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No going back.

A scar is forming across the upper right corner of my chest, just beneath my clavicle.

Six days ago, a surgeon sliced an opening there just large enough to pull out a vascular port — a little gem of modern medicine that I had surgically implanted in March of 2020. For some 20 months it’s been living inside me, piping chemotherapy drugs into my bloodstream as safely and as efficiently as possible. But it’s been well over a year since my last round of chemo, and the risk of this foreign object causing an infection had begun to outweigh any potential need.

It’s not a scar that will last forever. Surgical glue and excellent stitching and all that. But I promise you that I’ll always be able to slide my left hand across that particular spot on the right, and know, for certain, that something was once there. 

There was a news story recently about a young woman who’d finished treatment for Hodgkins’ Lymphoma and had her port removed. School picture day came around and the scar was still clearly visible. This was not bothersome for her at all, but, and perhaps with the best of intentions, a photo editor “touched up” her photo to make the scar invisible. This did not set well with Allison. For her, the scar was testament to survival. She had no desire to cover it up, to hide it — she wore it proudly. 

Scars bear witness to where we have been. What we have known or experienced or lived through. They are sacred. And they matter. Because they say, “This happened. And I will never be exactly the same because of it.”

This happened. And I will never be exactly the same because of it. 

****

Y’all. Things have happened. And we are never going to be the same because of it. 

Especially these last two years. 

Businesses have closed and schools have shifted and churches are not quite as full. We’ve lost loved ones to virus and violence both. Modern-day tribal warfare, born of political posturing and manipulation, has torn jagged wounds across our communities, our families, our relationships. Financial instability is, in many places, the rule rather than any random exception. And we have missed out on more rituals, more traditions, more things-that-make-us-who-we-are than I could even begin to name. 

It’s grief upon grief upon grief. 

And y’all, grief changes you. It pours into your soul, winds its way through your very being and changes you. And because of this, it has to be named. Faced. Sometimes wrestled with like Jacob and God and sometimes just sat with like Mary Magdalene in the garden, wondering how the sun could possibly be rising when her heart hurt so badly. 

Grief is not linear. It rises and falls and switches back and snarls into deadlock and makes hard turns into darkness. It molds us, for better or for worse, into a different version of ourselves. 

If we’re very, very lucky–or in the care of a very fine grief counselor at least–it has the capacity to soften our edges, widen our hearts, make us more loving and kind. It also has the capacity to consume us. And, one thing is for sure, it cannot, no matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise, be controlled. It can rear its head in the most unlikely moments, leaving us feeling broken all over again. Raw. Vulnerable. Afraid. 

My great fear for all of us these days is that in our rush to “get back to normal,” (after pandemic, after political chaos, after constant violence–none of which is actually going away) we’ve failed to name the enormous collective grief that is, I believe, threatening to destroy us. 

There is no going back. There is no editing out the scars etched across our lives, our communities, our country. There is no forgetting what has been so that we can just move on. There is no controlling all that we find unpleasant so that we can build some sort of fantasy life of safety and perfection. 

There is no going back.

Remember that scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon it’s not his fault? And Damon is all, “Yea I know.” And Williams is like, “No. Hear me again. It’s not your fault,” and Damon’s all “I know!” and Williams says it again, “It’s not your fault,” …and again…and again…until finally Damon hears him and collapses under the weight of this heartbreaking and freeing truth.

Y’all?

There is no going back. There is no going back. There is no going back. 

Everything has changed. 

And we should probably just collapse under the weight of this heartbreaking and freeing truth. Because it is only going to be in falling to our knees that we will find the strength to rise again. 

****

Last night, in a blast of worry about someone I love very much, I let anxiety get the better of me — and, for me, that meant trying to control, trying to contain, trying to script something that was so much bigger than me and the moment. 

Spoiler alert: This does not work. Zero stars. Do not recommend. 

What I should have done is simply said, “This is grief. And it is awful. And there is nothing to do but name it. Let it be. Until we can see the other side of it.”

Y’all we cannot contain what has happed to us. We can only name it. Sit with it. Let it be. Until we see the other side. 

And the thing is? And I swear to you I stake my life on this: There will be the other side. 

There is no going back. But there will be the other side. The space between is terrifying and sad. But there will be the other side. 

There will be the other side.

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Reclaiming humanity.

There are many, many things that the Covid-19 pandemic has stolen from us. Whatever you believe about its origins, its prevention and treatment, or its capacity to kill, there are myriad “side effects,” of this virus : children have missed out on crucial in-person schooling; workplaces have shifted how they operate; communities have been torn apart by disagreement on its management; politicians (of all ilk) have leveraged it for their own gain. All of this has left great, gaping wounds on our lives and ways of being–both personal and communal.

And all of it has contributed mightily to what I believe to be the greatest loss of all to Covid-19: our humanity.

I have never in my lifetime seen such blatant cruelty, such apathy, such dogged determination to tear down those who do not agree with us, look like us, or believe as we do. And while these divisions among God’s people (and we are all, to a person, no matter what, God’s people, each of us loved fiercely–no more or no less than anyone else–by that same God) have always been present, it’s the way we express these divisions, the way we live them out these days, that just boggles my mind and breaks my heart.

Y’all know I have a love/hate relationship with social media–and right here with this is where the “hate” part comes in–because man-oh-man, our keyboards have been working overtime while we’ve all been stuck at home, the anonymity of an online persona, the barrier of a screen, making it all too easy to say things that very few of us would be willing to say to the face of God or Grandma.

And honestly, I get it. The rage and pain and grief we’re all carrying is real. Only we’re not facing that rage and pain and grief–we’re just taking it out on everyone else, Facebook and Twitter convenient methods for our endless game of emotional hot potato. It’s tempting to hover our fingers over those keys until just the right insult, hot take, snark or blame comes out, thereby passing on our hurt to someone else.

But y’all. To what end?

When we say that the unvaxxed shouldn’t get treament? (Do you really want a healthcare system that judges who is and who isn’t worthy of treatment? Good lord, healthcare in this country is messed up enough!)

When we use the very real tragedy of dementia to make fun of Joe Biden? (How do you think this makes those in your life who have watched someone they love die with dementia feel?)

When we say we wish Trump’s case of Covid had been harder on him, or, worse yet, taken his life? (How do you think this makes those in your life who have lost someone to Covid feel?)

When we openly mock, insult and target the children of politicians we can’t stand? (Do you really want to live in a world where children are the casualties of our grown up games?)

When we openly judge someone’s character because he or she is a cop? Or a person of color? Or gay? Or Democrat? Or Republican? Or (fill in the blank…we’ve got more labels than we know what to do with)…?

Are these the examples we really want to set for our children? Are these ways of being the tenets we really want to live by? Are we all really more concerned about claiming our tribal allegiance than real relationship with family? Friends? Neighbors?

I have a neighbor — a few doors down–he’s in his twenties, black, a young, newly married dad, and small business owner. He’s building a fence at his place. A lovely, wooden slat fence that just fits so well on our street. Building a fence is hard work, in case you did not know. It takes patience. Skill. And usually more than one person.

Early one evening last week, I took Dolly for a walk, and as we passed this neighbor’s house, I saw two other neighbors helping him with a particularly challenging part of the fence-building. Older men, both white, both deeply engaged in assisting with the task at hand.

And y’all, I cried at the beauty of it. I stood there, just letting it sink in. Neighbor helping neighbor. Such a simple thing, and yet, in these days when everything feels so awful and divided and gross…it was everything.

It was hope.

I’m so glad I saw it–and I am also so grieved that something so simple, something that should be understood, part and parcel of who we are as communities, seemed like such a big deal. Neighbor helping neighbor — even if those neighbors are different in many ways–shouldn’t be a big deal. It should just be.

We have got to reclaim our humanity, y’all.

We’ve got to walk away from the forces that threaten our common good and work towards some kind of healing. I’ve lost any hope that an elected leader is going to do it for us. And I never have believed that policies change the world, no matter how well-crafted they might be. And so when I say “we,” I mean the rest of us–you and me. Our salvation is to be found in the day-to-day work of relationship, of listening to those around us, of paying attention to who needs casserole, of seeing who might need some help around the yard this weekend, of asking, “How are you?” and then really listening for the answer, of recognizing that what’s at stake is the wellbeing of all of us…and our children’s children.

I know many of you who read this blog aren’t church folks–in fact, many of you have had such an awful experience with church, or any sort of religion in general, that it has sent you packing from any such thing. I get that.

And also…

My own faith, my own way of being, is built on the story of a baby sent to love the world in a way that we’d never seen before. Fully and completely. Always and no matter what. That baby grew into a man who loved fiercely–men, women and children from all walks of life, from all parts of town, from all sorts of jobs, from all sorts of backstory. He did not come for just one of us. He did not come for those of us who fit a certain bill or dress in the latest fashion or vote a certain way.

He lived and loved past all that would push apart, and asked us to do the same.

I stake my life on this story. And in it rests my earnest belief that something more is possible for each of us and for all of us, that there truly is a way up and out of the cluster we currently find ourselves in, that it really is possible for lions and lambs to dwell together.

I told a beloved recently that maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe this hope I have is futile. Maybe we really are doomed. I was tired. And broken. And couldn’t summon the strength to insist on another way anymore.

Maybe it’s too much to say that my neighbor and his fence pulled me out of that moment of despair and set me on firm footing again. But then…maybe not. After all, I’d be the first one to say that we have to claim whatever hope is available, at any given moment, to see us through.

What hope is available to you? On this day? In this moment?

Claim it.

Our shared humanity depends on it.

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lament and prayer.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

(Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.)

****

Fires rage across the west, people’s lives and livelihoods going up in flames. 

Waters rush across New Orleans, again, and people’s lives and livelihoods are drowned. 

The earth literally splits underneath the land that is Haiti and once again her people are plunged into despair. 

Miserere nobis

Talking heads blame this person and that person and insult those they disagree with in ways I’d not allow my daughter to speak to someone and we cheer for our tribe and carry on with our arrogance, all of it born of out of our own fears, our own anxieties, our need to make some sort of meaning out of this cluster we find ourselves in. 

There’s shooting to kill every night in my city’s streets, life now an expendable commodity, exactly what happens when we’ve disregarded one another’s well-being for so long and found the solace for our pain in drugs, in hate, in violence. 

The virus runs through us with deadly aim, some of us escaping its worst and some of us dying, losing those we love, while healthcare workers beg for relief and children are sent home from school and the landscape of our lives changes forever. And still there are those who scoff. Who fail to see its havoc. I ache for them, because such selfishness stems from hurt locked so deep inside it cannot be seen or understood for what it is. 

We feel isolated. Cut off from what we once knew. Like so much has changed and no one was there to bear witness, our heads buried in the sands of our own lives in the midst of all that has threatened to undo us. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan burns. Soldiers die and families mourn. Women and children especially vulnerable to the evil present there. Rage is white hot and deeper and deeper runs the rifts that are already tearing our communities apart. Lives are at stake, pundits and polls do not matter. And our best bet would be to fall to our knees in fervent prayer for the terror reigning there. 

Miserere nobis

Take away our sins, God. Our own and the world’s, and grant us your mercy. How far we have fallen from what you’ve dreamed us to be and how heartbreaking are the consequences. You alone are the truth of our existence, your Love the very essence of who we are, and yet we push it aside and away in favor of what TikTok sells and worship affluence with more fervor than we ever thought about channeling into following Jesus. 

Humble us with your grace, force us to our knees in submission to your will. Hold us so tightly in your love that it forms us, as fire forms clay, into something new and only for you. 

Make way through the waters

Walk (us) through the fire

Shut the mouths of lions

Bring dry bones to life*

Do what the stories of your faith first told us that you can, God, because we have entirely forgotten how to share your love, carry your light, tell of your pure and abundant and exceeding grace. And remind us of the times you’ve shown up to see us through nightmare, grief and despair. You’ve never left us. Even as we have you, over and over and over.

Miserere nobis

Our hearts cry out to you, God. Take away our sins. Show us your mercy. Grant us peace. And lead us out of this chaos we’ve created out of our own hurt and anger and fear and selfish longings and into real and right relationship with one another and with You. 

Tonite, when the whole world is on edge, and we’ve lost all sense of what it means to love as you do…this is my prayer. My plea. 

For all of us. 

Because we are, each of us, first and only and ever yours. 

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

*lyrics from Famous For (I Believe), from the album Citizen of Heaven, featuring Tauren Wells and Jenn Johnson

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Choosing hope.

I feel as if the whole earth is sobbing. And my own heart right along with it. 

I am sick to death of the COVID-19 virus and the destruction (of jobs and families and communities), division (of any and all of us as we disagree) and death (of far too many, because even one lost life breaks our Creator’s heart) it has wrought.

I am gutted at another earthquake in Haiti. Horrified at more desperate suffering for a people who have time and time again lost so much. 

I am sadder about what is happening in Afghanistan than I ever imagined I could be about a country and a people I have no real kinship to. While they fight for their very existence, for the very right to walk on the street or go to school, we whine about having to manage germs. 

I am appalled and grieved at my own country, and our refusal to band together against the common enemies of disease and terrorism; instead we choose, these days, the equivalent of eating our own young, as we rip each other apart across every medium available, insisting on tribal blame games that only serve as a well-displayed Achilles heel. 

I am brokenhearted at bewildered teenagers caught up in the seduction of TikTok algorithms and selfie likes; more homicides in my own hometown than we’ve had in any recent history; hungry children and shattered neighborhoods and homeless camps. 

And I am full up, deep in my soul, as we all are these days, with every day cares, too– the less global but no less painful stresses of family dysfunction and relationships and illness and finances and children. 

I feel as if the whole earth is sobbing. And my own heart right along with it. 

Nothing feels certain. Nothing feels solid. Nothing feels as if it would be okay to rest, just right there, for even a moment, without “right there” splitting wide open and tossing us into whatever heartache is next. 

Everything feels off. At risk. Unhinged. Not at all what God created it to be, and our own inability to express what’s on our sore and bruised hearts making it impossible for us to find steady footing anywhere at all. 

The full weight of the last 18 months (at least) is washing across me in waves as of late, especially as the uncertainty rages on and our own anxiety and anger with it. We’re so vulnerable, so riddled with fear. We’re so broken, so bereft of any sense of how we’ll ever get out of this cluster of time we’re living in. 

I feel as if the whole earth is sobbing. And my own heart right along with it. 

My pastor has been preaching from the Israelites journey through the wilderness these last several weeks. It’s so appropriate to these days we’re living it’s almost laughable–because here we are, wandering scared and confused and desperate and willing to fall for just about anything shiny if it promises us we’ll feel better as soon as possible. 

There is not a story that ever was or ever will be, y’all, that is not contained between Genesis and Revelation. Not a single one. “No new stories,” one of my favorite humans says, “only new people living them.”

And y’all? 

Y’all. 

Right there is the glimmer of light that might lead us out of this darkness. Because if there are no new stories, if it’s true–and I will stake my very life on this–that we are not the only ones, that in fact, there have been so many before us in equally as tight a collective spot, then it’s possible…in fact, it’s very likely…that this current pain will not last, that somewhere on the other side of it, no matter how God-awful it feels, there is something else…something new…something that tastes of mercy and promises healing. 

We’re up against giants, my pastor said this morning. And then reminded us that giants have come and gone before, and that what we can be sure of is that God has brought us this far, and so it can’t possibly be the end of the journey…only our next chance to choose hope. 

Our next chance to choose hope. 

If you’ve been reading along here for much of any time at all, you know I believe in clinging to whatever hope is available. No matter how small or insignificant or quiet it might seem. 

No new stories. A God who has brought us this far. 

#availablehope

I’ll do my damndest to choose it. Every chance I get.

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Desperation.

Our dog Dolly is 10 months old, weighs about 40 lbs, and, according to a Wisdom DNA test, is mostly Boxer and Staffordshire Terrier, with a bit of bird dog thrown in.

She came to us in February of this year, having lived her entire short life outside until a few days before we agreed to foster her (a concept we clearly do not understand as she is now ours forevermore). She and her four siblings were born to a stray mama, just as winter was settling into rural Tennessee. When mama weaned them, she ran off, and a kind older couple tried their best to keep up with the appetites of five feral pups, until, overwhelmed, and outside temperatures well below freezing, they called Adopt Me! Bluegrass Pet Rescue and Dolly and her litter mates found their way to Louisville. 

It took Dolly a full week at the rescue to warm up enough for me to even get her to my car. She would turn her back and growl at any effort on my part to make friends. Not a mean growl. Not even a threatening one. It was more, “I’m so scared. And the only way I know to tell you this is by growling. But I’m not going to hurt you. Just please, please don’t hurt me.”

It was desperate. Pitiful and wild and terrified, and for a couple of days at the rescue I just sat with her. Offering treats. Talking. Scootching closer when she’d let me. Finally, on the seventh or eighth day after her arrival, I said, “Let me try to take her home and see how she does.”

And so I did. And that afternoon she let us put a leash on her. And she sniffed at our elderly Skye-dog. And she even let M give her a treat. We were hopeful. So, so hopeful.

Around 11pm that night, we took Dolly out for a potty break. A winter storm was brewing, and just as we got back to our driveway, “BOOM!” — thunder. And off like the flashes of lightning that followed went Dolly, jerking the the leash out of M’s hand and taking off into the dark. 

We ran after her, followed her through a neighbor’s backyard and across an old fence, finding her, finally, burrowed deep under the back deck of a house the next street over, refusing to move, shaking, terrified, and with zero interest in our efforts to coax her out. The rain was coming down so hard we could barely see her, and the night sky was so loud I wasn’t even sure she could hear our pleas to come home. The house itself was dark, too. No one appeared home, and, new to the neighborhood myself, I couldn’t see my way clear to knock on the door at such a late hour. 

Finally, a tearful M and I went home, hoping against hope Dolly’d stay under that deck until morning. 

I woke up around 5am, having barely slept, and pulling on leggings and rain boots and a heavy coat went tromping through the neighborhood. Just behind our house is a large vacant lot, overgrown with trees and vines and weeds, all run amok. It took climbing over two fences to get into this lot, but I did it, and softly began calling for Dolly. I’d been walking around for about 10 minutes when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of white. “Is that her fur?” I thought, as I picked up my pace across fallen logs and thick leaves, only to round a large, rotting tree to find her, burrowed halfway under a pile of ivy, shaking, her eyes looking up at me with something that can only be described as…desperation

“Oh sweet girl,” I said, “let’s go home,” and I scooped her up and carried her back to my warm kitchen, where a very relieved M burst into tears all over again and we set about getting Dolly dry and fed and safe. 

****

The next day, I was telling my dad about the evening’s saga with our (then) foster pup, and he said, “She was trying to come back and couldn’t figure out how. That’s why you found her so close. She was scared. And tried to come back.”

Dad’s right, and, what’s more, I don’t think she ever intended to run off. I think she spooked. Got overwhelmed and afraid and couldn’t process it all. And so she ran. As far and as fast as her 4-month old legs could carry her. 

And I think this because it is pretty much exactly what I want to do…every damn morning of every damn day when I wake up again to a world that I swear, seems to have lost any sense at all of kindness, of selflessness, of mercy, of anything remotely resembling human decency. 

The wilds of Alaska seem enticing. A stone cottage in the smallest village I could find in the most remote corner of Ireland. A low-slung ranch house atop a mountain in Montana, with only big sky to keep me company. I’m so, so weary of heartbreak. So, so tired of pain all around me. So, so tired of having no answers for the myriad heartaches screaming at me from the headlines every blessed day.

The images of those people falling off the plane wings in Afghanistan haunt me. 

The idea of the earth opening up and destroying everything around me, like it did in Haiti this week, is beyond my comprehension. 

The fear of contracting COVID and not being able to breathe is at the back of my head at all times. 

The knowledge that my lymphoma is not cured, only taking a very long nap, a reality that colors so many decisions.

The dread in the pit of my stomach as I watch my daughter walk into her school each morning and pray with sighs too deep for actual words, “God, please keep her safe.”

The broken lives…all around me…mental illness raging in the lives of those I love and hearts torn asunder by lost relationships and jobs and dreams. 

It’s too much. And there are days that, like Dolly, I want to bolt. For anywhere but here. 

Because we’re all Dolly these days–the issues we fight about and demonize each other over thinly veiling the truth that we’re all just so damn scared at a world gone mad we can’t even process how to move forward through the chaos. In our own deep fear we pull our tribes in closer, listen only to that with which we agree, and proclaim across our socials, “This is who I am! If you are not, go away!” 

****

I wish you could have seen the look in her eyes that morning I found Dolly under the tree. 

She was so still. So obviously terrified and so completely out of ideas. It was as if all her anxious posturing, her pathetic growling, had been reduced to this one moment of complete vulnerability, and finally she was able to set aside all that was keeping her separate and wild and say, “Ok. I give up. Please take care of me. Please love me.”

And I wonder, y’all, if we’ve the strength to let our own eyes tell such truth. If we’ve the capacity, somewhere deep inside us, to stop with the feigned moral superiority and false allegiances and just admit that really, we know so little. And more than anything all that any of us long for is to be held. Carried home to a place where all we’ll ever know is love. 

Promised that we’re okay, and that we’re safe now. 

And if this true–and Dolly agrees with me that it is–it seems to me our next right thing might be to begin to offer one another the shelter of each other, the healing balm of real care and right relationship, the mercy-falling-down-like-rain of reaching beyond our own broken hearts and into the wounds of another.

Sometimes, these days, Dolly will just sidle up next to me and lean her ever-growing frame against my legs, and she’ll run her head alongside my knee, as if to say, “I got you. Just like you got me that one morning after I ran away.”

Y’all?

Our only hope is to be found in doing just this for one another. Past our drama and selfishness and hate and anger and all else that we construct in some mad effort to feel better about ourselves…past all of it…we have to find a way to admit we need each other.

This is the only way the desperation that fuels all our strife gets released, dissipates, dissolves into something more like what God created us to be.

“I got you….”

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Dear Parents: Five Things

(Dear parents, this blog begins — let me take a moment to make clear that I’m using that term broadly. Some of y’all parenting children are grandparents. Aunts or uncles. Fosters. Caregivers of an adolescent for one reason or another, and maybe that reason has nothing to do with biology. I see you. I know you’re out there. And when I say, “parent,” I mean you, too.)

Dear parents,

This is the last quiet Sunday of the summer at our house. In less than 72 hours, my precious Curly Girl begins high school. This doesn’t seem possible. The last fourteen years have been the longest and fastest of my life, and I know, deep in my bones, that the next four will be over almost before we realize they’ve begun. 

It is a terrifying time to be a parent. Let’s just name that. No matter what age your child(ren) is/are, there’s just so much noise. It feels like a damn war zone out there most days (and, of course, in some places, it actually is).

Once upon a time, I was a youth minister. It was some of the most fulfilling and heartbreaking work I have ever done. There are names and faces and situations I carry on my heart every day, even now. And I cannot help but hold all of that in the back of my head as I reflect on how I want to parent M these next four years, what I want our relationship to be like, what I hope for her as she enters high school. So much is different than it was for me at 14. Hell, so much is different than when I was working with 14 year olds on a regular basis. 

But there are some things that have not, and do not, change, when it comes to our kids, and those are the things I’m holding on to as I balance my fears and my excitement, both, at this next leg of the journey. 

First, I don’t remember who first studied it or said it, but anyone who works with young people on a regular basis will tell you that the kids who have adults they trust beyond their immediate family do better. 

I know this is hard. We want to be able to meet our child’s every need. And in a world where truth is hard to recognize, it’s difficult to know exactly which adults to trust. Sometimes folks are not who they seem to be, and that’s just reality. 

That said, I promise you, for every teacher or coach or Sunday School teacher or family friend or aunt or uncle (surrogate or biological, either way!) that your child develops a trustworthy and meaningful relationship with, the better their chances at trusting the world, at knowing some of its goodness, at believing they are worth something, at knowing they matter. 

My friend Holly takes M shopping for school supplies every August. I despise school supply shopping. Office stores and the education aisle at Target kind of make me twitch. It just isn’t my gift. But Holly? She revels in the sort of organization and decision-making that it takes to shop efficiently, effectively, and with M’s real school needs in mind. For me it is a stressor. For Holly it is a pleasure–and so it becomes that for M, too. She trusts Holly. And she knows that if she needed her for something besides school supply shopping, Holly would be there. 

Second, our kids need to hear “I love you,” every single day. And multiple times a day is best.

Y’all, I promise you, they need this more than anything. And they need to know it doesn’t hinge on their grades or their game score or their success in the school play or debate team or whatever. They will, most days, have a hard time loving themselves. And that means some days they will be very hard to love. But we must. And we must tell them we do. Always. And no matter what. 

“I love you, and there is nothing you could ever do to change that,” is maybe the most important thing we can say to our kids. After all, it’s what God says to each of us. Every day. No matter what. Even when we feel our most undeserving, our most awful, our most afraid and anxious. “I love you, and you are not alone,” is God’s promise through all that threatens to undo us. How our children need to hear this good news from our lips, too!

Third, our kids (and we) need reminding that: it is NOT all about you

Reaching beyond our own psyches and out into the world can be hard for any of us. Empathy is not easy for most folks, and this has always been true. But in a selfie-driven, TikTok drenched culture–shew

Y’all. It has never been more important to help our kids see that their life experience is not everyone’s. It has never mattered more to pull them away from all things social media and into in-real-life relationship. It has never been more crucial that we help them engage with people who look, act, love, speak, vote, believe and learn differently than they do. In a broken, divided, angry and hurting world, to do any less is to do even greater harm. 

Fourth, our kids need to know that the worst things are never the last things. They need to know that sometimes life hurts, and terribly. They need to know that relationships fall apart and jobs get lost and loved ones die and sometimes money is tight and most often we adults do not have all the answers. We cannot make their ways easy. But we can walk with them, straight through what feels awful and into whatever good and true thing waits on the other side. 

They need to know that while God does not cause our pain, God does not waste it either, and so, even in pain, there is blessing to be found, most often when we least expect it. 

And finally, our kids need to be kids. They need to play. Outside, preferably. And laugh. And be messy. And screw up and excel, both. Because they are still learning this beautiful and brutal life and if they can hold on to a bit of imagination and wonder, their capacity for hope will be so much greater. 

Parents, I’m as terrified as you are. Letting my girl, who has had wings on her feet since birth, into this world is scary. Because it will sometimes bring her to her knees in pain and grief. Her heart will break. Her spirit will wane. Her soul will sometimes feel so very bruised. 

But also…

I trust that the God who gave me life, also gave her life. And I trust that this very same God has not, and will not, ever leave her. And I believe with all my heart that we do not walk this world alone. 

Our greatest pain has taught me this. 

So. Deep breaths. Great love. Determined and irrational hope. These are the things I stake my life and hers on. And I offer them to you. With zero expertise. But a whole lot of love, and a lifetime that has taught me that we are better, stronger, and more able to withstand the storms when we do so together. 

Blessings, y’all.

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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.