My son is a profuse little human. He has always been this way. He’s got a triple dose of personality in his teeny, tiny seven-year-old body. For example, this was his response to a plastic plate he got for his third birthday…
And these are the kinds of notes that my husband and I receive on a daily basis:
The funny thing about this kid is that he is obsessed with his quiet, introvert dad, but he is exactly like me–his spazzy, extroverted mom. (Don’t tell him that, though, or he may devolve into tears, arguing emphatically that he is “exactly like him”).
I woke up yesterday (Valentine’s Day) to him coming into my room to get the space heater to bring into the bathroom. I queried why he need it. He responded matter-of-factly, “I’ve got to shave for Christmas Eve, today.” I said, “You mean Valentine’s Day?” He nodded and shuffled off to the bathroom, heater and fake razor in tow.
This little guy has taught us all about love. He’s easy to love most of the time (although his sisters can give evidence otherwise). He loves others profusely, and he’s not afraid to show it.
This Valentine’s Day, he made each of us, sisters included, this little valentine–a paper heart wrapped in a ribbon and tied with yarn.
His love is simple but big. It reminds me of this song. It also reminds me of wise words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I have decided to stick with love because hate is too big of a burden to bear.”
Mostly, it reminds me of how important love is. So important, that some of Jesus’ final words to his disciples were, “They will know you are my disciples by your love.” (John 13:35).
In our teeny, tiny lives, may we show the big love of Jesus.
Here’s how my conversations with Hannah and Miriam go: One of them says something—maybe mentions something she’s read–and I say Funny you should say that because I’ve been thinking about that same thing. One thing leads to another, and all of our thoughts seem to connect, and so it has been for the past 40 years. My relationship with these women feels so easy.
Hannah lives in another state, but we stay in intellectual cahoots at all times. Today, she sent me this article about Abraham Lincoln. The article recounts Lincoln’s response to losing his son, Willie. In the article, John Piper marvels at “how personal and national suffering drew Lincoln into the reality of God, rather than pushing him away.”
Last Sunday, unbeknownst to Hannah, I talked to my Sunday school class about a similar idea. I mentioned how I experience my love of God to be such a miracle—especially the fact that I lean into Him for comfort when I am suffering. Before I became a Christian, I put God on trial in my heart for all the suffering He allowed. Crimes against humanity! Now, suffering drives me to Him and reminds me that He is the source of all my comfort and joy. The truth of His goodness covers (although does not answer) my questions about pain. It’s a miracle.
Years ago, I lost my fourth baby when I was 19 weeks pregnant. At the time, my grief nearly swallowed me. I was due to give birth in February, so our child would’ve been 13 this month. I told my Sunday school class about this loss, and I mentioned that I found comfort knowing that God called my baby’s life a blessing, and He called his death a curse. I agreed with Him—the baby’s death was a curse. The Lord has pressed me to Him and kept me loving Him all these years since that terrible season. February is an anniversary of His faithfulness to me.
Piper ends the devotional by saying, “I pray for all of you who suffer loss and injury and great sorrow that it will awaken for you, as it did for Lincoln, not an empty fatalism, but a deeper reliance on the infinite wisdom and love of God’s inscrutable providence.”
I am praying the same thing for one of my daughters who is sensitive to the horrors of this world. She’s a lot like me. Sometimes I worry that her love of God will grow cold as she tallies up the suffering in this world. I’m afraid she’ll grow suspicious of His goodness like I did for awhile.
Last night, she came to my bedroom, and her eyes were red. She asked me to read a paper she’d written about factory farm conditions for her Comp class. I did not want to read it. I already know how bad factory farm conditions are, and I didn’t want to think about animals suffering. Often I walk wide arcs around sad realities to protect myself, especially when I believe my efforts won’t make a dent in the problem.
She said, “I know that if I stop eating meat and dairy, I won’t really help any animals because the world is too broken. The problem is too big, and it will never get fixed until the New Earth. Also, people are suffering even more, and I can’t fix those problems either. Everything about this world is ruined.”
I nodded. We don’t play games around here.
But then she said, “But I want to stop participating in the suffering. I know God cares how we treat animals.” I nodded at that, too. God calls cruelty a curse, and I agree with Him. I know how comforting it is to agree with Him, and I want my 15 year old to experience this. I want her suffering to draw her into the reality of God like Lincoln’s did.
We have these teeny, tiny lives. We give what we’ve got to God, and He loaves-and-fishes-it, as Miriam says.
So we’re trying to avoid factory farm meat and dairy, and I’ve got to be honest–this is hard. It was not my intention to eat less cheese and ice cream during the longest, shortest month.
Girls, sometimes the most valuable thing I can say is, I heard this wonderful song or, you’ve got to read this (as you well know). So today I’m digging into my mental fridge and pulling out the leftovers that have only gotten yummier sitting in their own juices–because February’s hard. We need some comfort (brain)food, plus, maybe some real food.
By the way, have you forgotten how delicious sauerkraut out of a can is?
This song because you know how we feel about a man’s man who’s also in touch with his feelings. Listen and float back to middle school like that little feather in Forrest Gump.
And this because you can’t really get hurt pressing on a bruise, and because I can’t stop thinking about Gran.
And this one because I miss India so much sometimes.
This because we always suspected The Talented Mr. Ripley was real. (Prepare yourself for a couple of wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap words).
This because we love a little confirmation bias around here.
And this because I wish Karen Swallow Prior was my beloved mentor-aunt. I mean, she IS that. I just wish she knew it.
This (with your daughters and with plenty of discussion).
I teach 8th graders how to write. We spend a few minutes at the beginning of every class learning about literary devices and how they add meaning to writing. Last week, we talked about paradoxes.
I ended up using some Jesus quotes for examples, because every other thing he said was a paradox. Since the kingdom of God runs so contrary to human expectations, it makes sense that Jesus would resort to paradoxes to help us get our heads around it.
The meek will inherit the earth.
The last will be first.
I’m attracted to paradoxical scenarios. For instance, I loved the show Foyle’s War and how it explored the question, “What is murder in wartime?”
The other day at the gym, I got on the treadmill beside a very old woman. She was wearing elastic-waist jeans and a tucked-in T-shirt. She was like a featherless bird with purple and brown marbled skin. She couldn’t stand up straight, but she was running. Paradox! It made me cry. I blurted out, “You’re doing it!” and she pumped a little bird claw fist in the air.
I turn 40 this coming fall, and I’ve been scoping out fall marathons as part of my celebration. I started running marathons when I was 35, and this will be my 5thone. I came to marathoning late, but I’ve been running for many years. I am not a particularly talented runner, but I’m dedicated. For this reason, I snagged a first marathon time that I believe is close to my potential.
I want to keep running marathons as I get older, but I’m not going to be a better runner at 45 than I was at 35. I routinely dismay my children by reminding them that we are all marching to our graves, and we make progress toward the destination every day. But it’s true. The story for this body of mine is not going to end well. I’m not panicking, because I’ll get a new one, but this reality leaves me musing about my goals as a runner: What is progress in this body of death?
I know what progress isn’t. I was listening to an old episode of This American Life when Ira Glass interviewed Lindy West about her book, Shrill. I haven’t read the book, but it recounts West’s coming to terms with her body. In the interview, she talked about how the only way to be taken seriously as an overweight woman is to pretend that you’re fighting your body and “consistently failing for your whole life.” West reveals a paradox, except this one distorts reality rather than redeems it. The world will be okay with our imperfect and decaying bodies as long as we aren’t.
Once in a while, someone writes something on the Internet that makes me want to stand up and shout, Yes! See? I knew it! (It helps when the author of the article is an incisive thinker and one for whom I’ve written in the past).
In her piece in Christianity Today, Michel posits that all of our technology may be doing us more harm than good. She’s not talking about the dangers of too much blue light or the ubiquity of the ugly comments section. She’s concerned that our gadgets are making it easier for us to live disembodied lives.
Before we get too judge-y about the young folks, those of us in Mom Mode can now cook pot roasts or clean our living room floors from our office cubicles, all with the push of a button. When we’re actually at home, we can research topics or listen to music without even going to that trouble (Alexa, what is Gnosticism?) We have clothes and groceries delivered to our houses instead of shopping. We listen to audiobooks instead of turning a paper page.
Michel points out that all of this ease–this not using our physical bodies to do things for people and ourselves–makes us more likely to “conserve” our energy even further, to withhold our physical selves from those who need us. In short, it makes us want to become brains in jars.
Lord, how I feel it in my own self. As raising my kids has begun to require less physical work, I’ve become more and more content to retreat into a sedentary mind-life while existing in the same room with them. Since I have Netflix on my laptop, I don’t care about going to the movies with friends. Because I send text messages, I no longer feel the pull to meet at a coffee shop.
Gadgets that promise more free time and less bother seduce us into believing we don’t have to show up in our own lives. Flesh and blood isn’t necessary as long as we have the approximation of pixels.
I can be a real navel gazer. My fascination with introspection and figuring out what’s going on is what makes me successful as a therapist. It also makes my husband one lucky man (just kidding, babe. I promise we are almost done talking. I just have 6,000 more words to use up, even though I know that you’re falling asleep because you’re twitching in that narcoleptic way that you do, and no matter how many times you tell me you aren’t falling asleep, I don’t believe you because I felt the twitch. And yes, I know that I’m breaking the rules because I’m talking psychobabble in bed, but just one more thing).
I listened to a podcast recently—which happens to be fantastic–called The Place We Find Ourselves (I should seriously get royalties for this and the Bible for how often I reference them in my everyday life). The guy was talking about implicit memories and how much they affect the way we respond to situations. While explicit memories are the ones we remember, implicit memories are elusive. Our minds don’t remember them, but our bodies do.
Because our bodies remember them, we often react in surprising ways when the memories are tripped. We may respond with an emotional intensity that doesn’t seem to make sense given the situation, and we don’t know why.
Well, you can imagine that, to a girl who loves a good mystery like the shroud of Turin, or stigmata, or the Masons, or Ripley’s Believe It or Not (except not that last one because those people are c-r-e-e-p-y), this idea is both alluring and terrifying.
As a therapist, I know the human mind and heart are incredibly complex (I didn’t need LSD to figure that out, Mr. Leary), and it makes sense that we would have these extraordinary things called implicit memories. Honestly, though, I feel threatened by them because I feel pressure to figure out what mine are, where they come from, and how to control them. And then I spiral into all kinds of fear that usually ends with how I’m probably ruining my kids somehow.
Anyway, as I was listening to this podcast and feeling interested and enlightened, but also terrified, John 15:5 came to my mind.
(Like every good Christian who makes New Year’s resolutions, I’m going through the Bible in a year, except I gave myself 5 years to do it–finally a victory!–and I’m currently camped in Numbers and John).
Sometimes I listen to Scripture with an app called Streetlights, which I highly recommend. Something about the rhythm of the narrator’s voice and the background beatboxing made this one thing Jesus said stand out:
“Apart from the Father, I can do nothing.”
And I thought, man, if Jesus can do nothing apart from the Father, than I certainly can’t.
It led me to pray about my implicit memories and the body shifts I notice occurring. I can’t make sense of these, but the Father can. The darkness is light to Him, and before Him our hearts are laid bare.
And then I felt confident and at peace. I am limited. I can only do my teeny tiny part (like noticing my responses and body sensations), but the Lord can do the heavy lifting of providing insight, empowering change, and bringing healing.
This is almost always where I end up–navel gazing, becoming aware, feeling overwhelmed and afraid, and then handing it over to the Lord.
Two Januarys ago, my middle daughter underwent surgery to correct her spine, which had begun to collapse. She and I are getting ready to sojourn up to Philadelphia for a checkup with her neurosurgeon to see if the surgery is still working. Every time we get ready to go, I discover with surprise that I’m still grieving my daughter’s deformity. I’m not over it. My heart has regrown a shiny, thin skin, but it hasn’t really healed. (Nobody touch it, please).
My daughter experienced a sudden and aggressive onset of scoliosis when she was 12. Despite spending 20 hours a day in a rigid plastic brace, her spine continued to twist like a coil of DNA. Our local orthopedic surgeon told us her spine was a “lost cause.” She would need spinal fusion.
Some people get their spines fused, and they go on to lead normal lives. My daughter’s situation was different, because she also had constitutional growth delay. Although all of her growth hormone markers were normal, she was growing more slowly than usual. This meant that she would not finish growing until she was 16 or older. No big deal, except spinal fusion halts the growth of the spine in the fused section, so it needs to happen when patients are closer to skeletal maturity. My daughter would spend all or most of her teens in a brace while her spine continued to freak out.
When we got her diagnosis, I read the entire Internet about scoliosis, spinal fusion, and alternative therapies. I subscribed to medical journals which were full of studies I couldn’t interpret but read anyway. I joined a million scoliosis Facebook groups and message boards and read every post. I stalked a famous brace-maker in D.C. who had an almost mystical reputation for getting the unruliest of spines to shape up. He couldn’t help us. I stopped communicating with all of my friends, because my brain was too busy collecting information to listen to them talk. I withdrew from my family, remaining bodily present but mentally absent. My daughter resented me for turning every hug into a “scoliosis check”—I’d wrap my arms around her but then run my fingers up and down her spine like a toy train on a track. I even started waking up in the night to sneak-research so my husband wouldn’t catch me googling pictures of children with advanced scoliosis whose bodies curl in on themselves.
I was hoping I’d stumble upon some kind of information that would give me the power to fix the problem. I fantasized about cloning myself so that Rachel #1 could research 24/7 and Rachel #2 could go back to taking care of her people. I also needed Rachel #3 to go to medical school and become a neurosurgeon so that she could help Rachel #1 evaluate the information she read. Maybe then, Rachel #4 could go crawl into a hole and grieve without hurting others in the process.
Talk about earthly limitations. I didn’t actually want God’s help; I wanted to be God. Eve’s got nothing on me—I’m sure if given the chance I would’ve binged on the forbidden fruit until I was rolling on the garden floor. Give me all the Knowledge. Let me do it myself. Nobody loves her like I do. Did God really say…?
I did end up finding out about a surgical alternative to spinal fusion. A world famous neurosurgeon out of Philadelphia had pioneered a therapy called vertebral tethering which is a motion-sparing procedure that modulates growing spines through the use of pedicle screws and a flexible tether. It was experimental but had some promising results.
We ended up snagging a consultation with this surgeon, and he concluded that our daughter was a good candidate for vertebral tethering. She had the surgery in January, 2017. It’s kind of a wait-and-see thing to see if she will require more surgical intervention in the future. I’m glad we found an alternative to fusion for now, but none of the information I collected over the past few years has given me any peace, turns out. I still don’t know if my girl will be okay in the ways I want her to be okay. The best I could give her was not very good. I do know that the Lord will work all things for her good and that she will spend eternity with him in heaven. I know that he has stored every tear she’s cried in a bottle.
Here’s what I know two years out: God uses those shiny, thin, grown-over places in my heart to show me the truth about myself and himself. Maybe that’s why they don’t heal.