Holidays and The Marital Argument

Mom tells me she is not planning to come for Thanksgiving this year. Yes, it is a long trip. And yes, we have been able to see each other several times this year. But it’s Thanksgiving. It is practically Family Day.

When we talk on the phone, she is concerned about me and my husband. “He might have finals that week. Most semesters end at the beginning of December, and it’d be really stressful for him if I stayed with you while he was studying for finals.”

I know what this is about.

They say that each marriage has just one argument and every fight comes down to that one disagreement. If that is true, then this is our argument. It boils down to this: I want anyone and everyone to feel completely at home in our house. R would be perfectly happy if no one besides the two of us ever stepped foot inside.

The last time my mom came for Thanksgiving, we had her stay at a friend’s house. I thought this was an okay arrangement. We were living in a one bedroom apartment at the time while the friend had two extra bedrooms. Mom and the friend both woke up early, drank coffee together, and went for morning walks. We spent our days together together. Both Mom and our friend like to go to bed early, so they would turn in while R and I would stay up. But this was a step in the wrong direction, the beginnings of a negative message.

This summer, Mom came to visit again. And things did not go well, to say the least. It was days before we were all to go on a two-week family vacation and R was feeling stressed. Okay, we both were feeling stressed. The story is long and shameful. Suffice it to say, the Marital Argument flared. I said, “Fine. Whatever,” as passive aggressively as I could. And we booked an Airbnb for Mom.

This was, I hope, the low point in this saga. When we came back from vacation, I said, “Look, Buck-o, family is important to me and it’s important that they feel welcome in my home.” And now we are trying our best to both get what we need.

But underlying all of this is a complicated web of compulsions, fears, and love. For as long as I can remember, one of my core irrational fears has been that my family will not think I love them. And here I am – giving them a very good reason to think that. How could they think I care about them if I won’t even let them stay at my house?

Another thread, though, is that I tend to disappear in relationships. I figure out what everyone else wants and entirely disregard what I want. I hide my true feelings until my passive aggression is palpable. And then, one day, I explode. When I’m with two people who want opposite things and someone asks me what I want, I can’t comprehend the question. What do you mean what do I want? What does that matter? There are already enough people in this equation to try to please. I want what you want, and that’s all. In short,  I have no boundaries.

But we know it’s healthy to draw some lines. So what lines are okay and what are not? Why am I asking you this? I need to ask myself. I know what R is okay with, and I played by those rules for a while. But that’s not me. It’s true that hosting people can be stressful, but I’m willing to put up with that because I want my family close to me. Does this mean that I need to cancel all of my plans to become a 24/7 taxi service? Probably not. Does it mean that I will go to the bus stop to pick up my mom even if her bus comes in at four in the morning? Yes, yes it does. Because I want my family to feel they can trust me, and I want them to feel safe when they visit me.

So maybe it does matter what I want. Maybe that is the answer to this whole question – not me trying to live between two seemingly opposite sides, but me choosing the third way of meeting my own needs.

Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not convinced.

What Remains


The trees outside my house

Yesterday, I attend the funeral of my young friends’ mother, of my friend’s wife. After she past, I thought often about the loss, about the deep hole that would now mark their days. But at the funeral were 400 people. The kids ran with their cousins. Their grandma put a hand on their shoulders. The church basement was filled with salads and brisket and friends lined up, ready to serve.

A chasm may have opened, but they sky is still the same, and so is the sun above it. It is a truly awesome blessing to have a community and a family who sees the ground split and responds by pour in waves of love.

The landscape may not be torn through the death of a loved one in order to change. I snap at my mother, or argue with my husband and then give him the silent treatment. I see that my friend is calling me, but don’t pick up. The leaves die and fall. The wind blows and sweeps them away. In the strain of relationships, you may be standing in the wind, bare branches exposed. But the trees remain.

In the loss of my dad and my shift in to married life I feel myself struggling to navigate relationships. I don’t see the people I care about as often as I’d like to, and then I’m wracked by guilt. When we are together, the branches blossom and the leaves shine brilliant green. But when I don’t stay with the family for all of Christmas break, or when I don’t host them at my house over Thanksgiving, the wind whip

s and the leaves shower down. In my irrational fears, I worry that I’ve lost my loved ones. But though the branches are bare, the trees remain.

Every Sunday at church. Every holiday when the family is together. Every phone call. Every third Thursday when I have dinner with my college roommates. Every month when my husband reminds me it’s the 12th, and we’ve been married four years and three months. The trees remain. In the push and pull, in the wind and the stillness, in the earthquakes and the chasms, in the sun and the snow, the trees grow and change, but they remain.

Because love is stronger than arguments or changing schedules or new family members.

What Happens to Those We’ve Lost?

This last week, a friend lost his wife and two young friends lost their mother. She was ill for a time, and suddenly she was very ill. In my mind, I saw them standing at the precipice. I saw the ground crumbling beneath their feet even while the kids went to school and practiced the violin and had a birthday sleepover. I felt the ripping. And then, in a flash, she was gone. And the ground fell away.

Suddenly, I am back in my parents’ yard staring at the flowers under the porch. My cousin comes out to sit beside me. I know I should be preparing my funeral speech, but in my mind is nothing but a quiet hum and all my body will do is sit in front of the wall and stare at the flowers.

This Monday, I warmed up leftover ribs for dinner and wondered what the family was eating. Were they eating? I couldn’t imagine even moving after such a precipice opens and everything in your heart tears. Where is there to go? You can’t walk over the canyon, so you just stand at the edge and stare, trying to remember what used to be.

I’ve been reading a lot about contemplation and mindfulness and the essential beauty of this very moment. This moment is life and in it, we fill our bodies with sweet air and reach our hands to another and feel the sun on our skin. But one thing terrifies me about this current instant, and it is that it is already gone.

What happens to everything that has vanished? I cannot hold it, and memories are certifiably unreliable. Where is my dad? Where is my friends’ wife and mother? My grandma? Where are they? Who’s to say I didn’t just make them up and the current reality has always been? More likely, who’s to say my mind didn’t fabricate and bend all of my memories of them?

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe this whole question is the product of individualism. How very self-centered  and small of me to look inside my own memory and experience for evidence of the past. The evidence is not within me, but within the community and the wider organism that moves this world forward. Because I live in pin-pricks of seconds, but life itself lives and breaths in a steady, ongoing pulse of love.

The book I’m reading says

Life isn’t about me. I am about life!… We’re part of a much larger mystery. Don’t take this private thing so seriously. The primary philosophical and spiritual problem in the West is the lie of individualism…I need to recognize that I’m in a river that is bigger than I am. The foundation and the flow of that river is love. Life is not about me; it is about God, and God is about love. – Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr

If I am part of the river, so is my father. So is my friends’ mother. And my Grandma. And my classmate. And your loved one. The evidence of their lives is that they have all added to the flow, have all brought us to the where we are now, and their trickle and murmur has not disappeared.

Either Lost or Found

In the last post, I talked a lot about falling and recovering, about belief and unbelief, but I think there is more that needs to be said about this.

Evangelicals can use a lot of “before and after” language. No big shocker that transformation is a key theme for born again Christians. We once were lost, now we’re found. We were blind, now we see. We have been raised from death to life. In youth group when we were crafting the story of how each of us came to know Jesus, we were told to have a clear before and after description. How has your life changed for the better because you follow Christ? A hard question to answer when you grew up in a Christian family and prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at the age of four.

When people start to have questions or do things that don’t seem very Christian, we talked about them “backsliding,” “turning away,” or “losing faith.” Then the only solution is to rededicate your life to Christ which should, presumably, solve the problem and place you firmly back into the Good Shepherd’s fold.

It all comes down to a binary faith model. If you believe, you are in. If you don’t believe, you are out. We used to have questions. Now we have answers because we found Jesus and now we live in the light.

But for those of us who are juggling questions like a mom of four juggles schedules, all the belonging and not belonging gets really exhausting. Perhaps the questions are the point, not the answers.

Richard Rohr speaks of God as a mystery, always beyond us. Something we must always learn to see. Perhaps this connects to the teaching of Jesus that we must always come as children: not as those who know, but as those who have much to learn.

Labyrinth, Maze, and Unbelief

The difference between a labyrinth and a maze is that a labyrinth has no dead ends….I don’t know if the path’s all drawn out ahead of time, or if it corkscrews with each step like in Alice’s Wonderland or if, as some like to say, we make the road by walking, but I believe the journey is more labyrinth than maze. No step taken in faith is wasted, not by a God who makes all things new. – from Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans

What happens when faith begins to feel like a pair of shoes that doesn’t fit? When the doctrine of childhood starts looking like a flannel-graph board or a screen of talking vegetables and the question comes: What of this do I actually believe?

The Western church is bemoaning a drop in attendance. Where are all the young people? I’ve been asked several times in the past months. Why are they leaving? And in between these questions, in coffee shops and backyards and cars, my friends are saying, “I just can’t go to church anymore.” Together, we are shifting questions like moving boxes, opening and unpacking them before finding them new homes.

We are in good company. But I don’t mean with the other thousands of young people leaving the church. Amidst the deep quakes and ruptures in my faith, I have sought out the writings of others who weathered the same storms and, in the end, found themselves in the presence of God.

I’m currently reading Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr. In it he quotes Julian of Norwich who said “First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. But both are the mercy of God.”

Could you ever imagine a world in which your step out of the church was a mercy of God? What if this fall she describes isn’t the “life of sin” some Christians like to describe in what they call their testimony, but actually a fall away from belief? I know many people whose paths have led them to so many questions, so many incongruities, contradictions, and pain, that they have finally said, “That’s it. I can’t believe. I don’t believe.”

That’s the end, right? If you don’t believe, you certainly can’t be a Believer. You certainly can’t sign the statement of faith. You certainly can’t be a member of the body of believers. If you don’t believe, you are out.

But what if it’s the opposite? What if Rachel Held Evans is right and there are no dead ends, only a long, winding path that leads us closer to the center? What if Julian of Norwich was right and the fall leads to the recovery?

My guess is that many people come to this point of unbelief – probably many more than would ever say so. After all, if not believing means not belonging, why would I ever admit to it? But Richard Rohr asks, “How did we ever lose that kind of wisdom (that the fall is one of God’s mercies)? Especially when it is almost everybody’s experience?” Almost everybody? Really?

Perhaps it is no coincidence, no fluke at all but actually clear cause and effect that when I  finally said, “No, I don’t believe in a God I have to chase,” was the moment I felt a breath of a God who is here.

There’s no answer, no problem-solving, simply awareness. You cannot not live in the presence of God. (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs)

More to come…



An Old Poem Comes Back

I wrote this poem at least twelve years ago, not having any idea that at the ripe age of 33, I would feel very much like a swirling mess of questions.

On Viewing “Resonant Presence, 2003
Pastel and Mortar on Wood”

The satchel flew open the other day
as she was walking home
and a million white scraps floated out.

They filled the air with
fluttering and twisting,
blinding her with windy movements.

She spits hair and spins to catch the quickly dispersing traces.

Tonight on the dim floor of the apartment
She—knock on wood—
will arrange them into a worthy testimony.

Tags of a blue sky mobile
drape down into the gusts
—and the shaking of the world slows.

Firmly, she guides each stray scrap
back into the satchel
and secures the latch.

Now, she thinks, at least,
I am all here,
And not there,

so wandering in the swirling world.


Loss and Changing Shape

Who am I? Over and over this summer I asked this question. Who do I want to be? And, the question that came with a crash that felt like slamming hard into sizzling sidewalk, in my effort to keep everyone happy, have I yessed myself out of existence? 

After listening to this crises, a long time friend told me that yes, she had noticed me acting differently after I got married. Doing some things that didn’t seem like me, but maybe were me shifting to please the husband? The thought plagued me. Yes, I know I can shape-shift depending on my company. I can “like” things I don’t really like to make someone else happy. But at what cost? Have I lost something core to myself? And what was that self, back before 2015? It seems like a world away.

In 2015, getting married was not the only thing that changed for me. That year, all of the pieces in my life were thrown up in the air and given a good, solid shake. In February, with only a few weeks notice, I put off student teaching, packed all of my things, and moved to my parents’ house in small-town South Dakota. There, I and my sister stepped outside of our lives and joined our mom in a very focused alternate life of caring for my dad. He had just been diagnosed with a quickly progressing terminal neuro-degenerative disease.

When I returned to Minneapolis in July, it was to a different home, a new husband, a new job, but more than that my family of four that had been mutilated into a family of three. It has taken me years to realize the extent to which, yes, I did change after I got married. How could I not have?

You could say, and I have often told myself, that not much changed at all. Dad was here. Now he’s not. My weekly calls home are now to one person instead of two. I don’t have to think about Father’s Day cards. It’s one less Christmas present to buy. What’s the difference? But a triangle is not the same as a square. How can a chair stand with one leg missing? I am a cat – wobbling a weaving after a ten year old cut off its whiskers. Without my dad, the foundation of not only my upbringing but my spiritual development, how can I know who I am? How can I create this new role as wife and teacher?

With loss comes the staggering realization that this world is not stable. We. The tiny critters that crawl over this planet are dying off at amazing rates and quickly reproducing. And every single one of those deaths is utterly earth shattering. Every one changes everything.

This summer, for the first time in many years, I returned to my home town and stayed a while. This was place where people knew me – the pre-2015 me – with no introductions. A place where I had no need for Google maps. And it felt like tracing the hand of a loved relative – of my grandpa, or my father – or maybe like tracing my own hand. After wandering so long through the landscape as a stranger, everywhere I went were people who knew me.

My family has changed. My home has changed. But, somehow, this place had not. And for those five days, this place was steady.