“What I Thought Was Impossible”

jack and anna

Anna with Jack

I don’t even have words to explain how much this post means to me. As I mentioned last week, today I get to introduce you to Anna Whiston-Donaldson, a beloved friend and one of the most talented writers on the planet. Maybe more important, I’ve never worked with someone so brave, honest, or willing to be broken open on the written page.

Anna’s memoir, Rare Bird: A memoir of loss and love (Convergent Books, 2014) comes out September 9th. It’s the story of how one ordinary afternoon three years ago, Anna encouraged her two kids to go out and play in the rain and only one came home.

But as Anna explains in the introduction, this is not a scary book. “It’s about how God and my son showed me—a buttoned up, rule-following Christian—that I needed a bigger God. I needed the God of the universe who somehow held a plan in His hand—a plan for the ages, a plan that I hated—that went far beyond my meager understanding. Because my God of rules and committee meetings and sermon notes and praise music wasn’t going to be enough for pain this big.”

What follows is a three-part excerpt from Rare Bird, followed by a not-to-be-missed book trailer.

As I write about what those days and weeks are like, the what seems less important than the how. How does one wake up the next day and the next? How do you force yourself to breathe and to eat when both seem disgusting and ridiculous? How do you keep from losing your mind? How do you live knowing the dirty secret that most moms try to stave off as long as possible if they ever face it at all—that control is an illusion?

Because despite my attempts to follow my mother’s example and relax and trust God with my kids, I’d clung to the belief that I could somehow control our futures if I just tried hard enough. And if my solo efforts weren’t enough, there was always God. Surely God could see how we wanted to live our lives for Him. How we had formed our family around loving and serving Him. And praying.

Jack was well prayed for. That he would be healthy and grow. That he would make true friends. That others could see in him what we did. That he would know his own worth. Prayers of courage. Prayers of protection. Was it all a crock?

We made sure we were in church every single week. Not because we believed in getting credit for good behavior but because we wanted our kids to understand our house was built on something bigger than ourselves, on the solid rock of God, not the shifting sand of money, status, or busyness that was so valued in our society.

Now I can’t shake the image we have on video of three-year-old Jack singing his Sunday school song with motions, some of his r’s coming out more like w’s in his little-boy voice: “The wain came down and the floods came up. …The wain came down and the floods came up, and the house on the rock stood firm.”

How will our house stand this flood?

[Later she writes]

And then there are the moments I don’t tell anyone about, when I feel like a bad griever. When I step into the crisp fall air, the sunshine warms my hair, and laughter comes quickly and easily. A gentle sense of contentment rests on me. Part of my brain feels aware that God is using Jack’s shocking death for something important, and that feels powerful and holy and somehow good, even though I don’t understand the details.

In these fleeting moments, and on these rare days, I can look beyond our circumstances for a while, away from what Jack is missing out on, away from the creek, and feel joy and hope. I don’t know what I’m hoping for, because the thought of a future without Jack makes my stomach turn. But thinking of Jack doesn’t. It makes me smile and fills me with gratitude that he was once mine and somehow still is.

[And still later]

I understand now there is no way to get an A in grief. I can just be honest about my feelings, try to live gently with others, and when that’s too hard, give myself a little break and find some distance. I can commit to plucking out the seeds of bitterness about how unfair life is when they sprout up again and again as they have on these pages. I can decide each day to trust that God knows what He’s doing….

Mostly, what I’m still learning is yet another way to look at Jack’s favorite Bible verse, “For nothing is impossible with God. ” Jack used that verse to encourage himself in doing hard things, despite life’s challenges. Then with the accident, the verse seemed to mock me. For (even with) God, nothing is impossible! Our precious child could die! Eventually, it revealed itself in a third way: signs. Why had I thought that a holy God wouldn’t or couldn’t use those means to show His love? Nothing is impossible with God. And finally, I’ve been learning that with God so close to me in my heartache, what I thought was impossible is possible, surviving and perhaps eventually thriving despite losing my Jack.”

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Anna Whiston-Donaldson

Anna Whiston-Donaldson is a former high school English teacher who lives in the Virginia Suburbs. Her blog, An Inch of Gray, shares Anna’s stories of humor, motherhood and loss and has twice been voted one of BlogHer’s Voices of the year.

Good Enough for Grateful

Art by Kate Ladd, click image to visit her on Etsy

Art by Kate Ladd, click image to visit her on Etsy

Hi friends, I hope you’ve all been having a great summer. This morning I felt the urge to check in with you. I have been in a very quiet season where it would appear nothing much is happening. But as you know, sometimes that’s when the most is really going on–in the spaces in between the big events.

I have felt like my main assignment during this season is to just let go. To continue to quit deeper, to let myself be stripped of all ambition or striving or effort. For someone like me, this is a hard thing to do. To let myself be poor in the sense that I am not producing anything I can point to or hold out to the world.

In the meantime, life continues to amaze me and good things happen. I have kept up the jogging, for one thing. No one is more surprised by this than I am. I always swore I’d never be a runner, I hate running, and it’s bad for the knees. But God tricked me into it via a dog I babysat back in March who pulled so hard on her leash during walks that I started jogging by default.

After the dog went home, I kept on going. And gradually, I realized that jogging wasn’t just an easy  (no cost, no classes, no special equipment) way to stay active or get fit—God was inviting me to make a spiritual practice of it. To let the physical nowness of it wake me up, over and over. To let my breathing (or gasping) become a prayer. To let my resistance to the hard work of it become a reason for self-compassion.

It has changed my life not at all and in every possible way. I am continually reminded to be gentle on myself, to take it easy, to do only what I can, and to do it all with great kindness. Which means my hardest days jogging—the ones where I feel slow and clunky and tired—are the days when I get to experience the most compassion. Not just for myself, but for everyone.

Other happenings. Dull, but true. We are finally adding a much-needed bathroom upstairs. Seven years ago, we bought the tile, hired a contractor, and determined to “fix” this house’s obvious problem. Then we forgot to follow through. :)  All these years later, we’re finally on it. Which feels like such a miracle that after we signed the contract with the contractor, we went to dinner to celebrate.

In the meantime, Dave and I both sense that change is coming. You know that feeling when a long, good season of your life feels like it’s coming to a close, but you have no idea what’s next? What’s around the corner? Why does it feel like the plates of the earth are shifting?

But unlike in the past, we don’t spend too much time trying to figure it out. We also no longer imagine that our next season will be radically different from life as we’ve known it for all these years. As we get older, we no longer dream that a different house, car, job, or financial situation will make everything finally come together in a way that feels like an arrival.

One of our favorite things to say to each other these days is this: “It’s not going to happen, is it?”

And the other will smile and say, “No, honey. I don’t think it is.”

We both know what we mean by this. We mean that, no, life isn’t going to at last deliver that elusive something we’ve been waiting for all of our lives. The completing, big event that would finally make life make perfect sense is never going to happen.

Until we die, perhaps. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s even good. Maybe joy is found in accepting that life as it is right now is as good as life’s going to get.

Today, that’s good enough to make me grateful.

P.S. This coming Tuesday, while we’re on a brief vacation in Sedona, I’ll be running an excerpt from my friend’s upcoming memoir about the tragic death of her 12 year old son—and the miracles of grace that followed. I got to work as the developmental editor (a doula of sorts) on this project. Which means, I got to cheer and cry and encourage the author as she gave birth to her beautiful book. Needless to say, I’m awed by her talent and proud of her baby. I hope you enjoy the sneak peek and buy a dozen copies.

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The Gracious River (Or, Why We’re All Wet)

Art by Kate Ladd, click to visit her on Etsy

Art by Kate Ladd, click to visit her on Etsy

As many of you know, since getting into recovery more than seven years ago, I’ve discovered that God is in the business of drawing people to himself quite apart from religion, the Bible, church, or professional Christians.

I didn’t used to think God could do that.

You might also be aware that at times I have wanted to distance myself from some Christians who express their faith in ways that, quite frankly, embarrass me.

That’s still true to some extent.

But it’s also true that my journey has taken me full circle. I can now recognize and celebrate how God works wonders not only through myriad religious traditions, but through all those Christians who express their faith in ways I don’t always appreciate. In other words, I’ve come to see that no matter how narrow or broken or stunted the funnel we hold up to God, given the tiniest opening for love, God pours himself into the world.

Which brings me to the excerpt I want to share with you today. It’s condensed from a longer version in author James Finley’s book, Christian Meditation. Just to set you up, a “river enterer” is Finley’s metaphor for a person who seeks to experience God.

I know it’s way long, but I think it’s worth your time.

I hope that those of you in the Christian tradition whose spiritual odyssey has been expanded and enriched in opening yourself to other religious traditions will relate to this parable.

Now imagine that you are a river enterer. Imagine, too, that you have learned to be a river enterer in the religious tradition that traces its roots back to Jesus. But there is something missing, something that is not right. Seeking to sort out just what the difficulty is, you study the history of your river-entering community.

You discover that at first it was very simple. Men and women simply entered the river. Soon a path began to form leading down to the water’s edge. Word got out, and a growing number of people began showing up to use the path.

One day, someone observed that river entering is so important it seemed only fitting there should be a ceremony celebrating the admission of new members into the river-entering community. And before long, there arose rituals with hymns and candles as people gathered at the river.

Then one day someone observed that river entering is so special that there should be some kind of little tent over the path that goes down into the river. Others agreed. And a festive, brightly colored tent was built over the path.

Then someone observed that river entering is so special that a tent was hardly a suitable way to honor all the ways that river entering enriched their lives. Others agreed. And so there was the first fund drive to raise money to build a large and beautiful building over the tent that covered the path that went into the river. And everyone agreed that it was an inspiring and uplifting building indeed.

Then someone wrote a book titled The Meaning of River Entering. Someone read the book, did not agree with its premise, and so wrote another book refuting the teachings of the first book. Someone read both books, disagreed with both, and wrote a third. Soon there was a proliferation of books on the meaning of river entering. A second fund drive was required to build a library.

Then someone suggested that a school be built to promote the study of riverology and the granting of degrees to learned riverologists. Another fund drive raised the moneys to build a fine school, a seminary of sorts.

Then someone observed that [the path to the river] was getting so crowded, it might be best if everyone did not enter the river. It might be better if only certain members of the community entered the river, and then distributed river water to the others. The decision was made to create a new ritual to celebrate authority invested in the riverologists to distribute river water to the community.

Somewhere along the way, the riverologists tended not to enter the river nearly as much as they used to. At some point they began to pipe river water into the building. And there were rumors that the water was actually shipped in from undisclosed sources.

This is the situation that has developed in the river-entering community in which you find yourself. It seems that most everyone is content to sip bottled river water, read books on river entering, attend river-entering ceremonies, and agree and disagree with each other about the meaning of river entering.

Disheartened, you walk alone one day down by the river, trying to grasp just how everyone got into this predicament. As you are walking along, you slip and fall into the water. In doing so, you discover that the river is so gracious as to accept you completely in your solitary mishap. All alone, unplanned—with no building, no teaching, no ceremony—you get completely wet.

You come out of the river and start walking down the shore, and you are surprised to come upon a group of people who have built a large building over a tent that is over a path that goes down into the river. You are inclined at first to tell them they can’t do what they are doing. You are tempted to tell them they are not even really getting wet. They only think they are getting wet. If they want to really get wet they are going to have to travel with you to join the river-entering community from which you came. Or perhaps some riverologists from your community could come to show them the correct and truly effective way to get wet.

But then, in recalling the personal journey that has brought you to this place, you decide instead to ask if they would mind if you used their path that goes down into the river. In doing so, you get completely wet. Relieved and grateful, you venture father down the shore to discover other buildings where river enterers gather. You use their path that goes down into the river and, in doing so, discover how completely wet you get, regardless of the color of the tent that is over the path.

Although the teachings regarding the meaning of river entering vary greatly, one thing remains clear: each time you enter the river you get completely wet. And in each community you discern the presence of seasoned river enterers, men and women who even in the scorching sun remain drenched in the graciousness of the river.

In venturing still farther down the shore you eventually come to the point at which the river empties into the sea. As you wade out into the water there is only water as far as you can see. Taking all this in, you are surprised to discover yourself being interiorly drawn back to the river-entering community from which your journey first began.

As you arrive back at your origins, you enter the large building and head straight for the path that goes down into the river. You are touched by the sincerity and devotion that went into setting up the festive little tent that covers the path. You are touched, too, by the depth of religious feeling and commitment that went into each detail of the building. You see all these things not as diversions from river entering, but as sincere efforts of men and women attempting to honor and reverence a grace and mystery they hold dear. You realize that perhaps you were a tad too judgmental. Perhaps, had you humbly done more river entering yourself, you would have realized that more river entering was going on than you had realized.

You enter the river, and in doing so you become completely wet. As those standing about see how completely drenched you are as you come up out of the water, they are moved to enter the river as well. You, together with them, rediscover the origins of your own tradition of river entering. Together you seek to give witness to the good news that we are, from all eternity, completely wet.

–James Finley

 

P.S. In recent years, Dave and I have had the privilege of attending numerous of Finley’s spiritual retreats. We always come away profoundly re-convinced of our absolute preciousness to God. Here’s a post where I wrote about this experience—it’s called “Smitten,” and it’s one of my favorites.

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Inside Every Monster

clareElsaesser

Art by Clare Elsaesser, click to visit her on Etsy

This past week, Dave has been out of town on a backpacking trip with his kids, and I have been taking care of business at home—which has included reorganizing my office (Okay the re part is a lie—it never was organized to begin with).

In the process, in the bottom of a drawer, I came across an old handwritten note from Dave. Normally, I wouldn’t share such a thing on my blog—especially since so many women never receive a single such letter in their lives. I’m aware how fortunate I am.

But I have a reason for sharing this one. Here’s the note—minus some goopy stuff.

 Heather,
This is a love note to you. I love you with my whole heart. You interest me. You interest me more than any other woman. You are a continually unfolding gift to me. …You impress me with your courage to face your life, and live it, and grow it to something you can’t see now or hardly name. Good things are ahead for you and us, let us pursue and wait in faith together. I think a new Heather who was always there is walking out into the Light. It’s not my life or my work, but I’m here—a witness. I’m lucky. Thank you for your love and your beauty. You grace me . . . I love you, Dave

It’s an amazing letter, isn’t it? But here’s the shocking part. Dave always dates his notes—and this one is dated Feb 7, 2007. That’s six weeks before my big surrender in March of that year when I finally did walk into the light, tell the truth about my alcoholism, and reach for help.

How on earth could my husband have written such a note during what were in retrospect the darkest days of our marriage and of my alcoholism? I drank to black out almost every night. I physically attacked Dave in drunken rages and often woke up in the guest room.

How could he have written that I “grace” him? How could I not even remember ever getting this letter?

Seven and a half years later, I think two things are true. Part of Dave must have sensed that I was nearing a breaking point, on the verge of a huge shift. But more important, I now realize that it probably wouldn’t have happened when it did if Dave hadn’t done what he did in this note.

Which was to see past my monsterish behavior to the hurting girl who was trapped inside. Which was to say to me, “I see you, Heather. I know you’re in there. I know this isn’t who you really are or what you really want. I believe in the better you.”

By some miracle, my heart must have heard him, even if my head didn’t know it.

So I guess I’m sharing this note as a way of reminding you, and maybe inspiring you, that if it is at all possible (it might not be for you right now), one of the kindest and most powerful ways you can help an alcoholic or addict—or for that matter, anyone you love—is to look past the ugly actions that come from their wounded places and affirm the goodness of who they really are underneath.

In a lovely synchronicity, this morning I read this:

“The ego is the great fault-finder. It seeks out the faults in others and ourselves. The Holy Spirit seeks out our innocence. He sees all of us as we really are, and since we are the perfect creations of God, He loves what He sees. The places in our personality where we deviate from love are not our faults, but our wounds. God doesn’t want to punish us, but to heal us. And that is how He wishes us to view the wounds in other people….

When we are shaking a finger at someone, figuratively or literally, we are not more apt to correct their wrongful behavior. Treating someone with compassion and forgiveness is much more likely to elicit a healed response.”
–M. Williamson

I think that’s what Dave did for me. Of course, loving a broken person toward their “brighter nature” can seem like a herculean task. I so get that. But I know if Dave was here, and I showed him this note, he’d agree. With God’s help, anything is possible. And inside every monster is a miracle waiting to happen.

 

P.S. I’d love to hear from you today. I’m not sure if I’m done with summer break, so let’s just agree that while I’m trying to get pregnant with a next book (God’s not really cooperating :)), I’m bound to be sporadic on my blog. Love and miss you guys.  

P.S.S. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to Dave’s Q and A he did for my blog a while back.(Warning: super cute picture of him).

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Days and Slips and Chips

sprayerimageHi Friends,

I’m interrupting my break to post this email and my answer, even though it’s so dang long. If you’re not in recovery, it probably won’t apply to you. If you are, I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Hi Heather, 

I hope you are well. I want to ask you about a situation, if that is ok. 

 I recently had a “slip”. I drank late one night after 120+days, resumed my sobriety the next day. 

My feeling is that, though not continuous, the transformation I have made in my life has been miraculous. I abused myself for years with booze, and though I feel disappointed that I drank, I feel like it is time to stop with the self-castigation. I screwed up…I am trying to learn to be kind to myself.

I don’t want credit for what I have not achieved. At the same time, I don’t want to be discredited for the changes I have made.

I have not found a lot of resources or support for this scenario in the recovery world. It has pretty much all been “you are back at day 1″. Is it only about the “days”?

 Do you have any thoughts on the subject you would be willing to share?

 

Congratulations on your sobriety and your honesty. This is such a difficult issue and I’ve been tempted to post about it, but haven’t yet. I’ll see if I can try to be helpful.

As your note points out, counting continuous, unbroken days of sobriety and picking up milestone chips is an honored tradition in recovery groups. I think the purpose is threefold: to encourage people to stay sober, to celebrate hard work, and maybe more important, to show newcomers that long-term sobriety really is possible.

That said, this ritual rubs some people the wrong way, and I understand why. Whenever you introduce what looks like a system of reward, by default it can seem to punish, as well. For example, in some groups the chairperson asks at the opening of the meeting if there is anyone here with less than 30 days of continuous sobriety. The idea is to get to know newcomers and hand out “desire” chips. But it can also be used as a device to let the group know if someone has had a relapse. When a person with long-time sobriety raises their hand at this juncture, it can feel like they’re being publicly outed. When I relapsed after 6 months, my sponsor (I didn’t even get one til after the relapse) told me I should raise my hand at every meeting when this question got asked until I had more than 30 days. Regardless of the good intention, it felt humiliating, and almost like punishment. But because humility and rigorous honesty had been so stressed to me, it felt wrong to do any less. In the best of circumstances, this kind of public accountability can be helpful, I suppose. Some people say that the fear of having to tell everyone about a relapse keeps them from relapse. But I question whether that’s sufficient—or even a good—motivation to stay sober. Fear of humiliation only takes us so far.

A couple months after my 6-month relapse, I got in a huge fight with my husband while family was here and wine was out on the counter. On impulse, I grabbed an open bottle, planning to chug—but after one gulp, stopped. Halted by the horrible specter of yet another relapse, I corked the bottle with a sigh of relief. At the time, I was naïve enough—or blatantly in denial enough—to call it a close call, not a relapse. I didn’t tell my brand new sponsor and I forgot about the incident until many years later—actually, I came across the memory while writing my book. When I let my sponsor at the time read it, she felt hurt and deceived. She accused me of harboring a dark secret and insisted I change my sobriety anniversary date by two months (from Sept 2007 to Nov 2007) and tell my home group what happened.

I didn’t have any problem with her suggestion—and did so promptly. But I did object to her thinking the worst of me. Ironically, in retrospect, I’m so glad it wasn’t clear to me then that a gulp of wine is a relapse in the eyes of my program! Had I thought of it as such, especially given my recent relapse in September, I am absolutely positive I would have drank that entire bottle, been furious at myself, and would have decided that since I was back at Day 1 anyway, I might as well get good and drunk. And who knows how long that relapse might have lasted. Instead, my naiveté (or intentional denial—who knows?) sort of saved me.

So what am I saying or suggesting? I’m not sure, but here are some things to consider. The whole thing about chips and counting days can be helpful–or it can be harmful, depending on the person and their experience with reward systems, guilt, and the like. For me, coming from a conservative Christian background, it hinted at the kind of legalism I was trying to escape. It reminded me of how quickly churches or Christians erect all kinds of unwritten rules that have nothing to do with Scripture and everything to do with culture. Or human nature. I think it’s our egos that prompt us to set up systems that help to measure who’s doing it right or wrong, who’s losing and who’s winning, who is the “strong Christian,” or who is working a “strong program.” So we turn suggestions into commandments and value a practice we’ve come up with more than the principle that inspired it.

There’s nothing in the core literature of the most popular 12 Step program that suggests handing out chips and such. Or for that matter, that even talks about sponsors, much less sets them up to be the boss of another person’s sobriety. The role of a sponsor is to help take you through the 12 Steps and acquaint you with the program. Sponsors share their experience, strength, and hope. But given our human natures–both to want to be told what to do and to want to tell others what to do– you’re somehow a better recovery soldier if you have a hard-ass sponsor.

I’m sure you’ve noticed tons of other unwritten “rules” in recovery having to do with a myriad things. Some of these are helpful. And sponsorship, if you ask me, is extremely helpful, too. But we do ourselves and the program a disservice when we become strident about any of these things and let them take precedence over love and grace and yes, live and let live. We encourage folks to take what works and leave the rest—but we forget to warn them we might freak out if they do.

More and more, I find myself shying away from those who want to turn their recovery into a religion. Those who want to believe there’s only one right way to do anything. Given our diversity, we need more grace than that.

So what’s my answer to you about slips and chips and “days?” I know of many folks who simply stopped caring about or taking chips because they don’t want to participate in that aspect. I have a sponsee who hasn’t taken a chip in years because she feels an aversion to it—and since she’s doing marvelously, why would I try to force that on her?

That said, I do take chips. I enjoy celebrating my friends’ and my milestones. But those who love me know that I personally celebrate April 4 as my Miracle Sobriety Birthday—not Nov 24, my official sobriety date that commemorates that dumb gulp in the kitchen. The April date is the day my life changed, the day I walked into a treatment center, shaking in my bones, terrified but made brave by desperation. That’s the day that changed the course of my life and it’s also the time of year I experience all my anniversary feelings.

But out of respect for a program God used to help save my life, I take my birthday chip on Nov 24. And so maybe that’s the key thing here. Pray and ask yourself what action feels right for you today—and how you can honor your choice and the program you attend at the same time. Of course, if you have a sponsor, consider their suggestion. Hopefully it will be a suggestion or wisdom and not a direct command.

Personally, my wisdom is this: If you think publicly announcing a relapse and starting at day 1 will derail your sobriety, then just don’t. Just keep going. Just keep going and don’t take chips and then someday if you decide to change your date, fine. Your date is no one’s business but your own. And the objections of others who might get upset if they knew—those objections are likely based on a certain kind of competitive spirit–No fair!

Love yourself and your recovery enough to be faithful to it first. Check your heart and your conscience. And of course, while it’s fine that you keep your own and your sponsor’s counsel, I don’t recommend you lie. And maybe the most important thing I need to say is that it could be a big mistake not to publicly admit the slip, too—and if you keep relapsing, then it will be clear what you need to do.

In the meantime, if it’s just silly pride about having relapsed, then bite the bullet, bro.

As you know, we all only have one day at a time. I don’t have 61/2 years. I have today.

One last caution: It’s almost always true that every time you relapse it becomes harder to get sober again. I’ve seen it over and over. People get casual about a relapse or think they’ll just have a quick slip and get right back on the wagon–except they can’t. Some seed about the possibility of relapse gets planted and pretty soon they turn into chronic relapsers. And I don’t know of any group of people on the planet more miserable. To enjoy few or none of the benefits of recovery while also not being able to enjoy drinking is to live in a nightmare. Don’t go there, friend. Whatever you do. It might be life or death for you.

I hope some of this helps. Your sister in recovery, Heather

A related post in case you’re interested is here.

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