Self-Care is Not Just for Clergy

yoga-post-300x200In the wake of the presidential inauguration, with the tsunami of executive orders that immediately followed, I have watched as my friends on social media have retreated. One by one, they’ve announced they are taking a break. They need to rest. Their souls must retreat. 

Of course, as these posts appeared on Facebook, that pesky comment box beckons for a response. Some comments are blessings for renewal. Some offer courage and solidarity. Others admit that they’re feeling the same pull and then… then there’s that person who insists upon engagement. Full of finger wagging shame, this person curses the rest that even God requires.

Read more on New Sacred.

Bit By Bit

It is the First Sunday of Lent and I’m missing church.

I miss good preaching. Today I could not push myself out the door to find some place to relish in the mystery of these holy forty days because I didn’t want to hear another bad sermon. I don’t believe that my colleagues are bad preachers. I don’t even believe that the preachers in the town I reside are all that bad but they’re preaching to a community that doesn’t include me. I’m not part of their flock. I don’t have the same wants and needs so that I can’t sit through a sermon without feeling more removed from myself and my God than when I first sat in the pew. So, I didn’t go to church this morning. I just couldn’t do it.

Instead, I texted my friend Teri to ask for her sermon. I knew she’d be preaching and I know she’s a damn good preacher even if I’ve only read her manuscripts. She is one of those organized types that puts them all up on her blog. I wanted to go to church. I wanted to start Lent but I did it alone on my couch with a candle lit and Teri’s manuscript loaded on my phone.

I had forgotten, however, that Teri preaches from the Narrative Lectionary. I’ve never really had much experience with this arch of storytelling. I always opted for the Revised Common Lectionary in my own preaching. I’ve preferred the chopped up bits of scripture that appear every year in exactly the same place. And so, of course, I was ready to hear about the wilderness. I was ready to question my own temptations only to discover that Teri was preaching on something else. Instead of that forty days in the  wilderness that I expected to hear, I got two sections that I’ve never heard together: the Good Samaritan and the whiny bit where Mary does nothing to help her poor sister Martha. Of course, they follow each other in Luke’s Gospel so it’s possible that I could have read them together before, but it all seemed new to hear them as one.

Rather than breaking them up, bit by bit, I was struck how “who is my neighbor?” seems to get answered in Jesus’ reminder that “there is need of only one thing.” Teri told me in her text message — while the choir was singing — that she was just about to scrap her manuscript and preach something different but I was glad to have her words. I was glad to have these words to chew on:

The lawyer wants Jesus to justify the limits of neighborliness, to define the limits of love. What’s reasonable and unreasonable? What is enough love, and what is beyond the requirement? Who exactly counts as someone I have to love, and who can be left out because they are beyond the scope of my influence, or my responsibility? Because surely, there must be limits.

I especially love that last sentence because I can hear Teri say it. It reminded me in those six words that there’s an intimacy to preaching. There’s a trust inherent in it. It’s one that I’ve felt in the pulpit and one that has made me feel incredibly vulnerable as people in the pews have made all kinds of declarations about me. And it’s something I’ve missed as I’ve moved from place to place in the last two years.

I needed to hear every bit of Teri’s sermon. It may not have been the one that she preached to her congregation today (and it wasn’t). But, it was the sermon that I needed to hear.

I told my spiritual director last week that I’m inclined to take on the challenge of being a comforter. I’d read this article and found it compelling. It fit with my desire for justice and my hope to be a voice of compassion even if I haven’t a clue how to live any of that out right now. It’s work that I’m trying to do in the projects I’m taking on from consulting to spiritual direction, but it’s not something I know how to practice in the every day. For one, I don’t see many people on a given day. I don’t have all that many interactions. The season in which I find myself is more isolated so that I have to wonder if I’ve created so many boundaries and limits that I’m not allowing myself to challenge what is reasonable or unreasonable. I’m not putting myself out there perhaps because everything and everyone feels beyond the scope of my influence.

That’s not totally true though. I do believe that I have something to offer. There is some comfort than I can offer but Jesus’ question is the right one for this season: who is my neighbor? Is it the people I serve? Or is it the people that challenge me beyond my limits and boundaries?

When I told my spiritual director about this chosen practice, I told her that I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t sure how to do it. I wanted to know how to do this thing. I didn’t want to just have the intent. I wanted some form of practice, a ritual even. I wanted to know how to do the thing and I didn’t have a clue. I still don’t know how to be a comforter. I’m not even sure how to comfort myself which brings me right into the concluding words of Teri’s sermon.

Perhaps it means to really look, and listen — to see and hear and know people beyond our own mental image or stereotype. To allow ourselves to be moved with compassion… To lay aside our excuses and expectation and limits and distractions. All these reasons we have… (seriously, it’s like she’s speaking right to me) … all of those are distractions that, and they leave us in the same place they left Martha: missing the point that God is in our midst.

I tend to analyze all of the bits. I’d prefer chunks of scripture where I can examine every detail than to try to step into a whole narrative where multiple things are happening, but that is how it is with life. There is always more than one story being told. There are always different ideas about what might be happening, but even if you or I miss it completely that doesn’t change the fact that God is in our midst. God is showing us how to comfort and be comforted. God is mixing up our stories so that our neighbor is just one person or one kind of person. There are no limits to God’s compassion and bit by bit we are invited to practice that God’s compassion as our own.

I can’t thank my dear friend Teri enough for this reminder.

My Sexual Assault is More Than Locker Room Banter

sexualassault-300x200Trigger Warning: The content of this post may be triggering for people who have experienced sexual assault.

I was in college. I was drunker than I should have been—much drunker—and I was flirting with a boy. We kissed sloppily. One thing led to another and I left the bar with him. We went back to his place where he pinned me down to the bed and I said, “No.”

Read the whole post on New Sacred.

What is the Meaning of Life?

I’m working on my first chapter. Or I’m trying to work on this first chapter. I’m trying to stick with it. I’m trying to actually finish it rather than jumping ahead to some other chapter that is not quite so hard. For this is the chapter that frames the entire thing. It’s the bit that explains the focus and I can’t help but feel anything but focused.

Every bit of writing, I know, is at attempt to answer some big question. It’s what every novel does. It is what every story answers. There is some question that was so irritating that the writer had to sit down and try to answer it. The problem, it seems, is that I have too many questions. Way too many questions.

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young poet that he should have patience. Instead of wrestling and battling for answers, he told the poet to love the questions. He advised,

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

As I try to focus my thoughts and actually write this stupid chapter so that everything can fall into place (if that is even what might happen), it dawns on me that it’s these questions that I bring into my ministry all of the time. This is not exactly a recipe for ministry but one of those moments where those questions became more than something written on a page. It actually showed up in my ministry.

Two months ago, as the church began to take steps toward imagining its mission, I asked the members of the Consistory to read New Questions for a New Day. In that meeting, we had just articulated the goals for the church moving forward. Before moving onto other business, I asked these leaders to lift up the questions that they are still carrying. With a nod from Jeffrey Jones, I asked them to reframe their questions as new questions. Their list included:

  • How do we spread the love?
  • How do we all reach out in prayer to find inspiration?
  • How do we motivate each other?
  • How do we help people have meaningful and transformational experiences in the church?
  • Where is God in this confusing journey we are on? What does God want?
  • How do we help others expand their family through friendship?
  • What is the meaning of life?

The church is working on writing their mission. I’m trying to write my first chapter but we’re both trying to answer that last question. It’s the question and I don’t know the answer. It’s way too big for any one book or the mission of any local church. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to write it. It’s what both the church and I are trying to do. God bless us.

The Imperfect Pastor

There are plenty of days that I don’t feel like I’m a good pastor. I have never felt perfect. I can’t imagine ever feeling that confident in this holy and sacred work. Most of the time I feel like I’m not quite living up to this calling.

I don’t even want to get into that. I don’t want to talk about the ways that clergy are held to a high standard of morality and faith which makes it hard to be a person. I don’t want to talk about any of that because what is really on my mind is one particular pastor by the name of Jack Miller.

DSC_2625_D3Full-LJack was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco twenty something years ago. He
was, in fact, the pastor of that congregation up until 2002. And he’s the subject of the chapter I’m working on right now. For, you see, Jack was my mom’s pastor.

When she learned she was dying, when she was trying to come to grips with what that would mean, someone told her to talk to Jack. Someone advised that he might be a good listening ear. And he was. She would sit there in the balcony of that church next to Jack and talk to him about everything she hoped and feared. She dragged us to church on Sunday. She taught me that the church was a place where we could ask hard questions. And that was because of Jack. When she needed it most, Jack made a space for her. He listened. He prayed. He sat at her bedside. As she was dying, he was always at our house.

This was weird to me. My grandparents had been church goers, but my parents were not. They didn’t care much for that kind of thing until my mom was dying. When she knew she was dying, everything changed and Jack seemed to be always there. (He wasn’t, of course, but it seemed that way to seven year old me.) Jack made a big impact on me. He was a huge help to my mom but Jack was not perfect.

Many years later, the news broke that Jack was being charged with sexual misconduct. It was in The New York Times. I ended up Googling him yesterday. I realized that there were still questions I wanted to ask him. I wondered if maybe I could find him. But, all I found was news story after news story about this scandal. It is revealed how he struggled with his sexuality which may or may not have led to his drinking. The members of that church knew that he wasn’t perfect. They knew that he had some demons. I don’t know if they made the same space for those struggles as Jack made for my mom, but eventually, he was removed. He was forced to resign. He was removed of his ministerial standing. He is, now, what we would call a bad guy.

What I’m writing right now in the book I’m writing has nothing to do with this later history. It pains me that Jack’s ministry ended this way. Though, I am not totally sure that’s true. I seem to recall that he continued to pastor a home church made up of former members of that church he was forced to leave. I wish he hadn’t made that move but he is human, just as I am human. He was called into this work and he loved it. That was obvious to me even as a little girl. So, I want to write about that man that presided over my mother’s funeral and sat at her bedside.

I want to write about the man who jumped at the chance to take a ten-year old girl out to pizza to talk about the mom she missed. He ate a lot of pizza together. We drank too many sodas and Jack was who he had always been to me. He was someone who would listen. He was a pastor. He guided me back toward the light. He helped me to claim resurrection even if he couldn’t find that same hope for himself. The fact is: I never knew his struggles. Just as the people I pastor don’t know what’s going on in my inner life, I have no idea what was going on inside Jack. It pains me to read these news stories and I don’t want to write about it.

I don’t want to tell that part of the story, but I don’t want to edit out his name. But, that’s what I’m doing. I’m struggling to write this part. I’m trying to describe him without naming him because I don’t want him to be reduced to a scandal. Aren’t we all better than our worst moments? Isn’t there goodness to be found in everything? Is there no hope of redemption? Isn’t there? He is not a character. Jack is a real person who might one day read these words about him. He is as flawed and human as I am. He was not perfect. I doubt that he is now but I want to write his story without having to explain this scandal because it’s not part of my story. It’s not the Jack I knew. Still, the blinking cursor wins

A Blasphemous Question Just For You

Before I officially became Mrs. Cook, I went to a writing conference. This is, of course, what everyone does in the last few days before they get married, right? They go to a four-day conference. Well, it’s what I did.

Before we hopped on a plane and flew off to get hitched, I went to the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary where I got all kinds of wonderful insight and advice from Philip Yancey, Jonathan Merritt, Jeff Chu and Kathleen Norris. As you may know, I’ve been writing a book. I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a really long time and let’s just say it’s a slow process.

It’s a really slow process. And then, on the very last day of this conference I heard Kathleen Norris say, “people of faith are afraid to encounter what they presume to be blasphemous — and so we are quick to cut down what makes us uncomfortable.” I may be misquoting her but that’s what I have written in my notebook. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. She just described my whole writing process. I have been afraid to put down the words because I’m afraid that I’ll be labeled a heretic. I don’t want that label. I might be one but I don’t really want the label stamped on my forehead. Or worse, on whatever published work I might offer the world.

Jeff Chu said something the day before that I was still thinking about. He said, and again I might be misquoting, “we are never ever telling one narrative, but it is always a weaving of different stories.” It was then that I realized that I’m writing a memoir. I’m weaving my stories with other stories in a first person narrative of my own grief. They say to write what you know. Well, this is what I know.

I am writing every day. I put my butt in the chair and try to get down 1,000 new words every day. Or almost every day. But, I have a terrible time with editing. I want to reread what I’ve written and I get lost in my edits. This is made worse by the fact that I have realized that it’s a memoir. And so, the whole voice has changed. Everything needs to be rewritten! Ah!

What I want to share with you is a snippet of this work in progress but I learned at said writing conference that blog posts really shouldn’t be that long. Blog posts should only be 750 words. So perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, instead, I want to ask you something. I want to ask you about something I heard Krista Tippett say yesterday. On my way home from a meeting, I listened to OnBeing and heard Krista say this:

There is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong, right? Perfection can be a goal, but it’s never a destination. And this has given rise across history to the whole theodicy debate. If there — how could there be a good God, or how could the universe, the balance of the universe be good when there’s so much suffering? And so that question is there and it’s real, and reasonable.

But then there is also this paradox that we are so often made by what would break us. And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary, because this is the place in life that says — that honors the fact that there’s darkness — but also says “And you can find meaning right there,” right? Not — it’s not overcoming it. It’s not beyond it. It’s not in spite of it. What goes wrong doesn’t have to define us but, I mean, again, to come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it, it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes or the like, the huge and the ordinary losses of any life, who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed. Not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.

What do you think? Is that true? That’s the big blasphemous question because I’m realizing I need to hear your story as much as I need to write my own. Jeff Chu is right. It’s never just one story. Moreover, right there — in hearing those words — that is where my imposter syndrome shows up. There it is announcing that I am not actually whole and healed. I have so long defined myself by this hard thing, this grief. I’ve felt it was who I was, who I am. So, I want to know: does your grief define you? Or are you wise enough to have integrated this grief as Krista suggests? I hope you’ll share your wisdom with me.

 

Woman, Behold Thy Son

Tonight, I will share in worship with my home church at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in the remembrance of Good Friday. It is the tradition in many places to share in hearing and reflecting upon the seven last words of Christ. I have never actually been in a place that has done this so when my pastor asked for volunteers, I said: PICK ME! PICK ME!   Thus proving, yet again, I’m a big ol’ church nerd. What follows is the reflection I’ll share tonight on the third of those seven sayings. You can find the whole passage in the Gospel of John in my preferred translation because I loathe the King James Version here.

 

Woman, behold thy son. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved most standing beside her, this is what he says to his mother. Behold, this is your child.

Here is your beloved, the immigrant, the refugee, the man who happens to be homeless, the woman who depends on that welfare check to provide for her children. Here is the woman who is not paid enough for the work that she does. Here is the person you are supposed to love, your family, your very heart.

It’s something that Jesus had heard before any of this transpired. Before his ministry began, before he hung on a cross, God said these words to him. From the waters of baptism, he emerged to behold the wonder that he was God’s child.

Here am I your beloved, the woman, the broken, the hurting, the uncertain and doubting. Here is the person who just needs to pee but can’t because he’s transgender and in North Carolina. Here is the young black boy walking through your neighborhood in a hoodie eating Skittles. Behold, Christ says, this is your child.

Woman, behold thy son. You will be a new family. You will create something new. You will imagine another way and nothing, nothing — not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword, or even the fact that she is a Trump supporter — will separate you.

The world will build walls. The powers that be will erect barriers and divisions. They will tell you who to love and how to love them. They will try to tell you what love can do. But, don’t believe them.

Woman, behold thy son. Behold the glory of God for it is here in this relationship. It is here in this person. It is here in the love that we dare to find in each other. He wants her to see that. He wants her to understand what he once beheld in the waters of baptism. Behold, he says to this woman who gave birth from the waters of her womb, this is your child.

He does not only speak to his mother, but also to the disciple he loves most which interpreters have wondered if it wasn’t a placeholder. This one whom he loves most is never named. It could be John. Or Mary Magdalene or even Peter. Or it could be a placeholder for you and me. We are the beloved disciple. We are the ones whom Jesus loves most so that he turns to us from the cross, having just told his mother, Woman, behold thy son. He says to us, Here is your mother.

There is no one but you to love. There is no one better at it than you. Behold. “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart.” The wise one Martin Buber wrote that. “But don’t you know also that God needs you—in the fullness of [God’s] eternity, you? How would [we] exist if God did not need [us], and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you—for that which is the meaning of your life.”

Woman, behold your son. 

I am your child. 

You are my child.

Behold.

Good Friday Came First

good-friday-300x200Before the alleluias get dug up from the ground, before anyone can look for the living among the dead, before Sunday can come, there will be a Friday.

It is the order of things. It is the way that the calendar pages turn. Before there can be a Sunday to praise, there must be a Friday to mourn.

There are people who sit in our pews every Sunday who say they can’t watch the news anymore. It’s too terrible, they tell me. It’s just so awful that they can’t watch. Like the disciples in the Gospel of Luke, they stand at a distance from the bad news.

Read the full article on New Sacred.

Blinking Cursor

“Keep your butt in the chair. You do it at the same time every day. You never wait for inspiration — it’s ridiculous, it will never come. No one in your family is going to hope for you to be a writer… it’s not convenient for anybody for you to write, and you have to do it badly.”

So says Anne Lamott in her beloved book Bird by Bird.

I must admit that I didn’t like her book. I didn’t find much encouragement from this beloved writer in these pages. I preferred the words of Stephen King that I read last year when I couldn’t write. Even when I couldn’t write and believed I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, King convinced me of his love for the craft. It’s something I missed in the pages of Bird by Bird. There were genuine pearls of which I remind myself every time I put my butt in the chair. I need to write some shitty first drafts and eat my broccoli.

But, most of the time, I just stare at my blinking cursor.

Yesterday I actually managed to do it. I put my butt in the chair and I wrote. I didn’t heed another of Lamott’s bits of wisdom. I didn’t write something completely new. I rewrote something I’d written way back when when I began this project. As you might already know, I’m writing a book. I’ve talked about it a whole lot but now I’m actually doing it. I’m writing about the thing I know best. I’m trying as hard as I can to tell the truth. But really, more often than not, I’m just trying to put my butt in the chair.

I don’t succeed most days. Earlier this week, for two consecutive days, I convinced myself that it was more important to write other things. I wrote something for New Sacred only to get an email from my editor after submitting it. It was incoherent, she told me. I attempted to edit it but I just stared at the blinking cursor.

Then, I gave up and clicked over to the other tab containing my sermon for Sunday which I was convinced was also incoherent and let’s be honest. Most of what I’ve written for this book is incoherent. It is gobbledygook. It is not intelligible and I shudder at the mere idea of sharing it with anyone acquainted with the English language, but I’m writing. I’m making slow and steady progress toward realizing this dream because I’ve always dreamed of writing a book. I’ve always wished I had the discipline. I always wished I had something brilliant and true to say. I’m still not sure that I have any of those things but I’m writing.

Or, at least, I am staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen.

Each and every day, I think about the blinking cursor even when I’m not sitting at my laptop. I think about it at the gym and in the grocery store or while I’m reading something brilliant that someone else wrote. And lemme just say: there are lots of people who have written amazing things and sometimes I read their words and think I should never, ever put my butt in the chair. What could I possibly add? But, then, I remember that I love writing. I love writing for reasons I can’t even express so I sit down again just as I did today. I put my butt in the chair and try to make that stupid blinking cursor dance.

Letters to Heaven

clouds-1088472_1920

Every year, as January comes to a close and the calendar turns to February, I start to wonder about what I’ll say to her this year. I wonder about what I would want her to know about this year and who I am right now. Way up there in heaven, I wonder what I’ll tell my mother about my life.

Every year, I’ve written to her in the pages of my journal as if she is sitting beside me. Of course, she isn’t. Today is the anniversary of her death. She died twenty-nine years ago today. Twenty nine years ago, on this very day, I carefully prepared a package of stale marshmallows and the almond cookies we made in school that day to bring to her in the hospital. But, before I could leap off the bus, I could see my dad and I knew something was wrong. So much has happened since then. So much that she hasn’t been around to share with me. And this year, I will get married. I’ll marry a man that she never got to meet and begin to think about becoming a mom myself.

Maybe it’s because of those things that she feels so very far away today. Today it feels like I’ve spent the past twenty-nine years grieving something that never existed. I have photographs and other people’s stories that contradict this fact. They tell me what she was like and how wonderful she was, but I don’t have many of my own memories. When most people grieve, those normal people, they can tell you something about the person that they miss so very much. They can tell you about his laugh or her generosity. I’ve listened to so many of these stories. I love these stories so that I make it my business to seek them out. A glimmer will come into her eyes when I ask about their dearly departed before she tells me the most ridiculous story. A smile will creep across her face and she’ll sigh because that’s what she misses. She misses those little moments.

I don’t have too many of those stories. The only clear memory I have from when she was healthy was from one cold winter morning when we went ice skating on a nearby pond. My brother took off skating with lightning speed. The running joke in my family was that he was born with skates on his little feet. This day, that seemed to be true. I had never been skating on a pond so I wobbled down the wooden plank, fighting against the layers of warmth that encased me, until I hit the ice. I pushed off and made a clear, graceful arc straight into a snowbank. That’s when my mother started laughing. She couldn’t stop laughing even as she tried to pull me back to my feet. I really, really hope that this doesn’t reveal my mother’s character. It doesn’t fit with what I’ve been told but it’s the only memory I have stashed away. If my mom was alive, I’m sure we’d laugh about this. Or I really want to believe that we’d laugh about this ridiculous moment from my childhood. But, I don’t know what would make my mom laugh uncontrollably. I don’t know what would bring tears to her eyes out of sheer delight anymore than I know what would really break her heart. And that’s what makes anniversaries so hard.

My dear friend Teri, who lost her mother ten years ago, is much more frank about it. As she said by text message today, “anniversaries are shitty.” I can’t argue. Anniversaries are the cruel reminder that so many years have passed. Every year, I hope I will feel differently but it always feels the same. It is one of those days where everything feels thin. Just as the ancient Celts imagined it, it feels like the walls between heaven and earth collapse and it feels as if something should happen. Every year, I’m confronted with this terrible indecisiveness about how to spend the day. Sometimes that means spending the days with others whether that’s taking a ferry to a quiet island in the middle of Casco Bay to quietly walk with a friend or building a fairy house in the woods on another island with another friend. I’ve thrown ice cream parties where we heaped mounds of chocolate ice cream into bowls as I told the story of the last time I saw my mom but most years, I don’t know what to do. I feel that I should do something but I struggle with what do with the strange cosmic energy that comes each and every year.

And then, with frustrated tears running down my cheeks, I feel guilty. It happens every single year. I am overwhelmed and overcome by this terrible guilt. This is something I will never understand. I don’t know why I feel guilty but it’s something that Teri tells me happens. She calls it survivor guilt. It’s a real thing, she argues because she knows that I am going to disagree. I don’t want to see myself as survivor. It’s not like I survived a plane crash or the collapse of the twin towers. My mom died from a disease that I have yet to contract. Though I live in that fear, it remains only a possibility. That doesn’t change the fact that I always feel guilty on the anniversary of her death.

I feel as if I should feel something or do something but I can never figure out what that is. I have tried time and time again for twenty-nine years. Still, the guilt hangs out mixed up with this sense of wonder that everything feels thin. All the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There is a feeling like something might happen. Something could happen. Or maybe I just really want something to happen so that the only constant from year to year is that I sit down  with my journal to write letters to heaven. On the anniversary of the day she died, I take a pen in my hand to try to collapse the walls between heaven and earth.

This year, it doesn’t feel thin. That feeling is still there. I still feel like anything could happen. I really want something to happen but it’s not a thin feeling. It’s a thick feeling that hangs in the air today. Today, I’m aware of the distance between heaven and earth.

I feel the distance in the years that I have lived without her. I feel the distance in the huge events that are about to take place this year that she won’t get to share. I feel the distance that comes from not knowing what would make her laugh or cry. And yet, no matter how far the distance might be, I still want to collapse those walls that separate us. I want to believe she’s right here beside me.

That’s how small I want the distance to be. I want to believe that she is standing beside me. I try to convince myself that she always has been. She’s right here on earth and hasn’t really left my side, except that on this anniversary, on the day that she died, the calendar turns and I can only feel her absence.

It doesn’t feel like she is here. She is anything but here so she must be out there somewhere because she hasn’t been here for so very long. She died twenty-nine years ago and I still can’t quite believe it. She has to be up there in some other realm that I cannot reach, no matter how hard I try. It’s only on this dreadful day that I let myself believe that I have any power to cross the divide and reach toward that place where she dwells. On other days, I don’t believe such things. I remain unconvinced that heaven is somewhere else. I refuse to believe it most of the time. Except that on her anniversary, especially on this anniversary, my faith isn’t quite so resolute because the distance seems so vast and I want nothing more than to bring her close and tell her everything about my life that she needs to know. (She’s still my mom. No matter how much I want this sweet communion, there are still things she doesn’t need to know.)

Part of me believes that she knows it all already. I don’t need to tell her because she’s already seen it. She’s been busy watching me all year long from her cloud just over my head. There’s no need for me to reach through the veil between heaven and earth with my pen and paper because she already knows. She knows it all. She hasn’t missed on anything. She’s done all that she could to be there even if I never knew that she was standing beside me but I can’t quite convince myself of that today. So today, just as I have so many anniversaries before, I’m writing my mom a letter. I’m sending it out to the far reaches of the heavens.

Mom,

There are so many things that I want to ask you. There are so many things that I don’t know about you and so very many things that I want to know. Years ago, I used to ask those that knew you and loved you.

Maybe they were trying to convince themselves that you lived as much as I am trying to do now, because they wanted me to know how human you were. They told me that you were so damn stubborn and that you had a mean streak of anger. They wanted me to know that you were not perfect even when I wanted so much to believe that you were. I never got to be a teenager with you. I never got to rebel and slam doors in your face or whatever it is that teenagers do. Instead, my rebellion took me to church. I plopped down in a pew and wanted the answers to everything that didn’t make sense. Because I didn’t understand — I still don’t understand — why you had to die.

I feel like a child writing that to you, but I”m your child. So I can still be a kid, right? I can tell you that this still doesn’t make sense to me no matter how much I want to make sense of it.

I’ll never understand it just as I’ll never get to know you. It’ll always be someone else’s story or someone else’s anecdote. I won’t get to have those stories with you because you died before we ever got the chance. Just as I won’t have the chance to see you beam with pride and delight on my wedding day in just a few months. You weren’t there to watch me try on my wedding dress and I won’t get to have some frustratingly special moment on that special day where you try to give me advice and I shirk it off, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want those things. I want you to be a part of that special day just as much as I want you to know my beloved and my future children. Oh, it hurts to even imagine that. How can I be a wife and a mom without you? How will I learn my own rhythms without your support?

But I will. I’ll somehow manage this just as I’ve managed every other event without you by my side. You can’t be there. I know, I know. We will never have that but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it. I will always want you to be a part of my life. I will always want to know what you think. I will always want to hear your advice. I will always wonder what you would say to any of the bizarre and wonderful things that this life has already offered me.

Mom, there are so few things that I remember about you. I can’t remember your laugh or the sound of your voice. I don’t have many stories about you. In most of my memories, you were sick. You were as pale as the sheets on your bed. You didn’t say much but you were there and I guess I want you to be here now. I guess I’ll never give up on that hope that I’ll get to know you better… I love you.

Yours, Elsa