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.

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To: My Future Daughter // A Letter on Grief.

It is entirely possible to have both one of the worst and best days of your life on exactly the same day. This is because grief is one of those things that frees you from all of your pride and ego while simultaneously ripping your heart out. In the midst of my grief, I’ve done some pretty liberating things. I’ve taken many spur-of-the-moment trips, written some insane letters, screamed at the top of my lungs, sang loudly without caring who was listening, moved my entire life. None of these are the things that I regret. Regret has only been something I’ve known when I let the grief silence me. 

You will do some wild and unpredictable things in your pain. Many of them truthful, some of them sincere, a few of them haphazard. But at the end of the day, heartbreak comes to us all in countless ways. I hope that in all the ways it has come and continues to come, you dance it out, shake it out, sing it out, write it out, but do not hold it in. 

However, be prepared to say you’re sorry. Never intentionally do something to hurt someone, but know that it will probably happen in the midst of your anguish and sorrow. Grief brings with it a breaking of our facades, but it also often cracks our filters. Know that you won’t get it all right and just because some things feel better in the moment, that doesn’t mean you get off scot-free in the end. Hurt people hurt people, it’s a cliche because it’s true. 

It is entirely possible to have both the worst and best day at the same time. Because suddenly, though your heart is screaming in pain, you will finally able to release it from all the other things it’s been carrying that seem so trivial. I call it an “in the grand scheme” view of things.  Grief brings with it a certain sort of “big picture” kind of reality with it that makes you drop all the little cares and worries of the previous days. It makes you start evaluating all the dumb things you threw around in your brain yesterday. It makes you start minimizing and prioritizing. Suddenly, you start saying all the things you couldn’t before, wouldn’t before, didn’t know were choking you and breaking you before. Because “in the grand scheme” of things, what does it matter now? Grief shows you what matters now.

But it is entirely possible that it is still the worst day. While you are free of all the little insecurities that you sat in yesterday, you’re in the big and grand sorrows of today. The big things matter and grief will knock on your door to remind you of that. So you’ll take trips, write letters, sing loudly, scream loudly, stay awake a little longer, because “in the grand scheme of things”– and you’ll know that these are the only things you can control. But know, even those are things you cannot control. 

Don’t try to control the pain. I hope we both learn this young. We cannot control the pain. We can evaluate all the big things, little things, figure out what matters and try to our best in the in-between, but the truth is, this isn’t up to you and me. Today, we’re both just young, wild girls who are trying to figure out how to get free. It’s okay to not have the answers, to not understand the grand scheme of all these things. 

You will do some wild things in your pain. You will say wrong things when you are down on your knees. You will ask God unimaginable questions and you stand up only to stomp your feet. You will get in the car and drive nowhere, but end up exactly where you were meant to be. You will press send on things that you mean, and realize that losing all of your pride is probably the only way you’re ever going to get free. 

You will someday have the worst and best day simultaneously when you realize that God turns our pain into something that He can use. You will hate the feeling of your heart breaking as you also sigh at the relief you feel when you finally let love break through. You cannot carry grief without love, or love without grief. On this earth, they are linked, sometimes they are one and the same. Someday you will know what it means to have the worst and the best day simultaneously, and when you do you’ll know what it means to be a little more broken and somehow a little more free.

Someday you will have the worst and best day simultaneously when you realize the pain and joy of loving, losing, and getting back to the grand scheme of clinging, for as long as you can, to those who have taught you the best parts about all these things.

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.

 

 

 

 

California: Letting Go of the Blueprints

California.

I thought it would be all sunshine, warmth, orange-hued days and lightweight laughter.

But the air had a chill, the clouds were heavy with rain, the days thick with prayers and an ache for something more.

From the moment the plane drifted below the clouds and I saw the sun setting over the land full of big dreams, I thought to myself, maybe this is a place I can believe for the impossible.

Tucked away in those California mountains was a cabin. For a few days, I found myself squeezed in between its walls with a group of strangers. A million times I had been in this same scenario, but with different paint colors and couches; rooms with strangers, Bibles in our laps, hoping that after a few days we would have a handful of good stories and memories to look back and remember when God sifted through some dirt in our hearts to remind us of the gold.

But something felt different. Something felt entirely offbeat inside my chest that first morning after breakfast and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I’ll never forget my feet running up the stairs, my knees hitting that carpet, my hands clenching into fists. God shook me right in those first few hours. There was a moment coming—something that was going to change everything.

That night God showed up in a way that only He could. He came barreling through that basement door, arms full of everything we were so desperately in need of.

Sometimes I think we are like children with Santa Claus, terrified that if we go He isn’t going to know where to find us. We’re so tied to plans, people, callings, dreams, years, the things we’ve spent using to build our lives that we can’t imagine what God would do if we were shoved inside of a basement somewhere unfamiliar. Because we have all these plans we’ve made and promises we are begging Him to keep.

But He did more than I expected, asked, was even prepared for. And right there, just after I let out a sigh of relief, thinking He had emptied His arms and I’d seen it all, He leaned against the wall and whispered the very thing I was least expecting. He pulled out from behind His back the best thing, the only thing that could have knocked the wind completely out me.

And all the years and months of fighting, drowning, begging, came racing across the country and crashing right there at my feet. He put the nail in the coffin of the thing that has nearly caused me to lose it all, over and over again. When I looked at it, in my tiny hands, I realized how many times I’ve gone searching for those same words in the office of principals, guidance counselors, in the arms of my parents, sister, friends. God said to me the only thing that ever really mattered to me, the thing that has driven me from birth, in every decision I’ve ever made. Its kept me from sleeping at night, made me terrified and paralyzed to make nearly every choice. In a simple little sentence, He said the thing that I’ve looked for in the voice of every other person I’ve ever known.

I realized at that moment that until God Himself spoke the words I needed to hear, and I finally heard them from Him, I would never be full, never be entirely free.

When I left for California, I figured that a southern girl out west was going to feel unknown, off-balance, a little out of place. But isn’t that just like God? To stick you in the middle of strangers and show you just how much He knows you, sees you, can say the thing you need to hear in the most unexpected and hidden place?

It was about letting go of plans, people, and the way I’ve held God to His promises. The way that I tell Him that He has to do it the way I always expected. That He has to shout those words through a certain microphone, say them through a certain mouth, in a certain place, through a set of circumstances. That He has to fulfill it how I always thought He should. Humbled and grateful, that He didn’t do it the way I demanded. That I didn’t get those words the way I expected, begged for, from the people that I argued with or demanded them from. That when I stopped fighting, clawing, stomping my feet, painting the town with instructions on how to fulfill my hopes and dreams, that God picked me up and put me on a plane and did it his way, a better way.

When I got home, slept in my bed, filled up a coffee mug, drove around this town, I heard Him whisper again: let go of the blueprints.

Because when our hands are filled with rolls of our blueprints, we can’t hold any of His. We can’t see the thing He wants to build. And what I’m starting to realize is how often His plans have elements of the things I’ve asked for, prayed for, hoped for, but His blueprints are so much bigger, more efficient, better planned than mine could ever be.

California, it was the place I thought maybe I could learn to believe for the impossible and the place where He did exactly that.

 

 

 

 

My Problem with Perfection

As someone who has struggled with perfectionism, I started realizing about a month ago I am well on my way to ulcers and wrinkles if something doesn’t change.

I’ve been at a crossroads. I’m on the path to what could actually turn out to be my version of failure.

As someone who takes great pride in her academic career, I’ve met my match. I found a class that just might break my streak of success.

Not only that, I recently ended up at a spa with a lady who swore she understood something about skin and within a week I looked like a pepperoni pizza. I found myself bathing my face in apple cider vinegar, wondering about the meaning of life and if anyone could love someone who now smelled like rotting tree bark.

I woke up with the world’s most depressing thoughts on Valentine’s Day, which was totally abnormal for me because I love Valentine’s Day—like seriously love it.

So, I came home and put Maroon 5 on and started screaming it at the top of my lungs whilst wearing the manliest basketball shorts you’ve ever seen. Because in the interest of full disclosure, what happens when I am in the comfort of my own home is about as far away from perfection as one can get.

My struggle is that I need people (and even myself) to believe one thing—even if that one thing isn’t the biggest chunk of my reality and even if that thing isn’t my favorite part of the day. Because my actual favorite part of the day was those stupid basketball shorts and screaming in horrible harmony with Adam Levine, and eating wretched reduced fat Cheez-Its. But that’s probably not the thing I’m going to invite people into. I’m likely going to invite people into the less ridiculous, less weird, not as embarrassing version of my life because my name is Ashlin and I struggle with perfectionism.

But if I do poorly in a class, fail to eat a balanced diet, wear my dad’s clothes for pajamas, or have bad skin, I need to figure out a way to make that not the end of the world. Because making those things the beginning or end of anything makes them a level of importance they shouldn’t be. It makes them idolatry. It makes them more important than God’s heart, my vulnerability, my willingness to be honest about what my life actually is and what it isn’t.

So, I’m trying to figure out these days how not to throw out discipline, effort, excellence, while also knowing that sometimes you have just got to put on a sweatshirt that comes to your knees and have bad hair. Sometimes you’ve just got to let go of the GPA, hit submit on the assignment, and go give out-loud advice to the lady in the Hallmark movie who is about to ruin her life by chasing down that emotionally detached man in the ugly sweater vest. There’s a rhythm to this whole discipline and grace thing and I’m trying to grab the hand of God these days and ask Him to teach it to me. Step by step I am learning and perfectionism is lessening.

Celebrating and the Weight of Grace

In the days after we celebrated, I spent most of my hours painting.

I am not a painter.

But that month my hands stayed stained with shades of blue, my shirts dyed, brushes dripping over the sink. I left my apartment only to grab takeout and steal from the sky another hue to replicate.

The secrets we were keeping were ones that I eventually realized my hands could not tell. No matter how many strokes I made with those brushes, the truth was still trapped inside.

A few weeks later I sat in the corner booth of an old Italian restaurant in my hometown. The person who sat across from me was the first person to ever really hear the whole truth, the terrifying, gut-wrenching, honest-to-God truth. Out of my mouth came the thread that threatened to unravel everything inside of me—the truth about how disappointed I had turned out to be.

Disappointment, that was a word I was so afraid to say. It felt so heavy, so dark, that was a shade, a hue that I’d refused to paint. Admitting disappointment felt like defeat. And even though I knew nothing would ever turn out the way I had once hoped, admitting disappointment for even a second had never been an option.

But the night with the strings of lights, sentimental words, and the seconds of forgetting the past flung me back to reliving that reality: sometimes we paint the perfect picture in our minds and wake up one day to realize that picture is never going to be possible.

I had to relive that over and over again, that the world I’d painted in my mind would never quite be the one God would paint on the canvas that is my life. Every time I celebrated another milestone, I would also wince at the bitterness I felt that God was using a shade, a tone that was different than the one I would have chosen.

Then came Room 176.

When the sweet lady with her yellow paper gave me that location, I never had the thought that it was going to be a place that would change my life. Four white walls, but that’s the place that God pulled back a piece of the curtain and said “I made all the colors and I mix them just right.” 

If I had gotten the life I tried to paint, I would have been standing somewhere else.

Those words are the hardest to swallow. As I now reflect on the greatest moment of my life to date, I break my own heart with the truth that God knows if He leaves us to work out our own lives, we will take away the greatest gifts He gives. Sometimes He breaks our hearts now to keep us from missing our dreams later.

I think of the moments when I’ve sat with God and told Him not to use that brush, that color, that shade, that I’m disappointed with His pace, His technique, His progress. I think of that day in the old Italian restaurant and my disappointment. I think of the birth of my nephew, the moment when I laid down my paintbrush and felt my knees buckle at the weight of God’s grace.

In these days we’ve been celebrating, I haven’t picked up a paintbrush. My hands have not been stained and I haven’t gone to that old Italian restaurant and cried in the corner booth. I’ve still thought about the promises we broke, the disappointment I’ve felt, and the picture I had in my mind. Honestly, I still thought about my favorite shades of blue and for a split second wished God used them more. But last night, I rocked that baby boy to sleep and started to fall in love with shades and hues that before those moments I’d never even seen.

 

 

When Memories are Our God

I spent a good chunk of my early twenties regretting two days: an afternoon at a sushi restaurant and a night I spent alone watching Batman at the movie theater inside of the mall.

I didn’t realize it, but all those years I spent driving around my hometown arguing with God, I was trying to figure out a way to convince Him to turn back time. I knew if He would just let me do them over I could fix everything.

It wasn’t until last week with my forearms resting on a picnic table, young eyes and beautiful faces staring at me that I finally admitted the truth.

That day in the sushi restaurant and that night in the movie theater could no longer be my God. They could not be the thing I lived for–the thing that I leaned on to save my life any longer.

Later in the week I cried on the baking aisle at Kroger because I realized that until we decide to let go of those moments that we’re convinced changed everything, we will spend our entire lives making idols out of a day on a calendar that cannot offer you anything for your future.

Constantly looking at the past, at a moment, a hurt, a grief, a thing we cannot forgive–in ourselves or someone else– eventually makes it our God. When we obsessively expect or want something from it, analyze it in hopes for some kind of redemption or some kind of answer, we begin to worship it. When we obsessively believe that it will fix everything, if we get an answer or get “closure” from that moment, we make it our God.

Those two moments are ones I couldn’t forgive myself for. They are also moments I could not forgive someone else for. Within them were layered years of trust issues and excuses for why freedom was out of my reach. But anything that keeps you from freedom is your God. Anything that you are so locked into, given over to so fully, anything that has permission to take control of you without your ability to have yourself back–that thing is your God. 

For me they were my trust issues, that came with seeing that birthday bag hidden at the end of that table, and the words said to me when I was wearing that blue jacket. They became my God because I was so trapped in how they broke my heart. I gave them my mind, my heart, my trust. If they had gone differently, oh how my life would have turned out to be something else to behold.

When memories are our God, we give them our hearts, our best years of forgiveness and trust. Back when I was young and dumb, back before I knew that people were so cruel. 

We think our wisdom and better understanding of the world is what took our ability to just hand out trust and forgiveness, but really it was our idolatry of our memories. If we were honest, we’ve spent our years fixated, worshipping days of our lives, thinking that if we could get them back they would heal the deepest parts of our souls.

We have given credit where it is not due and thought if this day had not happened, I would be better than I am right now.

We exalt hours, minutes, or seconds; we worship the hands of the clock. We think it was moments that broke us, time that heals us, and will be at-first-sight seconds that save us.

But time is just a measure, a tool, a thing. If we could finally invent the time machine we’ve all been praying for, I’m convinced that none of us would be happier, healthier, better off. Because it would not change our hearts; we could change a moment, but we could not change what got us there.

Because everything that built up to that moment would not have changed. It’s cause and effect, my dear. That moment was built on a thousand other little things that made it what it was. The second you realize that is the second you might finally learn to forgive. Because the human heart is far more complicated that just one passing moment. We must stop holding it inside a prison of one split second, one long day, one complicated year.

Time and your memories are too small to be your God; they are too far gone to fix you, too fleeting to save you.

But if they hold your trust, have stolen your forgiveness, trapped your joy–you’ve made them your God.

If you’ve used words that sound something like: “But you don’t know what happened to me”, that moment, that sixty seconds, that day, that stretch of the earth spinning of the earth around the sun– that became your God.

It became the thing that you gave permission to break and name you. And if you’re honest it’s the thing you believe, if you could get it back, would be able to save you.

There’s a baking aisle in Kroger and it’s where I decided that the calendar wasn’t the thing I wanted to wake up next to every morning. I didn’t want to grow old with and give everything to a day or a year I had circled in red.

It’s where God became God again and time and its memories became a thing I finally stopped trying to change.