There are few things I appreciate more than a really good question.
You know, that moment when someone inquires or speaks in such a way that the entire conversation shifts to something that touches the experience of being human. I often lean in closer, unable to contain my interest in where the answer might go. I live for those moments.
I suppose it is a good (and necessary) thing that I enjoy the act of questions and dialogue – this is much of what goes into becoming a therapist in the first place.
Oprah has this fantastic question that she has used when filming her Super Soul Sunday series. During interviews, she will skillfully ask, “So, tell me, in your life what has been the lesson that has taken the longest to learn?”
This question is striking because it is asking so much more than what appears on the surface. Essentially, this question is asking about what life has taught you. When you boil it all down, what have you had to endure to learn (usually again, and again, and again)?
When interviewing Julia Roberts last fall, the actress responded in such a profound way that I could barely contain myself. She shared that the life lesson for her was, “…that I think, we as people or as women, or me as myself, who I am in this world, that I had to make myself less for someone else to feel more of whatever that thing was.”
I think the dynamic quality of this question is that it reminds us that we are more similar than different. I would guess that most of us have actually had to learn similar sorts of things – sure, we might use different language or words to describe the actual experience, but if you’re talking about identity, love, feeling worthy or enough, or whatever it might be, chances are someone else has had to journey through that as well.
I wonder, too, if what we learn changes. Is what I have had to learn over and over again now going to be the same as when I am, say, seventy? I suppose I don’t really know.
The lesson I have had to learn repeatedly so far, across multiple domains of my life is this:
I am loved just as I am.I don’t have to do anything to earn it. I don’t have to be someone I am not. And, most importantly, I don’t have to give parts of myself away to find love.
This has been my life lesson – one that I have been learning a long time.
In elementary school I was afraid to share with friends that I liked country music – I thought that if I was honest, they wouldn’t like me. Though I found my niche as an athlete in high school, I feared that if I dressed to much “like a boy” then I wouldn’t be able to keep the friends I had. Later in life, I felt that I had to serve and give to be valuable. In this context, love was no longer love – it was transactional. And of course, for a long time I hid my own sexual identity, fearful that if I was honest about who I was, then I would be rejected and no longer worthy of love – whether it be from family, friends, acquaintances, or broader society.
Breaking through these barriers has been a big, big deal. Today, I am continuing to find the power of being honest, speaking my truth, and not molding myself to what I think others might want of me. When I do acts of service it is because I want to, not because I have to. While the difference is subtle, it is incredibly important. This work is extraordinarily challenging, however, when I actually do it, I feel like the most powerful woman in the world. When I am honest, genuine, authentic and still know that I am loved (and that I am enough), there is a small spark that fills my body.
This is what it feels like to take up space and to not apologize for it.
So, what is that thing for you? What is the lesson that has taken the longest to learn?
In all likelihood, you (we) are still learning it. That is the beautiful journey of life: always learning, always growing.
Nearing the end of my twenties is beginning to feel infused with equal parts nostalgia, pride, reflection, and gratitude. I spent this morning sifting through old photographs and recalling old memories leading me to wonder, once again, who am I? Where am I going? What is this crazy life?
It’s funny – isn’t it – how the questions really never change. When I first turned 20, I was asking the very same things. I had no idea who I was, and I certainly could never have anticipated where life took me for the last 10 years. I suppose now things are different – I do actually know much more of who I am, however, in knowing how growth and change work, I also know there will be even more to be discovered in the years to come.
My twenties were vibrant, challenging, illuminating, joyful, heartbreaking, and full of travel to new places. I believe it has been my experiences away from home that have taught me to appreciate what home means and how much the world has to offer. Learning new places, new languages, new modes of transport, and new foods has shown me the delicate beauty of humanity. I learned how to love in my twenties (or at least, how to love better), and I know now this is the greatest gift we can learn. I have learned to love God, the world, others, and importantly, myself.
The best part of my twenties was exploring cultures, places, and my identity. I knew, already, when I was twenty that I was gay. However, I had convinced myself to repress this, to live a different life because the one that I wanted was impossible. I’m pleased – and blessed – to see that as I close this chapter of my life, I am exactly where I had hoped and dreamed to be.
Within the past decade, I made so many new friendships, got to vote in my first election (right before I turned 20), played NCAA field hockey, became an aunt, fell in love, lived in new places, ran a half marathon, helped start a business, gained new family members (via in-laws and families in East Africa), attended a Sooners football game in Norma, and published my writing. More recently, I became engaged and am planning a wedding with the love of my life. Truly – I never thought that would happen. So much of me did not believe in the institution of marriage. However, I will be the first to say, I am grateful to have changed my mind. I have learned the art of doing so; it is perfectly acceptable and even preferable to reconsider what you think about people, ideas, and things. When I was younger, I thought changing your mind was a bad thing. Yet, it is in challenging our own assumptions where we find the biggest growth opportunities.
The most arduous part of my twenties was loss. I lost my grandmother, who in many ways, was the light of my life. I lost my dog, Buddy, too, and this was also inexpressibly difficult. I lost – for a while – a part of myself when I moved permanently back from Rwanda. Moving back to the United States was literally, painful, lonely, and isolating. Easily, this was one of the more grueling times in my life (not just my twenties).
In addition to loss, my twenties were demanding because of the amount of change that occurred. I had to let go of my first love because of distance – that hurt every part of me. I had to learn about building long-distance friendships when I graduated college, knowing that all of my dearest friends would live in different parts of the United States. My brother also went through a great deal of hardship, and as a sister, this was agonizing to bear witness to. Loss and change, I now understand, come with life. As we hold onto love and joy, inevitably, we will also meet suffering, too. It all goes hand in hand.
As I look to 30 and the next season of life, I see hope. I am actively working towards new dreams – dreams rooted in helping others as I work to become a licensed therapist – and dreams of starting a family. I yearn for more ways to make a difference in the world and to always seek personal growth and become the woman I am supposed to be. I want to continue to write, to continue to seek adventures, and to continue to promote love in a world that desperately needs it. I hope to do this with boldness and humility, knowing that my journey now could not be without the journey that has come before.
I am proud of who I am. I am proud of the life I have made so far. I am just proud. Yet, in this pride, I know I would not be where I am without my family, without my friends, without my partner, Chelsea, and without God. I am truly fortunate to have this life, and my hope is that I can give back to the world what has been graciously bestowed to me. I am motivated to live in a world that values humanity, kindness, and community and I aim to push forward this kind of world for my kids, their kids, and the people who will come after me. I am absolutely pumped to be thirty years young and I genuinely look forward to what the next 10 years – and beyond. Bring on the art of living.
Here we go.
As I look forward to the future, it has been deeply rewarding to look back on where I have been. Here’s my favorite photos (and memories) from the last 10 years.
A friend asked recently how I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Chelsea.
Reflecting slowly and wanting to give a full, thorough answer, I still found myself rendered speechless. Articulating the ways in which one falls in love or has the necessary intuition to know the person to spend their life with is a lot like putting words to picturesque mountain views, laughing without restraint, or times when pure, untamed joy strikes. It’s nearly impossible.
There are some experiences that transcend words and explanation; they just are.
Chelsea is the woman I choose because of who she is. Chelsea lives life, welcoming all experiences, while opening the hearts of people around her. She laughs fully, explores freely, and loves without reservation. She is intensely intelligent and is uniquely self-aware. Though I have known Chelsea for many years, she is the kind of person that you can learn something new about with each passing day. One of my favorite parts of Chelsea, though, is that she is silly and makes me laugh. She holds space for profoundly important conversations and ridiculously silly moments. The balance between the two is the key to a keenly rich life.
I also knew I wanted to share life with Chelsea because of the kind of woman she encourages me to be: my full, real self. I can be who I am without reservation. In our life together, there’s an ease, a grace that is immensely refreshing. It has been in this ease where we have found a rhythm and the space to let love grow.
I trust her when we drive together at night. She celebrates my dreams. We share duties in the kitchen. We discuss our strengths and weaknesses. She rubs my shoulder when I’ve had a long day. Big or small – there are corners of my life that are now forever different because of her.
For these reasons – and at least a million more – I said “yes” when Chelsea asked if I would marry her.
Certainly, “double engagement” was always a part of our plan. Our initial discussions of engagement in the summer of 2017 included the core agreement that we both wanted the opportunity to ask each other in marriage (and say “yes” too). Plans came to life. I asked her to be my wife just days before our 1st year anniversary. And, as snow turned to Spring, I wondered if Chelsea would be asking the same question soon.
Turns out, she was voraciously planning. Thick in preparations for the end of my first school term and working full-time, I was not caught off guard by the few signs that the proposal was coming soon. Randomly, I noticed that a particular mid-April weekend was loaded with special occasions: a massage for me, a day at the park, and a romantic dinner for two. Chelsea shared that because she had landed a big design project that she wanted to treat me. Cool, I thought.
I had no idea of what I was getting into.
On the morning of Saturday, April 14th, Chelsea and I slept in as the sun crept into our bedroom. We smiled as the day began. It was going to be a great day.
We grabbed a casual brunch with a friend before making our way to Washington Park. We go to the park all the time, so I thought this was just another standard park Saturday. In addition to wearing my go-to Patagonia jacket, I decided to wear my very loud Colorado hat. Additionally, I had packed a football and frisbee in the car but decided I would grab them after we finished our first lap around the park.
Ironically, as the walk began, I prompted an entire conversation about wedding planning. Washington Park is one of our top choices for a wedding venue and so it seemed fitting and appropriate to start dreaming as we took a stroll around. Oblivious to Chelsea’s nervousness, I suggested we stop at a bench near the North end of the park to take a closer look at the boathouse. Quickly, and probably with some surprise, she obliged. We sat, and I drank a free sparkling water that we picked up along the way.
After a few minutes, Chelsea cleared her throat.
“So, I thought I could show you some of the prints I told you about earlier this week.”
I was confused: why would we be looking at her prints at the park?
I asked, “are they on your phone?”
“No, I brought them with me.”
Opening up her backpack (which now, seemed completely out of place given the fact we were just taking a walk) she pulled out a black book with four prints inside. I opened the book and began taking the prints out, one by one. I tried to let each one sink in slowly. By the third one, I was pretty sure that something special was happening. I could feel it. And, the third print included a short lyric from one of “our songs” that we want to use at our wedding.
Chelsea prompted me on the last one, saying that, “there’s one more,” while turning it around (it was facing backwards near the end of the book). As she flipped it over, I read the simple, but powerful, emotion-laden words, “Heather, my beloved, will you marry me?”
Indeed, it was happening.
Of all the things, I had to ask: “Do you have a ring?”
Obviously, she did. She even had it in the most perfect tree ring box. Every small detail was planned.
My stomach turned to mush, and my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. Tears brimmed swiftly, and I said an emphatic, “YES!”
She smiled and remarked, “I’m not quite done yet…”
I breathed heavily in and out. I wanted to hold onto this moment. Everything was happening so fast. We locked eyes and I felt time freeze as she read a letter she had written for the special day. She read each word with such sincerity. She told me she loved me. She shared the kind of joy she felt in doing life together.
Getting on one knee, she opened the ring box and asked again – “Heather, will you marry me?”
This time, I said a louder “yes” while also kicking my legs back and forth and hugging her tightly. This was really happening. She put the ring on my finger and I gasped. It was stunning. The shock commenced: how had she pulled this off? When did she talk with my parents? Where did she hide the ring? How long had she been planning? Who knew what was happening?
With glee and joy, we called, texted, and messaged family and friends to share the news that we were engaged – again. Double time.
Double engagement is much more than two proposals. To me, the value of two individuals – already whole – coming together and proposing is that we both are opting in. We are both committing. We are both saying “yes.” This is not so different from the real-life reality of relationship: on the tough days, we each have to show up for each other in different ways. We make the choice to be together and we feel that a double engagement symbolizes this important aspect of relationship.
The rest of the day was a dream. Immediately after the park we went to get our favorite kind of ice cream at Sweet Cow. The ice cream shop has been iconic in our relationship; we went there at least 15 times in the first few months of dating in 2016. For the evening, Chelsea had booked a romantic dinner at Dazzle, a Denver jazz club downtown. Sharing champagne, we finally took everything in and celebrated. It was lovely, and I was simply, so happy.
So, now doubly engaged, we are beginning the formidable task of wedding planning. It’s a new step in our relationship, and we’re doing our best to adjust and figure it out.
What I know for sure is that Chelsea will be my human forever. She will be the one I marry.
Life will throw us challenges, difficulties, and hardships – I know this because it already has. And while our life won’t be perfect, I am sincerely grateful that our faith, our love, our hope, and our commitment will be what can stand anything. I am relieved to believe in this kind of love. Chelsea has changed my mind about what is possible with love.
Before, I thought love was an ideal to strive for and a way in which to live a life.
Now, I know that love is power – it can transcend anything, withstand anything, and hold up anything. Love is more than just something to hope for, it is something to be felt, to be shared, to be cultivated. I do this better with Chelsea in my life and if that isn’t a reason to marry someone, I don’t know what is.
Cheers to love and forever and for tree ring boxes.
Over the last month, I have had a book recommended to me, mentioned to me, and shared with me at least four times. The book, The Body Keeps the Score, is a well-known read in the psychology world as the author, Bessel Can der Kolk, is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Massachusetts.
Blending neuroscience, medicine, psychiatry, and healing, Kolk breaks down what we understand trauma to be and how it shows up and manifests in our bodies. Powerfully, he uses case studies, interviews, and research to push the fact that because trauma is a fact of life, it is also an inherent public health issue.
Though only halfway through the book, I have already learned a lot of new concepts, particularly about our brain systems and how information is processed. Moreover, I have learned how this changes for someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the difference is huge. Traumatization re-wires processing functions and thus, reactions to stress occur even if the trigger or the stimulus does not present a viable threat. Kolk explains this process when he writes,
“While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring survival (deep below our rational brain) is not very good at denial. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions, intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often being to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.”
Yeah, I know. Our minds (and bodies) are powerful.
Interestingly, a lot of what I am learning from this book connects to topics, therapies, and theories that I am learning in my coursework in the Counseling Program at University of Colorado Denver. In both of my courses, Counseling Theories and Multicultural Counseling, we have discussed trauma in varying capacities. In Multicultural, we have explored the epigenetics of trauma (intergenerational trauma) when it is passed down and through family lineages. In Theories, we have begun conversations in how to use certain techniques with clients who have experienced trauma, techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), exposure therapies, or stress inoculation training (SIT).
It is all connecting – and usually that is how I know am on to something meaningful and important in my life.
For most of this year (and last), I have been working on reconnecting with my emotions and body. For a long duration of time, it was hard for me to cry and emote for things that would have previously sparked an emotional response (Moana and Coco not included). This left me feeling disconnected and far from the core of my personal self. This is another aspect of trauma that is just as important, but perhaps, less discussed.
Kolk shares in some of the stories about clients he worked with that some “could not feel whole areas of their bodies.” This happened because in some cases, to cope, people shutdown of parts of their brain, particularly the parts that send out feelings and emotions. This doesn’t only affect the negative emotions, the ones that they want to remove, but all emotions, too.
While my experience in desensitization was not as extreme, I still knew that my brain and body has experienced emotional blockage. Through walks, hikes, rollerblading, writing, counseling, and weightlifting, I have come to understand the weightiness of shame and how it blocks us from our true selves. This has been a major part of the emotional blocks that I have felt in the last year and being able to name that has been an important part of re-orientating my self-awareness.
So, what, in this context does healing look like?
For me, it has been about confronting the pain, sitting in silence, recognizing the hurt (non-judgmentally), and taking power back over it. Just trying to identify what I feel in any given moments has been annoyingly slow (to be honest). But also, as I have been able to do this, I can move closer to a radical acceptance of myself.
This begins in the body, mind, and heart and flows outward.
Like I said, it is a long process. But, I have needed to start it, and I am grateful I have. Plus, it’s pretty wonderful to have good books to help, support, and clarify the process along the way.
Kolk proposes the question that guides his work and his book, “how can people gain control over the residues of past trauma and return to being masters of their own ship?”
I am still learning and figuring that out. I think in a large sense, we all are.
Van Der Kolk, Bessel. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
My fingers perch on top of the counter as the sluggish hum of the microwave swirls through the kitchen. The low, faint sounds of humans beginning their day start to flow as night ebbs away. Soon, and not a moment faster, my coffee will be ready.
The clock on the microwave counts down from 1:30, 1:29, 1:28… the perfect amount of time needed to cook the most divine bowl of oatmeal.
I have been eating oatmeal for breakfast for the last six years of my life. It is so habitual to eat oatmeal that when I don’t, I feel out of whack.
Indeed, it’s an art:
1 banana, a dollop of peanut butter, and a sliver of granola (for crunch) and you are on your way to breakfast heaven.
Today, as I groggily mixed my ingredients together, I had a flashback of when over a year ago, I began staying at Chelsea’s apartment and would prepare the same morning breakfast in her mod-sleek kitchen.
Things were different then: I would spend the night, bringing a packed bag (or three) and in the morning, we would wake up, share breakfast (as we read The Skimm aloud), and head into work. I was so giddy with love that I would beam with delight on my commute, almost like someone plastered a smile on my face.
That wasn’t the oatmeal (or the coffee) – I was falling in love.
Now, I still have the same oatmeal for breakfast, but I eat it in our home – usually before early morning calls to Rwanda. In our shared kitchen, I know where everything is, like a sweet song memorized, so I can do it with my eyes half-closed (and sometimes they literally are).
Chelsea and I, at the beginning of our relationship, were so routine about eating breakfast together. It was “our thing.” As I chewed my food this morning, it dawned on me: so much about us and about the rhythm of our life has changed.
These days, Chelsea starts work before the crack of dawn at Starbucks and so the start times to our days are stacked and unsynchronized. And, when she is able to sleep in, I am usually up, on a call, riding the train, or headed to class. I’m working and studying and so when it comes to mornings, there is not a minute to lose. When I look back, of course, I miss those early days.
But, you know what?
Though the newness of our love is fading ever so slightly, the trust, deep knowing, reliability, authenticity, and commitment are coming to bloom. The relationship, I think, is maturing.
For so long, I hated to spend hours (god forbid, days) away from my beloved. And still, I miss her, but now I know what I did not know before: she knows me, she sees me, she loves me – and she isn’t going anywhere. It sounds simple, but the fruit of building a strong foundation is literally just that – a strong foundation. That means that whether or not we are sharing breakfast, I know I get to come home to this spectacularly delightful human each and every day.
This is the woman who:
has taken me to the doctor when I’ve been sick, has run me hot baths on tough days, has stocked my favorite bottle of red wine, has edited my writing pieces, has encouraged me to follow my dreams, has purchased roller blades to accompany me on my adventures, has taken me to the airport at twilight hours, has driven in the snow when I was too frightful, has modeled incredible self-care, has shared her reading list, has sewed my clothing, has dared to be boldly vulnerable and brave, and more than anything, has shown up and loved.
She has filled the spaces of my life and it’s like glue in all the cracks, bringing it all together in a beautiful mosaic. Irrevocably, our lives are intermingled and that is the change I see the most.
We are not like we used to be.
Certainly, that is a common realization upon the process of personal self-reflection, however, it is particularly poignant in the context of a relationship. The relationship has changed, because we – both of us – have.
Our love has been strengthened, too, often by very difficult, challenging circumstances. I never knew that about love – that love doesn’t only grow and beautify because of good things. It grows because even in the murkiest of waters, you know (and choose) the person you want to walk through it with.
Where did the time go?
I think about the swiftness of the year, the months, and the days, as I eat my oatmeal, alone, on the couch before the business of the day arrives. I cannot pinpoint the moment we began to change because we are always in motion, always in progress, always, always learning.
That is enough to know, because I love where we are – whether we share oatmeal, or not.
When I was 13, I bore witness to the death of my great-grandmother.
Slowly, she curled up into herself in those last moments. She was in her late 80’s and so her wrinkly, dry skin held her together like an old leather saddle left in the sun on horseback. Her last breath was ragged and soft. I touched her hand before her soul departed, perhaps hoping to hold onto the last piece of life she could give to the world around her. There were numerous family members circling her bed, including my own grandmother who would pass away a few years later. The air smelt still, pungent, and sad. I felt stuck; I couldn’t look, but I also wasn’t able to look away. I knew this woman, she was family after all, but I did not know her well. So, my heart grieved her life with a kind of distance that is both awkward and strange.
It was the first time that I had seen life leave a human being.
It was a haunting moment.
It was humbling too, reminding me that despite the pervasive differences soaked in the human experience, all of us must wrestle and reconcile the inevitability of our mortality. That is a weighty topic for a young teenager, but in many ways, I was ready to engage with it. I asked (and journaled) about my own life. What would I stand for? What was my purpose? If my life would end someday, what would I want people to remember?
If nothing else, I knew then that life was precious.
Three weeks ago, I had to face the reality of death again, but in a very different context.
As I’ve become an adult, I have learned that death, though bringing about the same outcome, looks different in the life of each person. Some individuals, like my great-grandmother, die in hospice of old age. Other deaths come more unexpectedly, through accidents or painful diseases. Other times, a person suffers for long periods of time, unsure when the end of their life may come.
As it happened, I was visiting a friend and professional contact of whom I had connected upon launching the Denver location of The Women’s Bakery in January 2015.
We laughed more than we talked when we first met, and I knew she would be a positive resource for me as I began to build my professional life back in Denver. With more than 20 years of experience in the legal arenas of business and finance and active involvement for women’s issues in the community, I respected her insights, opinions, and ideas. As 2016 unfolded, we met three times: all for wine. Over deep red merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this woman shed light on what her life had been like and how she had woven her career into the other areas that life offers us.
There was no wine during my most recent visit.
This woman had cancer and she was dying.
Months ago, after we sipped wine on a summer afternoon in the urban enclaves in one of Denver’s trendy neighborhoods, I emailed her about getting together again. Radio silence ensued. Eventually, she responded to my emails and invited me to her mother’s home, where she was now staying, to talk.
I knew it was serious when I saw the long, lingering tubes at the front of the house, connecting to a plethora of oxygen tanks. I knew it was serious when I saw that all her long, bold, red hair had fallen out. I knew that this woman would not continue to live when she looked me in the eyes and admitted to herself and the world that her battle would be coming to an end.
I sat on a chair across from her, silently praying that I would be able to show her all the love, comfort, and dignity that I possibly could. I was scared.
We spoke for 49 minutes.
“I’m so sorry this is happening. How are you getting through this?” I meekly asked.
“Friends. Family. Normal things. I am trying to stay connected as I can. It keeps me grounded. And since the diagnosis, I have been able to talk more openly with people in my life than I have in years.”
Her diagnosis was just a couple of months ago. And, the most recent CAT scans told their own story: she would be dying soon.
“Wow. Why do you think that is? How can you feel free to talk with people in your life like that?”
She hesitated, but only for a moment.
“It’s about healing. And there’s been a lot of it. Take my mom. We didn’t talk for years. And with this, we have reconciled and acknowledged where we have both been wrong over the years. Situations like this bring experiences like that about.”
In an effort for true empathy, I mentioned a difficult conversation I had coming up with some people in my own family.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what is it about?”
I told her the truth. I told her everything.
And she smiled. Slowly. And then, she spoke words that I can still hear echo softly in my heart,
“Be patient. Love well. You are being exactly who you are supposed to be. But remember the journey you have traveled in this experience – others must take it too. Remember to have compassion on those that may not understand. You’ll see. Love is bigger than you think.”
I nodded. I felt encouraged. I was relieved.
I handed her an old black cardigan and a reading light.
She pushed me further in conversation.
“You are a woman of faith. Have you always loved Jesus?”
I was honest about that too.
“I’ve been a Christian for a while. 10 years, maybe. But only in the last couple of years have I understood what it is to be free of the rigidity and system of religion. I didn’t know that loving God was inherently a relationship. But when I knew that I was free from perfection, acceptance, and proof of worth because of Jesus’ love, my life changed. When I discovered that knowing God is far more of a relationship, I began to be free of my own fears.”
She seemed to agree willingly and quickly, “Fear. I think religious systems promote this more than anything. And let’s be real, we all probably need a savior. From fear, and, I think, from ourselves.”
I pursed my lips in soft agreement.
“You’re right. That’s the crazy thing; modeling a life like Jesus is far more radical than a lot of churches like to admit. Recognizing the impact of real, living grace is powerful. It’s not about following a set of rules. It’s a changing of heart. It’s a transforming of a mind. Jesus has provided me the freedom to love God, myself, and others. I can’t really describe it.”
I must have described it well enough.
One week before her death she sent me a short email.
“Dear Heather, thanks! I also wanted to let you know that I consider our conversation to be the time I accepted Jesus as my savior! Like I said, we all need one. I already treasure our friendship!”
My mouth dropped and I cried.
I took her wisdom as I’ve entered difficult and important conversations in this season. I’ve held tightly to her word: compassion. It’s a word that has been repeated to me, time and time again, and so I suppose that’s what I’m learning: compassion creates pathways for healing and growth. It’s painful, but my, it’s necessary.
I learned of her death while driving late last Friday afternoon into the southern range of the Rocky Mountains. I pulled over. I exited my car, holding on the ledge for balance, and breathed in the chilly air with a new kind of heaviness.
Death had taken her early. Still, she left me (and I presume many others) with advice and hope to keep going.
We never know what life might teach us. We don’t know what death can teach us, either.
What I do know is that each person on this planet, friend, enemy, foe, colleague, neighbor, or the annoyingly slow driver ahead of us can teach us something. We are all teachers. We are all students.
I miss this friend of mine. I miss her quirky-sassy attitude. I mourn all the lives that are lost early. And I hope, fiercely hope, that we don’t take for granted the people around us for this very reason. As I learned when I was 13, life is fragile. Beautifully fragile. May we see it, and may we know it.
As I peruse my old journal reveries and recollections from the stacks of notebooks I have kept, I notice that, clearly, I’m a sucker for benedictions.
Page after page, it’s not unusual to find text I have written of well-wishes, inspiring quotes, and beautiful blessings spoken into my life – whether after a church service, a ceremony, the ending of a major life event, or from the mouth of a friend.
It makes sense, I suppose, to enjoy the intention, meaning, and tradition of benedictions. By its nature, a benediction is defined as, “a short invocation for divine help, blessing and guidance.” The words Latin roots are bene (well) + dicere (to speak).
I was spurred, along with other members of my Peace Corps cohort, with well-wishes, bravado, and yes, a benediction unto Rwandan communities across hills, valleys, and lakes as we began our service.
When I wrote about it later, I mused,
“…I, too, had tears in my eyes, knowing that the journey is young, like I am on the cusp of a life I have eagerly wanted to make. I’m closing my eyes. I’m jumping in. And I know without reservation, God is with me all of that way. He has to be.” – December 16, 2011
Each of us would take our bags, leave Kigali, and go.
I etched the words of the benediction given to us in my journal, too, hoping the reverberation would be a reminder for when I would need it. It was spoken ever-so-eloquently by a Peace Corps Staff member, notable for providing the same benediction each and every year to graduates – it was that powerful.
As we received it, my life changed.
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
There are moments in life that physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually touch you. Your skin becomes prickly, your belly turns upward, like a whale catching its breath. You lose words and gasp at the idea of articulating what you are feeling. These moments are brief, but certainly, they do come.
The rawness of Whitman’s hopes for humanity left tear-stains on my cheek. Could – and would – my life play out like the kind of poem he says?
Instinctively, I knew my life would be different after that day.
Turns out, I was right.
Benedictions are powerful because they combine what is so wonderfully mystical about God – one, entering humbly in a posture of receiving, and two, simultaneously (and boldly) proclaiming what you know to be true. In other words, benedictions encourage listeners to enter the world with eyes open and hands up. We recognize that we are not God. But, we are also not a doorknob, a sheet, or pomegranate lotion. The blessing, then, has potency. Active agent, if you will. Much like yeast in bread.
God may have all the love, grace, and peace for you – but you have to step forward to receive it.
This implies choice. This implies an intentional step-forward. We’re alive. My, how miraculous.
Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass has stuck with me for all these years because it outlines, I believe, what it means to be alive. Not quite a manifesto (it’s a bit gentler than that), Whitman captures the human spirit at its best.
And, I’m glad I copied it in my journal. That way, I can return to it – over and over again, recognizing my own need to be reminded of the soulful glaze it places upon my heart. Words soften me, reminding me that the gritty parts of our world don’t have to rule over all.
My hope for myself – and others – is that we seek often the benedictions life presents. Benedictions keep life fresh and relevant. The darker corners of life will tell us that “it’s all for nothing” or “we can’t change the way things are” or “it’s all to hell and hand-basket” or “there isn’t anything we can do.”
Those are lies.
I can say for myself, I did not reach 27 years of age unscathed. I believed some of these lies at times. I have believed worse ones as well.
Far more than a question of embracing an optimist or pessimist identity, I choose to see the world in a certain kind of way. It’s redemptive. Sure, it’s broken.
But I’m sorry, that’s not the end of the story. Benedictions exist to remind us that there is always more to the story.
Whether it’s gossip, fear, bills, stress, or anxiety that keeps you up at night, I sincerely hope your eyes will widen (with your hands placed upward) to receive the blessings present in the midst of all this…crap. Crap is injustice. Crap is hate. Crap is poverty. Crap is hunger. Crap is war.
Both are true: we’re alive, but sometimes, our lives are marred by the crap all around us.
Let’s redeem it together, even on the really, really hard days.
Laced between, I am sure, we can find soft whispers of benedictions all around us.