fresh snow, fresh grief.

I was supposed to attend a funeral today. A memorial service for a family who lost their little girl last week. She was a beautiful 13-year-old, a hurting soul who just couldn’t do this life anymore, and left a broken-hearted family behind. I wanted to go to the service and stand with the rest of the community, stand and honor her life and her parents and her siblings. But it’s been snowing for two days now and I couldn’t make it to the church. So while a family is weeping with their fresh wrenching grief,  I’m snowed in at home with my little babies.

It was a strange morning. As the clocked turned to 11:00 a.m. and I knew the church was probably coming to a hush as someone stood in front to open their time together, I imagined preparing a funeral for one of my children. I shivered at the thought of our greatest nightmare as moms and dads. I cried and prayed for that hurting family. I sat on the floor and stared at my own kids, tearfully kissing their hair and their eyes and their feet and the middle of their chests where their precious hearts beat away. I am broken and thankful and afraid, all at once, in this warm glove of my house. Thankful for motherhood. Broken with fresh grief. Afraid in the vulnerability of parental love.

Bent in prayer for a family bent in pain.

The older I get, the more often tragedy seems to seep into my awareness. Am I just more conscious of it all? Am I simply paying more attention? Why is it all so bad all the time? How can we operate under all of this uncertainty, under the constant strain of inevitable catastrophes that threaten to consume us whole?  How can we go on like this? 

I don’t know. The world outside is covered in six inches of fresh snow, the reality of my neighborhood now cloaked as foreign shapes, softened edges. You could get lost in the frozen unknown of it all. The thing is, we are going on. I’m packing for a trip. My sister is preparing a Christmas song for children’s church. Sam is out buying a snow shovel. My friends, these sweet people who love their kids so much, are posting pictures of their families in squishy nylon coats, their cheeks pink and cold, playing happily outside. The world is turning and turning, and good things are still happening, and the snow is still falling too. We are going on. 

Truth: I don’t know how we can go on like this. How we keep breathing, despite the bad news, despite the funerals, despite the catastrophes. All I know for certain (this is it, this is truly it) is that I put my hope in a Savior. In the God of my heart and the God of everything I know to be true and pure. In the God who lets the snow fall and lets the sun shine and has never, ever, abandoned me or any of us. That’s it. That’s all I know. And that’s the only way I can go on.

Come heal this world, Jesus. It’s too much sometimes, it really really is.

In light of grief; I wrote this essay below after my friend Jimmy died last year. It seemed like the kind of day to share it again.

Thinking of your beautiful Camille today, Corey.

Love, Jessie

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THIS IS HOW YOU GRIEVE.

 

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because motherhood will crack you wide open.

A few nights ago my parents had a Bible study at their house and one of their group members asked me,

“How is your visit to Boston going? Are you just here to relax, or did you come for some sort of business?”

It was 8:00 at night. Both of my kids were bathed and in jammies and still awake, full of whatever business they seem to get full of when it’s dark and they are late to bed. I was in my parents’ small home which was filled with adults I’d never met before, and I’d been travelling alone with a 2 year old and a 9 month old since 3:30 in the morning on Saturday.

So I wasn’t sure how to answer him. ‘Cause while I’m definitely not getting paid to do any business during my visit, I’m sure as hell not relaxing in any definition of the word. In fact, these last few weeks have hit me hard. Hit me like an airliner trundling down the runway, like a wind whipping through trees, like a bottle blunt over the head. Sam was on-call the week before we left which meant we didn’t see him for days at a time, and then I packed up a big suitcase full of my jeans and sweaters mingled with their smaller jeans and tiny sweaters, and left for a ten day trip with Clara and Sammy to see my family in Boston. I’ve been planning this trip since my birthday in April when I asked for airline tickets to see my parents, my brother Robert,  my sister-in-law Malia, and my baby niece Elsie. It’s good to be here. I am supposed to be here.

But hey, man. I’m tired.
I’m tired from worrying about our plane rides.
I’m tired from the actual plane rides.
I’m tired from parenting alone the last few weeks.
And tonight;
oh, gosh,
tonight?
I’m tired. Of. My. Kids.
Not of them, themselves, though they can be a little awful,
but of their never-ending need for me and my space and my time.

My friend lost her baby this week, 20 weeks into her pregnancy. Her little boy, she’ll never meet him. She’ll never hear his heartbeat again or get to shush and sway him to sleep, never get to cut his hair, never have to put him in time-out. It’s a heartbreak I’m familiar with, the searing, burning pain of losing a beloved baby. It’s a loss a mother does not forget. I’ve lost a baby and I’ve kissed the quiet face of another mother’s lost baby and I’ve prayed in anger over lost babies and there’s something that breaks in that empty mother that doesn’t get fixed. It does not repair. Like a crack in the earth that now contains a formidable rushing river, it is a break so violent that it can absolutely never be repaired.
It can grow a river.
It can produce beauty.
But it cannot be fixed.

Tonight, after another long day with my two year old, the one who never ever ever stops talking and the one who never ever ever stops pushing boundaries, I called my husband behind closed doors and whispered that I wanted to run away from his daughter. I don’t know what to do anymore, Sam, I said. She’s pushed me to the edge. I’m here. On the edge. I’m out of ideas. And I’m tired. I was calling him from thousands of miles away and two time zones ahead and I just really needed to hear his voice, to hear from someone else who knows the difficult loveliness of our Clara and her complicated, intelligent, manipulative brand of disobedience. I needed another soldier to remind me why we’re fighting this good fight at all.

My fellow warrior gave me some advice (he was irate, he is as stubborn as she is and doesn’t put up with nearly as much as I do) and then said with resolve,
Don’t let her break you, Jess! You know she’ll try to break you! 

It was funny, and we laughed, mostly because it’s true, but let’s be honest.
Motherhood breaks us.
There is no place on a man’s body that breaks open and produces life.
But a woman?
No matter what way a baby is born, through a cesarean cut or a birth canal,
a woman is broken open for her child.

These little people, these beating hearts, they break us open. They devastate our bodies and our lives in the most resplendent fashion, carving paths and valleys so deep that they hurt, changing our very landscape with every breath that they do or do not take. The pain of raising my children is carving away at me, with every argument and every defiance and every stumble away from my instruction, the pain of their pain is widening a crevice inside me. This relentless love for my children, the terrifying and determined love of a mother, it chisels in me walls steep with miles and miles of edges and cliffs. I cannot help but love them with a wonder awash in fear, cannot help but want the best for them with a need akin to desperation.
And so the valleys extend.

But then?
Then come the currents.
The river waters begin to swell, begin to swirl, begin tumbling over those dry and sparse grounds we thought we knew so well.
It’s all changing, it’s all hard, and it’s all so achingly beautiful.

It is the very essence of God, of a holy refreshing love, breaking and changing and making space for what will come.
In the suffering, may there be promise.
In the silence, may there be hope.
In the pain, may there be the scent of fresh water. May the rain be fruitful and may the land find healing.

I am in Boston on a dark and cold autumn night and I’m so glad my babies are asleep. Somewhere back home in the chill of an Idaho October, I imagine my friend would do anything to give her baby more time.
Motherhood breaks us open. It cracks us through and through. Tonight I’m praying for refreshment, and for new days. For rivers to come. For cliffs to be beautiful and not just dangerous. For Clara to listen and for more patience and wisdom, and most of all for a mom who is getting ready to tell her son goodbye.

May joy come in the morning. 

 

Elevate.

I love reality tv. I do. It’s shameful, I’m sure, and most people would probably not admit to such a low-level pleasure, but COME ON. It’s addicting to watch ‘real life’ on screen, scripted or no, because it feeds the obscene voyeuristic side of my personality- the same reason I read mostly non-fiction, the same reason I like to watch my neighbors out my kitchen window while I wash dishes, the same reason I have to delete Instagram off my phone every few weeks or so because I just can’t stop looking.

Shameful confessions aside, one of the shows I like best is Master Chef. I’d never watched any cooking shows before this one, and there’s this one phrase that they use all the time. I wonder if it’s part of every cooking contest, but one thing the contestants aim for is to “elevate their dish.” Basically, this means that instead of making macaroni and cheese, you make macaroni and cheese with, say, a truffle sauce. To ‘elevate’ food is to give it finesse, give it flair, make the flavors new again and make the dish a product of imagination and love. With the right skill set and the right open mind, a good chef can elevate even the most basic of foods.

That idea sticks with me. Not just because I love to cook, and I love to try new dishes. But because the thought that something like a stupid hotdog, in the capable hands of a talented chef, could become a surprising and delicious meal. That’s fascinating. And challenging. And pardon my love for a good metaphor, but isn’t that the key to living a good life? What can I do to elevate my daily living, to re-imagine its place and reassign its value?

How do I make the basic into the beautiful?

Most religions have some pillar based on this very idea, actually. Buddhists call it utthana-sampada, or working diligently at all you do. Mormons work hard to do good because they are aiming towards their own godhood, attaining deification.
And Christians offer themselves up to a life of being “holy.”
Or, the way I learned it, being set apart.

All of these theologies encourage an elevation of the mundane, an understanding that everything matters. Every act, every word, every moment of every day has a meaning with roots deeper than we can see. Some elevate for the sake of understanding, some for the sake of castles in the sky. For me, as a Christian, the reason for elevation isn’t a reason at all. It’s a calling.

It’s not about ‘inner peace’. Or karma, or any sort of celestial reward system. For me, learning to sanctify the act of hanging tiny t-shirts in a closet, or nursing my baby, or teaching my daughter to be kind: it’s all a matter of re-branding. Re-branding the mundane for the sake of the Holy, for the sake of my soul and my place on this earth as a loved daughter of the King. Elevating that which seems lowly by way of a changed heart, because I know for a fact that all of this matters very, very much.

And while I know this is a short season of my life, this home bound, inward universe of raising my young children, I’m learning a lesson that I couldn’t have absorbed anywhere bigger than my house.

It was easy for me to feel gratified in past occupations. It was easy to elevate my day to day activities.
Running an after school program for elementary school kids? Easy to see the purpose, easy to accept the love and thanks of the families we served. Attending college the last 3 years? It was easy to push forward because finishing my degree seemed pertinent, to me and to my future.

I’ve served coffee at Starbucks, I’ve directed summer camps, I’ve worked at churches and insurance offices and even a Japanese karaoke bar in Hawaii. Some of those jobs were draining and some of them were exciting, but every single one of them came with some sort of extrinsic value, like paychecks or community support or free drinks.

But now? Being a mom? It has a different sort of value system. It’s more difficult for me to elevate. It takes purposeful heart checks throughout each hour to remember the incredible investments I am making in my family, in my kids and every person they will ever meet.

I miss having a paycheck. Or feedback. But I have to say, there is a sincerity to my every day movements that has not been there before. I think it’s the lack of external motivation, the lack of accolades from any sort of public opinion or authority figure, from professors or managers, because it’s just me. It’s just me and these kids and honestly, they won’t even remember most of what goes on during these early years of their development. These days belong to us, to our ins and outs, to our moods, to our small but meaningful accomplishments. These days belong to me and my God, and the act of elevation is a discipline that is at once softening me, and also hardening a core of truth about What Is Holy and What Matters.

I think at some point, we all fight that hollow feeling of What Am I Doing Here? We work at jobs we hate, we are in relationships we don’t understand, we forgot what we meant when we started out and everything looks like cold noodles and hot dogs.

We have to elevate.
We have to know that when we are loved so enormously by a God who gives every sparrow a nest and every heart a new mercy with each sunrise, our moments surely matter.

When we sit in a planning meeting.
When our hands are dirty with another day of work.
When we pay our bills at night.
When we feel stuck.
When we fight against the injustice of poverty and yet it never seems to be enough.
When we write into the void.

It matters. More than we could ever know, it all matters.

I’ll try to remember that later, when I gather baby Sam in tight while he cries through another night of teething. When he sighs with desperate relief because his mom is near.

Elevating. It’s not feigning relevance. It’s not inflation or vanity;
it’s perception.
it’s mindful.
it’s the heart of God, one day at a time.


“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart.” – Paul the apostle 

releasing the gaps.

I was 16 years old before I realized my parents had faults. I mean, maybe I suspected it before then and of course I was rotten to them for years before that but still. It was a shock to me when they became human. I wonder if everyone has that moment, or if comes more gradually for some of us, that moment when our moms and dads shrink a little and the world sort of zeroes in on their inadequacies and suddenly, SUDDENLY nothing can be trusted. If my parents don’t know everything, then what the heck does any of this mean? we might ask ourselves in that moment of revelation. There are times I look at my own kids wondering if they aren’t just looking right back through me, already aware of my deep, abiding failures as a human being.

A while ago we went to Washington to visit our family. Sam left me and the kids there for the week while he went back home to work. It was the first time I’d ever been away by myself with Clara and Sammy, and each night of our trip was a small battle for a full night’s sleep. They couldn’t relax, they couldn’t get comfortable, and, of course, they both came down with a cold. Every night I laid in a twin bed in the downstairs office, the babies burrowed into my sides, occasionally waking themselves in a start and reaching out for me with shaky arms. They would whimper my name and feel around in the dark for my face. Assured I was still there, they would fall back asleep with limbs draped over me and each other, safe in the knowledge that their mother was close by.

And it occurred to me on that trip; in the dark of the small office where the three of us slept side by side, their bodies tucked into mine; in the kitchen where I settled each of them on a hip during those cranky late afternoon hours; when I would come up the stairs and watch both of their faces light up at the wondrous sight of their mother approachingit occurred to me what an enormous privilege it is to be someones everything.

It’s also scary as hell.

These babies, you know, they live and die by me. They would follow me to the ends of the earth and I am the center of their knee-high universe.
But about when my kids stop worshipping me? What about when they wake up and realize that beyond being imperfect, I have actively been screwing them up for decades?

It’s probably going to take my kids a long time to see me and their dad through the open truth of adulthood. They will adore us for years to come, copying our every steps and voicing our opinions like they are their own, reenacting our way of life because, just like every kid, they will believe it is the only way of life. It’s scary, isn’t it, that kids believe and trust their parents so willingly? We are their first mirror. They seem themselves through our vision, they see the world through our lenses, they believe what they believe because we say it so.

And yeah, YES, that is unsettling.
Because I know me.
I know what they will eventually find out about me, I can count to the stars and back all the ways that I fear letting them down, those gaps in my parenting and my person hood, and it is deeply terrifying.

Parents make enormous mistakes. Parents hurt their kids. They try and they fail to be everything their own parents were not and they try and they fail to be the one family who doesn’t screw everything up.

And you know what? You might do a really good job of that for awhile. You might do your best and things will be fine but let me tell you! Let me tell you. The day will come. Problems will arise. It will all hit the proverbial fan and it. will. stink.

However.

The good news.

The news I carry around for safe keeping.

It is in my mistakes that God shines through. It is in the gaps that the God-light of true and perfect love has room to break through and warm my kids’ hearts, melt away those ugly parts of them that I can’t reach or even begin to understand. That is a God job. And He will use my mistakes to do it. Just like that feeling of safety in the dark and that wonder in their eyes when my babies know I am near, that is a whisper to them of the safety and wonder in their true Father’s arms. It’s both things, you guys. We know goodness through our parents and we know failure through our parents, and both are so important to our growth.

This is why God puts us in families.
Why He gives us parents, I think.
To see His goodness in their goodness. 
And His completion in their faults.  

The failures of me as a mother reveal my lacking. My defects. And I hope- I pray- that the lack will send them hunting. Send my kids to search for something better. Something that fulfills them and knows them more than even I could dream.
Someone without defect. Someone with perfect love.

May any goodness in me point you towards heaven, babies.
And may my mistakes do the same.

This is how you grieve.

Start with an empty room.

Open your arms, stretch them out in disbelief, tremble with a fear that cannot be breached, and gather your things. You’ll need some help, here, if you can find it. The room may be quite large, but also it could be impossibly

suffocating

shoulder-bending small.

If you find your sad self in this kind of a tiny room, stooped over, nagging kink in your neck, and fighting an eye spasm, hold someone’s hand and wait.

This room will grow.

Start with an empty room, and gather.

Drag in a table. Line it with dishes, or flowers, or scratched out angry letters, or bottles of booze, or chewed up plastic straws. Or nothing.

You need this table.
You need a surface.
You need a landing.
This may seem exhausting.

It will be exhausting.

Now find a lamp for your room. Maybe one with a dimmer switch? Because some days will be darker than others and you want to show the lamp that it is necessary and
yes, lamp, you are appreciated.

You may need more than one lamp. 

You will find all of this aggravating.

Pull an area rug to your room. Not wall-to-wall coverage, you need some distance between you and the floor and the walls and the oxygen. Your rug fibers ought to cushion your knees:

In prayer. In pleading. In the frenzy of your wild anger. In the quiet of your stuttered breaths.

Make sure it’s thick. 

Unfurl the rug, strand by strand, and feel the weight in the room.
Feel the world beneath your feet, ok?

Imperative: couch. bed. chair. instruments of quiet, feather-filled stops.

Your couch will be important.

Trust me on that.

For the sake of your tired body, trust me on that.
For the sake of aching ribs.
For the sake of solemn skin, stretched too far across hungry cheeks and dry lips.
For the sake of empty elbow crooks.
For the sake of wilted eyebrows.
For the sake of drowsy blood flow and cramping fists.

For the new iron casing around your chest and fingers,
the weight in your bone marrow that you cannot lift or shake or lose.

Please wearily accept the gift of respite:
when you sleep without dreams,
when your baby wakens and calls your name,
when the sun shines hot through your car window,
when you remember how to spice your spaghetti,
when hope pokes a tiny sprig in your direction,

Rest.
Find your couch,
Stretch across your bed,
and rest.

Live in your room.
As long as you need, stay in your room.

Welcome in guests, if the room will hold them. 

Explore it. Scrape the floor, crawl the corners, examine the bumps in the walls and the cracks in the ceiling. Trace every inch.
Fill a vase or a hundred old bathtubs with your tears.

The dead do not mean well. They come, they go, they leave us behind to tread the deep murky waters of in absentia. Heaven may hold them, but earth holds us, tether bound to the grocery store and decisions for tomorrow, which is terribly unfair when our hearts have recently begun a slow descent into our guts. Who needs grapes and milk at a time like this?

This is how you grieve. 

Start with an empty room.
Gather your things.
Settle in.
Move about.
Rest.
Rage.
Wonder.
‘Til you are left with one wooden chair.
Send the rug to the cleaners.
Haul the couch to the curb.
Stack your dishes and tidy your angry letters,
water your flowers and give them away.
Sit in the wooden chair.
Remember the room when it was crowded with sorrow.
And when you are ready,
And you’ll know when you are ready,

 

 

 

 

leave.