When I Say I Wouldn’t Trade It.

She would have been 52 last Sunday. We spent that weekend in Indiana, in the town where she was born, visiting her family whom we haven’t seen in five or ten years. The convergence of her birthday and our reunion wasn’t planned that way on purpose, it just sort of happened, a kaleidoscope of memory, of blessing, bitter and sweet.

Standing in the yard at Esther’s farm that day, fields of beans and corn stretching out in every direction, the blue sky vaulting above us, family all around, the ache settled in.

I miss you. I wish you were here. I’d give anything.

We always said we wouldn’t trade it. She even said it first. She was a leader in that way. Unflinching. Unwilling to let something like cancer ruin her, or steal her voice or her faith. It wasn’t a glossing over of the truth. It wasn’t a matter of pretending she wasn’t sick. It wasn’t an ignorance of the disease. No. It was her way of saying that life could throw anything at her, and she would keep moving forward. Looking back, wishing things were different, feeling sorry for herself, or giving up her desire to live and live well, that would have been defeat.

It’s a lot for a daughter to live up to. It’s a lot of gumption that, in my grief, I don’t always feel like I have. Cynicism sets in and I question whether or not saying things like “I wouldn’t trade” my mother’s illness and death for an easier life is synonymous with saying I don’t miss her or it doesn’t hurt or I’m fine, or perhaps worse, that other patients have to respond to cancer the same way as we have.

So what am I really trying to say when I tell you that I wouldn’t trade this, all this heartache, all this void, all this grief, for a life in which none of this had happened?

In Stranger than Fiction, there’s a part where Harold Crick is staying at his friend Dave’s apartment and the two are sitting at the dinner table eating, lost in thought, until Harold asks Dave a question.

“Dave, can I pose a somewhat abstract, purely hypothetical question?”


“If you knew you were gonna die, possibly soon, what would you do?”

“Wow, I don’t know. Am I the richest man in the world?”

“No, you’re you.”

“Do I have a superpower?”

“No, you’re you.”

“I know I’m me, but do I have a superpower?”

“No, why would you have a superpower?”

“I don’t know, you said it was hypothetical.”

It’s a funny scene, but in previous viewings I’ve always kind of glossed over its poignancy. I thought of it again the other day while I pondered the meaning behind “I wouldn’t trade it.”

Whether we’re hypothesizing about the future or the past, whether we imagine having superpowers or we’re bartering with fate over terminal illnesses, we’re seeking a measure of control. We want to believe that we would willingly face death, knowing it was just ahead, and that we would make all the right choices and live like we mean it. We’re imagining a life in which God offers us two choices : Be a Better Person With Cancer or Be a Shallow Person Without Cancer.

We’re creating a sadistic god, a false dichotomy, a moral hierarchy, and a misunderstanding of sanctification that veers into atonement.

I heard things like “I wouldn’t trade it” and “don’t waste your cancer” and “everything happens for a reason” and “it’s all a part of God’s plan” for so long, that the subliminal message I interpreted from this cacophony of bad theology was that I wasn’t supposed to be sad about her illness and death. I wasn’t supposed to wish her back. I wasn’t supposed to miss her. That would be weak. That would be faithless. That would be defeat.

But in the last 20 months since she died, I’ve slowly realized that like every other cheap platitude, “I wouldn’t trade it” became an aversion to feeling my grief as deeply as I needed to. I said it when I was afraid of admitting to God that I was angry, bitter, lonely, and heartbroken.

And yet.

There was power in those words when my mother said she wouldn’t trade her experience for an easier life. For awhile I kind of lost the point of what she was really saying, and the cynicism set in and I wasn’t sure I believed all that hokey, hypothesizing, magical-thinking talk about hope and faith and prayer. But just like we have to grow up and find our own faith and beliefs separate from our parents’, I’ve had to figure out what “I wouldn’t trade it” means to me.

The hard truth is that a lot of the good, beautiful experiences in my life came at the expense of really hard, painful experiences like my mother’s death. I can’t explain why life is like that, but I don’t know that I want to anymore.

I’m more at peace living with “I don’t know” than when I staked my faith on having all the answers. I feel more free to miss her, not knowing why it happened, than when I believed her death was a moral to a story.

So when I say that I wouldn’t trade it, I don’t mean that I’m glad she’s dead. I don’t mean that I don’t miss her. I don’t mean that I wish this experience on others so that they can become a Good Person like I am, or that I expect them to process this experience the same way.

When I say I wouldn’t trade it, I mean that I wouldn’t trade who I am for an easier life. I wouldn’t trade the deep, beautiful, powerful relationship I had with my mother, or my other relationships that have deepened through this experience, for all the shallow relationships and physical health and earthly prosperity in the world. I will never regret learning the lesson that life is too short to compromise what I want out of it or who I am. It’s not a superpower, but it is a powerful thing nonetheless.

Nature’s Faith.

“The people I trust the most are the folks who feel and respect the rhythm of life. Nature tries to teach us how that works. Like the ocean waves – how they gather power and then roll in, and back out. In, and back out. And how the trees respect life’s seasons. How they blossom and then go dormant. They know that creating beauty is not about pushing through. It’s about respecting the seasons. I don’t think the trees spend a whole lot of time worrying that if they rest – if they go dormant for a season like they were made to- that they’ll become obsolete. They know life will go on without them for a while and that’s okay with them. They will blossom again when it’s time. Trees have faith.” – Glennon Melton.

I frequently go through periods where my writing feels dormant. During these times I am thinking and processing hard, the cogs are turning and the ideas are spinning, I am jotting down notes and producing terrible drafts, but my writing voice has receded beyond the page, I have nothing to say. (Yet.)

The hard part about this, at least for me, is that the internet has given us this burden to constantly produce. So when the voice has receded and my “platform” of public writing has fallen silent, I feel like I’m not doing my job as a writer. It creates an extra dose of anxiety that pushes that voice of mine out further still, and I go swimming after it in desperation. It is exhausting and entirely fruitless, and I find myself flailing for a way to reach back toward shore. I am going against the natural ebb and flow of my creative process. I start to believe that I may have lost the voice forever.

Eventually, when I stop fighting and give it time, the tide rolls in and my writing voice pours forth with all the ideas gathering in my subconscious.

I loved these words from Glennon Melton and the idea of following nature’s faith in the creative cycle, of allowing ourselves to draw back into the depths and “gather power” like the ocean waves.

This doesn’t look the same for everyone. And when you think about it, it applies to so many different parts of life, too. Sometimes we need to know when to stop pushing and pursuing so hard, when to go with the natural ebb and flow of life, when to trust life’s seasons, when to follow nature’s faith in the creative cycle. For me today, that looks like writing more notes and waiting patiently for the thoughts to fully form, no pressure to produce necessary.

What does that look like for you?

Walking the Tightrope.

So this is the week, friends. My book proposal is in my agent’s hands and he will be sending it off to publishers any day. It is anyone’s guess what will happen from here. I’m trying to prepare my heart for the reality that now may or may not be the time to publish this book. I am at once proud of myself for coming this far and also profoundly terrified.

Another more seasoned writer might try to play it cool as they wait for a publisher to pick up their proposal. In case you’re new here, a word of caution : I am no such writer.

I was feeling pretty triumphant when I finally hit “send” on the email that carried my proposal off to my agent, but slowly, over a matter of a few days, I began to realize that this is it; it’s out of my hands now. It felt as though I had been walking a tightrope, calmly, carefully, and then I did the thing I wasn’t supposed to do. I looked down.

I realized how deeply I have allowed myself to want this. I have allowed myself to hope that it will happen, and it will happen soon, and it will happen with the right amount of financing and time to change some pretty significant things in my life.

But what if it doesn’t?

I am afraid. I am afraid it will be rejected. I am afraid it will be accepted. I am afraid that I will live in this smallish, squirrel-infested (yes, another story for another blog post) apartment in the Chicago ’burbs for the rest of my life. I am afraid that in the midst of working on this book my laptop will give up on me because it’s six years old and needs more RAM and its frequent error messages signal impending doom. I’m saving drafts like I’m storing up for a computer apocalypse – hard drive, external hard drive, flash drive, dropbox, email, print. If anyone has a spare fireproof vault they’re willing to loan to a poor, starving writer, let me know. I can’t promise you any proceeds from book sales, but you’ll definitely find your name in the acknowledgements.

I am afraid that I will write this book and it won’t go anywhere but the $.50 shelf at Goodwill. But I am also afraid that if I don’t write it, all the things I’ve learned and all the healing I’ve discovered will become another cheap platitude, an empty idiom, a lie that falls lazily from my mouth when someone I love needs empathy.

The weight of all that fear wobbled me back and forth dangerously on the tightrope.

The great irony of this book I’m writing felt like gravity pulling me downward.

I am writing a book about cancer and death and grief and faith and hope and healing, but I’m still in the midst of this healing process, still learning what it means to hope again.

I don’t trust the feeling of hope.

It is scary to feel it because it means I’ve made myself vulnerable and admitted that I want something, and by admitting that I want something, that means I have conjured an expectation and the reality is that expectations can shatter in an instant. And my reality is that the thing I wanted most in life, the prayer I prayed hardest for, the thing I invested all my hope in, withered away in my arms. And try as I might to defy it, I absolutely internalized that experience. My mom died, and the part of me that believed Good Things Can Happen feels dead and buried with her.

That pessimism is rooted in some really harmful theology and stupid things people have mindlessly said to me, and I want to write a book about that. And on the other hand, writing a book about that means staking my heart and creativity and faith in something bigger than myself. It means I have to find my hope again.

So I’m living in that tension, terrified and unsure. I’ve taken a few deep breaths to steady myself. I’ve stopped looking down and started looking ahead. And I’m finding that this tension is what stretches the tightrope out before me to move forward, one precarious and wobbly step at a time.


The “Online” vs. “Real Life” Myth.

A long time ago, when this blog was in it’s infancy, I wrote a post that hurt a friend of mine. I won’t go into humiliating detail, but let’s just leave it at this: she posted something on Facebook I disagreed with, and I decided to blog about it. Ever the arrogant English major, I dug down to the etymological roots of the words she used, blathering on about how petty I found her ideas at the time.

And then she read it.

And then, in a truly humiliating turn of events, more people read it. Her husband. My husband. Our friends.

And then they talked.

And then I took down the post.

As much as I wanted to be right and felt my ideas were valid, I couldn’t deny that the way I went about expressing my ideas was wrong. I hurt my friend, not because she’s too sensitive and can’t take constructive criticism, but because my criticism was not constructive. It was snarky, rude, and though the post didn’t mention her by name, it might as well have.

I think I thought that no one was paying attention to my blog, so I could get away with it. I think I thought that maybe if I obscured my language a little bit and buried my frustration with her beneath layers of intellectual rhetoric, people would think I was smart and witty and would forgive me my ruthlessness. I think I thought that my blog was my territory, so no one could criticize me. I was wrong.

My friends were gracious enough not to storm my comments section with their rage, but to reach out to me privately and say, “did you really intend to hurt?”

I didn’t intend to, but I did hurt.

I’ve had to relearn that same lesson over and over again online, and in those other instances, I haven’t always had the graciousness of friends to help me dismantle my arrogance. More often than not, it has happened with complete strangers, or people I’ve never met in person.

Sometimes being a writer on the internet feels a little like those Sunday mornings that start with good intentions and result in you yelling curse words at the driver that cuts you off in traffic on your commute to church… and then that same driver pulls into your church parking lot just ahead of you. Do you risk being a little late to worship and park down the street so they don’t realize Crazy Lady With All the Swears and Middle Fingers also attends the 11 a.m. service?

We go with the best intentions for engaging healthy community and facilitating important discussions about faith, human rights, theology, politics, the arts, and a whole manner of really important, worthwhile things, but then we jump into conversations and they are promptly derailed by egos, sarcasm, condescending remarks, and general nastiness.

This is humanity and it’s not unique to the internet.

But so often we tell ourselves that those people we disagree with so vehemently “don’t know us in real life” and we shrug it all off like it doesn’t matter. The obvious implication is that the people we interact with online are somehow less “real” than us, and that the consequences for how we interact are less “real” too. And it’s unhealthy. Because it makes it hard for us to talk about something well, like human rights and theology, without treating others as less “real,” less human, for disagreeing. And then it defeats the whole purpose of these conversations to begin with. The “real life” versus “online” distinction is an immature idea, and it gives way to immature behavior.

It’s “online” versus “offline,” not “real life” versus “fake life.”

I know this because this online life of mine has led to a lot of real friendships over the past few years. The “online” versus “real life” distinction is the excuse I whip out when someone disagrees with me and hurts my feelings.

I’m not saying that we owe it to everyone on the internet to treat them like they’re our best friend. All it means is that we are just as responsible for treating people like they matter as we would if we were confronting them face-to-face. It means that if we see conversations derailing into hurtful, condescending arguments, we’re responsible for setting a boundary for ourselves, and sticking to it.

My friend Tamara left a brilliant comment on my post a few weeks ago, and I’ve adopted it as my new mantra :

Don’t engage the crazy.

Most times, this means not engaging my own crazy. (Because let’s face it, I can’t even make it to church without losing my temper.)

For me, setting that boundary means saying, “This discussion isn’t healthy for me. I’m sorry, but I have to end this conversation here.”

So here is my invitation : if you’re as tired of the “online” versus “real life” myth as I am, then let’s intentionally change the way we talk about the internet, and by doing so, acknowledge each other as  equally real, and then treat each other that way. Let’s set and maintain healthy boundaries for how we interact. Let’s be quick to listen and slow to speak and love one another as ourselves, because isn’t that why we’re here? At least that is my hope.

So, real talk with me : how do you approach engaging people on the internet? What are the things that raise your hackles and how do you tame yourself down? What are the boundaries you’re setting for yourself these days? Do you disagree with me?

A Curious Kind of Magic.

In the early days, I wrote inside my favorite books, mimicry being my sincerest form of admiration for the masterpieces I loved, Seuss and Silverstein and Sesame Street. It was a curious kind of magic, that the symbols were letters and the letters were words and the words were sentences and the sentences were stories that were captured in pages and came to life in my mind. I have never gotten over it. I am compelled to write out of sheer curiosity. How do I make the things I see in my mind come to life on a page for someone else? I am still exploring the answer to that question. I will spend my life doing that.

(I finished my sample chapter of my book this weekend. The proposal outline is almost done, and mom’s sample chapter is edited. This dream of mine gets a little more real every day.)