redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)

story stones

“Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

 

…You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.”

–Naomi Shihab Nye—excerpted from “Kindness”

 

Tonight I witnessed something so beautiful that it called this poem to mind immediately. In this world we talk so much about the importance of choosing to be kind, but in this poem, Nye speaks to the interwoven relationship that empathy and kindness share.

Lately, I have been helping a dear friend facilitate a book study at her church. The book? Rachel Held Evans’InspiredThis book is a gorgeous testament to one woman’s struggle with the difficulties and questions she found in reading and understanding the Bible as a part of her faith life. Evans reveals through her vulnerability,  her creativity, and her honesty the mystery and frustration brought about in wrestling with faith. Yet she also carries her reader to the other side of the struggle in smart and sensitive ways. This book came to me when I needed it and sharing with others has been the greatest gift.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been working through a chapter on Deliverance Stories…stories of times in the wilderness…stories of struggle that end with physical, emotional, mental salvation…stories of striving to know ourselves all over again. In order to really dive into this material, we couldn’t convene in conversation about Evans’ text or about the Biblical texts she references. In order to truly realize the weight and depth of these stories, we needed to reveal the truth of our own time spent in the wilderness. We needed to be vulnerable and to trust each other. Our small community needed to believe that our stories would be cherished and held as sacred.

That kind of bond is tough to create 4 weeks into a once a week study.

Yet, somehow, it happened. Tonight, I watched the women of this group share their deliverance stories in an incredibly bold and courageously honest way. I sat in awe of their willingness to not simply narrate their stories loosely but to extend insight and emotion that allowed us to walk the path with them…into the dark and disorienting wilderness and then out to the other side. I walked away from that room not only knowing each member of this small group better, but knowing myself better too.

Stories have this effect, when we are available to listen and to be present, and when we are willing to share our own honestly with those around us…when we feel we can let others in. Shared lived experiences create a sense of empathy within us that allows us to live more deeply into our community, to keep kindness more readily available. We are more likely to live in love and act in kindness when we have access to the knowledge that there is always more to the story than what we think we see, what we think we know. We are more likely to be better humans to each other, to celebrate each other when we empathize rather than judge, when we lean in rather than walk away.

Tonight was a reminder…of the comfort that can be found in community, of the value of story, of the nuances and shades of kindness. And I will walk into tomorrow carrying the lessons of humility, empathy, and honesty that inspired that reminder.

(Day 6 Positivity Project)

flowers and a poem

 

Today I bring you flowers and a poem. Tulips, above, and also, “Tulips” by A.E. Stallings.

Tomorrow, my students will consider both during notebook time. The tulips pictured above will be present to more fully illuminate the imagery that Stallings calls forth. Except, I want my students to witness more than wordplay and careful poetic craft this time. I want them to notice more than structure and form. I want them to do more than consider their personal impressions of these friendly flowers and to do more than write a few original lines in their presence.

All of these events will occur, but my purpose is larger than the classroom. This intentionality isn’t new for me. The kids have come to expect it.

My hope is for an epiphany that will walk out the door with them…something beyond reading and writing. Lofty? Sure. Impossible? Nope. I want to edge them closer to realizing how much more brilliant the world becomes when we pause to consider not only the words in a poem (though that helps), but also the simplicity of the the beauty that surrounds us everyday. I want them to employ their curiosity as a citizen of a world that is full of natural and created enchantments…to remember what it is like to be struck with wonder in the presence of such gifts.

I kind of think we could all use a little more of that in our lives which is why my phone contains a profusion of pictures of beautiful skies.

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I am pretty sure my obsession with the sunset and cloud formations and rainbows and any other gift the sky chooses to bestow has exhausted my family (well, except for my youngest who has joined me in this endeavor). I am not deterred. The moments where I pause and take in this bit of grace extended to anyone willing to look up are moments of pure serenity; they are moments of poetry. And in these moments, there is an exchange that takes place that I am not sure how to put words to–a sort of gratitude, of silent adoration. Accepting this unearned gift, appreciating it, is so far removed from the cliched flowers we have all been instructed to stop and smell.

Look, the world is a busy place and we are killing ourselves to keep up, to do more, to be more. Don’t discount the fact that teenagers feel the same way. It is easy to lose ourselves in the rush; it is easy to lose our balance and our way. Stopping to see the world, to be of the world is grounding and at the same time allows us to transcend the drama of the day, the stress of the season. It is a reminder of all that we were created to be and to become…and sometimes that looks different than the life we are so furiously forming.

So tomorrow, we will pause and take in these beauties; we will enjoy A.E. Stallings’ poetry (always a gift); we will create in response. And maybe, they will walk out ready to do it all over again…on their own, for themselves.

(Day 3 “positivity project”)

inhale, exhale

Breath.

Invisible (well, for now anyway, it is still September and still, it seems, endlessly summer).

Invisible except in the rise and fall of the chest; except in the fatigued surrender of a sigh.

Invisible (for the healthy and the privileged) because it is easily ignored…a state of being, an elemental piece of existence. Mundane. Prosaic. A promise fulfilled that has become a promise expected and so the gratitude that might create awareness…

Dwindles.                   Subsides.                  Withers.

Invisible until we are gasping or labored or until the air around us runs rancid and it becomes hard to find clean air to fill us up to propel us forward to allow life

to swirl,                      to swell,                    to scintillate.

(metaphorical? yes–and–no)

Invisible until we are breathless and then it is all we see, all we feel–the ache, the burn resounds as our breath seems to have abandoned us and our quality of life (its abundance and intensity and brilliance) seems to have shifted and that shift, even if minuscule, stings.

~~~~~~~~~~

Breathless: I have been feeling breathless. I have unwittingly been attempting to fill my lungs with the air of stress that has become polluted by fumes of negativity and the entirety of my being has suffered as a result. I am exhausted, heavy, impatient. While exhaustion comes with parenting and “principalling” and teaching…heaviness and impatience are not familiar territory…and they frustrate me, creating even thinner air…leaving me jealous for any life, any day, any moment removed from the needs of others and the anxiety of not meeting them as effectively as I would like. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist (I am far too disorganized for that), but I don’t like letting people down either.

Triage: I needed to stop. To step back. To assess. What was missing? Why couldn’t I catch my breath and extract myself from this quicksand of worry? Why couldn’t I take back the narrative of positivity and rewrite the negativity…spin a new story? (I am, after all, the most annoyingly optimistic person I’ve ever known…ask my students, they will tell you) Why couldn’t I see a glimmer in this wilderness that seemed to be closing in around me?

Diagnosis: Writing. I wasn’t writing. (I mean, there was the lack of exercise too, but, you know…) I wasn’t granting myself permission to do one of the few things that make me feel most myself. I was using the time excuse again. But, seriously, chasing time was part of the reason I was so breathless and I wasn’t getting any closer to catching him. The rock was at the bottom of the hill again everyday and my Sisyphean struggle only seemed to intensify. So, I had to make a determination. I needed to challenge myself. I needed to fight my way out and that fight was going to have to include putting words on the page (digital or otherwise).

Prescribed: “the positivity project” (which I am sure is not some new brand of ingenuity–rather a remake) became my road map. Writing on this blog, 30 minutes a day, everyday, for as long as I can make myself, with the purpose of promoting positivity in each entry. It just seems that if I needed to be dug out of negativity, other people might benefit from reading something positive as well.

And maybe this way I will move forward in greater gratitude for the freedom of clean, easy air. A plentitude of it. Instead of searching for breath, I will just

Breathe.