The Inheritance.

One by one, he picked up the cards between his hands and tore them open slowly with his finger. His hands are losing strength, but he managed to free each of them from their envelope. And with each one, he read it aloud to all of us sitting at the table with him, and tears choked his voice. My grandfather wasn’t always like this, but the medications that make him less volatile also make him more emotional, and I think he knows that he’s starting to forget things.

My grandmother died a few months ago, and he has trouble remembering that she’s gone and won’t be coming back. They say that when a loved one dies, our souls go off in search of them, restless to understand the disappearing act. Where did she go? Imagine what that would be like if the part of your brain that balances your emotions with the reality of death is broken. My grandfather has been asking my father to open her casket for months.

He lays the cards down on the table and tearfully thanks everyone. I put a hand on his shoulder and he turns to me and tells me how much he loves us.

“I have the best family in the world, and it all went so fast.”

A few years ago, we were all up at the lakehouse for Labor Day weekend. Uncle Jim got out great grandma’s old projector and several dusty boxes of slides. We found pictures of her classroom and students. We found pictures of family reunions and birthdays and anniversaries, and of the old farmhouse in Aurelius.

We found a picture of my great grandfather holding onto my cousin David’s hand, swinging him up by his arms. Great grandpa’s face is almost cut out of the frame of the photo, but his strong arm and torso are swinging up a giggling five-year-old David, and everyone smiled and laughed before Jeremy clicked to the next slide.

“Wait, turn it back!” Jim said. Jeremy clicked it back into focus. “I’ll be darned. He’s smiling. Grandpa Harley is smiling.”

Sure enough, there in the upper right hand corner, the smile that was accidentally captured. The one he rarely gave anyone, the one he refused to show for the camera. Our eyes grew wide as our parents walked slowly up to the screen, like they wanted to reach out and touch it.

Being like our parents is both a blessing and a curse. When children are young, we marvel at the startling blue eyes they’ve inherited, the way they learn so early to crawl beneath a tractor just like their father. Later these children worry that they have also inherited their parents’ bad temper, their penchant for breaking the things they meant to fix, their high risk for cancer or Alzheimer’s, too.

It’s hard to be honest about these things. It’s hard to foresee the moment, fifty years from now, when “just another day” will become a dilapidated old farmhouse we can’t go home to anymore, when the seasons of our lives sit as a stack of old letters in the back of our closet, when a rare smile is discovered in a dusty box of slides by our grandchildren many years after we’re gone. It’s hard to tell our children the story of how we loved each other, but didn’t always live it.

What will our children inherit? What will we leave for them to sift through when we’re gone?

Maybe it is when we choose to tell these stories, when we dust off the old slides and bring out the box of letters, when the cards are laid down on the table and we look around at the family we love, when we learn to utter the words aloud, “I love you all,” that a new chapter begins in the story of us.

On Missing Miracles and Steel Magnolias.

It finally happened. All this time I’ve been writing online, four years now, I’ve never once received a nasty comment from anyone, or even a mildly negative one. But a few weeks ago I wrote an article for RELEVANT Mag exploring the issues raised by Angelina Jolie’s op-ed for the Times about her choice to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, and lo and behold. A nasty comment. About my “leftist” politics and my “unChristian” ideas – and my favorite part – my willingness to “take up the mantle of worldliness and unbelief.”

I’m a sensitive soul, but generally speaking, I can discern the difference between honest criticism and asshat commenters unleashing their fundamentalist fury. I’m not here to talk about why that guy was wrong, although can we take a second and have a good laugh over the fact that there is someone out there that can make my conservative evangelical family seem progressive, and my writing downright provocative?

But, moving on…

That comment has proved to be a great example for some of the hard questions I’ve been processing as I grieve, write a book about it, and be near to some friends who are carrying their own heartbreak. It’s had me thinking about faith and miracles and healing and comfort and hope.

It can be as blatantly hurtful as a person telling you that your mother died because she and your family lacked the faith necessary for “true healing.” It can be as confusing as a misappropriated Scripture tweeted in the middle of a tragedy or a hallmark philosophy plastered all over Facebook. It can be as well-intended as someone hugging you at your mother’s wake and reminding you that this is all just part of God’s plan. It can be as subliminal as using war rhetoric to describe terminal illness, using words like “survivor,” “battle,” “fight,” “lost.”

I’ve heard these words. You’ve heard these words. And if we’re being honest, we’ve probably said them to each other at one wrong moment or another. Whatever their form, whoever has uttered them, they incite pain and fear and confusion. Nothing makes a grieving person feel more hopeless than being told that their healing hinges on their ability to hope.

I was reminded of that on Sunday morning, laying beneath a pile of blankets and watching Steel Magnolias. I had intended to do something far less pathetically indulgent and self-pitying than ugly-crying alone on my couch at 10 a.m., but the words wouldn’t flow and I was in too dark a mood to be near functioning human beings, so I skipped church and brunch with friends and watched Shelby die instead, holding my breath for the cemetery scene, letting my tears fall where they may.

I know. I sound like an emotional eater. Some days that’s exactly what it is. I haven’t watched the film since before mom died, not wanting to be a glutton for punishment, because I’ve insisted so desperately on pulling my shit together and most of the time I tell myself that I’m “good” at it. But some days. I just can’t. And paradoxically, it was this very act of allowing myself to feel my feelings and cry with M’Lynn that gave me the hope and gumption I needed to sit myself down and work on the book proposal.

And I think that’s the point of this rambling blog post, of Steel Magnolias, of my book, and these stories of grief and faith.

I grew up in a faith tradition that, looking back, was full of Anelle-like theology. I was told growing up that God had a plan, that I just needed to pray for a miracle, that good things come to those who wait, knock and the door will be opened. There’s a little bit of truth in all of that, sure. And I was told to be glad that mom had died, that she was with her King, I should be rejoicing. For a little while, I did. I even meant it. It’s hard to be honest about the relief in knowing that she is no longer suffering, but it’s real. But after awhile that wears off and what I’ve really needed is to explore those concepts of healing and wellness and God’s will. I’ve had to ask hard questions and cry about all the missing miracles in our lives and wonder whether God and I operate under different definitions of healing. And I’ve had to get angry about that, angry enough to want to hit something or someone until they feel as bad as I do, angry enough to utter the words aloud, I guess I’m a little selfish. I’d rather have her here. 

I had to get angry enough to finally be honest with myself and with God. 

Some days, I’m able to laugh about it. Some days, I’m able to be around people that can help me find my joy again. Some days, I just can’t. And that’s not a weakness or an emotional binge, it is heartbreak, and it is ugly and hard. It is the “work of grief,” as Freud called it. Joan Didion’s “the vortex.” And it is teaching my heart that hope doesn’t hinge on the outcome.

We won’t survive heartbreak and loss by denying that it hurts, or waxing philosophical about the future, or trying to pray our way out of our mortality. We don’t survive by walking away from grief, but by walking straight through it, crying when we have to, laughing when we can, speaking honestly about how we feel, listening to each other’s sorrow.

The steel magnolia is the one that weathers the storm.


Capturing Time.

Most of the time, it feels like we are just caught in the chaos of everyday. Two creatives that married young, trying to make ends’ meet, working underpaid jobs against a mountain of school debt. Before I got married, I had romantic visions of us, starving artists, living in a cheap one bedroom, scrimping by while we worked on our dreams. The vision was right, accurate, but it has rarely felt as romantic as I imagined. I’ve learned that its typical, this early struggle, but it’s easy to get sucked into the madness and feel like we’re straight up failing.

Matt, are we f*ckups?” like that scene in Away We Go.


And we’ve weathered storms we couldn’t have predicted, ones that wrecked us beyond the “typical” chaos of newlywed, twenty-something life. Marriages close to us that went up in flames. The death of my mother. Job crises. Reminders that we could do everything right, and it would still be hard. Reminders that life is fleeting, and we need to slow down. Reminders that marriage can be the storm, or the safe place.

We went away this weekend. To a place above the rain and storms and chaos of busy life at home, a place far more simple and vast and quiet than here seems right now. Everything downstate was drenched in rain and clouds, but our days in northern Wisconsin dawned bright and crisp, the sun hot and the northerly wind cool. We took a canoe down the Wisconsin river together. We hiked through Nicolet National Forest. We made fires to keep warm and roasted marshmallows, engulfing them in flames, blowing them out, peeling back the blackened sugar to savor the hot, soft center. We buried ourselves beneath blankets in the tent at night and listened to a wolf howl at the moon.

“Whatcha doin’ babe?” I say from behind the camera.

“Settin’ up camp in our new tent,” he says cheerfully. We play along together.

“And where are we and why are we here?!”

“It’s Memorial Day Weekend 2013, and we’re gettin’ outta town in Eagle River, Wisconsin, baby!”

Maybe I hope we won’t be forgotten. Maybe I hope we won’t forget ourselves. This is your husband, 28 years old, look how young he was. Remember that trip, and the eagle we saw on the shoulder of the road?

Our children will find this someday and say, look how much they loved each other. Look at who they were before we knew them.

I am trying to capture time.

On our hike he stopped to take a photo, knees bent, arms poised to hold the camera still. For a moment that world was still. When he was finished he turned and stood straight. We looked down the path together. And just then, a coyote, not twenty feet ahead, sprang through the trees, straight past us, its reddish tail disappearing into the green. I gasped and grabbed his hand, my heart racing. He smiled and gripped it tight. We kept walking.

RELEVANT Mag : Angelina Jolie and Every Woman’s Choice

Today I’m over at RELEVANT Magazine, sharing some thoughts in response to Angelina Jolie’s op-ed piece for the New York Times that was published yesterday, “My Medical Choice.” In case you missed it, she shared some pretty shocking news, announcing that this spring she underwent a preventative bilateral mastectomy after learning she carried a genetic mutation that dramatically increased her risk for breast and ovarian cancers. Join me over at RELEVANT as I explore some of the research around the BRCA genetic testing and prophylactic surgery, what Jolie’s news means for the general public, and some of the questions we need to ask ourselves about life and death.

If you knew you had six months to live, what would you do?

Many of us have asked that question at some point in our lives, whether hypothetically or not. Now scientific discovery is giving us the ability to ask the question in a new way: If you knew you were at high risk for developing a terminal illness, what would you do?

The disease may not exist yet, the prognosis might not been ascertained, but developments in cancer research have made it possible for high risk individuals to determine their genetic predisposition and take preventative measures.

In an op ed for the New York Times on Tuesday, May 14, Hollywood star Angelina Jolie shocked the masses by writing about her recent choice to undergo a double mastectomy … (Read more.)

A Herald to Spring.

A new pot of geraniums sits on my porch. Yesterday morning, still half asleep,  I drew the shades open at the patio door and they woke me up with their petals afire in the sunrise.

It’s such a simple act, picking out your favorite buds at the local gardening store and shoveling them into a pot on your porch. Nothing particularly remarkable about it, I guess. But I let myself be overly proud of it, this act of planting, as a herald to spring, a reminder, a promise :

Good morning, I am alive.