I want to live, but not like the short breaths of a bucket list

I’m staring at a square box at the end of a grid of square boxes that says today we celebrate William being born. I’ve been staring at that box all day, in my mind. During all the lame office emergencies and in between the tip-tap typing of emails… Yes, I’ll write those meeting notes for you, Ed. Sure, I’ll create a new job number for that client. Ok, I’ll have that little envelope sent by messenger.

Everything is dust because I’m staring at a square box in my mind, a blank square box because William is not alive inside of it to be celebrated. And it feels wrong.

It is Tuesday and then it will be Wednesday and then Saturday will come and then more days after that. The days are drunk, blurring slurs with excuses about all the ways my body refuses to be productive.

I can’t seem to make any progress on the list – that growing list of normal, important, useful things – because my body is all the meaning of the word “weight.” And it is effort to pull it up, make it walk and talk and dance and think and smile. It is effort I don’t have in me.

I am called to live.

It was the phrase repeating in my head to the question printed on the guide in my lap last week. We were meditating on Acts 3, on the way Peter and John fixed their gaze on the lame man and offered him something other than what he was begging for. The guide was asking us what we are to do with our eyes and hands and hearts in this city. I could only speak in my head, but it was just that phrase, “I am called to live.”

I am not convinced I know what that means, but it feels important. And it mostly feels important by default. I still have breath. I’m here on the day my brother was born and I am breathing while he is not. So, it must be a calling. God formed me 29 years ago and has since not stopped breathing life into my bones. He is actively preserving me from death today, at least for right now. Maybe calling that a “calling” is wrong, but it is that phrase that keeps repeating.

Being back in Brooklyn reminds me how much breath there is here. So many humans and all with breath in their bones – so many folks with life happening to them because God is declaring it so. I don’t know who is really living – it’s hard to tell. I work with the moneymakers. They are happy sometimes and very unhappy other times, but they are always at the office. I live with my neighbors and my friends and all the subway riders. They have their good days and their bad days, but they (we, most of us) are always in a hurry. I wonder who is really living and who is confident to define “really living” anyway?

I want to be alive.

I don’t mean I want to skydive and eat tarantulas. This calling that is happening to me and not happening to my brother feels bigger than extreme sport clichés. I don’t want to feel alive with breath catching in my lungs like a bucket list.

I want the most core, purest essence, the singlest bottom line of all of it. I want to sidle up to the very breath of life – the slows and fasts and quiets and louds of it. I want every moment I am present to be as heavy as every moment he is absent. I want the same heaviness without any marketing or mottos or catchy repeating choruses.

We must be a wayward mess of our calling. I am, anyway. Because I can’t catch the slows and fasts on the right beat. I can’t seem to run to the right finish line. I can’t pick up the right groceries for this calling. I’ve Amelia Bedelia-ed the whole thing – always flopping wild toward what I think is life in my apron with half-baked cookies. And we are a whole city of flopping, frenzied messes chasing life and breathing in just enough of it to flop and frenzy some more.

Life must be about getting close, like a nail under a hammer inside a board, to the One giving us all this breath. The steps are messier than chronology because days are like years and my brother is not here for his birthday. And if I was a beggar today by the entrance to the temple when Peter and John walked by, I would be asking for Will. I would have hands outstretched, asking for someone to bring him back to his wife and his family and his friends. And if Peter and John fixed their gaze on me, they’d probably say something like, “William I do not have, but what I do have I give to you…”

But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3:6-10 ESV)

I don’t know what that means for my “calling,” except that William will never come back. I’m not called to search for him. I know where he is, because he believed in eternity and he believed that Jesus prepared a place for him there by going to the cross. He is having the best birthday with the One who made him – all the mechanical brilliance and adventurous spunk of him. But, here, I am still breathing. I have a hole in my left, black sock and I haven’t changed out of my Manhattan work clothes yet, but I am still breathing.

The closest I can think – the nail under the hammer in the board – is knowing that same Lord, the one who is deciding to give me breath. The rest of it is still suffering to make sense – the minutes in every day and the celebrations and the guilt when I get paralyzed. The rest, outside of knowing the God who gives me breath, still feels like a thousand faces staring at me on the subway.

I am called to live. And I’ll start by trying to know the Life-Giver.

I have a place to start and that’s something. As far as I know, I have a box inside a grid of boxes called October and I would like each one to prove that I am alive.


Find all our grief notes at this link and join with my family as we mourn in hope.

this is my father’s world

We are in a class called the Brooklyn Fellows and it meets on Mondays. Last winter, when we were applying to be a part of it, the whole “Mondays” thing was a big deal. It meant we could only host Pancake Mondays once/month. Cutting back on the “thing” that is making me love New York felt like a weird step forward, but we thought meeting with a group of folks who also voluntarily applied to something with a required reading list and syllabus was a good enough idea.

This past weekend, we gathered with this group around a long table and before we started our discussion on a very thick Church History book (that neither Patrick nor I finished) we sang this song.

This group of strangers and friends, this city, this body, this mountain, this sea, this grief, this joy, this song, this day, this sorrow, this job, this sunshine, and this. 

This. All of this.

I know the sound of His sweet song of praise – the melody of rocks and trees and skies and seas. I can recognize the joyful tune that creation sings and I have often sung along. These are words believers sing – strong words that proclaim a funny paradox. None of this is mine. There is not a particle I can claim, of the beauty I see. Even my own body is not my own because it was bought with a price.

Still, I rush all my particles up against the gravity pushing me down to say, “Not my this. Please let this alone so I can hold it close!” That is when I feel the funny paradox the most. None of this is mine, not even the thoughts I hoard like jewels. But all of this He shares with me. That’s a lot of this. And it just expanded more than the weight of the world in the last two and a half months.


That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet. 

This is my Father’s world,
why should my heart be sad? 

The lord is King—let the heavens ring.
God reigns—let the earth be glad. 

This is my Father’s world.
I walk a desert lone. 

In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze
God makes His glory known. 

This is my Father’s world,
a wanderer I may roam 

Whate’er my lot, it matters not, 
My heart is still at home. 

This is my Father’s world:
the battle is not done: 

Jesus who died shall be satisfied, 
And earth and Heav’n be one.

When this includes deserts and wrongs and sadness and battles on battles, the last lines of “My Father’s World” become especially important. Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heav’n be one. The depth of this is infinitely deeper now because He includes us in His inheritance. Everything I can grasp and hold and hoard in this world pales to that union of earth and heaven becoming one.

But, what I am grappling with today is much more tangible, much more temporary and tactile. There is joy here, in all of this. God did not stop keeping promises when my world got full of grief. He did not stop being abundant life. God did not stop authoring laughter or dancing or sunshine or autumn breezes. He still authors all those things.

This world – all the beauty and all the ugly – is His and He will hear our groans until earth and Heav’n are one. Until then, I will sing, “God is the ruler yet.”


Find all our grief notes at this link and join with my family as we mourn in hope.

dust like dry mist

fragile dust clouds,
broken and crumbled parts floating,
dancing, disappearing
like dry mist into pale sky

out of it we came
particles on top of particles,
tiny pieces knit together
when we got formed

from dust…

I don’t write much poetry anymore. Most poetry I do have reads like someone who wants to hear herself think in rhythms – seems so proud and silly now. But Patrick is encouraging me to weave words differently these days. He thinks it would help and he might be right – it might be the ambiguity that punctuated sentences cannot afford. I’ll keep trying.

We felt the first breath of autumn Saturday and yesterday morning it swooped inside our open windows to wake us from Sunday slumber. I wish the seasons wouldn’t change. I want this new absence to be as present as this moment – to always feel strange and wrong and deep. But the September sun is covering a new nook in the living room and I am reading with a cup of hot tea and a breeze around my neck. It’s that push and pull again. All the wonderful things about September are now hard things, too.

 

IMG_2357    IMG_2368IMG_2366

That’s my new favorite sun-bathing nook and the front of our new building and our bikes before we took them for a ride yesterday. We had no destination, but I knew we would be fools to not make one up. It’s September, the month that ushers in the best season.

There are apple trees in upstate orchards and farmer’s market Saturdays and favorite cardigans and pumpkin recipes for every meal. There are bike rides and football games and homemade versions of fancy hot drinks. There are these things in September and I don’t want them as much as I do.

He was born in September, but just barely. September 30th.

Missing and remembering well is hard work, because it will never feel less wrong that he is gone. It will never get balanced out in a slow fade, especially never in September.

 …to dust

our bodies passing by like specks,
caught by shafts of light at dusk,
floating without consequence
or weight.

I’ll keep trying and writing and praying. September is a hard month, but it is also beautiful.


Find all our grief notes at this link and join with my family as we mourn in hope.

lessons in love and emptiness

Few folks on the 19th floor of 42nd and Madison knew I was in California over the weekend. Few of them knew I was gone at all. I handed out hellos and good mornings with my best Monday face, because they all had weekends, too, and I didn’t know what theirs were about either.

Mine was full of lessons in love and emptiness.

I always thought love was about giving away something I’ve got, something that came from the overflow of my abundance. You don’t show up to a potluck without a casserole (am I right, Midwest?) and you don’t show up to love someone without something to offer – even if it’s a shoulder or a bit of laughter or a few tears.

I have often tried to love people that way. But, I think I am learning that love is about being empty. Love knocks on the door without a casserole or an explanation, because my confidence in knocking at all has nothing to do with what I can offer.

And it’s hard to think that love can come out of that, out of nothing. But that is what I was learning this weekend. We can be confident love-givers when we are empty. When we realize our words and gifts and casseroles are not the love message, we are left to just be present.

We are present to not figure things out, to not make things better, to not share wise words. Present to question and doubt and consider and believe. Present to be present and not to give a casserole or eat a casserole or have an agenda.

And all of these lessons in love and emptiness remind me of Jesus. He knew how to be present. He knew how to forget about the commotion and the crowds and the distractions so that he could be present with that bleeding woman, reaching out in faith to touch his robe (Mark 5:25). He was always getting empty of all the things we try to offer others in love so that he could be love by being present.

So, I’m trying to learn to get empty more often. I’m trying to learn to offer myself like Jesus.

Last night, freshly back from California with my new lessons on love and emptiness, Patrick tried to share something with me in our new living room. But I already had my apron on and I was very focused on preparing the apartment to host guests.

My apology sounded like a less-than-empty offering, like a casserole I whipped up to cover the offenses. “Here, just eat this and we’ll both feel better.” But it isn’t the same as being empty. He needed my empty moments, the quiet space of my presence.

So, I’m still learning about that.

He will not stay hidden

I press my cheeks into the clouds covering the Nebraska sky, “Come out, come out wherever You are! You promised You could be found!”

He promised.

I keep coming back to Jeremiah 29. I memorized verse 11 in elementary and then rolled my eyes at the way it was thrown on calendars and desk organizers for high school graduation gifts, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Plans for prospering and for hope and a future. Plans the Lord declares over us, even as He knows the number of our days. Plans and true words and nothing to roll my eyes about.

The next verses seem to me an encouragement toward belief when those plans don’t make sense, “You will seek me and you will find me if you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord.”

That means sometimes He will be hidden. And sometimes He will even be so hidden that we will only find Him if we seek Him with all our hearts, like finding Him is the most important thing.

And now I’m on my way to California, with my grief cheeks in the middle of Midwest clouds. And I need for that promise to be true. I need for Him to not stay hidden. I need for Him to be found and for me to be found in Him.

This is the flip side of “dying is gain,” I guess. It’s the “to live is Christ” part that is so hard to swallow. Heaven I can handle. I can look forward to eternity with the One who would stop at nothing to have me in His presence forever. I can picture days emptied of pain and full to overflowing with the Creator of everything good. Heaven I can handle. But I am not in heaven, I am here.

And God said there is abundant life, here.

When Jesus came to bring life and life abundant (John 10:10), it was with all the authority of heaven and it was not a hidden operation. Everyone who sought Him out was found by Him; everyone seeking abundance found more than they could carry.

Believing God made abundance available in these moments is the hardest game of hide and seek. But I have noticed that we are all seeking. We are all turning over rocks and looking in closets. We are looking for answers and knowing no answer will make sense.

So, I pray I would seek the right thing. I pray for belief that joy is here, that abundance is here, that life is here… because God has promised to not stay hidden from those who seek Him with all their hearts.

And He has promised to be the strength for me to seek when “all my heart” is a scattered mess that can’t be made to wholly seek anything.


I wrote this on the plane to California yesterday. Less than 24 hours later and these thoughts feel so far away. But they are thoughts and I am typing them down because they are my grief notes and it might be helping. Find all our grief notes at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

observing grief

One of these days, someone will tell me I need to take better care of my eyes. And I will listen because that person will be right.

It is probably irresponsible to wear my brother’s old contacts – the ones that arrived in the mail on Friday, hours before the accident. But I love that he sent them, because “our prescriptions are close enough” and he didn’t need them after lasik surgery. The conversation went something like this…

WN: Care! What’s your prescription?

CN: Uh, I don’t know… why?

WN: You can have my contacts!!

When we found out both Christina and I had equally similar prescriptions (and equally hazy memories about what those prescriptions were), he intended to divide the spoils fairly between his two sisters who do not have vision insurance. We love him for this… this being so typically “Will.”

I don’t know why I tossed that brown mailer package out, with his efficient and upside down scrawl on the label. He used to start his letters from the bottom because he didn’t like to waste pen strokes and now the last ones he wrote to me are on their way to a landfill in New Jersey. I don’t know if he was still starting all his l’s and i’s from the bottom… I’ll have to ask Grace, she would know.

I paid full price for a copy of “A Grief Observed” at a snobby bookstore in Grand Central Station after taking the train over my lunch hour to find out the largest used bookstore in the city didn’t have it. But my eyeballs were burning from these free contacts and I am observing grief. It felt urgent; I knew C.S. Lewis’s hazy combination of intellectual and emotional fog would make me more normal.

Pancake Mondays only gets better and the joy is almost painful. We moved around in that sliver of a kitchen, chef and sous chef-ing that packed out Monday night like the apartment restaurant owners we aren’t. Our MacGyvered cold brew coffee sat in the freezer and six batches of batter rested in the fridge while our test pancakes were devoured with plenty of time to cook the (coconut) bacon to perfection. The neighbors came and the friends came and the strangers came and they all came through that open door and my face got confused.

This is still joy and it feels both welcome and wrong. I push against it and every emotion that distracts from this new, awful reality. But I am drawn to it, because joy is the only emotion with any strength in it anymore. There are a lot of emotions, but just joy has strength in it. It is made of the same stuff that allowed Jesus to endure the terrible tragedy of the cross, scorning the shame that would be our salvation.

“For the joy set before him…” There is something very “set before us” about joy. It is something far off as much as it is something near, like muscles making our bones dance toward a sunset.

One night last week, Tam moved the furniture around my glazed-over figure in the dusk light of our common space. Chairs got pushed to the walls, the rug got adjusted to make more space, and the clutter got cleared enough away for our legs and arms to be free. And we danced in that summer dusk light. Each separately working out whatever it was we needed to work out on the poorly refinished wood floor – separately stretching misery and mercy with untrained movements and with (for me) little grace.

The “joy set before me…” had settled in to all my knotted muscle groups, its presence pushing like thunder against my ribs but escaping like mist with my breath. Joy.

I am pushing against it. How is there still joy and why is it the thing that is strong and brings strength? It seems best and most appropriate to step into sadness and lock the door. But even then it seems joy pursues me and lives inside locked rooms, too.

I got a card from my grandparents, with one of my Gram’s flowers printed on the front. A lily, I think. Will’s fingerprints are all over their house – the shingles, the support beams on the addition, the wood shop, the storage shed. There’s the smallest knick in their living room where he missed a beam with the nail gun. They are remembering.

For the joy set before us, camped around us, living in us… this, we endure. There is no sense-making of it. We are on this side and he is over there. And the joy set before us is the same.

All I know is, a small package arrived on Friday, August 2nd and now my eyes burn like the fireballs Dad used to hide under the seat of his Chevy pickup. And I’ll let them burn until someone tells me I need to take better care of my eyes. Meanwhile, I’ll be hitting the Visine good and hard.


Find all the writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.

come | he will not cast us out

In the pale darkness of our Brooklyn bedroom, we prayed.

Honest prayers, out loud, are like a wrecking ball for the walls I build to protect my grief. He prayed first and I breathed out my soft echoes in mmhmms. A day’s worth of silent wrestling caught up with me in his clear words, wrapped in our white wedding sheets. We are one now, but I wanted to roll toward the blank wall and blink away my sadness in solitude. Alone is painful and that feels more appropriate. But when he finished his honest prayers, I started my own with a sigh.

Keep me from jealousy.
Forgive any bitterness that tries to take root in me, O God. 
Help me to speak grief words openly.
Teach me to walk with Patrick in this and not shut him out.

It went on like that, lit by streetlights, and I realized I had much to confess. I walked my words up to the altar and tossed them down, like flowers on the casket we never buried. A strange and honest offering. What I most wanted to pray for, selfishly, was more time on this side of heaven.

I am jealous of those Will loved well and of those who knew him best. I am bitter for the moments I didn’t spend with him and for the moments I wasted in his presence. I am bitter at a world that suffers death every day, for the wars on top of wars of death and none of it weighing the weight of this one man.

It was just the scratch of our midnight voices that hit the silent ceiling, a strange and honest plea for some ground to catch our freefall.

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” Psalm 27:13-14

We believe and we are praying for more belief. We are confident in the goodness of the Lord, of the eternity He rules and the table He prepares. We are confident that He is our home. We are confident in His invitation to “Come,” though His beckoning feels painfully far off.

Two soft voices melodied these words over the string arrangement while Patrick and I took communion at our wedding. We wanted everyone to know about the invitation that altered our lives forever, Jesus’s invitation to “Come.”

Today we sang this same invitation during communion, but the melody from almost two months ago felt a world away. I am now the child in the last verse, full of fret and grief – the child who is not cast out. Even that child has an invitation to sit at the celebration table and take part in the feast, maybe especially that child.

Come ev’ry child, with fret or grief;
He will not cast us out
He will meet our unbelief
and drive away our doubt.

Come, cloaked in grief. Come, bring your sadness to the feast table. Come, bring your questions and doubts and weary tears to the day the Lord has made. Come.

Come, he will not cast us out. He will meet our every unbelief and hear our every doubt. He will comfort and keep us at the celebration table, when we grieve and sorrow and pray honest prayers in the pale darkness.

“Come, He will not cast us out.”


Find all the writings on grief at this link and join with us as we mourn in hope.