Mourning in Times Such as These

Today I am grieving. Grieving over 70,000 lives lost in my country from one virus in just a couple of months. Grieving yet another black man murdered months ago while his white killers still walk free. Grieving the defensive excuses so many people (mostly Christians) I know are making in order to not have to truly mourn these losses. 

Yet, while I grieve, I still sit at my computer updating the school website for the teachers. I wait for phone calls from our textbook reps to get quotes for next school year. I research free ebooks and read alouds and virtual field trips for my students. I increase the tip on my instacart order to make up for the income loss due to items not being in stock. I pet my dog, who comes to visit me in my “home office” for a quick snuggle. I text my global prayer group about books I’ll be dropping off for their kids. I drink my morning coffee, and turn on the fan as the day begins to heat up. 

And yet, I mourn. Or at least, I try to. 

In the middle of an email about school accounts, logins, and passwords I feel like bursting into tears. It passes quickly, and I move on with my tasks for the morning. Lately, my days feel like this – a slightly jumbled mix of emotions as I try to balance living life day to day in faith and hope (one of the most difficult things for cynical me – hope), while experiencing grief for these deep losses we are facing globally and locally. 

I have friends that can’t even try to balance this. And I get it. Friends who are so focused on the pragmatic side of life that they just can’t give in to any emotion right now. The economy, kids at home 24/7, working from home, getting groceries – this is what they can focus on. And, often, only this. 

Then I have friends who are paralyzed in their grief and mourning, lamenting and gasping for breath at the mere thought of the immense loss surrounding us. They become unable to deal with the practical side of day to day life.

But most of us are somewhere in between, just trying to figure out how to survive this time without becoming callous or overwhelmed. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t think I know anyone who has gotten it just right. Most of us lean one direction or the other, becoming either too cold or too emotional, prioritizing either the compassion or the practicalities. 

I challenge each of us to continue to seek ways to be both practical and survive, yet compassionately mourn. If you lean toward just getting on with life, and accepting all of this death and injustice as “normal,” “inevitable,” “necessary,” or “not that bad,” I challenge you to learn to lament. My dear friend, an incredible woman who lives with chronic illness, has a blog called The Curse and the Blessings which can walk you through lamenting via the Psalms. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been recording a series of Songs of Comfort as the pandemic rages, that can help you process your emotions. Spend time in prayer, asking God to help us “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) during this season of loss for so many.

For those of us who lean more toward the emotional side of things, and are struggling to get through the day to day tasks of life, I encourage setting aside time to pray for God to help comfort you, but in a way that makes you capable of reaching out and comforting others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Don’t let this overwhelm you, keeping you in your head. Set some practical steps, like limiting your time on social media and the news. Make a To-Do List that has one achievable goal for each day that week. Bathe your days in gratitude for every little gift from God, from spring flowers outside (even if you’re allergic to them) to a bed in which to rest.

I’m trying to take one or two small steps each day to help me continue to live life and be useful where God has given me tasks to do, but also hold a compassionate heart for those who are hurting right now, including myself. 

If you have anything that is helping you lament, or helping you continue living daily life, please share with the group. We can all use the encouragement and support!

My Brain Won’t Work. I Blame You, Rona!

Each day, I sit down at my desk in my home office (guest room) for a couple hours of online tech support for the teachers as they deal with Home Learning. This new opportunity to get ½ my hours back after 5 weeks without work was a godsend, the gift of administrators who have been doing everything in their power to help me keep some kind of income since campus closed due to the pandemic. Other than this, I have time. “Free” time (without the freedom). Yet, I haven’t written a single blog post, poem, story, or journal entry. My brain exists in some kind of existential fog, incapable of expressing itself in more than the odd Facebook rant, and even those haven’t gone far, mostly deleted before publishing.

 

Yet, I don’t have kids to balance the huge load of online learning with general parenting. I don’t have a husband who needs to use my space, or laptop, or spend time with. I’m not working all that much, and rarely leave the house, so I have way more time to write than ever before. No outside distractions. No excuses. Except maybe that is my excuse?

 

Being a semi-unemployed, mostly-quarantined, insomniac, singleton in the time of a global pandemic leaves the brain way too much time and space. Thank God for my mum, because if I lived alone, it would be even worse. 

 

This mental fog in which I dwell hits whenever I try to focus on something that requires deeper thought. I can get through work pretty well because it’s mostly looking for content, uploading stuff to a Google site, or emailing parents and teachers back about the reading program. Nothing requires truly deep thought. I can watch TV, but only lighter programs or shows I’ve seen before. I can read, but again, only lighter fare or rereads. I couldn’t even finish a puzzle.

 

Even now, my head is fuzzy and my eyes are having trouble focusing. Creating each sentence is like digging through mud. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education helped me feel more sane about my mental deficiencies. “We can’t read. We can’t think. We’re having difficulty communicating. It’s all the profound effects of stress” The Harvard Business Review published an article explaining how what we are experiencing with our emotions and thoughts during this exceptional time is grief, actually several types of grief at once. 

 

This makes sense to me, as I can remember my brain reacting in a similarly floaty way as my dad was dying, and when my sister was having some health problems when she was pregnant, and when I’ve been in a couple different periods of deep depression. 

 

The thing is, I wasn’t expecting my brain to do this now. The day after my campus closed due to a stay-at-home mandate, I made a list. I was going to be Productive! I was going to be Creative and Efficient and get So Much Done. I would come out of this season more awesome than ever. Possibly with a book deal, a more toned body, the thanks of friends whose lives I had made better, a thoroughly KonMari-ed room, a signature cocktail, new life skills, the cure for insomnia, and a redone blog without that darn error code at the top that I just can’t get rid of.

Instead, I’m definitely on track to gain the Covid 15 as my mum has taken up baking again. I’ve had sinus infections and allergies, so have spent a good amount of time in bed, though my sleep is worse than ever (and that’s pretty darn bad, considering my lifelong insomnia issues). My closets and drawers are as messy as ever. I haven’t Facetimed my besties since the first week of this. I managed to get the ingredients for Moscow Mules in one of our Instacart orders, but other than that have been quite happy with just two fingers of scotch, neat. And I haven’t written a word before this rambling thing. I am the poster girl for Quarantine Brain, except instead of a Fight or Flight instinct, I Freeze.

 

I’ve got friends who have been using this time well. Reading Good Books. Writing. Drawing. Painting. Cleaning. Baking. Adopting pets. Raising kids. Learning new skills. And I’m just here, proud of myself for putting on non-pajama shorts today (at noon, after I finished working online). Ah well, to each her own.

 

The one thing holding me together is the same reminder I’ve needed my whole life, the reminder than God loves me. I can rest in that knowledge. He doesn’t love me because I have reached a certain level of productivity, in fact, there is nothing I can do to make him love me any more than he already does, because his love is already complete. Even when these blurry eyes of mine are having trouble focusing on anything, even Him, God is still there loving me.

 

How are you holding up during this time? Comment here, or on my social media, or DM me to chat more about it. 

 

From Sprained Ankles to Leaky Hot Water Heaters

This time of year is always a mixed bag of emotions. In the span of one week we celebrate my mum’s birthday as well as my littlest nephew’s, then move right into the anniversary of my father’s death. This year my life decided to also throw in a mild ankle sprain and a leaky hot water heater.

In the midst of hobbling through my usual workday, birthday parties, a writer’s group dinner, the Downton Abbey movie, GriefShare, a going away party, church, heating up water on the stove, and all the various other little details of daily life there was a low-lying hum of something just not being quite right. For others in my family this year, the hum this week was more like incredible sadness or constant anxiety, but for me grief remained under the surface. It doesn’t always, some years they are pretty unaffected and I’m the one with more obvious symptoms. It’s rarely the same for all of us at the same time, which is nice because we can help each other through when needed. 

So this year I managed to get through the 17th anniversary of dad’s death without too much sadness, but with a couple tears alone at night, digging up a beautiful old photo of us snuggling, and stopping every once in awhile to recognize how much I still miss him. The moment of digging out his old crutches from the garage, the very ones he and I used to trade off between our constantly sprained ankles, brought memories flooding back. And I know the thought of “I wish Gordon was here to help deal with this” is constantly in the back of my mum’s head as she deals with the broken hot water heater. But God gave me encouraging students to help cheer me on as I hobbled around this week, and an endlessly kind and patient neighbor to come rescue us with his special vacuum, and tools, and truck, and knowledge. 

Ah Fall, my favorite season and yet one filled with so much emotion. Our house is already decorated with fake fall leaves, pumpkins, scarecrows, and various adorably haunted things. The nights are cool enough that I can snuggle under my top covers again, bringing me better sleep. Even the days are finally cooling down – I’m even wearing a long-sleeved top as I type this! We are burning pumpkin or apple scented candles non-stop, and may even fire up the fireplace tonight! I love it. But I also have that undercurrent of melancholy coursing through my body at all times.

Perhaps that’s part of growing up, of becoming an adult: we learn to hold both joy and sorrow at the same time, to celebrate life and grieve death simultaneously, to yearn for something lost or that we know we will never have while also reveling in the beauty that surrounds us. I no longer fear holding both things at once, no longer feel the need to only experience one at a time. Part of how I’m able to do this relies on talking to God about it, letting him know what I’m experiencing throughout the day and relying on him to give me peace.

Philippians 4:4-13 keeps coming up, at GriefShare, in my own study, and at church again this Sunday. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

I’m learning that rejoicing in everything and not being anxious require facing the truth of what’s going on and relying on God to get me through it, knowing he always has done and always will. Peace and contentment don’t magically appear after I pray, or throughout the day as I talk to God, but this week I’ve experienced moment after moment when I can choose anxiety or peace, when I can panic or trust God, and this week God’s been gracious enough to grant me the peace. 

As September turns into October, I’m looking forward to more and more crisp, cool weather and nights by the fire with cups of tea and delicious smelling candles. I know the melancholy will be there, but so will the joy. And, as I’m about to dash out to go shower at my sister’s house, I’m really looking forward to hot water again. Praise God for fall, and for healed ankles and appliances.

How the Awkward Spinster Does Valentine’s Day

One of the benefits of having been perpetually single throughout my life is that my expectations of Valentine’s Day are incredibly low. I’m pretty sure I only ever had one boyfriend on this holiday, way back in Jr. High (and he did great, got me a stuffed bear music box that played Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” and little gold plated heart necklace, well done Jr. High boy!), so I don’t really equate this day with big romantic gestures or expensive gifts. It’s actually a day I enjoy, which isn’t the case for all singles, so below I’ll list what I’ve done or am doing this year to celebrate this day of love as a single in the hope that it will inspire you, single or not, to enjoy it too.

In full disclosure, I need to mention that I am writing this while listening to the soundtrack from “Buffy the Musical: Once More with Feeling” as my “romantic” background noise. So yeah, that may effect my subconscious.

To get into the holiday spirit, my mum and I decorated. We have some heart garlands, red glass birds, ribbons, and Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals (from my dad years ago) to scatter about the house. I even brought a garland to hang up in my school library, as well as a sparkly heart. This might seem cheesy or unnecessary, but my family is one that loves to celebrate holidays, and nothing gets you in the mood like a few decorations to mark that this season is a bit different. My students are loving even the couple of little things up in the library because it makes it feel special.

My mum hosted her annual Valentine Tea for the ladies in her Sunday School class. My sister and I used to help host this, but haven’t participated in the last few years as it’s harder and harder to get our friends to come as they marry and have kids and life gets more complicated. But, when we do it, it is surprisingly fun. Finger sandwiches, pots of tea, pastries, and tons of art supplies with which to make homemade valentines will brighten anyone’s February. But, since my mum was having mostly older ladies over who I don’t know well, I took the opportunity to have a few hours on my own – took myself out to lunch, and stopped by See’s Candies for a box of chocolates for mum, and a few truffles for myself. I may have also purchased a nice cabernet sauvignon for myself this week.

(My little niece just came into my “study” to give me a cuddle, then quickly left and said “Ok, now you can continue your work.” Who needs a Valentine when you’ve got this kind of love?)

Another thing I love to do this time of year is rant about the insulting marketing targeting singles. So many companies are trying to include singles in their ad campaigns for Valentine’s Day, as we are a growing economic force, and most are doing it quite poorly. We get the “You don’t need no man, so buy yourself an expensive, unnecessary diamond” ads, and the crate boxes full of stereotypical feminine things single women are supposed to crave like self-help books, skin care items, and chocolate. There are the companies encouraging bitterness toward your exes, ogling scantily clad women, and the ever present call to selfishness as a lifestyle choice since we don’t have anyone else to care for, apparently.

We’re planning on making homemade valentines tonight with our women’s global prayer group, Tea Persisted. And we have Marie Callender’s pie to go along with it. Who do you make valentines for if you’re single, you may ask? Come on guys, love comes in many forms. Just pick anyone you’d like to feel special for a moment – a family member, a godchild, a coworker, or your friendly neighborhood librarian. Stick them in the mail, hide them on a desk, drop them on doorsteps, wherever. Valentines are for everyone.

One of the ladies from my mum’s tea even brought a squeaky, fluffy, heart-shaped dog toy for our westie, so even pets can get valentines!

I’m also going to be contacting my state representatives this week to ask them to fight for government policies that will help the vulnerable. One of the best ways to show love is to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves: the poor, the refugees, the children, the disenfranchised, the sick, the elderly, the disabled, the unborn, the abused, the forgotten. We can say we love people until we’re blue in the face, but it means little if we aren’t trying to help our country enact policies of love rather hate, of care and protection rather than hatred and violence.

And then, on Valentine’s Day itself, my plan is to get in my pajamas as soon as I get home from work, make some dinner with mum, and settle in for some Midsomer Murders or another cozy British mystery series. Avoiding couples taking over restaurants is important. Ice cream or pie or chocolate will be involved for both of us, and quite possibly a good single malt scotch for me.

For those of you who are struggling with this season because of grief, loss, and deep loneliness, know you are not alone. There is a whole army of singletons out there just like you. Feel free to message me through my blog or social media, I’d love to send you an encouraging note. Reach out to others in your life who may also be feeling this grief and offer them comfort, especially single men and women who recently lost loved ones. One of my favorite British comedians, Miranda Hart, is creating a community on social media for those of us who might struggle with grief on Valentine’s Day, so check her out under #HartsValentinesDay. She is in England, so there will be a time difference. But I’m in the States, so again you are welcome to message me!

I’m also working at reminding myself WHY we love in the first place. 1 John 4:19 makes it very simple, “We love because he [God] first loved us.” Simple. Easy. God loved us so much he sent his son to die for us. His love is unending and true. And that’s why we love others. Because if the God of the universe can love a broken soul like me, I should offer that love to everyone around me.

So this year, I encourage you to embrace having no expectations for great gestures, and instead embrace the little expressions of love you can make for the loved ones in your life, near or far. Text your other single friends to let them know you love them. Instead of ignoring it, why not enjoy celebrating the kinds of love we singles have in our lives? Coworkers. Fellow church members. Community members. Pets. Friends. Family. Take a moment out of this week to remind yourself that you are, indeed, loved, that there are people on this messed up planet who care about you, and that the God of the universe loved you first. It might not look like the traditional end to a rom-com, but love comes in many forms and it is all worth celebrating.

Sudden Sad Thoughts and What to Do About Them

There was a moment this week as I sat in my car after work, about to pull out of the school parking lot and head to the comic book store to pick up the new Captain Marvel, a moment in which a fleeting thought flitted through my brain. It was unprovoked and, for me, unusual. The thought was this: “I will never have children.” Attached to this thought was an emotion: a simple, melancholy sadness. Just a statement of fact in my brain and one emotion which then led to other thoughts such as: “I wonder why God didn’t have it in his plan for me to marry and have kids?” and “I wonder why, in this brief moment, I feel sad about this when I thought I was okay with it now?” and “I don’t think I would’ve been a bad mom” and “did I do something wrong?”

Thoughts and emotions like these seem strange to me. Where do they come from? I’d had a good day at work, had actually spent the day with about 150 children in the school library, and was feeling tired and content. I’ve wrestled with the no kid thing for a couple of years now, ever since my body started going into perimenopause early and I was told by the doctor it’s a good thing I wasn’t planning on having children because it would quickly become more and more difficult to do so anyway. Other than the sheer weirdness of being a woman and being told my body can’t do what most other women do at some point in their lives, I was (mostly) okay with this.

I never really had a biological clock tick. Even when I was in my 20s and thought I’d one day be a wife and mother, adoption was my preferred route. I mean, my career right out of college was working with a Family Preservation organization, with foster children and kids at risk of removal from their parents for neglect or abuse. I had already met too many children living in group homes, or shuffled from one temporary foster home to the next, so the desire to adopt grew quickly and powerfully.

As I got into my 30s, I considered trying to adopt as a single woman since a husband didn’t seem to be on the table, but as a typical Californian I could not afford a house or apartment on my own, lived with a roommate, and worked way too many hours to raise a child alone. I deeply respect single women who foster or adopt, but it was just not an option for me with my limited funds and time.

Most of the time, even in those younger years, this didn’t bother me. I was a teacher, a godmother, an auntie, and had tons of kids, from babies through high schoolers, to help raise. I was living the life God led me to live, and was busy and fulfilled. I struggled more with the lack of a date, boyfriend, or husband than I did a child.

Now, in my (very early) 40s, I spend a lot of time being thankful that I don’t have children, that God has allowed me the freedom of singleness and childlessness to pursue a dream job (librarian), to have traveled so much, to be involved in counseling ministries, and to love so widely. Also, I’m exhausted. I don’t know how parents my age do it.

Yet there goes my brain having THOUGHTS, and my heart feeling EMOTIONS, both of which are unexpected and confusing. In the GriefShare sessions I help facilitate at my church, we talk a lot about how grief can come seemingly out of nowhere, how you might think you have it all under control and then, WHAM, it hits you all over again. I’m realizing my grief over the loss of a lifelong dream, expectation, and thing most people do indeed get in their lifetime (but some of us don’t), can still hit me in the midst of contentment and joy.

There are usually triggers for such thoughts and emotions: for me perhaps it was sitting in the car and seeing all of the moms and dads picking up their kids from after school activities. It may have been the fact that no fewer than 5 babies were born to dear friends of mine over Christmas break, which brought me great joy (even now, as I type this, I’m catching myself smiling at the thought of those 5 little scrunchy baby faces and their awesome parents). Another mother I know just suffered a tragic miscarriage, so that is on my heart as well. Perhaps it was purely hormonal (dude, you guys, menopause sucks, and hormones are for real!!!). Maybe the gloomy weather drew out the melancholic in me.

Most likely, there was more than one trigger, as we humans are complex, and there are usually multiple causes for everything we experience. Honestly, getting to the bottom of the trigger doesn’t really concern me. I’m sure this exact same thought and attached emotion will hit me again as it has before. Instead, I’d rather focus on what to do when such thoughts and emotions wage a sneak attack on us.

My mom happened to call about 30 seconds after the follow-up questions had started to spiral in my brain. It would have been easy to ignore the moment, and just pretend like I hadn’t just been sad about not having kids. I would have forgotten about it until the next time it hit. Instead, I decided to tell my mom about it. I just mentioned that I’d had this thought, and it was weird, and I felt a little bit sad, and how odd that was for me. Just acknowledging that it was real, and indeed sad, and okay to feel that way was a relief. Taking 5 minutes to remember that I am in the process of losing a dream and that it’s okay to be a little sad about that every once in awhile was beautiful and freeing. Being able to speak this to my mother and have her listen without judgement, have her tell me it’s okay to feel this way, that it’s normal, that I can feel sad sometimes even though I’m very happy with my life, that was what I needed.

Philippians 4:4-9 says “rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

I think part of being able to rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS is being able to be sad and yet still rejoice. We live in a broken world, and the Lord does not command us to pretend otherwise. We are not meant to bury our heads in the sand and act like everything is always perfect and happy. Christ himself did no such thing in his time here on earth, instead he faced hard times head on. But rather than allowing these unwelcome sad thoughts and emotions to take over, to lead us into the downward spiral of depression (toward which I am already prone), we can have these thoughts and still be okay.

Because I have been praying about the no husband and kid thing for a couple decades now, I am no longer anxious or depressed about it. I feel a peace about my single status that certainly surpasses my understanding. Over the past few years, I’ve also practiced thinking on and practicing the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy things. And, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, it gets easier the more I practice.

So now, I can have a thought and emotion of grief and loss and sadness, like “I will never be able to have a child of my own (whether by birth or adoption), like all these other moms have.” And I can dwell in that sadness for a moment, acknowledge it is real and true, that it is a good and commendable desire, and then I can move on. The downward spiral into deeper sadness or depression is not required, nor is a false pretense that I never feel this way and am always fine with my single, non-mother status. I can feel sad. And I can still rejoice. And I can move on with my day and my life in a way that glorifies God, helps others, and brings me true joy and peace.

Whatever random (or probably not quite so random) thoughts and emotions you have that hit you from time to time, know that you don’t have to wallow in them nor ignore them. You can honor them and yet still find joy and peace in this life. The more you practice acknowledging these thoughts, praying about them with thanksgiving, and turning your minds to the praiseworthy things, the more you will experience the reality that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And having your little nephew make you an imaginary cup of tea won’t hurt either.