No Light, No Grace

When I began this blog and considered the title, it seemed fitting to establish my roots in faith. I sought examples of God’s light and wanted to document experiences of grace as I journeyed through each day. But what now, when darkness seems to close in unexpectedly, when grief overcomes my ability to see or trust the Light? Certainly I have been shown grace as my emotions rule, as tears flow in the midst of everyday conversations or when I appear hardened and aloof, trying desperately not to feel in order to complete tasks. Truthfully though, I have discovered during this mourning time that I don’t find the light to be bright enough,  the grace I once knew was from God is little comfort. Marooned, angry, unable even to recognize a thirst for healing waters, I realize I have lost my ability to write as well.

What was comfort, a means to express what I often couldn’t say out loud, now feels like whining and moaning and pointless. Shall I say each day that I am sad? Shall I list all the ways I have displayed my anger? Who really wants to read such depressing drivel? How can I find my way back as a light-seeker when I am distrustful of the rays that break through, knowing the night is coming again, the inky blackness that mutes colors and turns all who move around me into shadows? Eleven years I was faithful in praying to a God, asking fervently for the prayers of others who seemed more deeply faithful, that my son would be given a way out of his addiction, that he would be safe and redeemed and restored. A pastor told me once, through the darker times, that my Arrow was working on his testimony, that one day he would share his witness. Taking this as a promise from one who had the inside track to God, I just knew Arrow would stand in church one day and thank everyone for coming alongside him in prayer, for propping up his family and caring for his child He would say he was now a believer and committed to a different life. I held this as a promise even when he was homeless and filthy, even when he was missing and the police were searching for him. I trusted this plan when he was in danger in prison and when he attempted suicide. I trusted God with my child, yet God took him anyway.

Tricked, I feel tricked. I search for a way back to God, a reason to go back to God. I still beg him to protect my daughter, to keep my husband safe, to watch over my grandchildren but I know He may not be listening to me. After all, why hasn’t He restored my daughter to us? Why is life often complicated and difficult with Plum’s mom? When is it going to go our way, when? Yes, we have a safe home and food in our fridge, we are mostly able to pay all the bills and our health allows us to participate in our church ministries. Still my deepest yearnings, my fervent prayers lay at the altar, abandoned neglected shriveled. I want the easy joys of restoration and relationship and celebrations, when do I get my share, my payback for the mistake of taking my son? Kubler Ross might notice I am angry and bargaining and oh so far from acceptance.

I listen as others who are mourning or have grown in their grief talk about the assurance of a better place for their lost loves, knowing I am rejecting their faith, rejecting the idea that the timing was God’s intention. How can I believe that Arrow was supposed to die alone in his kitchen with drugs coursing through his body, destroying the chance of listening to his children laugh and walk and run and play football? What sense does that make? How can I not feel rejected by the One I have followed, to give me this child only to rip him from our lives?  No, writing does make me feel better, see truths I may have missed. I can only rant and scream out with the ragged voice of one who has suffered a wound so catastrophic that wholeness will never be possible.

I am sad. Everyday I am sad. Every minute I ache and I search for answers that won’t come. Acceptance of this loss and of a new relationship with the One who pulls the strings seem far off, out of reach to a mother who just wants to hear her son laugh again.

The Long Game

A whirlwind weekend is coming to a close, today will be just as busy and yet the string of holy moments deserve to be considered each on their own. A vision begun over a year ago for a ministry pursuing restorative justice culminated in a 13 hour training with 25 folks who are interested in exploring mentoring relationships with those returning to the community after incarceration, those who are on supervision with the probation department. Each step of the wondering, wishing, planning, researching came together as we learned from a man who traveled from Vermont to help us establish the structure and resources and boundaries to take the next steps. His evidence-based approach has proven results and his wisdom was astounding. He gave to us freely, he challenged us deeply, he gave us much more than his presence for the 4 days we have spent with him. While I celebrate him, I am also in awe of those who chose to participate, those who supported us by providing meals and cleaning up the kitchen. The broad base of encouragement we have received allowed us to be fully present, to not miss a word.

I thought originally I was moved to be involved in this project after reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, a book which spoke to my social work heart. After developing a relationship with the men and women at the local probation department, later interviewing my own officer from almost 30 years ago, I thought I was doing this for my own healing. I even considered I was doing this because I had lost my son after 4 years of his own incarceration, it was 3 years ago today that we picked him up from prison to bring him home quickly and then on to his half-way house before he could finally return completely to our nest. I thought I wanted to be involved in this ministry to provide what my son lacked, a circle of support and accountability that would ensure a greater chance of success. I am motivated to save another mother’s child, even while I mourn the death of my own. Or maybe it was the echoes of the voices of women I left behind in prison, those who begged me not to forget them, to do something, anything to make their lives better. Each step along this journey has proven that my deep involvement with the ministry is personal, is healing to me as well, even as I see how it is already touching the lives of others.

We watched d a documentary of the Vermont program in action, we listened to the stories of  folks who are the core members of these circles as their lives post-incarceration unfolded.  Ugly resentment and jealously rose up in me as I desperately wished we had started this program 3 years ago so my son could benefit even as I watched a young man battle with his addiction and eventually return to prison. I became so invested in his success that when he fell, I was heartbroken again, tears too numerous to discretely swipe away covering my cheeks. And yet, and yet, there is hope.

Hope in the questions and searchings of those who attended the training. Hope in the commitment of those who filled out paperwork to come along side those struggling in our community. Hope in leaving where we are comfortable to step into an unknown, a place with no guarantees of big joys or happy rewards. I found hope and healing being in the presence of a community that is willing to see addiction and violence and manipulative behavior and then look deeper. I found the washing away of stigma as the flood waters of mercy and acceptance flowed around the room and my heart broke some more but in the best possible way.

I cannot not see the timing in this all, the fact that the grief group I agreed to attend begins tonight, an expected circle of my own of support and accountability, a place to look at my aching heart and my lost dreams and find comfort. I cannot not see the lights above the stairways at every entrance to the courthouse, small circles of light that shine on everyone who passes through the doors, lights that were shown to us at our very first meeting with probation, something you have to look for, that are missed everyday and yet they are unmoving, they are constant. I can see God deeply present in all we are doing, reminders of His love and unrelenting pursuance of our souls, of mine.

While I am filling my days with activity, pulling on stands of connection in order to avoid the overwhelming sadness that surrounds me, maybe I could be accused of avoidance, of not facing the loss and grief and devastation head on. I certainly point that finger at myself often enough. This weekend though, all the days and weeks preceding, meetings and copies and emails and planning, have kept me returning to the church, kept me within my safe circle where I can be vulnerable and authentic and still contribute to something bigger than the hole in my heart. That very willingness, that draw to connect, to accept the grace that is freely offered to me, I know I am merely riding on the backs of those who have stronger faith, deeper spirituality, less doubt. And that is okay. We all need to be carried sometimes, we all reach out, we lift others along the way too, if we are truly committed to this Jesusy thing. In the midst of all that is wrong and broken, I am borrowing the hope of others, the joys in possibilities, the new beginnings and the shared  pain of endings.

I see you God, I see what you are doing in placing those who deserve my trust right in my path, knowing that one day I might just extend that trust to you. The long game, where ultimately I offer up my entire life and heart to you, I see it. Today I can give the pieces that reflect your light, ever crowding out the darkness that once controlled my choices. This day I will rejoice a bit and be glad of new ministries and circles of support and accountability and maybe find some rest.

 

 

Sweet Discoveries

I noticed the special bags of candy already appearing in the grocery store as I ambled along, I resisted at the first pass but gave in to another display. Bags of bite-sized chocolates, sweets that curb cravings without the guilt of full bars. Hiding this treasure in my office where mostly no one goes, I thought they were safe, that I could dole them out slowly and gingerly to the child, to my hubby. Instead, my Plum chose that weekend to explore my get-away, he loves the rolling chair and the bowls and baskets of gran’s specials. He found the candy, a pile of wrappers on my desk shouted tiny portions be damned. Aside from the issue of him not cleaning up after himself, I know now that the candy was leading me to a sweeter discovery, equally unhealthy if I over-indulge.

An old flash drive filled with pictures and videos, a remnant of an older laptop wiped of important content, lay forgotten in a clay pot my mother made many years ago. When Arrow died and I sought pictures to no avail, knowing I had them somewhere but my scattered thoughts and shocked soul couldn’t formulate where to look.  Swooshing silvery packages into the trash, my eye finally noticed the equally tiny drive that held the memories I sought for 8 months. Once it was attached to my Mac, thousands of images greeted me, luring me into high school, to days before Plum was born, to Stella and her cats and her new car and Sunday dinners with her friends each week of her early college career. Scanning, clicking, devouring the photos like my Plum surely indulged in the 3 Musketeers and Twix bars, I couldn’t stop. Then I found the videos.

Stella holding Plum, gently moving on the porch swing while Arrow blows bubbles, the delighted giggles of my Plum as he watches his father’s face and the resulting laughter of both my children. It is all there. Off-screen, separate from the joy of the moment but recording it unaware that the day would come when hearing that voice, watching that face would mesmerize me. Stella and Arrow, united in bringing joy to the child they both loved first, fiercely. Here in the sanctuary of my porch while they focused on the baby, I recorded my son engaging with his. I can’t stop watching.

I am seeking a new hiding place for the candy jar, somewhere out of reach of my Plum. I wonder if I need to do the same with this flash drive, I have that sick feeling in my stomach that comes from too much sugar. I watch, I get lost in memories, I reject the knowledge that my Arrow, so big and funny and full of life, will never appear in another video, that he will never elicit giggles from his children again. All motivation, the forward movement, the busyness that has kept me rising each day has disappeared, replaced by the sugar low of watching the scene unfold over and over and over. Layers of my denial litter the table where my laptop rests, a trail of tears as messy as the evidence of Plum’s binge.

Was I supposed to find this treasure trove of memories right now? Can I believe that the Holy Spirit led me to by bags of candy and stash them exactly right there? How much of a reach is it to think God believes I am strong enough right now to revisit those days and not get lost? Seeking affirmation that I can do these hard things, magical thinking that assigns power outside of me, I know that if I don’t hide that jar, Plum too will sneak more and I will stay in that day 7 years ago when joy abounded.

Tomorrow I will move the candy and hide the flash drive, maybe. Knowing they both exists though, Plum will search and I will sneak. That moment when the chocolate coats his tongue, bliss. That moment when I see my smiling son, ecstasy.  Pretending we won’t feel sick afterwards, ignoring the warnings that scream for moderation, he slides into my office, I click the play arrow again. Tomorrow, tomorrow we will regain self-control.

 

Becoming

Ruminating on “do-overs”, losing myself in fantasies of going back and saying something different, going left instead of right, listening more with wisdom and compassion instead of responding out of fear, finding my voice and trusting others when I most desperately needed help, all just day dreams that do not change any outcomes or build any bridges. Introspection though seems to drive my current reactions, when I realize I am in the midst of a potential disaster and the choices are once again before me, I like to think I listen to the nudges to avoid adding to my mental list of life-changing blunders. What would I say instead, say that now. Rather than leave a moment of confusion to fester and grow into discontent, I check in, clear up, try again right in the moment. I move forward and into relationship, trying not to add more fodder for wishful-thinking fix-it sessions. Yes, I have regrets and baggage but I am not adding weight and worries to the load I already carry. But what happens if I am given the chance to re-visit, to close a circle, to display the person I am trying hard to be? I quite unexpectedly (really, would I have taken this opportunity if I had more time, if it had been planned out?) found out this week.

My church has delved into social justice ministry over the course of the last year, plus. Slowly, carefully, we have been exposed to authors and issues as they intersect with our faith and gently lead into a journey of restoration for our brothers and sisters within the criminal justice system and those who are living within addiction. A partnership with our local probation department provided the bridge into the community, into relationships that seek more for those who are marginalized, those outside of our predominately white, upper-middle class, highly educated congregation. I have been all in with this ministry, actively pursuing ways to have meaningful impact on the lives of those who visit the probation office and on those who wish to know more and be better. As the partnership solidified, I knew I had to tell me story, own up to my history with the folks behind the desks in the courthouse. I could no longer merely appear as a well meaning white lady, I couldn’t try to pass as someone with no insider information on the process and the experience.

Anxiously, fearing that all I had helped to build would denied me, that I would be judged and sentenced to life outside of the very ministry that was calling me forward, I took off the mask and bared my identity. The immediate reactions from the probation department contacts was overwhelming, they thanked me, they said I was brave, they saw no need to exclude me and thought my history even brought a richness. Then we moved on. I wasn’t prepared for the acceptance, I had all my evidence to convince them that I was still worthy and they needed none. So simple and yet life changing. I did not know I was being prepared for a larger revisiting, a closing of a circle.

Our ministry team dreamed up a crazy idea, we wanted to make a quick video interviewing the probation officers to show to our larger church. Something that could take months of planning was conceived, completed and delivered within a 2 weeks, most of the time spent coordinating schedules. Sitting in my pastor’s office as the vision for the project was forming before us, some voice that must belong to my braver self, volunteered to do the interview. Leaping out of my comfortable back seat where tasks can be completed and no one sees me, I agreed to be on camera… inside the probation department, without the support and buffer of my pastor. Another member offered up her teenaged daughter to do the filming, someone I had never met. We were going way out on the limb but still, my established relationship with the two probation officers surely would allow for safety.

The project unfolded quickly, dates were volleyed back and forth and then finally a phone call from our main contact, “We can do it because JH, a longtime probation officer has agreed to be interviewed tomorrow.” My brave voice said yes, I hit the red button to disconnect the call and then the magnitude of what I had just set up hit me. Questions flooded my mind, should I call back and say no? Should I contact the pastor and seek someone else to go? Should I say quiet with this man, keep my mask on? I had 24 hours to wrestle and worry and wring my hands. Ultimately I listened to the nudge that said move forward, that said you can do hard things, you can be who you are today with those who once knew you. You see, JH was MY probation officer almost 30 years ago.

I was given the chance for a do-over, an opportunity to say thank you to the man who could have been harsh and judgmental and terrible but chose to be kind and helpful and support my efforts to reintegrate after prison. As the greetings and chair arranging and camera adjusting came to an end and the real interview began, I asked him how long he had been with the department. After he shared his history, I shared mine. I told him I actually knew he had been there a long time, because he was my probation office. Did his attitude change, did he put me into a different category than church lady with a mission? He broke out in a huge smile, he said I looked familiar but my name didn’t ring a bell. Mask fully demolished, I told him my name when he knew me, he remembered me, pertinent details, and said he recognized the smile if not the hair. He allowed me to sit before him, the person I am today, offering respect and dignity to a woman so shamed by the past that years and years of life have been wasted. He honored my wholeness by not giving too much weight to the broken parts. He participated in my healing.

Daring to be authentic, striving to own our mistakes and each day seeking restoration is risky stuff.  I will never be able to undo all the bad or unsay all the hurtful words, despite my day dreams and wishful thinking. Exhausting and scary as the journey may be, as contrary as it may seem to find the space in a probation office to be holy ground, the truth is that I was never alone or abandoned in that room, it was not a solitary wandering on the path to reconciling different parts of my life. God desires to restore me into right relationships and wants me to shed shame and self-incrimination and I know He wants that for you too.  I pray we all can find moments to revisit who we were and offer a view of who we are and allow God to continue to bring our best selves forward into the world. I pray that when someone around trusts us with their true selves, we commit to showing compassion and offering a cold drink. Let us take off our masks and celebrate who we are today, who we are becoming. Let us abandon our day dreams and do the work before us, finding pieces of grace that heal and patches of light that warm us and lead us on.

 

 

Why I Forgave the Dog Who Bit Me

I tell everyone it was my fault but really the dog had a choice. Sure, I shouldn’t have feed the visiting dog at the same time as my own beasts, I should have realized this other dog didn’t see me as a pack member. I forgot that often one can be perceived as a threat even when intentions are honorable. The dog (not one of our beasts) bit me, leaving me with 6 stitches and a thumb that aches a month later. Still, the fight was a choice and the aggression was unnecessary.

I immediately recognized my mistake, I took the dog’s side, looking out from her perspective even as blood soaked the towel and dropped onto the floor. I understand fear and protectiveness and poor impulse control. I too have bitten when I should have backed off. I know I have caused rips and tears and bloodied up those who merely want to come near. Forgiving the dog was easy, forgetting is harder. I’m leery, a bit anxious when I am around her. When you discover the harm one is capable off, do you ever truly let down your guard? So it is with relationships I long for, can I ever ask them to forget harsh words when the ache surely reminds them I have teeth and may let instincts rule sense when I feel threatened?

I keep visiting the dog, I pursue relationship. Respect and awareness are heightened as we move forward. I choose not to let fear and distrust destroy either of us. To those who have felt bitten by my responses to perceived danger, I ask, “Can you see for even a moment how situations looked through my eyes?” It isn’t in my nature to toss our harsh words, to hurl judgements and leave scars, yet I did just that. During the first few days of learning my son died, I drew boundaries around my pack, I snapped and growled and said things I so wish I could take back.  My objectivity was non-existent, my assessments faulty, just as the dog who bit me. She sensed danger from those around and a fight ensued. How can I not forgive this canine and accept my role in it, I have been her?

The truth is that this dog is kind and loving and gentle. I approach her slowly, I allow her to sniff around, I am working on regaining her trust. I pet her with my other hand, the wound barely healed, often throbbing and reminding me that relationships are hard and rife with wrong moves and restarts. Determining that ignoring her or excluding her or avoiding all potential interactions is not workable for a member of the family, I move slowly and gently reach out to her.  She in turn cuddles and offers comfort. We offer grace, we are careful with each other and we allow each positive moment to blur our difficult past.

I pray that one day I will be offered the chance to show that I don’t normally bite, that I usually offer love and comfort to those around.

Selectively Mute

I keep wondering about the first word uttered by someone who is selectively mute. Imagining all the words unspoken, sounds and sentences swallowed and smashed within the soul, the pressure of holding it all in, finally some phrase escapes, repaving the path for those that follow. The trust involved in sharing that first vocalization, or is it anger  pushing it up and out? When I received my son’s death certificate, I stopped writing. I wanted to scream and rant and point fingers and hurl insults at God and all who enabled my child’s drug use. What could only be the Holy Spirit guiding me, I chose to go mute, lasting now for over three months. I didn’t ask for guest writers to fill the pages of my blog, I didn’t warn anyone that I was taking a break like I did after suffering the second concussion. I just stopped, a bad move when numbers of followers is the measure of meaningfulness to writers of blogs. I became mute.

The words wouldn’t come at first, too deep was my sorrow and too personal was my pain. Words that once were my catharsis now were treasures to be shared sparingly with only a close circle. Requiring absolute trust meant my utterances were heard by only a few, tentative whispers and long howling cries to sanctuary friends who accepted that I was sad, still sad, no end in sight to my sadness. My child died from heroin, fentanyl, speed and xanax. There, you know the truth I have carried for 3 months, a truth I suspected but secretly hoped was false. What if he really had died of some natural cause, how would that be better? Yet 11 years of fighting his addiction seemed wasted, the money, the energy, the hopes. Still, there was comfort in believing he most likely fell asleep, like we say of the elderly who go peacefully. I try to tell myself he wasn’t in pain as he lay in his kitchen, overdosed and alone. I know though the truth, that his life was painful and agonizing and miserable, his use confirms it. Addiction is a bitch, a horrid monster and he was consumed with it. Three months to speak this truth. Finally the pressure to hold the words in has become too great.

I watch friends and family and fellow worshipers watch me. They celebrate and congratulate me when I seem to be having a good day. “You look so good, it is great to see you smiling.” Meeting the expectations of those who prefer to hurry me along in this ugly grieving causes me to laugh and share a joy and put on clean clothes and shut the door to my anguish in public. I go silent. I don’t say that I showered only once that week or that as soon as I leave church or their company, I will collapse exhaustedly for another week. Pushing down sorrow is slave labor. There is no rest, no escaping the ache that is deep within my bones. There is no cure for an apathy that screams , “I just don’t care,” an act of rudeness that would hurt others, that allows for no return. I cannot trust myself to speak kindly, with compassion to others, I go silent. Remembering the anxiety during my first pregnancy, wondering what labor truly would feel like, would I be strong enough and would I embarrass myself by pooping on the hospital bed, I fretted and worried and dreaded, almost. Yet actual birth, the contractions as my body sought to expel the child within was fast and glorious and surely hurt like hell although I don’t remember so much. I do recall that my body took over, an engineering feat that could only be designed by the Master of all. Grieving is desperately trying to reverse that process, trying to hold tears in and push away thoughts and keep from shitting on friends. Silence is preferable, until the pressure is unbearable and the expectations be damned.

I have often wanted to write of joys, indescribable blessings that surprise me and bring a respite from the pain, like those moments when the monitor says you are in between contractions. I have wanted to write of my anger, the fury that sharpens my tongue and explodes from my body as I light another cigarette and throw the damn ball for the dog. I have wanted to write of the tiny moments of peace, of the disturbing dreams and the emptiness, but I went silent, knowing my thoughts were not fit to express in polite society and could cause harm to others. Selectively mute for three months, resisting the urge to wipe the dust away from my laptop, pushing pushing pushing the words back inside. Until now.  Until this day when I can safely say that I am sad, I am still sad. I can’t find the light and I have little grace to offer.

Choosing to break the silence has become an equal burden to maintaining my quiet. Progress? Please do not expect that.  Wisdom, I have none. Every breath counts when you are giving birth and when you are dying and when you are trying to remember that smoking is bad and pop tarts aren’t dinner. I am still trying to breathe, to bring air into this messy soul and shattered heart. I have broken my silence, though, if only to relieve a bit of the pressure within, if only to say that I am still here.

I Close The Curtains

Tugging the curtains across the windows, I tell myself it is for privacy. Kids racing on bikes, neighbors walking dogs, someone crossing the street to retrieve mail, I am in full view of any who wander by. My slumbering beasts are disrupted, my Netflix binge is interrupted, the sounds of life outside of my cave seep through inciting my anger. Bright sunlight fills the living room, an invitation to chop down last year’s stalks from plants sprouting anew and I close the curtains. The kids have grown, the elderly neighbor has slowed, a new family is exploring the street and I close the curtains on them all. Inside my home, in my heart winter prevails where mourning looks like thick blankets and heavy sweaters, short days and long nights.  I cannot bear to look at the daffodils that haven’t bloomed since the bulbs were stuck into the ground outside my front window over 10 years ago but now wave in the breeze with brilliant yellow petals, pretending there is hope.  Closing the curtains in determined rejection of change and new life and the joyful shouts of kids in last summer’s tee shirts, I sink further into the chair to escape into old episodes of ER where people are dying and crying and always there is someone who is saved.