All The King’s Horses and Men: Lessons In Grief

I learned strength from a woman whose falls from grief would have made Humpty Dumpty himself marvel that she ever got back up. Born into a family of blue eyes, I got mine from the hazel-eyed woman who was put back together again and again. My grandmother sang me this nursery rhyme in the same red room where she taught me to pray. She knew what it meant to be broken and rebuilt, but she would never once tell you that she was put back together exactly the same. All the King’s horses, all the King’s men, try as they might, they were not the King. They didn’t make her and she became well aware they couldn’t save her. She wove this into me when we road tripped through the mountains or picked cotton on the sides of the South Carolina highway. I heard it in her drawn-out sighs when she laid flowers on the graves of her sons and cleaned the picture frame of her father in a casket, the one she lost at six years old. 

She used to wake up in the middle of the night and piggyback me into the kitchen for peanut butter and crackers. She never met a secret she couldn’t keep for me and sometimes I carry them now with a wish that she could be here to help bear them again. But I hear her in the syllables of “all the King’s horses, all the King’s men”. She would tell me now that she was just the King’s woman. That even she couldn’t put me back together again.

She died when I was just twelve years old, but by then she’d somehow taught me more than most I’ll ever know.

She raised me up to show up, even when the breath leaves your lungs and your heart threatens to never beat again, you still get up.

I watched her do it. She re-learned the melody of laughter and the joy of children, though she’d once lost both. When we buried her, I became determined to never let grief be her legacy to me, because it had not been her life. But it could have been, might have been, if she’d chosen to stay at the bottom of the wall the pain had thrown her from time and time again. 

What life might have been if she had given up when all the King’s horses and all the King’s men had shown up only to shake their heads and walk away with bloody and empty hands. But instead, I learned from the strength of a woman who used to wrap me up in her soft white sheet, carry me to the breakfast table, serve me something to eat, and read her Bible next to me. Seventy-one years broken and rebuilt: the loss of a father, sons, sisters, brothers and she laughed more than us all. Yet somehow, I’m still learning how to stand, how to breathe, and I’ve lost much less. But now grief is now held in these similar green eyes, having often depended on the King’s horses and the King’s men. Wishing she could tell me what and how long it takes to be put together by this King again.

I still eat peanut butter crackers in the late hours of the night and audibly count the hours if I hear the chime of the Grandfather clock. I love a road trip, repeating a good song, dancing in the shower. I slowly learn that these are the things the King uses to mend again. The life He gives when you let Him come in instead of pushing Him away when war, pain, grief, tell you He left you broken and never to be fixed, never as okay as when it all began.

Grief is something you may have to carry, but it doesn’t have to be your legacy. The King’s horses and the King’s men cannot fix you or save you. And this too, no matter what it is or how broken, can also be redeemed.

Advertisements

You Won’t Forget: Thoughts on Letting Go.

It happened again the other day.

One of the last times I remember it happening was when I was sitting in the hospital. I was on a different continent entirely and I kept going back and wondering if I would always feel this way.

That sinking feeling and those same thoughts always come in waves.

This story should be different. I shouldn’t have to tell it this way. I should be somewhere else. I wasn’t supposed to feel like this.

Rewind.

Back to the night that my phone read 1 New Voicemail.

I’m standing outside of that restaurant, the neon sign above my head. The voice on the other end was angry. I was afraid. I knew that nothing was ever going to be the same.

It took years before I deleted that message. But when I finally did, I was hoping that somehow it would erase that night entirely. Fix it or fix me. That I would somehow come to terms with the truth about all the words that we said, the ones that little device held, words that never really told what we needed to say.

So, what about now?

I often ask that question as the blinker of my car flashes and ticks its familiar rhythm; as I weave through the lines of the highway.

What about now? Because I can’t go back. We cannot go back.

I have a secret that I’ve been trying to keep from God. One that I think if I shove it far enough inside, we’ll both forget about it and He might let time heal these things.

Letting go, it seems to be the thing people most often ask me about.

I’m no expert. I can’t say that I figured it out when I finally pressed that button. I can’t tell you that it’s that easy, that there’s a simple formula for moving on or a way to rewind and get back the time.

But what I can tell you is that you’re not going to wake up one day and have the quick fix, it doesn’t happen. You won’t suddenly open your eyes and feel changed, whole, free. Pain, like I’m talking about, doesn’t just fade. I wanted to believe it did. God knows that I hoped after I hit erase my memory could do it too, my heart could do it too.

But we are not creatures who forget. I’ve spent days and nights clawing at the insides of my mind and begging God to give me a mind that forgets. But we’ve got memories and reflexes, we are tied to old times. Thank God. Thank God that He doesn’t answer the prayer for me to let go in the ways I want to let go. I don’t get to let go by means of forgetting, of pushing it into the dark.

We let go by means of forgiveness. By remembering but choosing to lay it down. I have to lay it down—put it in a different place, stop holding it in these hands. I can’t keep gripping it, I have to unfurl these clenched hands, sometimes finger by finger, day by day. I have to know that white knuckling this thing won’t get it back. It hasn’t gotten it back.

This story will be different. I don’t have to tell it this way. I can be somewhere else. It doesn’t have to feel like this.

Stop going back to the night where my phone read 1 New Voicemail.

Stop going back, that’s what I can tell you. It doesn’t mean you’re going to forget, because you are not going to forget. We are not creatures who forget.

Lay it down. Keep laying it down. Stop holding it in your hands. Stop telling the story the way you do. You don’t have to tell it this way. You can be somewhere else. You don’t have to keep going back there.

You don’t have to learn how to live inside of that story without flinching. You just have to learn how to lay that chapter down and say, “Okay, I can’t re-write that part. I can’t keep re-reading that same chapter and hoping the characters do something else. I can’t keep flipping back and wishing that it went another way. I have to keep reading. I have to see where this thing goes and who we become. It’s going somewhere, but I can’t keep being disappointed with what happened back there. The rest is still worth reading. One sentence can make all the difference.”

It can, you know. One sentence you aren’t expecting might make all the difference.

But if you keep re-reading all the same ones you’ve read, looking for something back there to change, you’re just going to come up disappointed. The past is set in print, so let it go. The rest of what’s about to happen is absolutely worth reading.

Lay it down. Let it go. Stop telling and reading the same part of the story. You can read somewhere else. You don’t have to stay there.

We don’t have to stay there. You are not meant to live inside of one chapter, no matter how good or hard the words, promises, or sets of eyes. You don’t have to try and figure out where the plot line went wrong. You don’t have to keep pouring over those pages in regret and wondering if you could have changed that last sentence. You don’t have to dread the next chapter.

Just start with the next line on the next page.

One sentence can make all the difference and it might be just a few words away.

 

 

 

 

Let Your Heart Break and Find Out Who Stays.

This restaurant, this table, knows all our worst heartbreaks.

If the walls around it could speak, they would repeat back to me some of the hardest words I’ve ever said, attached to some of the strongest love I’ve ever felt.

One day when we’re older and have maybe learned what it means to let go and let God, I hope that our daughters find a spot like this to console them. Especially on nights woven with the kind of pain that you wish a good Taylor Swift lyric and a bite of cheesecake could cure.

But pain like this—it’s not a thing we can scream out, sing out, shake out of our systems with the volume turned up and the windows rolled down, not this time. Not tonight.

Tonight we will do those things, but we will know that tomorrow it will still hurt. It’s going to hurt and the two girls who used to make plans about how long we would let heartbreaks last, tonight we lay down our pens. Because we know that tomorrow it is still going to hurt.

Let it hurt.

Because the thing about pain that I have learned from all these years back and forth at this table is that it helps you find the people who stay.

Pain breaks us, pulls out all our worst pieces. It puts our worst parts on display, drags out all the mess and presents it to whoever is standing at the door.

It also makes us, teaches us how to pick up those pieces, look at our mess, and decide what part of us isn’t something we want to keep hanging around for another rainy day.

The people who stick around through that, who are still standing by the door when you’ve finished breaking and making sense of it all, those are the people you end up back at the table with again.

Let your heart break. Learn the good things. Let it hurt and find out who stays.

Someday when we’re older and we’re happy, (I know I said that happiness isn’t the point, but I still think we will be happy) I hope that there’s still a table that can hold our heartbreak. That you will still be there to remind me of all the reasons why my heartbreaks have made me worse and made me better.

That you’ll be the friend that fights to remind me that we all are human. We all falter. I might try to have all the pretty words, but I will still get it wrong. That it is okay for me to mess up too. But grace keeps coming back to the table.

We keep coming back to the table. That’s grace. True grace says, “Even if we have to keep having this same conversation a hundred times, this seat is still open for you.”

I hope that someday when we’re older, we move to a bigger table. I hope that our little two-seater doesn’t fit all the love that we’ve been storing up. I hope that all the years of grace we’ve been learning to grow finally finds its home in people who will show up with some of their own. I know it will. I know they will.

Someday when we’re older, even though we feel old today, we’ll look back on tonight and maybe we will still cry. But I hope we cry only for tonight’s girls who didn’t know just how big Grace really is. For all the plans He has and had. That there are walls around us that speak, but not in the ways we think. They are the ones He put up to save us, to stop us, to keep us from places our grace-filled hearts thought might be our destiny.

Someday when we’re older, we’ll talk about the night that changed everything, about coming back to the table, about the grace that we didn’t see coming, but God knew we would need.

 

 

 

Make Better Plans + Forgive Yourself

Not once in my childhood did I ever daydream of running away and joining the circus.

But when I reached the shoreline, felt the burning heat of summer, the sticky sand and salt clinging to my skin, I started to long for a haphazard kind of life.

Because I realized I still don’t know how to stand steady in front of eyes and a mouth that don’t speak the same thing.

Sometimes in the mirror, I realize those eyes and that mouth belong to me.

Tattered denim and golden hour covering our shoulders, someone recently told me that my face often betrays me first. It always has.

No one sets out to be a liar. Little girls don’t daydream of becoming personified apologies.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. This becomes the constant word of someone who makes plans and breaks them. Because good intentions don’t make for worthy plans or promises. And poetic sentiments are sometimes better left on the movie screen. But if and when you put all your best words on the table, that doesn’t mean you have to sit with them forever. Sometimes you leave them there. End scene. Cue credits. Go home.

I wish I’d learned this sooner.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. It’s time to sit in the word that you must finally say to yourself. Apologize to the one person you have not. For the fact that you did not believe you are beautiful. That you pulled and tamed your curls. That you covered your face. That you bit your tongue. That you hid your tears. That you let the mark of a red pen define you. That you do all of these things still.

It’s time to say “I’m sorry” to the one person you haven’t forgiven. For never getting it quite right. You. For being too much, too little—or some combination that jammed the lock. That kept you from the places your biggest dreams planned you would go.

If you want, you can finally make better plans, worthy promises. You can walk away from the table of good intentions, poetic sentiment, the plans that turned you into a personified apology. Plans change and you didn’t always know who you were and who you would become when you made them.

I’m sorry to the girl who is still trying to show up for old plans and the promises she had to break. The circus probably won’t take you and running away has yet to save you. You’re the most beautiful you’ve ever been and it’s okay to hold the brokenness in your hands and not try to fix it. I’m sorry that you’ve apologized around the world, but never where it started. That your good intentions and broken plans were all because your mouth betrayed your eyes. Your head betrayed your heart. You did not believe that you were the right combination and that you could go where that little girl dreamed of.

You’re the most beautiful you’ve ever been and it’s okay to hold the brokenness in your hands and not try to fix it.

 

 

 

I Finally Stopped Running. Then My Car Got Towed.

When I first showed up to that little town, I had handfuls of fear and a back-pocket plan of escape.

I had stubbornly decided to never hang another picture on the wall. I was terrified of ever planting my feet, of ever letting my heart get rooted again.

For those few years, the walls stayed bare. I slept on a borrowed bed. I tried to avoid anything that looked steady, shut my heart off to anything that looked stable or strong.

I remember when a set of brown eyes showed up in my driveway that summer morning, I walked outside barefoot and waited for the words that I knew were coming. I never cried. My heart didn’t break. I wondered why it didn’t hurt more when I threw away the sentimental things. I mourned nothing more than the realization I’d said a lot of things I didn’t really mean.

Honestly, I think he knew that everything in my life was temporary. When he walked away with his head hanging, he knew that I was on the run. That I was just looking for a nice guy to drive my getaway car.

“I never know where you are.”

 That’s become a sentence that hundreds of people across hundreds of miles have said to me. Mostly in a joking, but also in a curious way because the geographical location of my residence has changed so much in my twenties.

But if he could have, I think that brown-eyed guy would have used that to sum up everything and then called it a day. Because what would become geographically true was already internally true. He never knew. I never knew. No one ever knew.

As a writer, I’ve spent most of my life speaking in metaphors.

I started doing it as a teenager, in person, and in letters, and I never quite figured out how to stop. I mastered the art of never really saying what I wanted because I could spin it and hide behind an eloquent turn of phrase. And I didn’t even realize how desperately trapped in it I felt until a few weeks ago.

I stood on the sidewalk as I watched a stranger hook his tow truck to my little silver car and pull it out of the mess I’d gotten myself into. I don’t think I will ever be able to fully explain the feeling that overwhelmed me as I watched it come out of the place where I’d gotten it stuck.

I stifled the cry I could feel welling up in the deepest part of me. It wasn’t about the car (because again, everything is a metaphor). It was about being in my sister’s college town, the girl I’ve become over the last ten years, the past few weeks, being stuck and finally getting free.

I drove to a nearby diner and held back ten years of tears as I remembered the last time I’d been there. I remembered being sixteen years old, lying in my sister’s dorm room, pitch black, skirting around the things in my heart. We spoke in metaphor, ironically using cars. She humored me because she knew I was terrified to say what I actually wanted to say.

I realized I’d been using getaway cars in one-way or another my entire life. And when that brown-eyed guy walked away, it didn’t hurt because I’d built the whole thing out of pretty metaphors and things that sounded really nice. But there was nothing on the walls. I’d never said or done anything of substance because deep down, I knew I was never going to stay.

A few weeks ago I bought a picture to hang on the wall. I did it without hesitation.

I turned around to realize there were some other good and steady things that I once ran away from. I ran straight toward them.

I stopped solely speaking in metaphors. I no longer wonder if I’m saying things I really mean.

God knows where we are.

That’s the thing I’m figuring out. Across all the miles and after all the running. He’s always been in the getaway car, trying to let me know that I haven’t gotten all that far.

Someday I hope you get tired of waking up to blank walls. I hope that fear and pain are no longer drawing your maps. I hope you find good and steady things that make you fight the urge to run away.

That you laugh when you find out God put the GPS on His idea of home and you’ve just been going in circles all along. That He doesn’t let us get too far. That He doesn’t get mad, but He sometimes lets us run out of gas (or get towed).

That the brown-eyed guy did you a favor when he handed you back the keys.

That someday someone asks you a question that terrifies every bone in your body. But that, for a minute, you lay the metaphors down and say the least eloquent things you can possibly say.

I hope someday you rip up your best plans for escape.

A Prayer to Borrow: Keep Me Soft

“Keep me soft.”

This is the thing I pray when I’m gripping my steering wheel and wondering why it appears that God always invites me down these insanely rocky paths.

This time last year, my heart was full of things I kept shoving down. I was choking on the truth, drowning in the words that needed to be said. I knew I would eventually have to come up for air.

One of the kindest things I’ve ever done was press send.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was the same.

Somewhere in the middle of those conflicting waves of emotion and truth, I found myself tethered to something I’ve never been able to escape.

The truth has never been something I can run away from. It is bigger than my feelings. It drips out of my skin and pours out of my mouth. The truth is the core of who I am; a carrier of it is who I’ve spent my life praying to become. The truth is also something I’ve spent too much time being ashamed to say or see.

To carry and to share the truth in a world that values filters and facades is a burden that sometimes feels too much to bear.

I grit my teeth. Laugh in frustration. Scribble my messy prayers to a God that tells me truth will set me free.

I might feel free, but sometimes I feel lonely.

Keep me soft. I pray this, over and over again. Because the temptation to shut my mouth, seal my heart, close my eyes overwhelms me every single day.

People are not God. This is the thing I have to keep learning over and over again.

People are not perfect. They will disappoint you. They will break your heart. They will say the right thing at the wrong time, the wrong thing at the wrong time. They will be exactly who you thought they were; they’ll turn out to be someone entirely different than you ever expected.

You will at some points utter words like “Never again” and “I knew it”. You will find yourself standing on the corner of Bitterness and Disappointment.

Don’t go there. This is the moment to whisper beneath those street lights, “God, keep me soft”.  You will want to be anything else. You will want to be fierce, angry, indifferent, cold, numb, outraged. But definitely not soft.

I spent a lot of my life terrified to be soft, refusing to bend. Ducking behind every corner, beating my fists against every wall and punishing myself for every delicate feature of me that would float to the surface.

Pull it together.” That was my mantra.

Toughen up.”

“Get your game face on.”

“You’re being ridiculous!”

And somewhere along the way, I realized I was growing cold. I was becoming calloused.

God, keep me soft.

“And because there will be more and more lawlessness, most people’s love will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).

When the truth is hard to carry. When the path is rocky, painful for my feet. When I look around and many are cold. When I want to fight, when I want to run, when I want to shut my mouth, shut my heart, let someone else deal with the painful truth. God, keep me soft.

If I end up crying in the grocery store, beating my head on the steering wheel, losing my pride, risking precious things—God, don’t let my love grow cold. Don’t let the soft parts of me, the way that I love people become things I punish in myself, force out of my heart.

Sometimes the hardest things you will ever do are the kindest things you will ever do. In a world that encourages putting on a brave face to protect your heart, you’ll find that one way to protect your heart is by training it to be brave in giving others and yourself the truth we all need to face.

God, keep me soft. Hold me to the truth. Keep me crying. Keep me laughing. Give me more crazy stories and moments that make me remember how small I am, how big you are. Keep me taking crazy risks and praying reckless prayers.

God, keep me soft. Don’t let my love grow cold.

 

 

 

How to Catch the Light

I hope the fireflies show up for you.

Like they did for us when our feet ran through the damp grass of my grandparent’s backyard on summer evenings. When we reached the walkway, the little pebbles would dig into our heels. I still have a scar on my left hand from the branch that snapped during one of our adventures through the woods.

I used to think that their back porch would always be there, that those same faces always around the table to greet me, playing cards in hand. That I would spend all my years running through and slamming that screen door.

I sometimes still wonder if the fireflies wait for us there, think we’re coming back and scoop them up in our little mason jars. But time doesn’t stand still, the light of fireflies fade, and not everyone who used to sit around that table could still be there if we went back.

But I’ve been realizing even after all those people are long gone, the thing that will be stuck with me, is all the light they left. Those are the fireflies still hanging around when we’re all grown up and the tables have changed.

What I remember most is the way those people loved me, the way they kept me laughing. I remember how my Great Uncle took us outside and bent down close, taught us how to gently guide the light into those jars. He taught how to hold onto it, but then how to set it free. When the world was busy, he stepped outside with barefoot children and taught us how to catch the light.

Last week I met a stranger while buying a book. I laughed harder that day than I have in a long time. We didn’t change the world with political ideologies, theological debates, lengthy equations, chemical experiments. We simply found ourselves laughing over something inconsequential. We left one another with beaming smiles and kind words.

I drove around that night telling God that sometimes I feel like I’ve been missing the point.

Inside of me sits a little girl who remembers standing in the hallway of her elementary school, hearing the whispers of other kids, “Why does she always stare at the ground? Someone told me she was mute.”

I remember learning back then, what I am learning now: I don’t want to waste this voice. Or try to give God the excuse that that using it is harder than it is.

Because really, I think it is just fighting to become brave enough to open our mouths. It’s just looking up from the ground and saying something kind, something intentional. I don’t want to live with a mouth, voice, a chance and only ever use them when it feels easy or convenient, or when I deemed the opportunity or person worthy of my effort.

Sometimes it takes getting over the hurt, the fear, the things that followed us for years. It’s knowing that value is not always the big things that everyone applauds. Sometimes it is learning how to make someone else feel like they’re funny, interesting, worth listening to, a good storyteller.

It’s just teaching little ones how to catch fireflies. It’s just making a joke with a stranger. It’s just love. Teaching someone else how to catch the light.

Sometimes that seems so small, so insignificant and yet, if that were the case I don’t think it would be so hard. But when confronted with the challenge of loving difficult people, strangers, sometimes even those closest, it’s hard. It’s hard to put down our phones, clear the schedule, say the apology, reach for the hug, sit with someone in grief, knock on their door, be inconvenienced, feel awkward. If it was so small, or easy, more people would do it and the world would be different.

It matters. And every time you do the thing that feels so incredibly uncomfortable and insignificant it changes them and it changes you.

One day you wake up and you realize that saving your words and efforts for bigger and better things, waiting for more, waiting for that one big bright moment was just a trap to stop you from all the light surrounding you right here and right now. It just takes catching all the little moments right there in jars. Because all of the little chances, if you grab them, make a great big light.