Simon the Cyrene

“And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry His cross.”

Simon was weighed down with his family’s supplies for their stay in Jerusalem over the Passover feast. His sons, Alexander and Rufus, and he and his wife were all tired; it had been a long journey.

Jerusalem wasn’t his favorite place to be under the best of circumstances, but there had been whisperings of unrest there of late, and Simon was especially wary.

Still, the day was mild, and the boys were fun companions, and his wife was in a pleasant mood, so he tried to make the best of it.

He led his family through the city gates, intending to go straight to the temple, but they were stopped by a massive crowd.

Some sort of parade, Simon thought to himself. Probably a returning general or something. He tried to see a way past, but there was none. Resigning himself to the circumstances, he decided they should stay where they were and wait until it was over.

As they waited—“What’s happening, Daddy?” the boys kept asking, jumping up and down excitedly, to which Simon could only shrug his shoulders and look up worriedly at the sun’s slow progress—Simon began to notice that no one looked the way they should if this was indeed a celebration of some kind. Some were standing, stony-faced; some were wailing loudly; some were shouting curses gleefully. A trickle of foreboding began deep in his belly.

No one would be dumb enough to greet a general this way…. What’s happening here?

As he was wondering if he should risk trying to push through the crowd, he saw the soldiers approaching, only a handful of them. They moved slowly, not wanting to get too far ahead of their prisoner. When Simon saw that the man carried a cross on his back, his foreboding sharpened into a searing dread. He did not want the boys to see this.

He whipped his head around in all directions, but there was nowhere they could go. There was a sudden thump and then a raised shout from the crowd. Simon turned his head and saw that the man had fallen onto the dirty ground, his cross pushing him down further still. There was a moment of indecision as everyone waited for him to get up. He could not, and then what Simon hadn’t even thought to fear happened: he was grabbed, roughly, by the arm, and pulled out of the crowd by a soldier who stared at him.

“You. Pick up his cross.”

“Me? I don’t even know this man. I’m here with my boys—”

The soldier didn’t even speak. He glared at Simon in a way that made it clear who was in charge and then turned his back, knowing that Simon would make the only sensible choice and obey.

“Boys…” Simon began, not sure what he should tell them. His wife had a firm arm around each of them and was staring at him, not knowing when he’d return to them. He tried to smile at them reassuringly, and then turned to the man who was still lying on the ground.

He was bloodied and bruised. Whole chunks of flesh had been torn. He wore a crown of thorns that was pressed—painfully—into his scalp and a dirty robe. Simon came a little closer and almost retched. The man smelled like death.

Wanting to get this over with, Simon knelt down and lifted the cross so that the beam went over his shoulder. It was much heavier than he’d initially thought. How did he even carry it this far? Simon thought in wonder.

The man still didn’t stand up, so Simon reached down a hand to help him. When the man grasped his hand and raised his head to look at Simon, he felt himself unmoored.

There was pain in his eyes, yes—obviously. And much of that pain looked physical. But there was so much more pain of another sort, as if this man was not only sad but in agony for everyone else. And, beyond that, there was gratitude, for Simon’s small act of decency. But it was the way this man looked at him, like he knew him, and like he’d known that Simon would be in this very spot at this very moment, that he came back to again and again in the days and years to come.

Simon walked with him the whole way, feeling some inexplicable bond to the man now. And he witnessed many more things that made no sense over the next several hours, before he finally made his way back to his family. He saw this man forgive his persecutors and reassure the thief beside him. He heard the man cry out to God in a voice like an abandoned child. He saw him breathe his last and felt the earth crack beneath his feet when the man’s spirit had gone.

He also saw the look on the centurion’s face—the very same one who’d grabbed him out of the crowd—when all was said and done.

Simon knew what the look on the man’s face meant, because he was thinking the very same thing: Truly, this man was the Son of God.


What is your happiest moment?

Before my first child was born, I assumed that the moment of her birth would be the pinnacle of all my life experiences.

To put it bluntly, this did not turn out to be so.

My daughter was born when I was 24 years old at the end of an easy pregnancy and fairly straightforward delivery. I’d spent most of the previous nine months narrowing down names and daydreaming about finally having a little person around whom I could love as much as I wanted. This was the kicker of motherhood for me—the idea that there would finally be someone in my life who needed all the love I had to give and would never (until adolescence, anyway, by which point I would have regained my cool) tell me I was too much or too intense. I couldn’t wait for the moment when I could love this baby on the outside as much as I’d loved it on the inside.

After thirteen hours of labor, I grit my teeth, bore down, and within a handful of pushes, she was out. She came out silent but began screaming just a few moments later. She looked exactly like an alien, and yet she was the most perfect creature I’d ever laid eyes on. I had only a moment to look at her before my doctor, concerned about my uterus’ delayed contraction, possible hemorrhaging, and the likelihood therefore of surgery, handed her off to a nurse to be brought to the nursery.

I was finally given the all-clear hours after her birth, and that was when I realized I hadn’t actually really seen her, except for that one fleeting moment. So I decided to take a walk. I gathered the back of my hospital gown with one hand and dragged my IV pole behind me with the other. As I shuffled down the hall toward the nursery, I recited what I remembered from my glimpse of her: Black hair. Mohawk. Red lips. Covered in gunk.

I reached the nursery and stood in front of the window, staring at the babies and waiting for that maternal feeling to wash over me. I stared through that window at the four or five little baby burritos, all fast asleep in their bassinets and what I felt, instead of elation or excitement or gratitude, or even subdued resignation, was horror. I had no idea which one was mine. They were all bathed—no gunk. They were all wearing hospital caps—no mohawk or black hair. They all had red lips. I stared and stared, desperately trying to intuit through the glass some precious me-ness, some essence that only my baby could have. Hadn’t I carried this girl around for nine months? Hadn’t I fed her from my own body? Hadn’t I nurtured and protected her with my own blood, my own heart? What kind of a mother was I, to not recognize my own flesh and blood, mere hours after she’d been inside of me?

I shuffled back to the room, shaken. My entire life, I had known one thing: I was going to be a mom. I had only just started, and already, I had failed. If I wasn’t good at being a mom…what was left?

In the following months (and years—I finally relented and accepted a prescription for antidepressants about two years later when my second child, a son, was six months old), I struggled mightily with that question. Had I somehow carried, nourished, and given birth to the wrong child? Maybe my child was out there somewhere, being raised by someone who was as terrified of her as I was of this fragile creature.

For terrified I was. It was ridiculous. She weighed seven measly little pounds, for crying out loud; she was the most breathtaking little baby; she didn’t even cry much (for an infant). And yet, I was scared to death of her. I held her when I was nursing and when she was inconsolable (which never helped, but it was all I could think of to do) and let others take over the rest of the time. I was sure that the more I held her, the more opportunities there’d be for me for me to screw up. It didn’t help that she was always staring up at me with her piercing, bright blue eyes, her mouth in a solemn straight line. She would keep her gaze on me for minutes at a time, and I just knew she was thinking things like, “I know what you should be doing right now, and if I could speak, I would tell you,” or “It’s only because I’m pre-ambulatory that I’m putting up with this nonsense.” (She was using the word penultimate in casual conversation by age three; it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if she was thinking the word pre-ambulatory as an infant.)

Friends commented on how generous I was with her; apparently, most new mothers are wary of passing their babies around. I welcomed it. I figured there wasn’t anything I could offer her that she couldn’t get in abundance with anyone else (including milk—nursing was going terribly for both of us).

I would look at her and see that she was beautiful, and see that she was vulnerable, and see that she resembled me, and I would dig and dig and dig, but I simply could not find that feeling, the one that I had, in my mind, already named mother. My fears led me to believe that we would never have a bond. How could we? We were like ships passing in the night.

And then something unexpected occurred at her one-month checkup. After all the measuring and weighing and warnings of dire consequence should I so much as use a Q-tip on her, the nurse came in to give our daughter her scheduled vaccinations. I laid her down and held her hands in mine as instructed. The nurse unwrapped the band aids and double-checked that she had the right syringe. My husband stood by, looking for some way to be of use. The nurse pinched my baby’s skinny little thigh in her gnarled fingers and pushed the needle in. Beneath my fingers, my daughter’s whole body spasmed, and her pitiful little face jumped as a shriek of pain, insult, and betrayal came ripping out.

I felt a fury rise up in me, the likes of which I had never known. My animal instincts, long-buried beneath modern niceties like civility and custom and humane behavior, told me that this nurse posed a threat and that the threat must be vanquished. It was only because I had been raised to behave as a human being and not, in fact, as a howling she-wolf, that I didn’t rip the needle out of the woman’s hand and throw her against the wall. How dare you? I wanted to scream. That is my child!

The moment passed before I had time to act on my crazed desires, and the baby, clearly much tougher than I was, stopped crying. As I gathered myself and walked out of the doctor’s office with my family, I poked and prodded that phrase cautiously: That is my child.

The thought had come unbidden, and I suddenly realized that it was true. For the first time since she’d been born, I had a moment of hope on which I could rest. I was not the mother I’d assumed I would be—and I did indeed mourn that fact—but when I found myself willing to injure a complete stranger for the sake of my daughter, my attitude changed from What have I done? to I may not have even the slightest clue what I’m doing, but at least my basest instincts are intact.

That baby is now seven years old, and my husband and I have gone on to have three more children. It still surprises me how little I as a mother resemble my childhood expectations of myself. I love my children fiercely—I would die for them, and I would kill for them, and I would sacrifice everything for them. I would even, God forbid, play Barbies with them or carry on nonsensical conversations that last for hours and feature an ever-evolving cast of characters (there is almost nothing I hate more than Barbies and nonsense), but these truths have never borne themselves out in the ways I always expected. I have needed help and enormous grace in order to succeed at something that I thought should come effortlessly. I have needed to let go of standards I thought were nonnegotiable. I have mourned my own inadequacies in tiny stolen moments throughout these many long, long days. But that moment in the doctor’s office is one I fall back to again and again. At that moment, I came face to face with the fact that, to my own great surprise, I am a mother and that yes, this child is mine.


God’s Got This, Part 2

My family has been muddling through a pretty tough time for about 18 months now, and I have been waiting for it to end, so that I can craft the perfect inspirational blog post (“3 Things I Learned From My Time In The Pit!”, “Feeling Crappy? Here Are Makeup Tips to Hide Your Tears!”, “How To Plan A Homeschool Lesson When All You Want To Do Is Stay Under The Covers!”), but it has dragged on and on, long past the length upon which I thought God and I had agreed that any bad time should last.

So here I am. I’ve missed writing, and I’m tired of waiting until I can check “Learn Valuable Lesson” off my to-do list, and I’ve missed connecting with you readers out there. So today, you get a big ol’ dose of transparency! I hope you’re ready…

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Until about eight months ago, my husband and I were the Children’s Minister and Assistant Children’s Minister at our church. We were there for three years; those jobs afforded us a flexibility of lifestyle, schedule, and finances that we hadn’t had before, and we were blessed and challenged by our time there. However, it became clear over the course of our employment that, as much as we loved working with the children, and as much as we cherished the freedoms we were granted because of those jobs, we were not the right fit. We left our positions just a couple of weeks before our fourth child was born.

My husband first made the announcement that we would be leaving those positions about 18 months ago, right after we found out that I was pregnant. At the time, we were filled with the hope and expectation that our next step would be a fairly easy one. I was nervous, yes, to be leaving a stable and basically doable job with a stable and basically adequate salary, but we’d always managed to find something before, and I knew we would this time, too. I believe my husband felt much the same way. He began to look for jobs in ministry, human services, and non-profit (the trifecta that makes up 99% of his fantasies) with an air of expectation.

Months went by. Dozens of applications had been submitted. Dozens of follow-up phone calls had been made. Dozens of friends had been asked to “keep their ear to the ground,” or “mention my name.” Thousands of prayers had been uttered. The baby’s debut was getting closer and closer as my husband’s prospects, one by one, came back empty. I began to wonder what would happen to us. My husband had never had trouble finding a job before. I know I’m biased, but he’s likable, personable, intelligent, polite, hard-working, and–as the father of four–he is extremely motivated.

I forget who broached the subject first, but my husband decided to broaden his search to include other fields. He looked into education and then, finally, business. Business was a last resort for him–he has a minister’s mind and a minister’s heart, and he did not see a way to remain true to himself and dive into the world of making money for money’s sake. But there was nothing left to try, and so he sent in an application for a position as an inside sales rep at a local company.


Six days before our son was born, he got the call: he’d gotten the job! We were ecstatic! He’d seen during the interview process that he’d be selling a valuable product at a reasonable price alongside people he liked and respected. Something came upon him when he talked about this new job that I’d never witnessed before: enthusiasm. He was absolutely bursting with ideas about how to sell the product, to whom he could sell it, how much money he could make, how much he could blow our budget out of the water, how long before he would begin to rise through the ranks of the sales department. Even in his preferred field of human services, I had never seen him enjoy a job so much. For him, there had always been too many anxieties, too many unknowns, too many opportunities for him to fail. But suddenly, in a complete twist, here he was, a businessman! And he loved it!

Boy, was I relieved. My father had made a good career as a salesman, and it was a lifestyle with which I was familiar and comfortable. Finally, I could really devote myself to staying home, taking care of the house, teaching the kids, and not worrying about my husband. Four kids, a tense relationship with our landlord, no minivan, and a new adventure in homeschooling seemed like enough to deal with; thank God that He was at least taking away the stress of an unpleasant job and too-tight finances!

As my husband’s training period ended, it became clear to both of us that the road to a successful sales career is a long one. He still likes the product, and he still enjoys his co-workers and the company itself, but he and I saw very quickly what it means to live mainly on commission. About three months into his new job, we hit a wall, and he took a part-time job at Kroger, where he now works weekends and most evenings. The final blow to our egos came in late-July, when several things came to a head, forcing us to move in with my parents.

As I write this, our baby is eight months old, we are roughly three months into our first year of homeschooling (so much harder than I ever thought it would be, and for entirely different reasons), and we have lived off of my parents’ and in-laws’ largesse for the better part of five months. My husband works about 75 hours per week and brings home just enough to cover our expenses. He barely sees his children, and he barely sees his wife. He is tired, he is angry, he is anxious, he is burdened. And so am I.

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So why do I choose today to write about this? Six months from now, God willing, he will have found a way to be successful, and we will have moved into our own place, and I will be able to write an uplifting post about what I will have learned through our travails. Why not wait until then? Reading this must be kind of a bummer for you; writing it certainly is for me.

Quite simply, I am compelled. The only reason I can think of for that is that maybe one of you is dealing with a situation like mine. Not like mine in the sense that you’re struggling in the same way. But maybe your situation is also making you feel hopeless. And tired. And burdened. And scared. And angry.

If that’s true, let me break it to you gently: I. Know. Nothing.

Except, right now, for this:

Life is really really really hard. And, God is still good.

This kind of chaos and disarray is not supposed to happen to people like us. We have always worked hard. We have always asked God for His guidance in our life. We have always wanted good, noble, modest things–a big-enough house with a yard for the kids to play and enough flexibility to enjoy time together as a family.

But as much as it hurts me to admit this, God did not send His Son to die on a cross and save me from my sins so that I could live in a big-enough house with a yard for the kids to play and enough flexibility to enjoy time together as a family. Jesus came so that I could have life, and life abundant (John 10:10). Right now, the abundance part seems like it’s all being collected in IOUs, but what if what He’s really talking about is the abundance of a relationship with Him?

Frankly, I don’t like that possibility. I like for things to be neat and square and predictable and orderly. That’s why I was such a good Jew. As a Jew, my concern was being good. And I was very good at being good. In Christianity, I have come to realize, being good doesn’t cut it–the underlying point is the relationship that we have with our Creator (the Father) and our Savior (the Son) and our Helper (the Holy Spirit). And when the relationship is hurting, God is not above messing things up to get our attention.

Here’s my problem: when something happens that I can’t control, I devote all of my energy to grasping what little control I have left. As I grasp more and more tightly, life spirals farther and farther out of control, causing me to hold tighter and tighter, and so on and so forth, forever and ever, amen. People tell me to “let go and let God” and that “true freedom comes from relying on Christ” and that “the more tightly we close our fists, the less capable we will be of catching God’s blessings as He rains them down upon us”–people tell me these things, but I don’t listen, because I’m too busy, trying to maintain control. Because–and here is the kicker–if I am not in control, that means someone else is, and that someone does not know me as well as I know me.

For a woman who wholeheartedly believes that God is kind and merciful and tender and gracious, this obsession with control is a disappointing and humbling thing to face. How can I be so afraid? Don’t I tell people all the time about how God ministers to me through my depression and how He’s used every one of my babies to show me a different facet of His character and how He’s been wooing me, in ways that would only work on me, since I was a child? Haven’t I been listening?

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Whatever I think or whatever I feel or whatever I want, the undergirding truth is that God is still good. Believe me, I don’t always feel this way. Even now, as I write this, I know it’s true, but boy, I don’t feel like it’s true at all. I feel like, if He were good, He would give my husband success in his job and enough money to make me happy. (If He were really good, He would have done that when we first started asking for it, over a year ago.) Doesn’t He want His children to be solvent, to be financially responsible? How could He want us to be living this way? Why isn’t He honoring our hard work and our diligence and our continued prayers?

Hell if I know.

Yes, I’m angry, and I’m scared, and I’m hopeless. But I cannot stay there. Because, no matter what war is being waged on my spirit, God is good anyway. I have no stinking idea why He’s keeping us in this situation, but I do know that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-5) Do I live that out all the time? Not even in the slightest–you have not seen entitlement until you’ve seen me on some of my most recent days.

My work right now is not to figure out what we have to do in order to convince God that we’re serious, or to hurry up and learn the damn lesson already so we can move on, or to magically hit upon the single combination of words in my prayers that will flip some cosmic switch and make things suddenly go my way. My work is to figure out the answer to this question: Do I love God for who He is or for what He does?

When He isn’t being nice–when He allows me to stumble and fall into the pit–is my faith so shallow that I turn my back on Him? I’ve been painfully convicted lately because, if I’m being honest, I don’t know. Some days, my faith feels strong, and I can look the Devil right in the face and say, “Get thee behind me, you piece of [insert that day’s favorite curse word]!” and some days, there is a clawing and a tearing inside my chest between what I know to be true and what I feel to be true, and I can’t say for sure which side will win.

If we’re being honest (and let’s, shall we?), God might never give Dale financial success. He might never make it possible for us to live on our own. He might take my husband or my children away from me tomorrow. I might only have begun to scratch the surface of the pit into which I could fall. These thoughts terrify me, but I have to consider them. I have to look them in the face and let their reality wash over me and sit in the grief they bring until I find that I can stand again under the burden of all that pain.

Under the burden of all that pain, God is still good. I don’t understand it, but I know it, and in the pit, I can cling to it.


So Saith the Lord

Recently, a group of friends and I were discussing the times in our lives when God had revealed to us a piece of His character. (I know–my friends and I are a real laugh riot. I can tell you’re jealous.) It brought to mind a moment from almost seven years ago, when my oldest child was only a few weeks old.

If you’ve read much of this blog before, you know that I dealt with many many months of untreated post-partum depression, a holdover from the many many months of untreated normal depression. This beast appeared in all of its disgusting and insidious glory within hours of my daughter’s birth. (If you’re feeling a little too cheery on this beautiful day, you can read more about it here.)

Often an episode of depression will announce itself in the form of anxiety bordering on the unhinged, balanced ever so precariously with the belief that I can plan my way out of trouble…if only I ever figure out the right plan. Add the care and keeping of a tiny new appendage, and I was a real gem in those days.

Enter the book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, by Tracy Hogg. I inhaled this book. Hogg affirmed all of my instincts and made motherhood seem so much simpler than I had made it in my mind. She was famous for getting babies to sleep through the night within a handful of nights, before six weeks. The book outlines her method:

Lay the baby down, drowsy but awake. When the baby cries, pick him up and calm him and then put him back down.

This is supposed to reassure the baby that he is not alone but also provide an opportunity for him to learn that he is capable of soothing himself. In the book, Hogg gives several examples of clients to whom she’d taught this method; they all have stories of picking up the baby 88 times the first night, 43 times the second night, six times the third night, and zero times the fourth night (and ever after). This seemed like magic to me. If I could get my daughter to sleep…everything else would work. I could be a good mom, if I could only get her to sleep.

So, my husband and I decided to try it out. She was somewhere around three or four weeks old, certainly in the right age range to start this training, according to Hogg. We picked a night and spent the day psyching ourselves up for what we knew would be a serious test of our fortitude. We were prepared not to sleep at all that night, placing all of our hope in Hogg’s experience: by the end of the week, we’d have a baby who slept through the night.

Knowing how intensely mercurial my emotions were at this time, and how susceptible I was to stress, we decided to pray before putting her down the first time. Did we pray for peace, for strength, for discernment? No, nothing that spiritual. We prayed that it would work, that she would sleep, and that no one would kill anyone else in the process. Then we put her down and stood back to watch what would happen.

She started screaming. My husband picked her up and started making cooing sounds. She stopped screaming. He put her back down.

She started screaming. I picked her up and started making cooing sounds. She stopped screaming. I put her back down.

I think I can spare you a detailed account of the next eight hours and just tell you: the plan didn’t work. She didn’t sleep, my husband didn’t sleep, I didn’t sleep. Nobody slept. This was worse than I’d feared. I’d stopped marking our progress after the 50th time we picked her up–and that had only taken an hour or so. My body was tired, my mind was tired, my baby was tired.

And yet.

There was one unbelievable moment of grace, sometime around three in the morning, when the mind ceases to work rationally and is open to things like that.

I was holding, for the thousandth time that night, a crying baby, bouncing up and down on sore legs, trying to keep her quiet so that my husband–sprawled on the other side of the room–could maybe at least sleep for one minute, when it hit me: I was not upset. I wasn’t angry, or crying, or feeling anxious, or feeling disappointed, or even feeling particularly tired. I felt good. I felt useful. I felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing. I was helping my daughter learn how to do a hard thing. I was being a mom. In that moment, I thought about how many times that night I had already held her and how I would gladly have held her as many more times as she needed me to. I thought how remarkable it was that she had cried eight trillion times for the same exact reason, and I hadn’t gotten tired of her yet. I hadn’t given up on her. I hadn’t even gotten annoyed.

In that moment, in that tiny quiet private moment in the midst of the middle of the night, I heard God speak. He spoke into my fears, my insecurities, and my unshaking belief that I was incapable. He said, “This is how I love you.”

This is how I love you.

How many times had I cried out to God for the same reason, over and over again? Hundreds.

How many times had I thought that I couldn’t do what God was asking me to do? Thousands.

How many times had I been angry with God for making me do a hard thing? Millions.

How many times had God picked me up, and held me, and made soothing noises in my ear, and then, when I was ready, put me back down so that I could try again? Every. Single. Time.

To God, I am that red-faced, shrieking, helpless three-week old, and He is the parent, so full of perfect love that He will pick me up again and again and again, through the long sleepless night that is my life.

I am His child, and He is my parent. He will never not pick me up.

People, I don’t know how to say this clearly enough: what happened that night (and what didn’t happen: the hissy fits and self-pity) was not from me. In almost seven years of being a parent, and with four children for whom I have an obscene amount of love, there has not been even one single night in the middle of which I was glad to be awake. I hate being awake in the middle of the night. Middle-of-the-night feedings and soothings are to be trudged through, with as little anger as possible. That one night, that magical night of grace, was a miracle. God used a sleepless night to reach down and reveal something to a tired and scared and lonely new mom: His unending patience, and His unfathomable love.

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After such a mountaintop experience, we decided to try co-sleeping the next night.

That worked much better.



Women in Clothes, 1

I recently read a book called Women in Clothes (find it here), which was wonderful. It was essentially a collection of thoughts and reflections on clothing, fashion, style, and the like from hundreds of women, and some men, of all ages, from all over the world. These writings were responses to a list of questions sent out by the three co-editors; they were compiled over the course of several years. Check out this book if you want some insight on the way women feel about their clothes and how that translates into their feelings on their bodies, themselves, their families, their cultures, and pretty much everything else.

Over several blog posts, I will be offering my own take on some of these questions; I encourage you to comment with your answer or even to write something of your own! 

In what way did your mother’s clothing or fashion choices affect yours?

The simple answer to this question is that, through my mother’s choices, I learned not to let what is external and temporal hide what is internal and eternal.

But this is my blog, so I’m going to give you a complicated answer.

As a child, I intuitively glommed onto my mother. I was fascinated by, and cherished by, my father, but–whether by merit of being the baby or the sheer comfiness of my mother or something else, I’m not sure–from as early as my memory goes, I remember looking at each member of my family, letting my eyes linger on my mother, and thinking She’s the one I’m like. Everyone else seemed more like my dad’s side—WASPy, athletic (or at least outdoorsy, which is pretty much the same thing to someone who is neither), creative and imaginative, travel-oriented, worldly, and brave in a way that I am not. (Don’t get me wrong—I think my mother is very brave, but it’s a subtler take on the word. If one could say that I am brave—and I’m not sure that anyone could—it would be an even more subtle take.) I suppose that as a child, I noted my mother’s and my physical similarity, and the ways in which we were physically different from the rest of the family, and chalked that up as an explanation of why I was also so different in temperament.

Our actual wardrobe choices differ in many ways: what she feels is too tight is often too loose for my taste (and she weighs less than I do, so it’s not because of our relative size); I once bought myself a toe ring, and my mother thought it was silly; when I got my nose pierced in college, she told me it was the prettiest revolting thing she’d ever seen; I aspire to own ALL. THE. LEGGINGS., whereas I’ve seen one pair of leggings on her, and I couldn’t get over the shock of seeing her in something so different.

Any similarities that we do have in our personal styles come from the fact that neither one of us is trendy. At all. I didn’t know what a peplum top was until about six seconds ago (and I don’t know that I used it right just now—is it peplum top, or is the word “top” implied in the word “peplum?”). Until my last baby was born (and the podiatric swelling had gone down), I had worn an old pair of navy blue Birkenstocks exactly 364 out of the previous 365 days. With the exception of two fits of mania, I have had the same hairstyle since I was 15 years old (that’s 16 years, guys, and I still love it. It’s just long and straight. That’s it.). I am at my most comfortable in leggings or a long skirt paired with a tank top. (Apparently I’m on the wrong side of history in the Great Leggings Debate, because they are definitely pants to me.)

When I came to the South for college, I had no idea what I was in for. I’d grown up listening to my sister talk about her college days, at Reed in Portland, OR. She talked about staying up all night (I had it in my mind that she and her friends were discussing the Big Subjects, but really, they could have been up to anything) and thus, being too exhausted in the morning to do anything but roll out of bed and walk to class in pajama pants and a t-shirt. People went around barefoot, she said. No one cared what anyone else was wearing; the talk was the important thing. (Looking back, it’s possible that I cherry-picked certain parts of her monologues that gave me the most comfort. Maybe Reedies are as shallow as the rest of us. Anything’s possible.) When I heard this, I could not wait for college. I probably put more thought into what pajamas I would wear on my first day of class than most people put into a normal outfit. I wanted to convey to all those upperclassmen my seriousness, my above-it-allness, my cool.

I left a few minutes later than I’d meant to that morning, so the Dell (Lynchburg College’s version of a quad) was mostly empty as I walked over to Hopwood Hall. I ascended the massive brick staircase, walked between the century-old columns, and opened the door onto my first collegiate academic experience. I was tingling. I’ve made it, I thought to myself, as I walked down the hall and up the stairs. I’m in college.

I found the right room, opened the door, and was faced with…

Twenty of the most put-together creatures I’d ever seen in my life.

The women were gorgeous. Mostly blond, all thin, all tan, and all color-coordinated. I didn’t even know it was possible to coordinate clothing with accessories until I saw them, but there they were. The more ambitious ones had even coordinated their makeup to the rest of their outfits. I slunk to the first empty seat I could find, face flaming, and realized I was waaaaaaay out of my league. Forget about the schoolwork–just getting dressed in college was going to be a lot harder than I’d ever imagined.

× × ×

I tried on a lot of skins in my first two years of college. I went grunge, I went goth, I went hippie, I went slutty, I went ultra-conservative. I couldn’t figure out who I was. What did I want to portray? People already thought I was weird enough, the Jew from Maine. Did I want to exaggerate that weirdness, or did I want to give them at least some reason to think I was normal? I couldn’t decide.

By the second semester of my sophomore year, I had come to understand a handful of the style rules, and I had a pretty stylish bout of four months or so. I’d had a year and a half of influence from my best friend, a preternaturally stylish woman who always knows what to wear, how to wear it, and where to find it cheap, and I’d just gotten contacts, so I could buy sunglasses off the rack. The emblematic moment is walking through the Charlotte airport on my way back to said friend’s house after Christmas break. I was wearing heels, tight jeans, a striped v-neck, big earrings, and lots of bangles. I’d gotten a haircut during break, and I had my sunglasses pushed up on my head. I felt tall, thin, and powerful. A man passed me and looked back over his shoulder, and I smiled to myself as I pretended not to notice. (I should note that there was no real indication that he was looking at me, but I think a 19-year-old can be forgiven the occasional bout of self-absorption.)

Eventually, though, the energy of keeping up that look wore me out. I hated sticking my fingers into my eyes, so I dropped the contacts. I couldn’t afford to get regular trims, so I let my hair grow back out. The heels hurt my ankles, so I went back to my flip-flops (which, of course, do more damage to your ankles than heels ever could, but anyway), and getting up in time to apply makeup before class meant sacrificing either sleep or breakfast, neither of which I was willing to do. Perhaps most importantly, I met a man who (assuming he’s been telling me the truth for the last ten years) really doesn’t like makeup, styled hair, trendy clothes, and the like. I was so comfortable so soon with him that I had no qualms about blurting out on our first date, “I did my makeup all by myself tonight!” (He was appropriately impressed, but then it might have been the best makeup job of my life, before or since. I worked on it for a long time. I really liked him.)

As I struggled to figure out how to navigate this new world of fashion (wrapped up, as it was, in the new worlds of college, the South, burgeoning adulthood, newfound independence and self-discovery), my mother was becoming steadily healthier and svelte-er. Every time I saw her, she had shed another layer of what I came to recognize as her disguise. She had always dressed beautifully and tastefully, but shapelessly, as if to hide herself. As she lost weight, her clothing became more and more fitted, almost as a celebration. Seeing the new way that she was presenting herself to the world was very moving for me. I was dismayed by how surprised I was that she desired to look good. I’d always kind of looked at her as if she’d had her day in the sun, and now she was an upper-middle-aged mother of four. She just looked so maternal. When I saw her beginning to take more notice of herself and the way she dressed, it made me wonder what else I had lived 20-plus years without ever seeing.

One particular event comes to mind. It was a couple of months before my wedding, and my mother had reached a major weight loss milestone. We went out to dinner to celebrate with her closest friend, the one who had coached her through almost the entire journey, and her friend’s daughter, a close friend of mine. We pigged out at Olive Garden, and then we went to Kohl’s to buy my mother’s mother-of-the-bride outfit.

Neither my mom nor I are big shoppers. I thought we would spend twenty minutes, find something perfectly acceptable, and be on our way. However, my mother’s friend wouldn’t let her off that easy. My mother had drastically changed her health, her body, and her shape, and it was time to celebrate. Not only that, but, in addition to the wedding, my parents were leaving that weekend for a major family trip to Boston which included a couple of nights at a romantic B&B. According to my mother’s friend, she needed something that would wow my father.

All told, we spent probably two hours in that store, and my mother probably tried on thirty outfits. She ended up buying almost an entire wardrobe, all of which was cute, fun, flirty, and fitted. It was all so entirely different from anything I’d ever seen her in—it was all so celebratory. About halfway through, when we were sitting on the floor of the dressing room, covered in clothes, I started to cry. At that point in my life–about to be married, preparing to leave behind my family of origin–there was nothing terribly noteworthy about me bursting into tears for no reason in a public place and in mixed company, but my mother was kind enough to ask me what was wrong anyway. I can’t remember what I said to her–I don’t know if I had the words yet to explain why I was crying. But I have revisited that night many times in the ensuing eight years, and every time, I’m struck by the fact that this night was the first time in my life that I had ever seen my mother have so much fun indulging herself. I had never seen my mother try on clothing in a store. I had never seen her in clothing that she so clearly loved. I had never seen her twirl in front of a mirror. I had never seen her giggle with her friends. I had never seen her blush at the mention of her husband. I had never seen her being so girly. Part of it, obviously, was the influence of her friend–she is very much a girl’s girl, and she’s very fun. But a bigger part of it was that my mother had quite possibly never seen something worth giggling or blushing or twirling for when she’d looked into the mirror. I realized I didn’t know if I had ever told her she was beautiful. I didn’t know if I had ever known that she was beautiful. She was always just my mom.

Was there a part of me that had been using clothing as a self-defense mechanism? Was there a part of me that had not seen a person worth celebrating when I looked in the mirror? Absolutely, yes. I realized that night (and again, when my first daughter was born, and again-again, when my second daughter was born) that I was profoundly grateful for the opportunity to see this new giddiness in my mom. It was a wholly new way for me to experience her. But I was also sad. In 23 years, I had never seen this. Would my daughters have to become adults before they ever saw their mother fully engage and inhabit her body, just the way it was made? I had always had some idea that I was above it all when it came to clothing. Worrying so much about clothes is for people who don’t have enough going on in their brains, I’d always rationalized. But that’s not fair, and it’s not true. The clothes we wear make a profound impact on the way we move through the world. I have a different rhythm on days when I know I look good–don’t we all?

In the almost-decade since, my style has gone from new southerner, trying to figure out what gene everyone else is born with that makes them capable of looking good ALL. THE. TIME., to new mom, whose clothes don’t fit and are covered with bodily fluids (some of which are mine, some of which are the baby’s), to not-so-new mom under the social influence of even less-new moms who are like the girls I always wanted to be in high school: cool, confident, funny, secure. I still plan my outfits like a middle schooler on her first day of school. I still don’t really know what I want the world to see when I go out for the day. I don’t even particularly know what I want my daughters to see, although I do know I want it to be some mix of going my own way and following the trail set before me.

I have come to see fashion as an important ingredient in our self-portrayal. We think about our posture, our tone of voice, our choice of words, our facial expressions–these things do not comprise our whole being, but they are signals to the outside world that we are this way or we are that way. Fashion is no different. I wouldn’t be caught dead now wearing a midriff-baring top or combat boots. My life is different, who I am is different; the choices I make are, by necessity, different, too.

God’s Got This, Part 1

I recently finished a book called Restless Virgins, based on a sex scandal at Milton Academy in 2005 involving a sophomore girl and multiple hockey players. The scandal was supposed to be the crux of this book, but it only took up about fifteen pages. The two writers (both graduates of Milton Academy) focused the rest of the book on the culture of sex that was prevalent at Milton in the early 2000s (and is prevalent on many campuses today).

Disclaimer: The two women writing this book did a great job writing objectively and dispassionately about a horrific and sometimes heartbreaking year in these students’ lives. I commend them for their work. That being said, this book was, at times, disgusting. 50 Shades of Grey probably wasn’t any more salacious than this book was. I ached for a long, hot shower when I was done.

The writers wrote from the points-of-view of a handful of students with whom they’d had over 200 interviews over the course of two years. The students were all seniors at the time of the scandal, and they were remarkably forthcoming about their priorities and personal lives. Most of these priorities and personal lives were based on sex, drugs, partying, and drinking. To be honest, the sexual foibles and victories all started to blend together after a while, and by the end, I had trouble keeping the characters straight, but this much I do remember clearly: there was the girl who regularly cheated on her boyfriend because “he’s ugly and doesn’t deserve me to begin with.” There was the boy who believes girls deserve to be respected and treated to nice dinners and exciting evenings…only to abandon that belief the first time he finds a girl who’s willing to debase herself for his benefit. There was the girl who was admired by everyone for her brilliance and wit, who allowed herself to be used by a “hockey god,” so that he could satisfy his lust and she could gain a little notoriety. There was the girl who was known by younger students for her sympathy and understanding but spent years jumping to meet the sexual whims of a boy who refused to call her his girlfriend or acknowledge her in public.

I understand that much of this narrative may have been exaggerated; the entire book is based on the self-disclosure of horny adolescents, and who knows how honest they were being? However, assuming they were being even mostly honest, it is a damning and heartbreaking portrayal of what seems to be a pervasive mindset among adolescents.

The way I understand these kids’ psyches, after reading over two hundred pages of their inner monologues, is this: the girls believe they are only worth the popularity of the boys who want them. Therefore, it is in their best interest to climb the social ladder as efficiently as possible, and what better way to do that than to advertise that you are open for business (so to speak)? High school guys aren’t known for their nuance or their impulse control, and it’s understandable that they would find it hard to resist such persistent – and willing – temptation.

On the other hand, the boys believe that they are only worth the number of girls they “hook up” with (whatever that term means to them at this particular moment in time) and the entertainment value of the stories they can then broadcast to their friends. Therefore, it is in their best interest to take as many girls up on their offers, and to do it as quickly, as possible. High school girls aren’t known for their self-esteem and positive body image, and it’s understandable that they would find it hard to resist such desperation for a good story.

“He chose me!” I can hear the girls thinking. “He can have anyone at this school, and he chose me! Does he – could he – love me?”

“She said yes!” I can hear the boys thinking. “She doesn’t even know me, and she said yes! I must be the man!”

It’s hard for me to be sympathetic to the boys in this portrayal, all of whom believe that a hook-up is a one way street. The girl pleasures him, and there is no expectation of reciprocation. But these boys – boysare sympathetic. Look at them. They are so young, and they have been poisoned for who knows how many years, by who knows how many false gods, into thinking that they have the right or even the duty (to their buds, at least) to treat these girls like scum. (They even come up with a charming little nickname for these girls that involves the word scum. I’ll let you figure out the rest of it for yourself.)

The girls are just as sympathetic, although there were plenty of times I wanted to wring their necks, just to get my point across. Most of the girls who are portrayed are even younger than the boys – many are even still in middle school, and they are so deluded. They have bought into the lie – hook, line, and sinker – that they will only mean something if a guy (ideally, the right guy) says they mean something.


Here’s the problem, as far as I’m concerned: we have replaced our inherent worth as children of God with the wishy-washy worth sometimes bestowed upon us by people whose only endorsement is that they’re popular. No wonder there are so many unique kinds of addiction among humans! We humans will sell ourselves to anything, won’t we? Imagine living your whole life, believing the lie that you are responsible for creating your own worth. Wouldn’t you want to escape that pressure with some kind of addiction, too?

God wants us to know that there is nothing we can do to earn His love and there is nothing we can do to lose His love. Gave five guys blow jobs, just because they were popular? God’s got this. Drank too much and did something you never thought you’d do? God’s got this. Sold your body to the highest bidder? God’s got this.  Cheated on your boyfriend a dozen times because you thought he was ugly? God’s got this. Spent your life doubting yourself, your achievements, your gifts? God’s got this. Gained sixty pounds because you can’t stop eating and you don’t believe you’re worth a healthy body? God’s got this.

Here’s the thing, though. We have to ask Him to take it.

We look at this hook-up culture stuff all wrong. The problem is not that no one takes girls seriously, or that boys are being raised to be monsters, or that girls are taught to fear their bodies, or that there aren’t enough sensitivity seminars on school campuses, or that we’re in a misogynistic and patriarchal culture, or even that teens are drinking too much (which I definitely think is a big part of the problem that we all underestimate). These are all symptoms of the problem. The problem is that we are throwing ourselves away. If we allowed ourselves to feel the full power of God’s love for us, nothing – nothing – would be able to destroy us. Yes, there would be hard days or times we would feel alone and in despair, but if we lived fully in the power that God has already given us, those days would lead us straight into His arms, instead of to the nearest boy, girl, bag of chips, bottle, empty relationship, or what have you.


Of course, this has all been said before, and in much better words than I could ever come up with. Here is a favorite example of mine:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39, emphasis mine)

Hear that? Nothing. Neither sex nor drugs, nor despair nor fear, nor sin nor hopelessness, nor rape nor violence, nor laziness nor selfishness, nor anything else you could possibly think of, can ever separate us from God and take away the value He has already given us.

But if we want to live in that value, we have to ask Him to show it to us. And then believe it when He does.

Dear Maine: It’s Not You, It’s Me

I knew it was too soon to see you again. There’s a reason they say to achieve closure before allowing yourself to be caught in an intimate embrace with your former beloved. But, Maine…I couldn’t help myself. I mean, an all-expense paid two-week long visit back to you? It was too intoxicating. I couldn’t say no.

And so I found myself right where I should have known I’d be: following the curves of your coastline in my car and dancing at the steering wheel to all of our songs (thanks, WCLZ, for playing all our old favorites while I was there).

Before I knew it, without the safety net of my routine or my community or my job, I was back under your spell. I spent hours imagining ways I could come back to you, Maine, my first love. Your crisp, cool air; your shoreline that is so beautiful it makes me want to cry; your intensity; your laid back spirit (how do you manage to be both intense and laid back? You are, truly, a wonder.), your people who don’t look at me while I’m walking by (there is nothing more precious to a transplanted, introverted Yankee than being completely ignored on the street)…it all coalesced, and I began to fantasize…

What if?

What if Dale could get a job here? What if my parents hadn’t moved away? What if all the kids moved back, and we could be one big happy family? What if I did feel up to the winters again? What if there were a beautiful, four-bedroom, old New England-style house for sale (under $130,000!), right in downtown Bath? Would I come back?

Oh, Maine…you know I would. Yes, I would. I would come back.

And this brings me to the painful crux of this letter:

I’m glad none of those things are true. I’m glad because I don’t have the strength to resist you on my own. If any of those things were true, I would pack my bags and run to you so fast I’d leave dust in my wake. I would bring my husband and my children to frolic in your midst, and I would teach them to pick out the prettiest seashells, their favorite fog, the perfect ratio of sand-to-rock on a beach, like my father did for me.

And yet.

It wouldn’t be right.

I had my chance. You and I had our chance, and we blew it. And we both know it. And now, it’s time to move on and to relegate each other to lost loves, always in each other’s hearts but no longer to be in each other’s lives. We can be like old friends who see each other now and again and marvel at how the other has changed (and how that means that we, too, have changed), but we can no longer be the intimate loves we once were.

I’m sorry, Maine. I have met someone else. Virginia was hard for me to love at first. She doesn’t have your crisp air year round (oh, how I miss your air when it is summertime in Virginia!). She doesn’t have the innate aloofness that comes with being one of the least-populated and most out-of-the-way states in the nation. As such, she doesn’t have the innate self-confidence that comes from knowing you can do whatever you want and absolute no one else will care or even notice. Her people are so friendly and so beautiful I spent years wanting to hide from them. But I have come around.

Virginia has mountains the likes of which you can only imagine. Virginia has people who are good — so good — it’s hard to believe they’re real. Virginia has music that will break your heart and put it back together, only stronger the second time. Virginia has rolling hills and farmland and an independent fighting spirit that, on a good day, remind me of you.

Virginia  worked its way into me, so slowly and so sneakily that I didn’t even know she was there until I found myself with you and wanting just to go home. Virginia and I have been through a lot together. You will always be my effortless first love, but Virginia has earned my love, affection, and loyalty through twelve years of blood, sweat, and tears.

So, Maine, the next time you see me, I will be a different woman. You may find yourself looking for the long-haired quiet and serious girl of my youth when really you will be confronted with an older and contented woman. I hope you can forgive me for keeping you on a string all those years, but I have finally decided that — for better or worse — I am where I am supposed to be.

Dear Lord, I don’t know what to say.

For those of you who know me well, you know that I am more conservative than liberal, more Republican than Democrat (although lately, I’m more Libertarian than anything else), more believer than non. And for those of you who know me really well, you know that, even when I don’t know what to say, I say plenty anyway.

This past week has me at a loss.

A confession: I did not take the fact of racism seriously until marrying a man whose family has lived in the South for generations and who has seen, or whose family has seen, firsthand, the kind of thing I’d only heard about on the radio or read about in history books.

A confession: Six-and-a-half years after moving to Virginia, I still don’t quite get it about racism. At the risk of sounding cheesy, why can’t we all just get along? Is it really as bad as people say? Can’t we all give each other the gift of believing the best about each other?

A confession: I have a hard time accepting as truth examples of racism that I hear from others. I have a handful of anti-Semitic slurs, broken synagogue windows, and mind-boggling ignorance in my past, too. I have, oh…about five thousand years or so of universal hatred of my people to fall back on. Despite that, and thanks to the wisdom of those who know me and love me well, I make conscious decisions to believe that the people who have hurt me in the past either didn’t know what they were doing, or they aren’t worth the effort I would need to expend in order to keep being angry. In either of those cases, why on Earth would I waste my time getting angry?

A confession: I have been angry. I have been told that Mainers hate black people because there aren’t any black people in Maine (patently false, on both counts). I have been told that Virginians hate black people, because they stare at them (dude, that’s called making eye contact, and I get it — we Yankees aren’t used to it on the street, with strangers. But Southerners make eye contact with everybody. Yes, it’s disconcerting at first and hard to get used to, but it certainly isn’t racist). I have been told that I wear my privilege like a second skin and that there’s nothing I can do about it (well…okay, fine. But it hasn’t gotten me anything that anyone else couldn’t get, too — trust me, I’ve been broke, desperate, unemployed, hopeless, in despair, all that good stuff — and anyway, if there’s nothing I can do about it, why worry?) I have been told that, by merit of being white, I am racist, whether I think racist thoughts, feel racist feelings, or commit racist acts (um, isn’t there a word for judging me based on the color of my skin?).

So, yes, a confession: I did not mourn the passing of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, or any of the myriad of young black men who have been killed in our country in recent years at the level of many of my peers. I did not watch the videos, or read too many of the commentaries, because all I could see or hear were slurs and accusations.

But when five police officers were targeted and murdered in cold blood, at the hands of a vengeful sniper, I was furious. Five men, doing their jobs, protecting those who were taking advantage of their right to peaceful assembly–slaughtered. Five families–shattered. Five lives–ended. Where were the op-eds, the tearful pleas for mercy, the hour-long specials on NPR, for them?

In church today, our pastor listed the names of those who’d been killed in the past week near the end of his sermon, and for whatever reason, I felt released to mourn. I was overwhelmed by the loss of life. The foolishness. The anger. The brokenness. The men who died–all of them–were my brothers, my countrymen, and now they’re gone.

Now, readers, before you get too far ahead of yourselves, know that I believe that police officers have increasingly difficult and dangerous jobs. I cannot comprehend the discipline it takes to put on your badge and go to work, knowing you might be killed for that badge, day after day after day. I commend the police for fulfilling their duty, which is, after all, coming into situations that no one else can handle. Police officers are not paid to make people feel better. They are not paid to be social workers. They are paid to defuse situations that, otherwise, cannot be defused. When we encounter a police officer on duty, we never know what he has just witnessed, and he never knows what we are planning. I certainly don’t mind bending over a little backward, if it helps reassure him that I mean no harm. I still believe that people are innocent until proven guilty. I still believe in due process and in our legal system.

But the fact remains: whatever are the details of each circumstance, it is absolutely true that these are tragedies, worthy of grief. Dozens of lives have been lost in the wake of these deaths, sadness and despair have been compounded, faces have turned inward, distrust has run wild.

Listen, I have no idea what it’s like to black in America. I know firsthand what it’s like to be a minority and to be hated by the majority. But I do not believe that the past–either for white people or for black people–should be an excuse to mistreat each other. I do not believe that the past should have the power over us that we so freely give to it. I do not believe that black people see nothing but a privileged, closet racist when they see me, nor do I believe that white people see nothing but a lesser-than when they look at a black person.

This past week has been painful and has revealed some deep deep scars in our collective American tissue, but I ultimately believe that good will come. Love will win. Light will triumph. I don’t know what to do, how to pray, what words to say. But, holy Lord, I do know that.

After cancer

[Thank you to my friend for allowing me to post this and for correcting some of my timeline and medical errors. Any errors that remain are completely my doing!]

For the last nine months, I have led a mothers’ Bible study at my church. I have been touched and blessed by each of the women in this group in different ways, but this post will focus on one woman in particular.

This woman is currently in remission from lymphoma–a particularly deadly form of lymphoma. She has undergone experimental chemotherapy, radiation, a bone marrow transplant and has come out the other side, a cancer survivor!

Our bumper-sticker-and-meme mentality (and my own naivete) would say, “Great! She doesn’t have cancer anymore! All is well; move on.” And that is exactly how I thought until this past year. People like to mock fairy tales for ending at the wedding and not telling us what the marriage is like; it turns out that cancer fairy tales end at the cure and don’t tell us what the recovery is like.

Recovery, at least in this case, has been a bitch.

This particular friend was pregnant with her third when she found out about the cancer (her older two were one and three), and she decided–after considerable research with a variety of doctors–to try a safe form of chemotherapy. It was safe for herself and her baby; it turned out to be safe for the cancer, too. Her cancer was alive and well when her son was born (also alive and well) five months later.

As soon as her baby was born, they began radical treatment. What the cancer, and the treatment, did to her body, I’m only now beginning to understand.

I was just getting to know about her ordeal when she had her transplant, so I read her email updates as someone trying to piece together all of the missing information. As far as I could tell, after the transplant, she was given a cautiously-clean bill of health. She sent one of those mass emails, talking about all of the things she hoped to do with her family: vacations, birthday parties, and simple things like movie nights that she hadn’t been able to appreciate in years. Her tone in this email was optimistic and excited and full of faith, love, and gratitude for her Savior who had sustained her through this trial.

When I finished reading, I thought, “Great! Glad that’s over!” It was as if I’d drawn a big box around “cancer” and now I could put a check mark through it. I–to my shame–kind of stopped paying attention after that.


Fast forward several months: I am leading this Bible study, where this woman is a faithful and consistent participant, and every week she is asking for prayer. We pray for her hair that is not growing back, her fingernails that are peeling, her skin that is prone to rashes, her immune system that makes her as susceptible to colds, and worse, as a newborn in Target. We pray for her wits every time her husband goes out of town on business, and she’s left to care for three young children who all sleep in their parents’ bed and can’t easily be left with a baby-sitter. We pray for her parents and for her in-laws, who come in from out of town several times a year to help when and how they can. We pray for her husband, who recently–and miraculously–survived a car accident that no one should have survived, without a single scratch; we pray for his leadership and for his encouragement, and we praise God for blessing their family with a man like him at the helm.

We pray, we pray, we pray.

And still, things are not better.

She has gone from Roanoke to New York to Durham to Charlottesville and back and back again so many times, it makes my head spin, and I’m not even the one doing it. Every trip requires plans for childcare (usually that means one set of grandparents coming in), lodging, time off work for her husband, extra prayers, sleepless nights, waiting rooms, and finally sitting face-to-face with yet another expert, all of whom (so far) have told her the same thing: “I have never seen anything like you before. I have no idea what’s going on.” No one can agree on how to safely treat these issues, and no one knows why any of this is happening in the first place–why, when she’s never had health problems before, and the cancer is gone, would she have all of these problems, months after chemotherapy ended and years after her transplant?


There is always the temptation in a situation like this to lose faith, isn’t there? Yes, she’s technically in remission, but she is not well. We’ve prayed for her to be healed and she isn’t healed, so God must not be hearing our prayers. If He isn’t hearing our prayers, how can we believe He would hear any prayers? And if He wouldn’t hear any prayers, how can we believe He is a good God?

And yet, we know that He is a good God.

So what do we do with what feels like a contradiction about God’s character? Why did she get cancer? Why was the cancer healed, only to have all of these new problems crop up? Why can’t anyone give her a definitive answer?

Here’s the secret:

I have no idea.

Nobody knows. People have written really beautifully on this question, bestowing their wisdom, and it is helpful, but it is not an answer. God lets crazy things happen sometimes. Scratch that. God lets shitty things happen sometimes. Really good people are screwed over, and really really bad people are glorified. I don’t get it. I don’t have an answer for you. I do have a few tidbits I’ve picked up from watching my friend:

Cancer is not of God. Ongoing illness that doesn’t show any sign of resolving itself is not of God. Chronic pain is not of God. Respiratory problems are not of God. Confusion in the face of terrible circumstances is not of God. Fear and instability in a child’s life are not of God. Impossible choices are not of God.

Yes, He sometimes lets them happen, but: He. Does. Not. Cause. Them. 

Sometimes, God uses something He hates in order to bring about things that He loves.

Some things He loves that come about: Surviving a cancer that very few people survive. Surviving a full-on bone marrow transplant, which (as I understand it) consists of emptying out your body of all its stuff and then putting new stuff back in and hoping you don’t die in the process. Walking away from a car crash that leaves state troopers and bystanders shaking their head in wonder. Knitting a family together in the midst of illness, travel, uncertainty, and fear. Clinging to faith when doctors are giving you numbers and statistics. Deciding to focus on positivity and optimism in a world that would tear you down without skipping a beat. A community that goes beyond sex, age, religion, geography, and race calling for–no, demanding–a miracle that will make people’s mouths drop open and their hearts turn to God. For Pete’s sake, hosting a Pampered Chef party in the midst of trials, medications, tests, ER visits, school field trips, and business trips!

All that junk from two paragraphs up? That’s what the Enemy does (I know, I’m one of those freaky-deeks who says things like ‘the Enemy’).

You want to know what God does?

God restores.

God clarifies.

God loves.

God laughs.

God holds.

God shows.

God guides.

God listens.

And, absolutely, without a doubt, God hears.



Picture it: a Friday afternoon in summertime. An old house on the tip of a peninsula in coastal Maine. A mother, a father, a sixteen-year-old boy with Down syndrome, and a terribly shy fifteen-year-old girl who could count on one hand the number of Jewish peers she’d ever had (none of whom she spoke to anymore). Suddenly, thirty or so big-city Jewish kids descend upon the scene with their backpacks, sleeping bags, tents (they were all going to camp out in our backyard), and — most importantly to naive, impressionable me — their cool. They were so cool. Every single one of them. Even the losers of the group were cool. I couldn’t believe all the cool I was suddenly witness to. These kids were from New York City!

I’ll be honest: I don’t remember much about them, other than the fact that they ruined our septic system by flushing paper towels down our toilets (instead of using the porta potties my parents had paid for), and that my parents were incredibly stressed out the entire weekend, trying to figure out who was actually in charge since it was hard to tell the adults from the teenagers, and the fact that after a fairly short amount of time, I was eating, laughing, joking along with them, to my own amazement. Who would have thought that this nobody from nowhere would have had anything to say to these Somebodies from Somewhere?

But I’m sure you’re wondering where the sweatpants come into play here. After all, that’s how this whole post started, right? Well, the truly lasting impression I have of this group is that of the young women. Probably half of the group was young women, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen (I’m guessing now), and they all looked like me. This was the first time I’d seen curves on a group of women outside of my family, and it was intoxicating. I was one of those early-blooming gals; that, plus the fact that I kept blooming long after everyone around me was done made me rather uncomfortable a lot of the time. When I was about eleven or twelve, I started to realize that I indeed looked different to myself but also to the men around me. I started to realize that sometimes this worked in my favor; sometimes it worked against me. I had no clue how to navigate this, so I studied all the women and girls I could find. I watched my sister, my mother, my aunts, and every girl at my school. My heart as a writer really came in handy here; I studied them as fully as if I were creating a whole cast of characters.

The problem was that, apart from the women in my family, I couldn’t find anyone who reflected me to myself. I went to a high school where the vast majority of girls were very athletic and petite; those who weren’t were largely overweight. I was so so so unathletic, and while I felt fat, I had the perspective to realize that I wasn’t literally overweight, I was just curvy. And those in my family, while gorgeous (to my way of thinking) were all…much older, and thus, entirely unhelpful.

These girls who had suddenly found themselves at my house were like beacons to me. They were hippy and busty and sexy and curvy and they knew it. They wore what seemed to be their summer uniform the entire weekend: sweatpants with the waist rolled down and fitted t-shirts. I don’t think I can overstate the impact they had on my sense of myself as a viable sort of future-woman. Watching them was like watching my self, only a self that had not yet been realized. The way they moved and laughed and spoke (and, yes, flirted) and inhabited their shapes spoke volumes, and it gave me what felt like permission to do the same.

The day they left, I donned their uniform, just for a few minutes, just to try it out, and it felt good. It may have been the first time I’d practiced dressing to enhance this new shape as opposed to dressing in spite of this new shape. I don’t think I dressed particularly modestly before, but I dressed the way the skinny girls around me dressed, which — not surprisingly — made me excruciatingly uncomfortable and self-conscious. In this new outfit, I felt self-conscious, but in a completely different way. I felt like the way I’d been made and the way I’d been shaped had been done on purpose. I hadn’t just been thrown together haphazardly, consequences be damned. I had been formed as a continuation of a line that goes back to ancient times. I saw myself in the mirror, and I looked like my mother and like my grandmother and, probably, like her mother and all the mothers before that. I turned my eyes toward my shape instead of away, and I saw that, as a matter of fact, I could use it, and I could love it.

Fifteen years have passed, and I like to think I’m much more mature about my body now. I married an exceedingly kind man who seems to dig me, and I’ve mostly come to terms with the fact that, in almost any group, I will be the hippy one. When that designation becomes too tiresome (as it sometimes does, especially in this world of skinny jeans and bikinis with summer fast approaching), I like to stage a little mini-protest. I pull on my sweatpants, roll down the waist, and put on a fitted t-shirt. It doesn’t look as cute as it did when I was fifteen, but it serves as a reminder that my body, though not the straight and narrow I wish for sometimes, is worthy of love and grace and acceptance.

And…maybe…a tiny bit of showing off.