Monthly Archives: March 2021

Consider the Fuzzy Duckling

The high school where I teach is undergoing a total HVAC renovation this year. The workmen, like shoemaker’s elves, appeared when the students left and then removed ceiling tiles, ductwork, and vents. On each wing of the school, there was one classroom that was Grand Central–every ceiling tile came down. The intricacies of light fixtures, the red stenciled signage for firewalls, all of the trusswork–in one classroom, everything was visible. On our hall, mine was that room.

Because my mother raised me to speak to everyone (and she did a darn fine job of that) and because I work late, I had built a rapport with the workmen. Before they came to our wing, they knew I really wanted my room left in order. And, every day, it was. 

After about two weeks, their work was finished. All of my ceiling tiles matched–a satisfying, pristine white. Still, the grit from the ceiling, a fine dust, coated my desk and bookshelf, my Fisher-Price Little People collection and every student-given cat figurine. It was even in my microwave. Too, I’d moved things to accommodate the workers. A few vacant student desks were piled with stacks of folders, bins of markers, and piles of workbooks. 

People who, like me, have suffered repeated trauma need order and symmetry in their environments. Because of this, my classroom has been essentially unchanged for seventeen years. (In fact, my desk is from my previous, now-closed school. Forced to abandon it, I left a plaintive note; months later, maintenance men snuck it over.) The mild mess of my classroom bothered me–a lot.

Finally, last Friday, eleven days after my second Moderna vaccine, I felt well enough to begin reclaiming my room. We cleaned the bookshelves. We scrubbed the counters. We threw a lot of folders away and returned books to the book room. We tossed out old markers and eraserless pencils–and used an entire bottle of 409. I stayed late that afternoon–though it was Friday–to make my room mine once more.

This morning, I walked into my classroom, and my desk was neat. My bookshelf was orderly. Only the stacks of folders and a jumble of papers remained. The rest of my room was as it should be.

It was a typical pre-Spring-Break Monday. The kids were tired, their brains already at the nearby sunny Florida beaches. We talked about Greek drama, about the death penalty, about parents who turn in their criminal children. After school, I tutored a student for an hour.  

When I came home, for the first time in months, I worked in the yard, trimming the yellowed and broken cast iron plants as the puppy bounded through them. I chatted with a friend on the phone, then came inside and made two different batches of Mexican rice so my daughter and I could have a taste test.

As I looked out the kitchen window at the dragonflies and I took in the purple Wandering Jew, I thought about how much I had accomplished, how good it felt. I was fully vaccinated, finally free of side effects, and I had a clean classroom.

Two things–one, the vaccine, certainly major. The other, a clean classroom, decidedly minor. Combined, they left me a satisfaction, a new starting point.

One gift of repeated trauma is simple appreciation. I appreciate Clean classrooms. Hot water. A chocolate-covered frozen raspberry. Clean sheets. The green leaves of the pecan tree against the bright blue sky. When you’ve been traumatized, when your treasures have been stripped away, forever lost, you must reorient. Look again.

If you are to get out of bed in the morning, to do anything, to help anyone, you have to try again to see.

And at first, it is impossible. At first, there is no good. There is only the black hole of your loss. And then, one day, you notice the light on the lake. You hear the lilt in Luke Combs’ voice, and in your core, for the briefest of instants, there is a glimmer. An insight. A reminder that there is more than your loss.

Today at lunch, I checked Snapchat. My friend recently lost his daughter after her eight-year battle with cancer, and the pain is still knee-buckling, fresh,  and forever raw, but Snapchat doesn’t require words, which is handy when there are none.

His younger daughter has gotten two Easter ducks, Farmer and Princess, and his Snapchat story has been full of the pair waddling through the grass, floating idly in the birdbath. They were again in his story. Trailing behind him, beginning to imprint. So adorable.

And then, I clicked on my direct messages. Staring at me was a duck. Dark-billed. Yellow and tan fuzz. There was a sequence of Farmer, steadily gazing at the camera. I took in the duck for the longest time. Those eyes, the fluff, and feathers–handiwork that speaks of God, that demands acknowledgment of His power to create beauty. 

Even from the blackest of holes, there is such beauty in a baby duck.

I called Ross tonight. He sounded weary, his heart sharded. 

I asked if I could write about him, about the video of the duck. 

“I thought you would appreciate that,” he said, his voice tight and tired, acknowledging the code, the solace found in webbed feet and yellow fuzz.

You Are Allowed To Try (for Twelve Years, If Need Be)

December 2021 My only C in college was in music appreciation (unless I also made a C in canoeing, which is, of course, entirely likely). I remember sitting in the hall before exams, index cards and highlighter in hand, trying to teach myself musical terms. It was impossible.

Nevertheless, I love music. My favorite Pandora stations were curated for over a decade, and I have Amazon Music playlists for every mood. My students know if they come into the classroom and hear Counting Crows’ “Long December,” it’s advisable to be compliant, while “Brown-Eyed Girl” signals joie de virve.

Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and Luke Combs are staples of my trauma-survival arsenal because music is sometimes my only comfort–filling me when I am empty and untouchable, beyond and lost, yet desperate for solace.

Saturday, my younger daughter left with friends, which meant I could blast my music on every Alexa in the house. (The acoustics in my forty-square-foot kitchen are excellent.)

I was standing at the sink as Kari Jobe sang “The Blessing,” and I told God that I wished I could feel the music again and truly enter into worship. Instantly, I felt inside me the response: You are allowed to try.

I stood at the sink, stunned at the powerful reminder–we can just try.

I had leg surgeries in October, and I am supposed to wear compression stockings forever. I’ve been making do with the single-use sets that they gave me in the hospital, but last Thursday, I drove to Jacksonville for a proper fitting.

The salesman took my prescription, showed me a glossy brochure, brought samples of the various colors, and started guiding me through the selection process.

What type? Open toe.

To every other question, my answer was: I don’t care.

Because I don’t.

If I am wearing taupe hose, my father is dead and my husband has left. If I am wearing black hose, I am starting from scratch, refinancing a house alone at the age of 51. If the hose are white, my granddaughter is still in Jesus’s arms instead of ours. If I am wearing opaque hose, I am still in year nine of chronic, unrelenting pain, the legacy of a complex leg fracture.

The weight of these burdens makes compression hose decision-making entirely inconsequential, and that day, I didn’t have the emotional energy to feign any interest in something so trivial.

Imagine grocery shopping at Kroger, mindlessly putting Cobblestone hamburger buns in your cart. Then, a stranger stops you and asks why you are getting Cobblestone instead of Nature’s Own. You would ask, “Why on earth do you want to know this? What does it matter? These are just hamburger buns.”

Trauma recovery, for me, feels like that.

The salesman picked the color, chuckling good-naturedly. He said, “You’re like, ‘You do your thing; I got my thing.'”

And that’s it: right now, I got my thing.

We have internal voices that tell us that we cannot have a “thing.” Especially in polite Southern culture. We need to be gracious, always. We need to put others first. So much of Southern Christianity is completely based on I am third.

God. Others. Me.

But, sometimes, the “thing” needs to register. Sometimes, we are carrying burdens that we have yet to lay at the feet of Jesus because they’re so big and messy that we can’t even find the edges to gather them. We are wandering in darkness, in the pelting rain, breathless in the downpour, dragging the thing that we want to give to God, that we wish wasn’t ours. We try desperately to gather up the pieces of our lives and present them again to Him and say, “Hey, could You please do something with this?”

I know that beauty comes from ashes, and I know that the only way out of a pit is helping others. I am baking banana bread for my five-year-old neighbor, mailing no-reason gifts to far-away friends, and buying board books for co-workers’ newborns.


Doing yoga and using Headspace. Drinking water. Eating apples and bananas.


In the first days of trauma, huddled in the haven of shock and denial, we do not have to try. Our friends feed us, bring us cheerful flowers, hold our hands, help us. But in the days that follow, even if we cannot soothe ourselves, we still must survive, leave our beds, brush our teeth, return to work.

And if we do those things, if we wash and dry and style our hair, walk on our sad feet into the office on time, and, for eight hours, listen to and help others, we still don’t allow ourselves to take pride in our endurance. We don’t acknowledge our perseverance, the victory of simple participation when we are so empty ourselves.

We need to see the strength in the attempt. To credit ourselves for the good that we do. In rushing our way through trauma and grief–in trying to get back to normal, when, in some cases, it is definite: there will never be normal again–we deny ourselves the chance to mend more wholly.

This morning, a co-worker brought me a bacon egg and cheese biscuit from Chick-fil-A. I ate it at my desk, scrolling absent-mindedly through the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and sipping Dr. Pepper.

Suddenly, the biscuit crumbled. Instantly, I was back in the hospital cafeteria beneath Shands in Jacksonville, my lukewarm biscuit there falling to pieces, back in the horror of aggressive cancer and unending suffering.

I looked at the crumbs, felt the familiar edges of panic, and thought, “Really?

Five years ago, I was far more ashamed of who I was. It would have been embarrassing to sob when a biscuit crumbled, to be unable to summon social niceties, to be so messily human.

Back then, I exhausted myself trying to disguise my trauma and make small talk about Cobblestone bread.

Today, as I stood in the hallway chatting, I saw a friend approaching. We have worked together for thirteen years, and her family endured trauma this fall. My heart sprung; I wanted so badly to hug her, to celebrate that she is back at work, that she is trying.

Someone called my name, and I turned away from my friend. As I did, I felt a soft pat on my shoulder, the glide of a hand.

She was fifteen feet away when I hollered, “I wanted to hug you!”

Laughing, she replied, “I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to pat her on the shoulder.‘”

We wanted that contact. The press of a hand, the feeling that someone who understood was there, physically, with us.

In the Bible, the woman with the issue of blood knew the desperation of need–for twelve years, she pursued help; she did everything she could. She had to have been worn down, but she still believed in the power of touch and the reality of instantaneous healing. Suffering and weak, when she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him and touched him and was restored.

Jesus felt it when He healed her–the Bible tells us that “trembling with fear, [she] told Him the whole truth” (Mark 5:33). Maybe she kept things brief: “It was me–I’ve been sick for twelve years.” Perhaps she explained every previous agony “in the presence of all the people” (Luke 8:47).

She trembled–she didn’t cry, though–because she knew she was healed, knew her “thing” was gone, that the long struggle was finally behind her.

That’s what we are all waiting for, you know: our twelve years to end. Our twelve-year trials don’t look alike; things like infertility, joblessness, ill health, drug addiction, credit card debt, depression, and poverty all carry the same pain.

Amid the pain, there is a consolation: the ache is familiar. Universal.

We can stand together beneath the elms, look at lakes, take long drives, and talk about the “things” we have; we can encourage one another to try–again and again and again. We can make the twelve years feel less long.

And that is beautiful.