Monthly Archives: November 2020

Thankful for the Good (I wouldn’t even tell me what would happen to me)

For almost twenty years, I have had a Mary Engelbreit calendar hanging in the same place in my kitchen. Tonight, as I stood washing dishes, I looked up and saw her succinct command: Give thanks.

And I thought about the fact that I do give thanks.

I know, I know, there are those of you who call me Eeyore, who wish I were a little peppier and forced some oomph into the monotone, but, in general, the Lord and I know I’m grateful.

And as I stood at the kitchen sink tonight, I thought about last Thanksgiving, when my father had been dead only a month, and my husband was still my husband–and recovering from his second heart surgery in 55 days. He was in our house, in his recliner, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife his constant companions.

And tonight, for a just second at the sink, I cracked open a door. I let myself think about how much my world has changed since last Thanksgiving.

It is the most astonishing thing–to be without your husband, to have declared null the words you spoke twenty-nine years ago on an August day, to negate them, to take every one back, especially when, for so long, you clung solely to those words. You meant them.

To have them taken away: to have your words taken away when words are everything . . . To watch them disappear and–after months, years, of crying–say, “That is fine with me,” to stand and watch yet another chasm open, knowing that if every cliff gives way, you will, in fact, survive–is a Red Sea moment.

That seems an overstatement—hyperbolic drama. A simple divorce does not compare to the parting of the Red Sea and the sparing of the Israelites. Who must I think I am?

I stood in church on Sunday night–Sunday nights in South Georgia are when the “real” worshipers attend (for those who don’t know me, the sarcasm oozes), when the facades fall off, when the congregation gets loud–and some of the adults were truly free in Jesus that night. They were, some would say, losing their minds.

And, in the back of the church, I noticed some teenagers laughing. Eyebrows raised, hands over their mouths, they whispered to one another, grinning at the fools.

And, for a minute, I admired their innocence, their complete lack of understanding of the reality that, truly, God is the only thing that matters; Jesus is the only thing that gets some of us through, that grace and mercy are truly sometimes our souls’ only sustenance.

There was so much that they had yet to endure, and I loved that.

I have a casual friend who is a sister in loss. I have never been to her home. I do not know her phone number. I cannot tell you what kind of car she drives, but we know loss, and we are sisters in faith–our bond is beyond texting and pool parties. 

When we do see one another, we tighten the knots.

We bumped into each other one day in a Walmart parking lot. One of us, I can’t remember who, had recently celebrated an anniversary, had looked at a picture of her young, naive self, hopeful on her long-ago wedding day–and posted a picture on Facebook.

We stood between shopping carts talking about that picture, about the days when we hoped for bright futures, when we thought that they were assured. And my friend looked at me and said, “You almost want to say, ‘Don’t do it.'”

You look back at the young girl you were, at all that was ahead of her, and you want to say, “Don’t walk. Don’t take that step or that one. Don’t move ahead. Because the path is one of pain and sorrow. The losses are stacked like cordwood.

But on our wedding days, so full of joy, most of us are ignorant of the sorrows to come. Like the teenagers in the church, there is so much we do not know.

On our wedding days, we anticipate unity and joy—the relational richness of Christ and The Church. 

But within marriage, we also learn this: the losses in our lives reveal to us the character of God. Behind each loss, there is an assurance of His presence. He is present in our horrors.

In the loss of my granddaughter Stephanie Grace, I have seen the hand of God more mightily than I have in any area in my life. When I stood in that hospital room and held that lifeless baby, I could not have known that her story would reach–literally–throughout the world.

We cannot see the heavenly scope of our loss; we cannot know the extent of what God has planned when our treasures are taken from us. But when much is taken, when you lose babies and jobs and houses and money and health, when it is all discarded–that is when you know that there is only God. 

There is only God. 

He is our only hope, and even as a cleansed sinner, as someone who does MUCH wrong, I can say that He is faithful, that He has restored much in my life, that He has blessed me abundantly, through every loss that I have endured. 

So, even in the loss of my marriage, in this stripping away, I trust in this: He is there.

I talk about cordwood a lot in this blog because that is how I see my losses. Stacked, heaped, piled high. 

An elderly reader who knew me in my childhood once messaged me, saying, “Even from infancy, you have not had it easy.” 

I cried that day because I had never considered it that way. I see myself as having endured much from first grade on, yes. But I had never thought: Even as an infant, even as a toddler, I was enduring. Brain surgery. Leg braces. Months-long pneumonia. 

Even as a small child, I was suffering.

My brain tells me to count up the suffering, to count up the loss, to evaluate and contemplate and think about all that I do not have. 

And I am without much. 

I rearrange the things I have lost, these logs of heavy sorrows. I pitch a fit and try to throw them. Behind them, all I find is God. 

All I find is God. 

Five years ago, Thanksgiving meant dinner at my father’s. With my husband and my daughters and twenty other people. This year, there is no one. This year, a neighbor is making me a plate. 

In the natural, it makes no sense.

As recently as seven years ago, I would have wanted to make this make sense.

But tremendous, all-engulfing loss makes it impossible to have anything other than God. Past a certain point, there is no comfort but the assurance of God’s presence and the fact that He will do good.

Lose enough, and it becomes easy to live in the day, to do that which is set before you–and on good days, you can even work with all your might. Endure enough, and it becomes twisted into your core that tomorrow is not promised, that all is dross.

You take out your scales–you weigh everything while simultaneously letting so many things go.

And it’s not trusting the process; it’s not time heals all wounds, it’s not relentless forward progress. Rather, it is simply this: You have seen everything stripped away, and you have seen what remains.

He remains. 

He is faithful through our pain, through our loss, through all our suffering.

The 21-year-old bride who stood in that church on that August day 29 years ago would, I know, be stunned to learn she’d spent two decades consumed by caregiving–and she never homeschooled–but her husband did. She would find it amazing that she was, in fact, the primary breadwinner twice. She’d be dumbfounded that she lived within a mile of her childhood home, taught for the arch-rival high school, had only one birth child–and only adopted one. The yoga would be hilarious to her. The pets, oh, what a surprise they would be.

I wouldn’t tell her about the losses. I couldn’t do that to her. I realize that, sitting here now, staring into the darkness of my yard: in the Walmart parking lot that day, my friend and I agreed: we would tell the young bride to run.

We wouldn’t tell her what would happen.

That is stunning: I wouldn’t even tell myself what would happen to me. I wouldn’t recite the litany of the things that I was going to lose. I would let myself be ignorant.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose this man.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your father.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your granddaughter.

But I could grab that bride’s hands, clench them tight, look her in the eyes, and say, “God is going to sustain you in the days to come; He is going to be faithful, and you will stand strong in Him.”

There is so much pain in this confidence, but there is also so much confidence. Beneath the cordwood, there is this bedrock: Good will come. 

And for that (and sometimes that alone), I will always give thanks.

Photos by Magen Lindstrom

1.494 Million Thoughts: Our Brains and the (Unending) Pandemic

Last week, I was standing in the hall at the high school, Thursday Exhausted, the type of tired teachers understand, feeling like a failure.

It had been a ledger day–everything felt tallied. I’d had some successes with virtual classes–Google Meet, evidently aware that worldwide morale was slipping, had released new backgrounds. Our Chromebook screens were joyous rainbows: one student was in a bed of roses; another surrounded by thundering horses; several were oceanside. It was a touch of absurdity, a smidgen of joy. A few students were eating candy–contactlessly delivered on a sanitized desk–and we all laughed, hard, when a football player turned red and started sweating because his atomic fireball was particularly atomic. It felt like a corner of normal.

But, always, during this pandemic, there is the reminder that nothing is normal–that normal is, for now away, having moved into the future, the smoke of a promise and a hope.

It is not something we now hold.

Sometimes, I miss it so. I miss college-ruled paper and sloppy penmanship and even bubble-heart dotted letters written in pink neon pen. I miss stacks of alphabetized papers carefully clipped together by a student helper whose hand-washing habits were of no concern to me. I miss dividing my weekends by sets of papers graded: three before the football game, two after church.

I miss the football game and the church.

My world is now isolated, so shrunken–it is my daughter, my pets, two friends . . . and my students. My COVID-avoidance world right now, truly, does not even include my coworkers. (If we infect one another, the dominos will certainly fall.)

My world is so small.

The halls had cleared, for there is no lingering now, and I was happy to spy a friend, a sweet coworker, the kind of woman I sometimes wish to be. It was homecoming week, and her costume was perfect–crisp, bright and joyful. Her hair and makeup, even at the day’s end, were both magazine-ready. (Me? I was wearing a black tee shirt that read, “Emotionally unavailable until 2021.”)

After catching up on a mutual student, I said I felt like I had done more wrong than right that day–it seems mistakes are easy, success is so hard.

She looked at me with kindness. And she reminded me, “That’s everyone right now.”

I think the hardest thing–the absolute hardest thing-about this pandemic is the mental living that we must all do right now

It’s a kind of hard that nothing in my life has ever been.

In this sterile, hugless world, where our backs are not patted, our hair is not tousled, where our hands are unshaken, unheld, we are–all of us–aware of our minds like never before. Because our brains are bored (so the scientists say) and absent of our usual distractions (restaurants, outings), our thoughts are unrelenting, their staccato pounding constant. Our brains dissect every action and analyze every word spoken. And, oh, how they criticize us.

And your brain will gaslight you. Your brain will say it is just you.

Our brains are bullies, liars, and cynics. They are programmed to remember the bad more quickly than the good. And they never stop: The latest studies indicate that we think at least 6,000 a day.

3,000 thoughts at work.

With 97 teenagers.

During a pandemic.

You would think that every teacher could be kind to herself. That no teacher would need to be reminded: it’s not just you.

A wise friend–who is not in education–said yesterday, “Step back and see the forest.”

Step back and see the forest.

It is the most confounding of conundrums. We are in a pandemic that we cannot quit thinking about, but we simultaneously never consider the fact that we are in a pandemic.

Somehow, the pandemic everyone else is enduring is–mentally–an entity separate from us. It is 9/11 massive, and our worlds are church-bulletin small.

Because of this dichotomy, we want our own own worlds to be unaffected by it, striving to maintain pre-pandemic standards for ourselves, to have our papers graded, our beds made, our hair done, and our meals homemade.

We demand so much from ourselves, despite the pandemic.

Everyone in the world is emotionally low right now. But still, our inner critics demand that we, ourselves, be unlike them. That we get more done, that we remain unchanged in our performance. At work. At home. As friends. As spouses. As parents.

It’s as if we think there will be a medal ceremony at the end of this, and we are determined to reach the highest podium, medalists all.

There will be prizes our brains insist, refusing to think of dead and hospitalized friends, dismissing mask mandates, ignoring CDC holiday-planning advice, rejecting all things Covid. Prizes.

Last night, for only the second or third time since March, I crawled into bed with my twenty-year-old daughter. I had to touch a person. The dogs piled atop us, reveling in the novelty. We lay in the dark, Jennifer Hudson’s voice filling the room, a certain comfort, a firm declaration.

There are no prizes. But there is this.

That, we recognize.