And Saturday

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photo: lyle poulin

Like a lot of families, we have been starting seeds indoors. Delicate lettuce and nettle on the windowsill, sturdier basil, squash, and sunflowers on the back porch. With the quieter, slower pace of life during the pandemic, we have time to witness their growth. After very minimal effort on our part, after a week of watering and no sign of change, we start to notice the first movements of the first seeds, a barely perceptible shift from darkness into light.

It is the Saturday before Easter. In the chronology of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection, Saturday is the and. Limbo time. Liminal. It is the day between two starkly different days. Between the painful, terrible truth of the death of a controversial, radically loving man, at the hands of the people he came to liberate, and the impossible, mysterious transformation of that death into supernatural forgiveness, into eternal life for him, and the promise of the same for everyone who chooses to take on the work of loving bravely and sacrificially.

On Good Friday, the man Jesus is put to death– his body hung on a cross, murdered, and buried in a cave, with a heavy stone rolled over the entrance. On Easter Sunday, his body is mysteriously absent from that tomb, and all kinds of strange, inexplicable things happen. He appears to his followers, not as an apparition but in his body– a changed body, but human flesh and blood nonetheless– to tell them to get up, to celebrate, because he is not dead but more alive than ever. And it just gets weirder and better from there. The whole story of Christianity begins there, on Easter Sunday when Christ rose from the dead.

But Saturday? Saturday is dark. Saturday is the heavy dark silence of the tomb, the feeling of no escape, no exit. Saturday is an eternity without Easter. Saturday is the finality of death, is death as the last word.

It strikes me that we are living in Saturday times. The pandemic feels like Holy Saturday on repeat. A Groundhog Day of in-between, of and, where death is the only thing that feels certain. It feels even more necessary, and even more difficult, to hope for Easter this year.

I think of my church, where I haven’t been since Christmas. In the Episcopal tradition, the cross is covered with cloth during Holy Week. We try to suspend our knowledge of the rest of the story. Having sung our last Alleluia the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and with the Lenten season almost behind us, our mouths are parched with its absence. In years past, on Sunday after Sunday before Easter, I have had to stop myself from sliding easily into that familiar word, and so by Holy Saturday my whole body feels like it is leaning forward, at the edge of my seat, waiting for the word to flower on all of our tongues. At midnight, the Easter vigil marks the transition from death to new life, and with sunrise, Easter’s promise breaks through with light in the darkness. Alleluia: Praise the Lord. Joy and triumph.

Christians living after the crucifixion have the benefit of knowing this promise. We know the whole story at the outset: that inside of darkness there is light, inside of despair there is joy. This is the human story, the paradox of great suffering existing alongside great love, that Jesus came to offer us. But on Saturday, in Jesus’s time, his friends and followers didn’t yet know this.

So on Holy Saturday, we practice that not-knowing. And it is terrible. For me, it’s really hard to sink into that knowing, to allow myself to feel that bleakness, that absence of escape from the tomb. This year, it feels less like an intellectual exercise, and more of a reckoning with what I feel all around me.

What is the faith of the follower who does not know, has not yet experienced the return of Jesus, Love’s triumph over death? What did it feel like to be Mary Magdalene in the hours before sunrise? She does not yet know that when she goes to the tomb, she will find the huge stone moved from the entrance, the whole cave flooded with light, empty.

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photo: lyle poulin

So it is called Black Saturday, Joyful Saturday, Holy Saturday, Great Sabbath. And, and, and. All of these in one.

I feel like I am always, despite my meager prayers and my best efforts, the follower who does not yet know. Only in my most private moments of despair have I felt what I think of as Love breaking through, something I don’t think even approaches what I imagine Mary Magdalene must have felt when she saw the empty tomb and later her beloved teacher again. The certainty she must have felt with her body, canceling out her mind’s disbelief. I feel like most of the time I live my life inside of and, in limbo. My mind constantly fighting my body’s knowing that Love is alive and waits for me.

Inside this dark, endless Saturday of the pandemic, I struggle to make any movements toward faith. My prayers are wordless. My doubt and fear take up most of the space; keeping my hands busy and being present for my kids fills in the rest. The most I can do is try to keep a small space open in my heart for the possibility of Love’s return. I want so much to believe that life triumphs over death, but it’s hard to do. As it must have eventually become, even for Mary, once the shock wore off. Even after you see it, feel it, know it, it remains difficult to hold onto, because we are human.

So even though we are always in need of Easter, always in need of God’s mercy for our failures and mistakes, and the reassurance that we belong in Love, I feel it more deeply this year. I’m not even sure what that means at the literal level of the mind. It just feels like my body is leaning more heavily toward Alleluia, like my eyes can’t get enough of the sight of seeds sending out green shocks of light, breaking loose through dark soil.

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Silver Linings and Giant Dark Clouds

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Last night I had a good long talk with a dear friend over a glass of wine and Google Hangouts. I am still savoring the warm feeling of connection, and gratitude for our friendship. Among other things, we talked about the rollercoaster of emotion we are all riding, and grappling with the challenge of feeling all of it.

She shared something writer and Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg talks about in reference to another emotional rollercoaster, one that my friend and I know much better than the current virus-powered one: writing. The act of creating something can also open our hearts and bodies to the full range of human emotion. We can feel excitement, curiosity, and desire to make tangible the thing we can see in our mind’s eye. We can also feel anxiety, self-doubt, and even fear. Don’t get swept away, Goldberg says.

It’s a practical bit of advice, as well as a deeply profound, lifelong practice. It is perhaps the practice, for Buddhists and for people who practice mindfulness meditation. For writers, when our purpose is to create something, the practice is to hear the unhelpful voices of fear, anxiety, and doubt, and then gently dismiss them to focus on setting down the next word. Word by word, we make sentences and then paragraphs.

This is hard work. This is often unpleasant work. Most of the time, for me anyway, it doesn’t feel the way I think “meditative” should feel. It feels like digging away in the dark, tunneling into places I didn’t expect to find, and letting go of the places where I thought my writing was leading. For me this is the work of the creative Spirit alive in me, and I write because it is thrilling to participate with it, even though it mostly feels terrible at the time. When a piece of writing is gestating in me, I can get broody as a hen, grumpy and distracted if I don’t have or make the time to write, whether because I am afraid or just busy with the daily tasks of mothering, running a household, studying, and working on freelance projects.

Right now I am brooding over an essay that has been with me for years– as the seed of an idea, grit turned over in my thoughts over the course of weeks and months, and then smoothed into a sudden rush of words that now sit in a Word document on my computer. It is something about empathy, and fear, and not getting swept away, and how strange and difficult that becomes during certain tides of life.

This writing project and its questions have resurfaced with the pandemic. I find myself reflecting, during the day, on the shape and edges of empathy and compassion. I’m wondering how to witness my own and others’ emotions as we adjust each day to a new layer of information and questioning over all that remains unknown. How can I do this without getting swept away? Maybe the practice is to notice when I am getting swept away, and then clamber back to shore again.

There’s a lot of writing out there right now about grief, and how we are each allowed to be in this time in our own way, and how grief is a nonlinear and cyclical experience. I am no stranger to grief, and one thing I know about it is that it can become all-consuming. It can become difficult to recognize yourself within its grasp. It can start to feel as if grief is all there is, and all there ever will be.

What I know of grief is how it moves in me, and that is necessarily different from the way it moves in others. There is no “right way” to do it. I am trying to remember how I wanted to be spoken to when lost in grief. I think the words I needed were very few. Maybe no more than, I hear you, I am with you, I love you, You are strong even in your fear and your pain. I am not sure I even needed to hear I am sorry for your pain, or This too shall pass.

My friend and I went on to discuss what it was about the phrase silver linings that so grates on the senses, and we decided it was more than just its overuse. It’s the subtle forcefulness of the image, the way it requires focus on only the beauty of the possibility of light. The language itself asks us to entirely ignore the big dark cloud between us and the light.

Right now it feels like many of us are asking if it is okay to see and feel both, particularly those of us who hold more privilege, live in wealthier countries, and find ourselves spending a lot of time at home managing anxiety and fear, our own and that of the people we love. Can we appreciate the moments of light that shift through this oppressive dark cloud, without denying the cloud’s existence– the reality of the virus, all the lives it has taken, and all we still don’t know? Can we accept that in some ways light and darkness require each other, give each other shape– without suggesting that the darkness is good? How can we hold all of these contradictory emotions in our hearts and bodies?

In the wake of the sudden shift, in my state, from monitoring the virus elsewhere to the sweeping changes of a stay-at-home order, I’ve struggled to find the capacity to witness others’ grief and fear, for fear of getting swept into it. Perhaps because the virus’s arrival stateside came on the heels of a major mental health emergency in the life of one of my loved ones, I found myself with almost nothing in reserve. To heap more worry over things I could not control, onto the already mountainous pile in my life, threatened to break me, and I could not risk breaking, because I have children to care for. As a result, I feel I am failing some of my friends in their time of need for compassionate witness, because I often feel I don’t have the strength.

I’m working to find that strength, in a way that feels healthy. Maybe it’s finding a deeper, wider strength that doesn’t live in my body– the strength of faith, for lack of a more precise word. I will admit to fear about feeling fear, that Depression-era relic, which is somewhat new to me. While ordinarily I don’t shy away from heavier emotions, these days I find myself clinging more tightly to the light. Where I once felt shame for finding joy during hard times (and it’s always hard times, for someone, somewhere,) right now I am treasuring those moments, even seeking them– whether that’s in the mundane beauty of daily life with small children, or while taking in news from the global community, looking for stories that detail the unexpected and the resiliently human.

My son recently discovered dandelions, and his big sister has been teaching him how to blow the tiny seeds, attached to their parachutes of fluff, into the air. His whole face lights up when he spots one in the grass, during our walks to the park when there’s a break in the rain. (While playgrounds are closed, public parks are still open, for now, in Oregon.) His joy over the flowers makes me smile, and his sister’s tenderness with him. Meanwhile, the empty streets remind me that this is no ordinary day, and the dandelion seeds make me think of how the virus spreads, carried on breath and air.

Both are real, the light and the dark. When we get swept away again, I want to practice saying to you and to myself:

I hear you.
I am with you.
I love you.
You are strong even in your fear and your pain
.

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A few stories:

The 50-year-old hermit who knows a thing or two about social distancing
How the U.S. fought tuberculosis using community-based public health strategies
Rebecca Solnit on how disaster shakes loose old power structures

 

 

 

When You See the Heartbeat at Coffee + Crumbs 

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In early June, my essay about waiting to miscarry appeared on Coffee + Crumbs.

“When You See The Heartbeat” is a short essay describing the two weeks between an unpromising first ultrasound just before Christmas, when the heartbeat was detectable but weak, and a second scan after the new year. Writing this essay helped me process the swirl of hope and fear I felt as I waited.

In January, we lost our hoped-for baby at 9.5 weeks, in the middle of one of the coldest, wettest, iciest winters in a city wholly unprepared for snow. It was a long and difficult winter. Spring’s arrival never filled me with as much hope and relief as this year.

On June 2nd, when this essay went up on the site, I had my first ultrasound for the baby I’m now carrying. This time, baby measured right on track with a strong heartbeat. I sobbed through that ultrasound, thinking of the baby we lost and this new little one we are so hopeful for. We are praising God that we’re at 14 weeks now, and praying this baby will be born healthy and full of life in early January of 2018.

I share this essay for anyone who is waiting, anyone who is grieving the loss of even the tiniest life. I share it in hope and with an outstretched hand if you are feeling alone in the middle of your own dark winter– even in high summer.

Photo via Coffee + Crumbs.

Miscarriage, Faith, and Self-Compassion

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I recently had a miscarriage, and moving through grief with God has taught me a lot about myself– especially how much I have to learn about self-compassion.

I’m excited to be a guest blogger at Voice of Courage today, sharing a short essay about trusting God through times of change.

Trust feels a lot different than I expected, and I’m thankful for the people God has placed in my life in the past several years who have helped me deepen my faith. I’m learning that there is room in faith for all kinds of emotions, including the heavy sadness and anger that come with loss. I’m learning that there is room in my relationship with God for feeling whatever I am feeling, and that when I choose to trust God, it actually means feeling everything a lot more deeply.

This dovetails with ideas about self-compassion from the Buddhist tradition and mindfulness practice. I believe God is Love, the ultimate ground of being. In Christ, God took on human form and knows our suffering intimately. Jesus tells us to Love one another even as you love yourself, and yet most of us– maybe especially in the Christian tradition– have a hard time loving ourselves. I know I do.

I have found a lot of help in learning how to do this through prayer and meditation, and through reading books by Buddhist authors and mindfulness practitioners. Since my daughter was born, I’ve found a mindfulness and self-compassion practice SO helpful in my mothering. A copy of Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers, a gift from my sister, sits dog-eared on my bedroom shelf. In addition to some basic information about Buddhist thought, it includes lots of practical ways to practice self-compassion and mindfulness as a mother. I don’t see this as a conflict with my Christian faith, because I believe God wants us to love ourselves– and mindfulness really works. I haven’t found many practical books on self-compassion in the Christian tradition. (If you have, let me know!)

If you are reading this post because you’ve miscarried, I am so sorry. I wrote this blog post for you. I hope you will find something helpful here, and just chuck anything you read here that doesn’t help. I am with you, sister, and I know this hurts.

Losing a baby is hard. Really, really hard. Because our culture throws a strange net of silence over miscarriage (though I think that it’s changing for the better), it can feel like there is no space where your grief is welcome. And yet miscarriage can bring on a huge, heavy grief that needs a lot of room.

So what do you do?

Self-compassion means taking care of yourself, but because grief doesn’t proceed logically or linearly, self-compassion doesn’t look the same from day to day. Sometimes you can barely pick yourself up off the floor. Sometimes you don’t eat well. Self-compassion means accepting ALL of it– and not beating yourself up because you’re not grieving or doing self-care “right.”

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Here are some things that have helped me take care of myself.

  • Talking about the loss with people who feel safe, including a professional counselor specifically trained to counsel women through miscarriage.
  • Reading about miscarriage, especially stories of personal experience. Links below.
  • Praying through a set of liturgies the Episcopal Church developed specifically for reproduction, including stillbirth, abortion, and infertility. I LOVE my church.
  • Watching Netflix while eating ice cream/ drinking wine/ in the tub. Perhaps all of the above. It’s okay to be sad for a while. It’s okay to laugh and have a good day, and then wake up depressed the next day. Grief moves in unpredictable directions, and I find it helpful to give myself permission to check out for an hour or so when I need to (and have childcare).
  • Writing. I am working on an essay about losing my baby. Writing this blog post, slowly, over the course of weeks, has also helped me direct my focus outside of myself and connect to the reality that I share this experience of suffering with all humans.
  • Acupuncture, swimming, yoga, walking, massage, and anything else that brings stress relief and relaxes my body.
  • Saying no, doing less, and being really careful about who I connect with. I’ve also checked out of social media for a while.
  • Practicing meditation, especially guided self-compassion meditations with Kristin Neff. (I found the audio book at my library, and the second link has a few free ones online.)

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When you miscarry, well-meaning people can say unhelpful things, like God has a plan, It just wasn’t time for this baby, or probably worst of all, I don’t believe it’s actually a person yet. (Yes, someone I love really said that in my presence.)

Some people won’t know how to support you, and it’s okay to be pissed off about that. After you’re done feeling pissed off, you can ask for what you need, and you can keep learning how to give yourself what you need.

I am INCREDIBLY grateful for the wealth of support I have received from my family and friends through this grief. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I wanted to write down some of what I learned while grieving, in part so that I can remember how to support others, too. And in part because it might be helpful for someone out there who wants to be there for a grieving friend. I know everyone grieves differently, so these are just observations drawn from my own personal experience.

Here are some ways you can support someone grieving a miscarriage.

  • Be there. Be there, be there, be there. Send a text, make a quick phone call, spend an hour sitting on the couch beside them, take them out for tea. Just say I’m here and I’m with you. That’s it.
  • Don’t try to fix it. You can’t fix it. Please don’t give advice that isn’t asked for.
  • Listen. Ask if the person needs to talk. Ask if it would help to talk about what happened. The details of miscarriage are murky in most of our minds, and it happens so differently for each woman. Personally, it really helped me to talk about what was actually going on in my body and it helped when someone was willing to listen calmly and empathically, without pity.
  • Send a card or flowers. It really does help. It’s what people do when someone dies, and miscarriage is no different.
  • Pray with them. If you are the praying type and they are, too, offer to pray with them over the phone or in person.
  • Offer (simple) help. Get groceries, bring a meal, watch their child. They might not take you up on it, but it will probably be meaningful to know you’re there.
  • Don’t forget. When it’s been a month, or when the would-have-been due date arrives, or a year later, you can bet that the date is sitting heavy on their heart. Reach out with a text or a call and tell them you’re thinking about them, and you haven’t forgotten.

Things to Read

“Hope is what my grief is held in.” From a beautiful essay on Coffee + Crumbs.

“Such a Thing.” By Kaitlin Barker Davis.

“I was pregnant, and then I wasn’t.” By Laura Ortberg Turner.

glow in the woods. This site is about baby loss of all kinds. Be cautious here if your grief is fresh, because many of these essays can be extremely hard to read.

Coming to Term.  A book about a couple’s experience with repeat miscarriages, including a lot of personal accounts from other people.

Come and Gone: A Miscarriage Remembrance.” An essay by the author of The Science of Mom.

ALL PHOTOS VIA UNSPLASH