The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.


When you wonder if you’ve buried the best of you…

It wasn’t that life had been idyllic before my mom left us, though I had been told that from the outside it appeared so.  There were certainly fault lines that our home had been built on. Generations of our family, in fact, had built along these fissures. So maybe that thing that shook us all to our core, leaving us each feeling permanently off kilter, was unavoidable. When you ignore the growing rifts, can you reasonably expect that there aren’t eventually going to be damages? Casualties even?

But here’s the thing: When the event comes along that shakes the very foundations of your life and leaves everything permanently changed you determine, though perhaps subconsciously, never to be caught unawares again.  You live the rest of your days shadowed by the grim reality that the Earth on which you stand might so very easily be broken to bits.  Knowing how you barely survived that first event, you brace yourself at the occurrence of even the most trivial vibration, an almost constant subtle tension defining your musculature.  In places where you feel exposed a bit you notice yourself  holding your breath, keen not to miss the most minute signals in your surroundings that could indicate the ground’s about to drop out from under you. Your hyperawareness feels like a matter of life and death.  You live with a low-grade sense of dread that, after so many years pass, you just assume is a part of living. Though you experience joy, you never trust it to stay.

When I talked last week about unpacking that pretty box that we buried when our family exploded, and worrying less about whatever gruesome things we might find and more about the beautiful things that we might have buried forever, this is what I meant:  Would I open that box we’d closed to find eyes, clear and hopeful, peering out at me.  Eyes that are better attuned to the beauty in the present than the danger in the future?  Would I find feet, bare and dainty, made for nimbly navigating instead of ones weighed heavily to the ground in cumbersome, steel-toed preparedness?  Would I find skin that freely takes pleasure in soaking up the comfort and warmth of another’s embrace instead of skin that pulls away in anticipation of the next loss.  Would I find a heart radiating with hope instead of one buckshot with disappointment so deeply and inextricably buried that it has shaped the very manner in which it beats?

Did what happened to me as a child permanently and irrevocably damage me?  Would my life have been better had those things never happened? More importantly, would I have been better if they had never happened?

Did my circumstances shape who I’ve become?  Without a doubt. My circumstances may have shaped me, but I also know that there is only One who defines me. Every single thing that touched my life first went through His perfectly loving, perfectly wise hands.  All of my days were written in His book before even one came to pass.  He has kept track of every tossing and turning night and every tear I have shed as if collecting them, that not even one might fall to the ground forgotten by Him.  And what will He do with them?  With every. single. one., He will work it for my good.  To think of that!  Nothing will be wasted by the Great Redeemer when it come to bringing about good, not even a single tear. He promises His people who mourn-

“to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

Isaiah 61:3-4

Sometimes it is hard for me to trust that God’s good is really and truly that good.  A lot of people and a lot of things promise good, but I’ve been disappointed so very many times. And the truth is that all this supposed “good” that God is doing has felt an awful lot like excruciating, searing pain.  It has felt like death. It has felt like He’s broken my bones in order to reset them, but to me my bones appeared perfectly fine in the first place. It felt like everything that I could possibly cling to, the very things that I could depend on to shelter me, were ripped from my grasp.

My familiar home, my community, my church family, my parents as I knew them…These are not unreasonable things for a 12 year-old to depend on.  But all of them seemed to be torn from my grip and remained out of my reach for years as I stumbled toward adulthood, ostensibly on my own.

To be honest, I don’t have a perfect understanding of why tragedy and suffering are allowed by God. And I’m still praying that God would reveal to me how He held me during those times when I felt so very alone. But I am slowly starting to understand parts of how God used those very painful years for good.

First, He used it to teach me the destructive power of sin and to determine to diligently pursue what He has said is best and trust His perfect wisdom above my own feelings and inclinations. (I’ll have to save this part of the discussion for another day, though.)

Second, He is showing me the superiority of placing my hope in Him above all else. Because when even the very earth crumbles around me, He does not.

Though people let me down, He never lets me go.

My own dreams and plans may fail, but His gifts and His call on my life are irrevocable.

What others intend for harm, He uses for good.

And even when I am not faithful to Him, He remains faithful to me.

So though I don’t fully understand why we are handed over to death and suffering to achieve life and wholeness, I will remember that what I cling to will largely determine how I weather the storm. If I wrap my arms too tightly** around temporal things, things that can crumble as easily as I can, when what I’m holding onto inevitably falls then so will I.  But if I choose to build my life on the Rock that cannot be moved and turn my focus to things that are imperishable (Him, His promises, His love, His plan for good) then I will not be destroyed.

I am changing my strategy now to this: When the storms of life have their way and a path of destruction seems to have carved deeply and painfully through things we tend to value in this world, I will still be found standing on solid ground with my gaze fixed on Him, my vision full of that which is of greatest beauty and worth.  Because everything that fell away was perishable anyway.  That which was present at the beginning and that which will be victorious in the end is eternal. And THAT is truly what I crave.  Eternity, after all, is what we were made for.  And though I don’t always feel this way, I am determining to trust that He will make all things beautiful in their time:  Whatever is dead in that box is not as good as what He is bringing to life.

Are there parts of yourself and your life that you thought were beautiful that you had to bury?  Why do you think that happened?  How do you find that balance in your own life; joyfully embracing the gifts but not grasping them as if they’re our life preservers?

**I do not mean we should not cherish and receive as gifts those things that we can enjoy here on Earth.  It’s just to say that we can’t hold too tightly to them.  If we lean the full weight of our hope on them, we will surely find ourselves toppling eventually.  And if another person is that upon which we are leaning we may crush them as well.



Walking Wounded

It has taken me a long time to recognize how my mother’s leaving impacted my life.  I knew it was painful and that it affected me somehow, but I think it has taken becoming a mother myself to recognize how profoundly it marked me.  As a mother, I’ve always felt like I was performing the job with significant impairments.  Something felt missing, deformed, less-than-whole, broken….and I wondered why is this so hard for me?  So many others seem to do it with such ease.  Why has this role left me feeling like I’m limping and dragging my way through something that comes so naturally for so many others?  I had a vague notion that some of it connected to what happened when I was younger, but never a true understanding of the depth and scope of it until recently.  One day I sat down to write and this is what came out:

It was as if the living and breathing organism that was our family had swallowed a time bomb.  Maybe someone should have heard that suspicious ticking and done something earlier to disarm it.  Probably an adult should have.  But instead, and I guess I can’t even say “all of a sudden” because it was a time bomb after all, one day it finally exploded and what-used-to-be a-family abruptly became a collection of pieces, bloody bits of flesh, splattered across the pavement.  Individually we were still alive, throbbing and warm, but the family as a whole was a gruesome disaster and no one could bare to look, it seemed.

One by one we realized that no one was going to scrape us up and put us back together. No one was going to rush over to take our pulse or assess the damage.  Eventually and separately,  each fleshy and mutilated member just slowly started scrunching and writhing its way along the road in different directions, trying to get somewhere.  Just trying to get anywhere but there, where the fires of the explosion still burned.  We were all reduced to raw, disfigured members ripped from a previously living body, trying our best to just survive on our own.

Where were those spectators you always hear so much about?  The ones that just have to look at that train wreck, that can’t peel their eyes away?  We belonged to this community of people, a tight knit fellowship of Christians who met in each other’s homes and let the kids play night games together under the warm glow of the streetlights outside after dark.  And we belonged to a large extended family who gathered on our porch to play jubilantly in a pots-and-pan band or swapped cousins for summer vacation.  But either the mess was too horrific or the people, those people that were supposed to be “my” people,  were too polite to stare at our disaster or too clean to get involved in our mess because no one ran towards us to help us scrape up the pieces of us that might have still been salvageable.

Maybe it wasn’t an accident at all.  Maybe my mom had served the family that time bomb, hoping it would launch her into a whole new place.   After all, she had traveled down that isolated road and made her way through the doors of  that sterile, new apartment before she let everything explode.  Had she driven away to a place deserted of everything and everyone familiar precisely because she didn’t want anyone else to witness the grisly and lurid dismemberment of our family?  My dad later told me that when my mom became obviously pregnant, people had started to show up unannounced to admonish her for the affair.   Part of the reason she had moved away was to escape those prying presences.  But what she had done to spare herself the public shame had instead compounded the injuries inflicted on each of us by isolating all of us from any other whole and familiar body of humanity that might have offered a transplant, an infusion, a graft of something living and healthy when we were all mortally wounded.

I now  wonder what would have happened if the pieces had been gathered up sooner.  If a trauma team had shown up to see what they could save; to help us stitch together the places our flesh had been torn apart.  Even if the family didn’t survive, perhaps each of us would have fared better.  It might have been like those medical miracles when someone is able to carry a dismembered hand in a bag of ice to the emergency room quickly enough so that it’s still viable.  Some genius doctor manages to sew it back on and reconstruct it.  Or at least salvage part of the arm and put on a good prosthetic.  Instead, each of us left too long to ourselves, we all suffered internal bleeding, infection, gangrene set in.  The longer we were left untreated, the worse it all became. And as the years went on, the more we were expected to just perform like everything was normal, the more obvious our injuries became to each of us.  Yet the more aware we became of our mutilation, the more desperate we acted to hide it.  The deeper we buried our wounds, the more hazardous the infection became. Because we didn’t take the time to assess the damage and clean out the wounds, we ended up with even worse long-term damage.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  When it happened, I think that our parents very much hoped that if they just smoothed things over, everyone would be fine. If they didn’t say it out loud, maybe we wouldn’t notice it was happening.  As if trying to address what was happening by talking about it- by trying to offer explanations, definitions, a sense of direction, would be like putting up road signs or caution tape around the scene of an event and would just draw more attention. Very quickly we were given the impression that everything was supposed to be ok.  Look!  No bloody carcass here!  Everything is very neat.  Very sanitary.  We never talked about the dirty details, the specifics like the decline of the marriage, parental neglect, the affair, the abandonment, divorce….We talked about “what happened when we were little” in broad terms in passing, but never named it out loud and never ever, ever dwelt on it.  The entire time, my parents did the best they could to avoid any outward appearances of trauma.  As years passed we would spend holidays all together, both parents and their significant others whenever possible.  My parents never argued in front of us.  If we brought up the topic of what went wrong, it was quickly dismissed.  It was obvious to us that our pain, our wounded selves, could make other people uncomfortable, angry, sad or even repel them.   It was almost as if we had stuffed the remains of that exploded organism of a family into a very pretty box.  Eventually, when we were together we could talk about the box, but never about the rotting flesh inside.  And certainly we should never mention it to someone else outside of us.

My siblings and I spent the next several years after the explosion as walking wounded.  The members of the family, all of us missing bits and pieces here and there but still alive, found ways to reconstruct ourselves in whatever way we each could to survive. I felt so horribly disfigured, so bloody and raw inside, I couldn’t bare to have anyone really look long enough at the real me me to notice the damage.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d never be whole again.  I’d always be this person, permanently scarred, disfigured in places that I was afraid to let the world see.  So, I did what I could to build an armor around my marred flesh.  I adorned myself with pretty accomplishments and shiny achievements that might make me less offensive to gaze upon.  With no rational adult brain to help me frame the situation, it was up to my not yet fully developed gray matter to make sense of it all.  This wasn’t that big of a deal, I reasoned.  Divorces happened all the time.  Adultery was not rare.  Lots of kids lost parents permanently, so losing mine sporadically shouldn’t be that big of a deal.  This was not the deterioration of the rainforest, genocide, human trafficking….I had no right to feel sorry for myself.  In fact, this is what most adults were saying about this whole phenomenon of families splitting.  What happened to me was nothing special.  It was the story of millions of kids.  Kids were resilient.  We’d be just fine.

I was just fine. It would be fine.  Everything would be fine.  “Fine” is what comprised the battlefield stitches applied so that I could go on in life without bleeding all over everyone and everything I came in contact with. If sometimes I bumped up against a raw spot, wincing as an unexpected emotion flashed into view,  I’d hastily add another stitch:  Come on, buck up,  I’d tell myself, You’re fine.  If I forgot about the injuries and exerted myself in a certain way, I’d mention the curious painful sensation to someone in the family and they’d remind me: Don’t be dramatic.  You’re fine.  

But they didn’t always stick, those stitches we applied.   Sometimes they’d tear open and someone around us would notice raw and damaged flesh.  One rare friend I acquired in high school, one friendship I thought was true, saw something oozing from a wound, and got scared away.  She ended our friendship by leaving me a note at the main desk letting me know she couldn’t be around me anymore because I was “too sad all the time.”  By then, I’d convinced myself that I didn’t have any good reason to be sad.  What was wrong with me?  Better work harder next time to keep it all together, to push it all neatly back inside.  Another time an English teacher read depression in some poems I had handed in.  I didn’t realize not every other teenager i knew didn’t feel like an empty, unlovable, unworthy abyss.  She reported me to the counseling department who notified my parents.  My dad and mom were both there to meet me after school.  They were angry I had exposed family issues.  I was reminded that this wasn’t my story to tell.  I had neglected my job of protecting my mom’s story from being exposed.  Their lives were hard enough without me leaking some messy emotions.

 To this day, twenty years later, we still have not talked about the demise of our family in any real detail, except recently in brief and hushed conversations, one-to-one.  Sometimes when we’re together in a group we delicately touch on the topic, refer to it in passing, kick that pretty box a few time to see if it’s still in tact.  But we never open it up all the way.  I think we’re all too afraid at what we might find after all these years.  What gruesome parts of ourselves we might discover.  Or worse yet, what beautiful parts we might have forever lost.

What moment in your life has left you forever changed? Did you know it at the time?

NOTE: I wrote this piece several weeks before the events in Boston on 4/15 and coincidentally planned to publish it this week.  I hope that the analogy does not offend any who might be affected by that horrific event.

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When Family is Unfamiliar

If life goes along as it should, there is a day when you are an adult when you become the proud owner of a whole new life.  For most people, it happens the day you move out of your parent’s home.   For me, I left my childhood, my life as I knew it, the day I discovered my mother had become the proud owner a whole new life.

I didn’t see it coming, though perhaps I should have.  As far as I knew, we were the family that everyone wanted to be.  Others would seek the advice of my parents.  Young couples would spend hours next to each other on our living room couch, as if just being in our home they’d gain by osmosis the wisdom of an established family.

Then my mother started taking vacations more frequently.  We weren’t really a family that vacationed.  An occasional camping trip was about as exotic as it got and we loved it.  But my mother’s recent destinations had included places like Hawaii or Arizona.  I remember we were a bit jealous of her trips because they took away from us my mother, her time, her attention, money I didn’t know we had.

Resources were limited for us, a young family of six with four children aged 4, 8, 10 and 12.  I didn’t feel poor, but I do remember at school recognizing that we were a sack lunch family.  That’s how you knew where your family stood on the social ladder in grade school.  There were families like ours who had bags, usually of the brown paper variety, packed with a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. When pickings were slimmer at home, our sandwiches were found stuffed at the bottom of the plastic bag that had previously been inhabited by the last slices of a loaf of bread.  And in those slim times, there wasn’t that apple.  Then there were families whose children had lunch boxes, maybe even one with with GI Joe or Strawberry Shortcake imprinted on the front, stuffed with fruit roll-ups, crackers with cheese, juice boxes; the type of lunch box fillings you bought already prepackaged and in individualized servings at a store, not the kind of stuff you picked up in a box from a government building. But ultimately, the thing I was most jealous about were the notes some kids got in their lunch.  They’d pull out their Twinkie and find a handwritten message from their mom taped to the bottom.  They’d pretend to be embarrassed but I knew that paper meant they were special to someone.

So when my mom started coming back with souvenirs from warm climates, I guess I should have known that something had changed.  I was told that mom needed a break and so I suppose what I was expecting was that what we were missing, the time and attention and money she took to travel, would eventually come back to us in the form of a rested mom, recharged and laden with treasures like the fancy, little hotel soaps to dole out to us. But once she left she never really did come back.

The day I visited her new apartment there was no denying it.  I think we were told we’d be seeing our mom after an unexplained absence of multiple months, but I don’t know if I realized that we’d be walking into a whole new life.  That new life was staring me in the face in the form of my new baby brother, lying there on the couch with his scrunchy face peeking out of that pastel blanket in which he was swaddled.  I had known my mom was pregnant, but I didn’t know he had been born.  I think my mom had meant to present him to me as a happy surprise.  I walked in the door and because I was the kind of kid who didn’t like to disappoint, I gave her the reaction she wanted: A smile and a surprised intake of breath, delight at this new life in front of me.

Twenty years later, when I take inventory of that memory I see the reality of what my not quite 13 year-old brain was processing.  This tiny little baby, not yet old enough to have to be able to roll off on his own, perched on that brand new, white, leather couch in that one bedroom apartment.  My mom had not planned for eight eager, young, maybe even grungy, hands to overrun that space and interact for any length of time with that vulnerable baby lying on the couch.  Conspicuously missing were any mementos from our life together- framed photographs or school art projects representing us other children.  That precious baby, that pure white couch, that tiny apartment: My mom’s new home was not planned to share with the four active, messy children that she already had.

In that moment, I was standing in the doorway taking in my mom’s new life but I was also standing at the precipice of the end of my life as I knew it.  What for her was the fresh pastel swaddle, spotless, bright space of her new life was the no-room-for-you, things-will-never-be-the-same, dark, formless void of my new life.  And standing to the side was my mom, with the pride of a new mother looking at that other precious life, who had gone out and carefully feathered her little nest for her baby boy but who hadn’t done anything to make that gaping void any less empty for me.  Nothing had been put in place to make that jump any safer or any less scary.  I was going to have to fend for myself.  And my three younger siblings were coming, too.  But none of us knew where we were, let alone where we were going. All we knew was that there was nothing familiar about where we were.  Nothing family-ar at all.

Was there a particular moment you realized you were on your own?  That your childhood had ended?