Tuesday, September 24, 2013


"In fact there is no way to 'return to the faith of your childhood,' not really, not unless you've just woken up from a decade-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you feel betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life - which means even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived - or have denied the reality of your life."

    --- My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman (emphasis added)

Life is not an error. And he would know - he wrote this book after a cancer diagnosis and a bone marrow transplant. If he says that life isn't an error I have to believe him.

A life of faith is a life of great change. This is reassuring, since my faith looks nothing like it did three years ago. 

I think I've found another author who speaks my language. Soon we'll be on a first name basis like me and Madeleine (L'Engle of course). 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Angry (again)

So many nights this week I've looked at this picture of my mom that I keep by my bed - a picture of her in recent years, before the stroke - and I've gotten ridiculously angry.

Angry that she's gone. Angry that she left us. Angry that she wasn't there for my sister's birthday. Angry that she won't be there for mine. Angry that I can't call her. Angry, angry, angry.

It's irrational, really. I know that. I know she didn't choose to leave us, I know she wanted so badly to be there for all our birthdays, for forever. But that doesn't keep me from wanting to throw something against the wall until it shatters.

And then I look at a picture of her from after the stroke. It doesn't matter which one, all of them have the same effect. I look at a picture of her from after the stroke, and all I want to do is take care of her. I just want to hug her, to hold her hand, to bring her breakfast in the morning. Seeing a picture of her quenches all the anger I felt just a moment before.

I don't know what to do with this. How can I be angry at one version of my mom, and want to protect the other version? How do I reconcile the two? When will I learn that they're the same person.

I really don't have the answer. Maybe I just need to change the picture I keep by my bed.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Deep Speaking to Deep (again)

Today, for the first day in a helluva long time, I opened my Bible. Jesus and me have been just fine, but I just hadn't read much scripture. I've been more relying on the "Jesus is with me even though I walk through the valley of death and dying"sentiment, trusting in the whole grace thing, and kinda ignoring the whole daily devotional thing. (I have to admit, it's been a little liberating.)

But today I cracked it open again. All thanks to Henri Nouwen, of course, and his thoughts on letting deep speak to deep. And thanks to the whole I can't stop bawling for no real reason thing that led me back to Henri in the first place.

So I let deep speak to deep. And that led me to Psalm 42. (I would say it's my favorite psalm, but too many of them get that designation, which is probably cheating.)
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon - from Mount Mizar.  
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your cataracts
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me. 
By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me
a prayer to the God of my life. 
The poetry of this takes my breath away, and speaks to me soul, every time. My soul is downcast, deep calls to deep, the roar of the waterfall, at night his song is with me. Words of sadness, words of comfort, words of truth.

My first Scripture reading and Bible opening in a while was going well at this point. That gave me courage to turn to some of my bookmarks, to see what was speaking to me at least five months ago (yes, I haven't opened my Bible at least since my mom died). And I found Isaiah 55 (again, my favorite book of Isaiah, except I have too many favorite books of Isaiah).
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters,
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk,
without money and without cost.... 
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
I come with little, with even less, with nothing, and I still get wine (and milk) for free, without cost. And someday, someday, I will know what it is to hear the trees of the field clapping their hands.

I was still feeling like this Bible thing was going well, so I kept looking through my heavily worn pages. There I found an old copy of some liturgy from a past prayer retreat, an Evening Prayer liturgy. It had tidbits from my other favorite psalm, Psalm 120.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
O Lord, hear my voice
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.... 
I wait for the Lord
And in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord,
More than watchmen wait for the morning,
More than watchmen wait for the morning.
Out of the depths. I cry. My soul waits for the Lord, with more attentiveness, with more tenacity than watchmen waiting for the morning.

The Evening Prayer liturgy had another tidbit from my other favorite psalm (ha! How many favorite psalms am I allowed to have?), Psalm 27.
I am still confident of this:
I will still see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living. 
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
Even this, this hopeful poem, still speaks to me. I am still confident I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I saw it before, in my mom's smile, the way she just loved, especially in her last months.

With all these scriptures, both of hope and despair, you wanna know what I realized, what's making me think the Bible might not be so bad at a time like this? None of it is trite. Hopeful, yes. Looking forward, yes. But still coming from a heritage of lament. Still speaking out of truth, out of experience, out of the depths, out of pain.

So out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Give me comfort, give me hope in your words of poetry and truth.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

These days...

These days I am:

Watching a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5 (the season where Buffy's mom gets a brain tumor)

Listening to "Once More, With Feeling," the Buffy musical episode on repeat. I mean, seriously - it's the best musical (and the only one that I've seen) that accurately depicts depression. And it has lines like this one:
"Life's not a song.
Life isn't bliss, life is just this, it's living.
You'll get along
The pain that you feel, you only can heal by living"

Listening to Sacrifice, the music from the Buffy episode "The Gift." It sounds like what walking towards death, surrounded by people you love, should sound like.
Sacrifice (From "The Gift") by Buffy The Vampire Slayer on Grooveshark

And, to prove that I'm not just stuck in the Buffyverse...

Reflecting on what it means to say "I love you more than one more day," a quote from The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. When my biggest wish is that I could just have one more day with her, loving her more than one more day is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


I took my friend to the hospital today. He was getting surgery on his knee (it went well) so I offered to drive him to the Richmond Kaiser. I decided to just stay there and work for the day, so I wouldn’t have to drive back and forth to pick him up afterwards. Plus, I’ve had a lot of practice working in hospitals, and I’m very good at navigating Kaiser cafeterias, so it was supposed to be easy.

But at about 6pm, after being at the hospital for five and a half hours, I realized I was tense. Very tense. And exhausted. The kind of exhausted I get when I’m holding myself together by a thread. But I didn’t have time for a breakdown – the nurse was calling me to say my friend was out of recovery and ready for me to take him home.

So I white knuckled it on the drive home, and let the tenseness keep me alert. And then I made dinner, because I had pizza dough I had to use before it went bad. And then, when the pizza was in the oven, and I had set a timer, and I had run out of shoulds that I needed to take care of, I went into my room and cried.

I cried because it was the first time I had been in a hospital since my mom died. I cried because I know how to work well in hospitals, and I can compare quality of cafeterias at Kaisers all around Northern California, and those are stupid things to be good at. I cried because my knowledge of hospitals is what made me feel confident that I could work all day in one, and that same knowledge, or more specifically how I got that knowledge, was putting my body back in survival mode. I cried because of the anxiety that lived in me all day long, an anxiety not caused by rational thought but by some sort of triggered memory I can’t even pin down. I cried because that was the only thing that made sense, because I can’t really rationalize why I needed to cry.

And after that I called my dad. Because after unconscious and irrational anxiety caused by spending my day in a hospital I just needed to hear his voice. I needed to know that he was okay, and that I was going to be okay, and that everything was going to be okay.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Year of Magical Thinking

"Information is control."
"One think I noticed during the course of those weeks at UCLA was that many people I knew, whether in New York or in California or in other places, shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone number they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice…. I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events…. Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful, that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen. This was one of those events. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.  
Many people to whom I spoke in those first days while Quintana lay unconscious at UCLA seemed free of this apprehension. Their initial instinct was that this event could be managed. In order to manage it they needed other information. They needed only to know how this had happened. They needed answers. They needed 'the prognosis.'

I had no answers.
I had no prognosis.
I did not know how this had happened."
These quotes come from Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, which she wrote after her husband’s sudden death and while her daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized for months both in New York and in LA.

Now, I am not Joan Didion. I don’t have friends in high places who can facilitate favors at State or Justice, and I don’t categorize myself as the very successful. But I understand how the people she’s talking about think, and I find myself thinking like that too.

Until my dad’s disability happened, when I was fourteen, I thought that if I just did things right I could control or manage any event that came my way. Maybe I thought that even longer – I don’t think that at fourteen I really understood what had happened to my dad, and that it couldn’t just be fixed by finding the right doctor or the right procedure.

Maybe it didn’t even hit me, I mean really become a reality, until my mom was in the hospital. Until the surgeon came out from surgery and told us she might never really wake up. It wasn’t until then that I realized that I was truly out of control.

And even after that moment with the surgeon I wanted information. I wanted to know all the details, to learn as much as I could about my mom’s surgery, and about what tests they were running, and about the cancer. I wanted to know if she had a seizure, and why the seizure happened, and what medications they were going to put her on to prevent seizures in the future. I wanted to know everything (though I did stop myself for going on WebMD, which was probably a good idea), because knowing everything made me feel like I had a little bit of control.

Information is control. And I wanted all the information I could hold.

Even now I feel that same yen, that same need for information. It gives me a semblance of power in an out of control world.

But guess what? All the information in the world can’t tell me anything about what my mom is doing right now. And all the information in the world can’t tell me when this whole grief thing is going to be over, or when I can get back to normal, or what the word normal means, or how to keep going with all this sadness in tow.

I guess I’ll have to learn to embrace the mystery.

Thursday, September 5, 2013


I don’t know how to be flaky. I don’t know how to cancel appointments, or how to reschedule hangouts, or how to show up to work late, or how to be unproductive, or how to stop doing things.

This might sound like a backwards brag, a “my greatest weakness is that I care too much” kinda thing. It’s really not.

I’m hurting myself by always trying to do my best. I’m keeping myself from healing by trying so hard to do things right, and well, and wholeheartedly. I’m draining myself of energy and joy by trying to act at a capacity I haven’t been at for at least two years. I’m killing myself by being a perfectionist.

I’m back at work, I’m back in Oakland (kinda – I still miss a lot of Sunday’s at church, but I’m getting there), I’m back to “the way things were” before my mom got sick.

Except I’m not.

I forget that I’m grieving. I forget that I’m recuperating from 20 months or more of heightened fear and pain and stress. I forget that things aren’t the way they used to be - from the outside observer they look the same.

And I’m really, really good at pretending to be capable.

So I go to work, and I spend time with friends, and run errands, and paint my room, and on and on and on. It even seems like I’m doing less than I did before – in fact I am doing less.

But it’s not enough less.

Because after a few days of being (semi) capable, of being on (mostly) top of things, of being a perfectionist in (almost) all that I do, I get home and I feel exhausted. Spent. Empty. Like I could sleep for days and be perfectly happy.

But then morning comes around and I start it all over again.

I don’t know how to slow down. I don’t know how to moderate. And really, if I’m honest, I don’t know how to fail. Or really, I’m so petrified of failing that I pretend to be capable.

And I’m really, really tired.

note: I tried to publish this post without proofreading it, but the perfectionist in me couldn't do it. It probably makes more sense for having been proofread, but it also proves my point.