innate desire to belong.

Our desire to belong, fully and completely, to something bigger than ourselves is the single driving force in our lives. It’s why youth groups and sports teams matter. It’s why young lost men join gangs. It’s why divorce can be so completely disorienting and destructive. It’s why empathy is absolutely essential. It’s why we ought to be worried less about our kids’ standardized test scores and more about how they are treating other kids. It’s why we love the Marvel Universe and Harry Potter too–people belong there, their roles clear, their place held when they are gone, and their acceptance into the grander scheme of things understood no matter what.

It’s why five people can still make us laugh and cry simply by being in the same room together. They offered us something bigger, something that mattered. And there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t want to be part of something like that, who doesn’t want to know that somewhere, there is, always, home.

I really believe that the general erosion of trust — of one another, of systems, of institutions–in this country is destroying us. As long as we continue to tribe up and act as if we don’t need each other, we will continue to fail as a nation. But MAGA hats and BLM signs give us a sense of belonging, just like hating orange SEC teams does if you were raised just outside Athens, GA.

I don’t mean to make light of real societal issues here, y’all, and I get that equating a sitcom loyalty with life is likely tricky business–but as human beings, we resonate with the whole idea of a close group of friends, or of a team, or of a tribe, because we long so desperately to belong.

And it seems to me, that if we just set about pulling one another in, making sure no one gets left out, roping in the ones straggling, and seeking to find the ones lost…well, we wouldn’t all be walking around with these giant holes in our hearts.

We would, instead, all have a spot for coffee. A place and a people to call home. A sense that we belong, right where we are–no matter how difficult or damaged or different we might be.

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Sum totals.

She is sitting on a park bench, glued, it seems to her phone, scrolling and typing and engaging with whatever is on the screen. Two small children crawl on the playscape in her line of vision, calling out, “Mommy! Look!” every once in a while in her direction. She looks up each time, smiles, says, “I see you!” and immediately goes back to her phone.

Get off the phone, lady! Right?!? Here are her children, begging for her attention, and there she is, all up in her screen. What kind of mother is that?

Fair enough, I suppose. Most of us know we spend too much time in virtual life and far too little time really connecting.

However…

What if I told you she’s a fulltime single mother? And that phone contains her work email? And she knew her kids needed to be outside, playing, but she also has a project due.

What if I told you she has no family nearby, and this job is her only source of income, and if she loses it, she isn’t sure what she would do?

What if I told you that letting the playground “babysit” her kids for the moment is truly the only way she can serve them and her work, both?

None of us are just any one thing. None of us are what someone else sees of us in one moment, on one day. None of us are a single experience. None of us are to be taken at face value.

We are not just any one thing. We are many things. Sum totals of a lifetime of what’s happened to us and what has not. And into any space, large or small, unbidden or fully welcome, we bring all that we are.

All. That we are.

When you have a conversation or experience with me, you are interacting with a pastor, a writer, a single mother, a divorcee, a cancer survivor, a woman who has lived, since birth, in five different states and 10 different cities. You are interacting with someone who has felt fully desired and fully cast aside. You are interacting with every pain and every grief and every betrayal I have ever felt. You are interacting with every sin I’ve committed and very failure I’ve known. You are interacting with every thing I doubt about myself and every thing I believe to be good and true about myself. You are interacting with Madeleine L’ Engle and Pat Conroy and Harry Potter and Tony Stark and Princess Leia and Indigo Girls and John Rutter and Bon Jovi and Willie Nelson and every other writer or musician or fictional character who has influenced how I think and feel and have being..

You are not interacting with just this one moment. Or just one piece of me. It’s all of me. Whether you or I realize it or not.

Because we are not just any one thing.

We are all the things.

And we can no more separate out various pieces and parts of who we are than we could cut out our own heart and survive.

I wonder what would happen if we not only acknowledged this, but made space for it? And not just for ourselves, but for every interaction, of every day?

What if we entered into every daily exchange having created figurative space around ourselves for all the things unseen — both in ourselves and in those we meet?

What if we just admitted that we don’t know what any one person is carrying? That we have no way of really grasping the truths of another person’s life?

What if we allowed that his heart might have been shattered in a million pieces, too? Or that her anxiety is off the charts today? Or that he might have seen his dad hit his mom? Or that she has lost yet another pregnancy? Or that he’s lost all hope and so really, just putting one foot in front of the other is small miracle?

What if we were quicker to allow for what we don’t know, and slower to judge and assume?

What if?

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Digging up stones.

On the far side of my backyard, I’ve had a trench dug. It’s about 15-20 feet long and roughly a foot wide and about 10 inches deep. I’ve filled the bottom with small stones and gravel from another part of my yard, and, I’ve done so to help water drain more effectively from that section of yard. So far, it seems to be working.

I knew that, along the section of yard where the trench now is, there were a few 12-inch wide, 2-inches deep paver stones–each of them slightly sunken into the yard after many years of snow and rain and settling and neglect. I’d planned for weeks to dig them up after the trench was done.

Late last Friday afternoon, my brain fried from a long week and my heart sore from…well, the whole damn world…I donned yard work attire, grabbed a shovel, and set out to dig up those stones. The ground was still damp from a few days of rain so it gave easily, the only upset coming from big fat earthworms furiously digging deep into the dirt as I uncovered them. Still, even with soft(ish) earth, it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t take me long to break a solid sweat.

One by one, I dug at their edges and then pried them out, lining them up along the edge of the trench, forming a sort of sidewalk alongside it. To my (at first) delight, there were more than a few, and I managed to edge the trench with two twin rows of stones.

I leaned on the shovel, satisfied, and smiled. Exactly what I’d planned.

I thought I was done.

I was wrong.

As I laid the (I thought) last stone down, I heard the unmistakeable “clink” of stone against stone. Confused, I lifted the stone back up, confirming there was only patchy grass underneath. So I laid it back down.

And again, “Clink!”

A horrible sensation began a slow curl through my insides, and I slowly picked up the shovel again and tapped its point against the grass–hard.

“Clink!”

I tapped it again, and again, until I felt the edge of something hard and unforgiving under the earth. Another stone edge, long hidden beneath at least an inch or two of turf.

Sighing, I pried it out.

And then found another. And another.

And another.

Another.

Thirty-nine (Thirty! Nine!) paver stones later, I stood, pouring sweat, exhausted, my glutes on fire and my arms like jelly. I was half completely annoyed. Half fiercely proud.

****

Y’all.

We got some hidden stones in our lives.

In the deep recesses of our hearts where we harbor the things that have hurt us the most, the memories of betrayal and loss, the difficult things that we aren’t quite sure what to do with, so we just shove them down, and let grass grow over them until we can’t see them anymore, can’t even feel them unless we try.

We got some hidden stones in our communities.

The half-truths and myths that tell only a piece of the story. The lines drawn between us and them. The discrepancies in educational opportunities between this school and that school, even though they are in the same damn district. The pain of long-ago battles never really dealt with, the ache of long ago traumas never really healed. It’s all a giant, unwieldy, hurting mess, and we’ve no idea how to untangle so many years of treating one another like complete shit and so we just ignore it and hope it’ll go away, meanwhile, it all just sinks deeper into the very fabric of our life together, unseen, but affecting the entire landscape of who we are and how we live.

And maybe we find the courage, the wherewithal, to deal with a few of these hidden stones–only one leads to another. And another. And we get tired. And it hurts. And we’ve no clue what to do with all we’re unearthing. Because it just seems like too much. Too much to face. Too much to fix. Too much to ever make right again.

We got some hidden stones.

****

I’ve no idea how long those stones have been sunk down in my yard. I know the house itself was built in the mid-1990’s. I know it’s had more than one owner. The one before me lived here for a while, but, near as I can tell, had long since lost capacity or energy or resource to keep up the outside. And I suspect, though I don’t know enough about landscaping to know for sure, that the stones were affecting the pull and direction of everything under the surface.

How could they not?

How could they not disrupt the earth, the creatures it holds, the way it stretches across and under and around trees and fence posts and patios and the house itself? How could they not push against roots? How could they not change the way the ground absorbs water and nutrients?

****

We are at a crossroads in our country. Part of it all things COVID, to be sure (for better or for worse, and whatever your take on it all is, the virus has changed us). But part of it the hidden stones of economic injustice and power-hungry politicians and false narratives of what happened and when and our hellbent insistence on hating all things other.

Good, sweet baby Jesus how we love to “other” those we do not understand or like or agree with.

Good. Sweet. Baby. Jesus.

We’ve got to dig this shit up, y’all. Stone by stone. Even when it hurts. Even when we’re screaming from the very depths of our beings that we’re too tired and too raw and it’s never going to matter anyway because there are always more stones to be found. Even then. We have to keep tapping our shovels for what else might be under the surface, naked to our eyes, but affecting everything about us.

It’s the only way.

****

I took my time with those stones. Almost two hours to dig up all 39. I stopped for water. A snack. I listened to some good music. I played with our 7-month old boxer/terrier mix puppy. I even took a phone call from my pastor and shared with him some of my heart these days as I dug.

Which is to say that hard work takes some care–for ourselves and for one another. And I think maybe if we started there–with care for ourselves and one another–we might find a way forward.

Not an easy one necessarily. But one that makes a difference. One that brings hope.

One that points us toward something so much better, and more like what God created us for in the first place.

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Measuring a life.

On April 6, an inmate in the Georgia state prison system died. He was 33 years old. His name was Adam.

Adam West, actually. Just like the Batman guy.

I have no idea what his official cause of death will read, such “investigations,” are never quick. I only hope that he did not draw his last breath alone. Over the course of a decade many years ago, for a variety of reasons, Adam lived with my family off and on. And like his mother, his fiancé, and others who cared for him along the way, even in the midst of terrible circumstances and awful life choices, we know that he was far more than his prison number.

When he was little, he once cried because he could not have cookies for breakfast. My mom laughs, still, every time she remembers his tears that morning. He loved Harry Potter and Pokemon (Lord help, how he loved Pokemon!), and he had a quick, sly wit with an equally quick, sly smile to match. When I was in my early twenties, an ice skating rink opened up one winter at the then newly-built Mall of Georgia–I took him skating just before Christmas that year, and to this day, remembering the sight of him flailing across that ice, full throttle, terrified joy on his face, makes me smile.

He grew into a voracious reader, with, once he had been incarcerated, dreams of putting together his own little prison library. The Game of Thrones series he inhaled as quickly as he could get his hands on them, and other fantasy/sci-fi books too. And he loved to write letters–was quite good, actually, at expressing himself pen to paper, the old-fashioned way. He was smart, caring, and loyal, too. And though he never met them, he could tell you the names of my and my sister’s children, and what they were interested in.

If I was born into life ahead of the starting line in terms of advantage–and I was–Adam was born several lengths behind it. He had every socioeconomic, familial, educational and emotional block you can think of in his way, not to mention that sometimes being biracial in the Deep South means not ever really knowing where you belong. And while none of these things excuse him from responsibility for his actions, they do give such actions context. Every single system failed Adam. From the very beginning, he deserved so much more.

Y’all. We live in a world with many, many Adams. Nameless and faceless and entirely forgotten children born into messes beyond what folks like me I can imagine. Such children are the tragic byproduct of a system that values the lives of some of us over others, that places money and power over people time and time again, and that would rather push these Adams into the dark and denied and forgotten corners of our communities so that we don’t have to deal with them face to face.

I promise you, that somewhere in your life there is an Adam. And he needs you to look outside yourself and see him. Really, really see him.

We generally measure our lives in all the wrong ways–by our bank accounts, the size of our homes, or the supposed prestige of our job or our name or our alma mater. And the truth is that none of this matters at all.

But how we treat one another? How we listen to one another? How we acknowledge one another’s humanity? How we see past awful choices and stupid mistakes and into the shining bit of God’s grace that dwells in each of us?

How we choose love over hate?

And how we do all this, again and again and again, even when our hearts are worn and it seems like it doesn’t matter and that nothing will ever change?

These things are everything. And without them, we are nothing.

I am, in great part, the person I am because Adam lived. And this seems the height of cruelty and unfairness. He carried so much pain and sadness, and yet, his life changed mine irrevocably and for the better. And so I know no other way to honor him than to continue to tell his story as I experienced it. To keep teaching it to my daughter, too, so that she, too, can tell it.

Like Brene Brown says, everyone has a story that will break your heart–that might even bring you to your knees. Maybe if we had the courage to really listen to such stories, to really let our hearts be broken open by heartache and tragedy, we’d manage to find a path forward for all of us. This is my hope, anyway, even on days like today when such hope is difficult to summon.

Please rest in peace now, dear Adam. I have no doubt the angels carried you safely home, and into the arms of God, who loved you from the very beginning, far more than any of us ever could.

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A word about facing death…

Some of you have heard me tell this story in person, and maybe I have even written it here, but when I met my oncologist for the first time, and he confirmed a diagnosis of a lymphoplasmacytic B-cell lymphoma (which we would later drill down even further to Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia) I looked him straight in his very deep and very dark eyes, and I said, “I am a full-time single mother. And I need for you to help me see my daughter to adulthood.”

Those deep dark eyes widened. He froze, just for a second, and then, almost imperceptibly, but with great clarity, he nodded his head to me and quietly said, “Ok.”

And then I consciously formed a goal of five years, saying to myself, and to God, “That’s what I need. Five years. For her.”

I know now that the chances of Waldenstrom’s taking my life before something else, anything else, does, are slim. It’s a slow-growing, chronic, manageable lymphoma, and so though I will never been free from it, at least on this side of the grave, I will, in all probability, not die from it.

But I had to say those words to him. I had, to, in those early days, admit the full realm of possibility that comes with cancer. I had to, in those first weeks, make a plan for my beautiful girl. I had to, when we weren’t entirely sure what we were dealing with, face the uncertainty of my own mortality. And for me, facing it meant saying aloud, into the quiet of a Kentucky spring morning, “I have to get her to adulthood.”

I have a colleague who will not see her children to adulthood, likely not even to middle school. Her cancer is a far more ferocious and unforgiving kind. I have yet another colleague diagnosed with leukemia just in the last two weeks. She is young and bright and full of life. And the college-age son of another dear friend is facing his own battle with lymphoma right now. My heart breaks for them all. Daily.

As the saying goes, “Cancer sucks.” No matter who you are, or what kind you have, or what your treatment plan is, it sucks. It does not care about your money or your poverty or your fame or your life story or your successes or your failures. It is, perhaps, the most common of denominators and the greatest of equalizers.

Cancer sucks. But I’ve also never been more aware of the beauty and sanctity of human life. Every life.

Cancer sucks. But I’ve also never been more determined to choose hope.

Cancer sucks. But I’ve also never felt more free to just be who I am. Fully and completely. Even when the people I love best might not understand it.

Cancer sucks. But I have never loved this world more. Even in its utter pain and horror.

Rush Limbaugh died today. I couldn’t stand Rush Limbaugh. I can’t stand much of anyone who uses their gifts at commanding public attention in ways that harm. Whether they be conservative or liberal or another brand entirely, I’ve no use for it. There is too much pain in the world for jokes at the expense of others. No matter who those others are.

But when I learned he had died, my first thought had nothing to do with my disdain for much of his work. My first thought was remembering he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer sometime back. That binds me to him in a strange and maybe merciful way. And I thought, as I have many times in the last year, “I would not wish cancer, in any form, on anyone, at all, ever.”

The most common of denominators. The greatest of equalizers.

Today is Ash Wednesday. And, for me, that means taking a moment or two to remember the truth, “that from dust I am made, and to dust I will return.” I am mortal. Human. Given life purely by love and grace and miracle. And one day, despite any attempt otherwise on my part, I will die. Just like Rush has.

And this is depressing, I suppose. Morbid, even. Especially when we’re all so anxious and grieving and scared anyway given the last year.

But what I know is that joy and pain come from the same place inside us. Dwell side-by-side in that place, even. And just as I have known the pain and fear of a cancer diagnosis, I have known the gratitude and joy of seeing life in a new way. Of being more determined than ever to practice kindness and seek understanding and explore what it means to both offer and experience abundant mercy.

Because the truth is that our very mortality is the real most common denominator. The actual greatest equalizer. My life is no more precious or greater than yours. Nor of my enemy. Nor of anyone’s. From dust we all came. And to dust we shall all return.

And it seems to me, that this is something worth claiming, something worth holding on to. Especially when so much is tearing us apart, including our own tendency to dehumanize the ones we disagree with, the ones who have hurt us, the ones we do not understand.

It seems to me that the truth that we will all one day die ought to be what fuels us to care for one another in the best ways that we can, as long as we have breath to do so.

What if we just let our hearts be broken open for ourselves and for one another? What if we just stared the grace and fragility of our lives full in the face? And, in doing so, what if we saw God in the broken places? Felt Love in the fleeting sacred mortality of it all?

What if, in facing our common eventual death, we learned life entirely anew?

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Where the pain is.

She slid one powerful hand across the top of my shoulder, and I gasped as her gifted fingers crackled, hard, against a very stubborn and painful knot. I flinched, and then realized even though she was working on my right shoulder, I could feel the reverberation of pain running across to my left shoulder and down my left arm.

“What is that?!?” I asked, feeling my arm twist against the unexpected and uncomfortable sensation, “It’s on the other side!”

And quietly, because she’s perfect at quiet and calm, she said, “They teach us in school this very thing, that where the pain is, is not where the pain is.”

Where the pain is, is not where the pain is.

Fortunately our session had just begun and so my astonished brain had a good 45 more minutes to unpack that little gem of a sentence.

Where the pain is, is not where the pain is.

I once worked, just for a few months, with a man who’d recently retired from the Air Force after some twenty years of service. To say he had “seen alot,” is putting it mildly, especially as his service had included long tours in the Middle East.

We shared an office, and one morning, when he came in, I could tell something was…off. I didn’t know him well, and so at first I just stayed in my work. But then I realized he was just sitting there, staring into space, not at all his normal get-to-it, high energy MO.

“Hey…are you okay?” I finally asked, softly.

“My dog died,” he said, “had to bury her last night.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, that’s so hard,” I immediately responded, having known more than once the pain of losing a furry friend.

In a matter of seconds, he crumbled. Tears upon tears, wracking his entire frame. Sensing that to move or speak would simply make everything worse, I just sat, as still and quiet as I could until, after a while, his sobs slowed and his breathing began to return to some semblance of normal.

And then into the space between us he spoke, “Ridiculous. I can stand over the bodies of six dead airmen and not shed a tear, and I lose it over a damn dog.”

I’m not even sure he remembered I was there as he said those words. And as I certainly had no adequate response, I simply held his gaze when he finally looked up at me, nodded my head every so slightly in affirmation or empathy or something, I don’t really know…and then we both returned to our work.

Where the pain is, is not where the pain is.

I’ve written here before about asking one another, “Where does it hurt?” It’s a valuable question, and one that would, I think, help reclaim one another’s humanity in a world hellbent on the game of dehumanization.

My fear is that we don’t really know where it hurts. And so it manifests in ways and places that simply exacerbate our pain instead of finding a path to healing.

My childhood best friend, who I talk with via text on almost a daily basis, is a speech therapist. She says that so often vocal injuries or challenges are a result of our having forced our bodies to sing or speak in a way that the body was not designed to do–as a result, nodules (Where are my Pitch Perfect fans? Nodules!!) or other injuries develop.

At the core of who I am is a deep belief that we were created in love, for love — breathed into being by One who calls us into real relationship with one another and with that One. Our wellbeing hinges on our connectedness, and our survival as communities and as species is only possible when we seek that survival together.

Shew. Do we ever screw this up. I mean, let me count the ways, right?

As a result, our very insistence on working against God’s intent for us–because somehow we find selfishness secure and disconnected rewarding (?!?!?)–means that pain riots in all sorts of places, in ways we cannot expect and often do not recognize. We’re so blind to the consequences of “Me First,” we can’t even see how hurt and alone and isolated we’ve made ourselves. It hurts too much to face it full on, so we hide behind the very things that lead to our pain in the first place. We are, in this particular country, awash in a lack of empathy, and I suspect that at least in part, this stems from our own futile efforts to disguise where our own pain is.

Hide the pain, try to force yourself to live in a way that goes against the very essence of who we were made to be, and that pain, will, eventually, make itself known another way–generally at someone else’s expense.

Where the pain is, is not where the pain is.

George Orwell once wrote, “I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with this meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul…”

I am convinced that, as a whole, we are, most of the time, walking around gobbling our jam without even realizing we’re broken. Until suddenly we’re sobbing with ragged breath over a dead dog–for the pet itself, sure, but also for the battle comrades we lost, and could not find a way to grieve.

Where the pain is, is not where the pain is.

We have to be brave enough to face it, y’all. To do the work to address where we really, truly hurt. It is, I am convinced, the only way forward.

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Something More

9pm and snow had been falling since late afternoon. Dark, except for a clouded moon and street lights. Quiet. The air completely crystal clear. Everything and nothing at all could be heard and felt all at once in the sort of silent stillness enveloping me and the dog and a winter’s night. I felt my heart give way to strange, brief, restorative peace.

And I remembered–there is always something more.

****

8am and though the snow ceased hours before, a deep cold had settled in over the wee hours of a long night, the dog and I both bracing against it as we set out for a quick walk. The gray of last night’s snowy sky had given way to the bluest of Kentucky skies, and sun so bright I immediately regretted forgoing sunglasses. Between work–at-home and school-at-home, the neighborhood was mostly still sleepy, the sidewalks and yards untouched, and within seconds I could see it–millions and millions of tiny diamond-sparkles, just where the sun hit the snow, the whole length of my street dazzled, as if Tinkerbell had set loose her own army of tiny fairy lights against the darkness of this COVID winter.

And I remembered–there is always something more.

****

Something more than COVID-forced isolation.

Something more than the internet blinking in and out just exactly when she has 8th grade Algebra and I have a Zoom meeting.

Something more than the hatred of those not like us and the way social media breeds contempt and loathing.

Something more than the selfishness. Something more than fear. Something more than grief.

Something more than toilet paper hoarding and vaccine anxiety and missing the warm grace of being folded into the arms of your most beloved people.

Something more than missing my voice joining hundreds of others in prayers I know as well as my own skin on a Sunday morning.

Something more than longing for drinks with my best girls and aching to pack a bag and travel to anywhere but here.

Something more than every single awful thing that has made the last twelve months of any and everyone’s existence so inexplicably difficult.

There is always something more.

In between silent nights and sunlit mornings, in between hasty breakfasts and takeout again because you didn’t plan well, in between the monotony of endless days at home and the blessing of having that home, in between the pain of a world on fire and the grace of every moment some blessed bit of water lessens the flames, in between the pain of everything we’ve lost and the possibility of what we might do better on the other side, in between our broken hearts and the very things that put them back together…

there is something more.

Call it mercy. Call it miracle. Call it the unending and incomparable love of a God who spoke us into being and has not yet left us to be entirely destroyed…

there is something more.

And because there is something more, we know for sure that all is not lost and we are never alone.

Something more keeps us, still.

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1918 v. 1984 v. 2021

“The monkey’s paw takes as much as it gives.” – Diana Prince

There’s a short story you might have had to read in high school, maybe freshman year of college. The Monkey’s Paw was first published in 1902, and is, on the one hand, a supernatural sort of thing kinda ahead of its time, and, at the same time, a cautionary horror story about what happens when we ask for, and then receive, exactly what we want. Anyone else’s desires be damned, the course of our lives or of history, too.

If you’ve seen Wonder Woman 1984, this might sound oddly familiar. Diana even refers to it, in that moment when she’s come to the awful, gut-wrenching realization of just how much evil the Dreamstone has let loose via people’s frantic, desperate, and often very scared and angry wishing on it…”The monkey’s paw takes as much as it gives,” she whispers, as she watches Maxwell Lord attempt his endgame.

I watched this movie on Christmas Day, right at its release, having signed up for HBOMax just two days prior in preparation. Because, well, I love Wonder Woman–as portrayed by Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot both. And I loved this movie, even as I realized early on it would be way different that the 2017 blockbuster.

Set circa 1918, in the last gasps of World War I, Gadot’s first turn as Diana Prince was absolute cinema magic. I paid to see it on the big screen three times. And I can’t tell you how many times I have watched it since. And yes, I cry Every. Time. she crosses No Man’s Land. (Gah! Was there ever a better moment for women in a movie?!?) It was the most beautiful and heartaching depiction of Love v. Hate, Good v. Evil, and the most gorgeous reminder that again and again, over and over throughout history, Love has won. Not without pain. Not without horror. Not without bloodshed and deep loss. But eventually and always, almost in spite of our attempts otherwise, Love wins.

December 26 media erupted with All. The. Feelings. about WW84. Much of it negative. At first I taken aback–like, did they see what I saw? I mean, sure, it was different…but a bad movie?

And then I wondered something…and y’all, full confession, I could be totally wrong, but I have this teeny suspicion that we didn’t love 1984 like we loved 1918 because in 1918, the enemy was not only clearly defined–damn Ottoman Empire!–but was clearly evil and clearly “other.”

In 1984, the enemy? Well, it was … ourselves. Our own agendas and hidden desires, some of them seemingly innocent, except for the havoc they wreak in the lives of others. Some of them straight up selfish and awful, and yet often born out of deep heartache and pain. Like dear Barbara, so brilliantly portrayed by Kristen Wiig — I can assure you, that every woman in the workplace, no matter her smarts or creds or experience, has felt looked over or dismissed, at least (and only if she’s very lucky) once. For her it had happened over and over. Can we blame her for wanting something so different for herself? Even with all the hurt it caused?

It’s easy to know where we stand when the evil is obvious and real and outside ourselves. But when it’s our own hearts creating it? Y’all…that’s a different thing in entirely. What I saw in WW84 was an exploration of what happens when all that has threatened us, both personally and communally, makes us turn in on ourselves and our neighbors, creating the perfect sort of space for pure evil to pure riot.

Fast forward to present day. 2021.

Shew….

There’s a whole mess of things we could talk about, no?

So…let’s take COVID.

We could have fought COVID united. Instead we’ve let it tear us apart, sorting ourselves into masked and unmasked, believers and unbelievers, when, way back in 2020, a little bit of shared sacrifice would have left us all better off and having spent Christmas with all our loved ones and in our favorite bars and at our favorite holiday events.

There’s a lot of talk these days about “rights.” I wrote an essay on freedom once, for a local writing competition, about whether it was a right or a privilege. I’d have to read it to be sure, but I’m pretty sure I landed on the side of a precious privilege (that everyone should have access to) that we must protect at all costs. For all of us. Far too many men and women–brave souls like Diana’s Steve Trevor, but in real life–died, so that you and I could have it. And yet every day we tout that freedom like a badge of selfishness. “I’m free, I can do whatever I want!”

No. That’s playing so small with something so sacred, something another person literally gave their life for. Something men and women and children all over the world are still fighting and begging for, scraping out existence in places we wouldn’t let our dogs live.

You’re free. To live and move and have being as you choose. And the ONLY right response to that is live your life so that everyone else can live theirs, too. That isn’t treading on your own freedom, not by a long shot, and I’m not suggesting we all have to be the same or believe the same or live the same or have the same amount of money or any of that. It’s bigger–it’s about making room for all of us to have the sort of life where there’s plenty of laughter and no empty bellies and no seething hatred. Where we are all finally and wholly loved and safejust as we are.

My favorite thing about the first Wonder Woman was her motley crew: Steve Trevor, the epitome of a selfless soldier if there ever was one; the Arab, Sameer, who really just wants to be an actor; The Chief, a Native American — maybe a hat-tip to code talkers, but either way, a fabulous character; and Charlie, the broken and often drunken sharpshooter who just breaks my damn heart when he plays the piano as the snow softly falls in a now-liberated French village. I feel like, in the United States these days, this group of people would have a hard time having lunch together, much less fighting a common enemy together. And yet–there they are. Saving us all.

I don’t have answers, y’all, but I do believe that our desire for change in this country begins with ourselves. And that means a whole lot less finger-pointing and whole lot more self-reflection. Michael Jackson wasn’t wrong about that person in the mirror. Your experience is not everyone else’s. In fact, it’s not anyone else’s. And we can only begin to understand one another when we admit this very real truth and set about honoring the experiences that are different than ours.

A million little kindnesses, thousands of small sacrifices, myriad efforts at real relationship, listening with open hearts to those who believe differently than we do, to those who are terrified at a world that has changed so quickly, to those who have waited far too long for a seat at the table…this is how we might begin the very slow work of healing the gaping wounds of our nation.

No Monkey’s Paw. No Dreamstone.

But…maybe a little bit of Steve Trevor, who only ever wanted to give his life in service to others.

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what has been and what will be…

Today’s footbridge across Fourteen Mile Creek, just as it branches off the Ohio River, to Rose Island.

Yesterday my favorites and I took a trip to Rose Island — the location of a once glamorous resort and theme park on a piece of land known as Devil’s Backbone, right on the Ohio River, just as it branches off at Fourteen Mile Creek. In the early 1920’s, a man by the name of…wait for it Schitt’s Creek fans…David Rose (!!!!) developed this popular spot for leisure. Cottages, a hotel, a massive dining facility, a dance hall, the first filtered swimming pool in the Midwest, even a zoo graced it all, and folks came from far and wide, either by boat, or via a long-gone suspension bridge to relax, unwind, and near as I can tell, party 1920’s style.

Rose Island’s guest list dwindled mightily when the Great Depression hit. Then came The Great Flood of 1937, destroying just about everything in its path. And so, for the last 80 or so years, Rose Island has been reclaimed by nature, and to walk through it now feels like walking through a delightful and eerie bit of history: the edges of the zoo cages visible just above the earth; tall trees standing in the depressed bit of land that once held the hotel; beautiful wrought iron arches, grown over with ivy, marking what was once a dazzling entry way; the pool long filled in but its side ladders still intact; the boat dock washed away with only three stone pillars remaining to mark where it once was.

(Why someone has not made a blockbuster movie about what was once there is beyond me.)

I walked slowly and softly through it. It was a gray day, and rain threatened, so we had the place mostly to ourselves. Except for our voices exclaiming over various things found along the way, it was so quiet. So still. It was easy to close your eyes and imagine sparkling evenings of merriment long gone. Here we were, on the cusp of this godawful year’s end, walking through the ruins of what must have been a place of laughter, of joy, of community and connection. It makes no sense to say this, but the presence of what had once been was almost palpable.

And somehow, hopeful.

I felt so alive. So very much alive.

Even as, like all of us, I carry with me the grief and fear and anxiety of a year that has taken its toll in ways we have yet to discover.

****

It’s New Year’s Eve. Perhaps the most anticipated one in recent collective memory. You can list as well as I can the things that have threatened to undo us. That have, some days, left us on our knees, shaken and worn, and begging for something bigger than we are to somehow make sense of it all. To rescue us from the dumpster fire that has been 2020.

In the face of what has been, I know this to be true: this life we live, it is the most painfully beautiful combination of joy and heartache. And we humans, we are capable of such grace, even as we are capable of utter selfishness. We are capable of as much destruction as we are creation. We are capable of as much love as we are hate.

And that means that what will be is up to us.

As much as we’d like for it to, all the ugly isn’t going away at midnight. There’s so much that is broken, that it will take us a good long while to find wholeness again. Still, I believe we can. Maybe I just choose to believe that–but in the choosing itself there is hope.

My friend Sunny and her husband are parents by adoption of two delightful and gorgeous little humans. And in the long months of waiting before the first adoption, these courageous parents made a choice to believe that a child would one day be theirs. So much that they went ahead creating a nursery, filling its shelves with books and toys for the child who would one day be. And I remember thinking what a brave thing that was–this making space for something they had no assurance of, but that they believed with all their beings might one day happen.

This is faith.

Of the fiercest kind.

No, tomorrow won’t mean all things new. Not just yet.

But choosing to believe that it might, I think, makes space for the healing that could be. That will be, should we choose to begin the work of making it happen.

****

So much was lost at Rose Island. And in some ways it felt so sad.

But also? In the wake of what has been, a haven has been created there. And for my soul, battered and bruised this year, just like yours, the space cleared by mighty waters and the slow march of time has given way to something good and true and beautiful.

And so my prayer this night is that in the wake of all that has been since last New Year’s Eve–the loss, the heartache, the fear, the anger, the hate, the anxiety, all of it collective–there has been made space to remember that what matters most is how we live this life…together.

If Ram Dass was right, and we are all just “walking each other home,” then it seems the very best thing we could do at midnight is, if we’re lucky, grab the hand of a loved one and promise, “You are not alone.” And if we are not as lucky, trust anyway that we are not alone.

Because over and around us all, is the Love that created us, just waiting to dive into the spaces in our lives where we need that Love most, washing away what has been, so that what will be has room to do its lovely and merciful work.

Happy New Year, beloveds.

Onward.